Rats should get more respect

As time goes by, there is greater awareness of the need to treat non-human animals better, with louder calls for an end to factory farming and the campaigns led by vegans to end our dependence on animal products entirely. When it comes to animal experimentation for science, there are now far stricter restrictions to try and ensure that the use of such animals is really necessary. Even those who are not animal rights activists tend to oppose the idea of using dogs and cats and pigs for experimentation.

The one species that does not gain that much sympathy is the rat. Most people view rats with distaste, likely because they are associated with filth and disease, and some people get terrified when they see one in their vicinity.

But Krisitn Andrews argues that rats deserve a lot more of our respect than what they get now and that this paucity of empathy with this species is because we are not aware of the rich emotional life they have.

In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter. Panksepp and his team began to systematically study this phenomenon by tickling the rats and measuring their response. They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves. But the discovery was met with opposition from the scientific community. The world wasn’t ready for laughing rats.

That discovery was just the tip of the iceberg. We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret. Despite having brains that are much simpler than humans’, there are some learning tasks in which they’ll likely outperform you. Rats can be taught cognitively demanding skills, such as driving a vehicle to reach a desired goal, playing hide-and-seek with a human, and using the appropriate tool to access out-of-reach food.

The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy. Since the 1950s and ’60s, behavioural studies have consistently shown that rats are far from the egoistic, self-centred creatures that their popular image suggests.

They find the same pattern: rats are more likely and quicker to help a drowning rat when they themselves have experienced being drenched, suggesting that they understand how the drowning rat feels. Rats will also help a trapped rat even when they can escape and avoid the situation, something many humans fail to do.

Rats, like cockroaches, know how to survive under the most adverse conditions and for that quality alone deserve some respect. I do know that some people, like the character Manuel in Fawlty Towers, keep rats as pets, much to the disgust of others. I have shared many of the prejudices that people have about rats, and this article has made me rethink that attitude, though I will never go so far as have one as a pet. Since I have never had any kind of relationship with them, these prejudices have not manifested themselves in any concrete way.


  1. johnson catman says

    I am not sure if you are familiar with it or not, but Caine, who started the Affinity blog here at FtB but has since lost her battle with cancer, kept rats as pets. She had many posts about her rats and how they each had their own quirks and personalities, and she posted pics of them as well. They were very dear to her and her affection was apparently returned in spades.

  2. invivoMark says

    I have had rats as pets, and I have also used rats in medical research.

    Nothing in that Aeon article surprises me. Rats are highly social, and they develop bonds with the people they interact with. They are arguably as smart as dogs (and in my experience, easier to train).

    But like dogs, the rats we’re familiar with (in research settings and as pets) are very different from what we find in the wild. While they haven’t been bred domestically for nearly as long as dogs, people have been selectively breeding rats for various purposes for over a hundred years. There can be huge differences in personality, socialization, and physiology among different breeds of lab rats. It’s probably difficult to have a fair discussion of experimental use of rats without understanding what breeds are used and how they differ.

    For better and worse, there’s a steep cost to using rats in research. Thanks to decades of ethics regulations, rats have many legal protections: they have to be housed socially, they have to have a dark place they can hide in (we use red translucent plastic since it looks nearly opaque to their eyes), cages can’t be overcrowded, they have to have a regular light/dark schedule, etc. Any exceptions need to be defended, otherwise funding gets pulled, and any public research institute has an animal ethics committee that approves every proposal that uses animals.

    Just about every researcher I’ve met who uses rats has an appreciation for rats’ emotions and wants to minimize suffering. We’ve come a long way in the last several decades.

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