Contagious yawning may be a form of cross-species empathy.
Pets are good for us. Pets provide companionship, exercise, affection, and opportunities to interact with neighbors. Animals have been used effectively in therapy. They provide companionship for lonely children and older adults. And, almost everybody talks to their pets. But, do they understand us? Can they feel our emotions?
One recent study shines some light on this question. In a very interesting study conducted Romero, Konno, and Hasegawa (2013), 25 dogs of varied breeds were studied to test cross species empathy. It was reasoned that contagious yawning is related to social communication and empathy. This is supported by previous nueropsych and questionnaire research with both primates and humans. It is also known that empathic humans mimic yawning more than non-empathic ones. Furthermore, it is believed that dogs can read their owners moods. However, there is very little research testing contagious yawning across species, e.g. between humans and dogs. As stated by the authors, “If contagious yawning indeed is related to the capacity for empathy, it could become a powerful tool to explore the root of empathy in animal evolution by studying cross-species contagious yawning.”
by Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D.