In mammals, helping is preferentially provided to members of one's own group. Yet, it remains unclear how social experience shapes pro-social motivation. We found that rats helped trapped strangers by releasing them from a restrainer, just as they did cagemates. However, rats did not help strangers of a different strain, unless previously housed with the trapped rat. Moreover, pair-housing with one rat of a different strain prompted rats to help strangers of that strain, evidence that rats expand pro-social motivation from one individual to phenotypically similar others. To test if genetic relatedness alone can motivate helping, rats were fostered from birth with another strain and were not exposed to their own strain. As adults, fostered rats helped strangers of the fostering strain but not rats of their own strain. Thus, strain familiarity, even to one's own strain, is required for the expression of pro-social behavior. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01385.001.
Keywords: empathy; helping; pro-social behavior.