Rat factfile

Domestic rats are descended from the Brown or Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus).

  • The biology and behaviour of our pet rats is very similar to that of their wild cousins1
  • Even laboratory rats released into a 'wild' setting behave in the same ways as their wild counterparts2.

Rats are intelligent.

  • Giant African pouched rats (Cricetomys gambianus) have been trained to detect tuberculosis in humans3 and help fight wildlife crime by sniffing out the scales of the pangolin, thought to be the most poached animal in the world. They have also been trained to sniff out explosives and have safely located thousands of landmines in Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia so they can be removed4
  • Rats can count to 105
  • Pet rats can also be trained using positive reward-based methods to do things like respond to their own names, give 'high-fives', fetch a ball and roll over. It's a great way to give your pets an enriching and rewarding experience, and improve the bond they have with you.

Rats show empathy with other rats.

  • Rats remember if they receive help from another rat and will help others in the future. The more help they receive, the more they will help other rats6
  • Rats will share their food with others - and will give the biggest share to the hungriest rats7.
  • If rats are given a choice between receiving their own treat and their companion rats also receiving a treat, they choose the option that ensures their friends also get a treat8

Like humans, rats go through multiple stages of sleep.

  • They experience slow-wave sleep to REM sleep9
  • Rats have dreams when they are asleep10.

Rats laugh when they are tickled.

  • Scientists have found that when rats are happy or excited, they emit very high-pitched squeaks (too high for us to hear) which is rat 'laughter'11
  • Rats remember which humans have tickled and played with them in the past, and will prefer to spend time with those people12
  • Another way to tell if a rat is happy is that their ears turn pink13.

Rats are social animals and need other rats for companionship.

  • Rats live in large colonies in the wild with complex social relationships between group members14. Without companionship, rats tend to get lonely and depressed.
  • They will also form close bonds with their human carers15 (lots of them love to relax on an owner's lap).

Rats are very clean animals.

  • They often spend hours grooming themselves or each other16.
  • It is now thought that The Great Plague of 1665 was spread by human lice and fleas and not rats17

Rats need their whiskers to help them balance and find their way around.

  • Their whiskers are more sensitive than human fingertips18
  • Rats brush the long hairs against objects or the floor, helping them build up a detailed picture of their environment19.

Rats have interesting anatomy.

  • They can't be sick20.
  • They have continually growing teeth which need to be kept at the correct length and shape by gnawing on suitable objects21

A group of rats is called a mischief.

  • Rats are mainly nocturnal and live underground, but they're also great at climbing22 and swimming23. Pet rats need time outside of their cage to explore and enjoy but should always be supervised to ensure they don't cause any harm to themselves.

Rat factfile reference list (PDF 64KB)

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