Amazing Animals; Empathetic Rats

Amazing Animals; Empathetic Rats

Posted on Monday 1st April 2019

Categories: Companion Animals, Wildlife

Recent behavioural research is turning our opinion of rats on its head

Rats are found in nearly all corners of the earth which are inhabited by humans. The only rat-free continent is Antarctica, which is too cold for rat survival outdoors, and its lack of human habitation does not provide buildings to shelter them from the weather.

This high degree of human association with rats, generally brings with it a negative perception and thus we go to great efforts to kill many millions of rats each year to prevent them from taking advantage of our way of life.

A more positive relationship is seen within some cultures. In Indian tradition, rats are the vehicle of Ganesha, and a rat's statue is always found in a temple of Ganesh. In the North-western Indian city of Deshnoke, the rats at the Karni Mata Temple are held to be destined for reincarnation as Hindu holy men and attending priests and pilgrims feed them with milk and grain.

The rat is also the first of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. People born in this year are said to possess positive qualities associated with rats, including creativity, intelligence, honesty, generosity, and ambition. 

Love them or hate them, and most of us have an opinion on them, rats are a highly successful species that continually adapts to exploit humans as a provider of food and shelter, and despite many of the horrific efforts that are made to rid our environment of rats, they generally find a way to adapt and survive.

But would we be so supportive of the many cruel measures used to eradicate rats if we were aware of just how they perceive their environment, and how they perceive the individuals that they share their environment with.

Recent behavioural research is turning our opinion of rats on its head, and rather than them being self-interested animals looking out for themselves above others, the evidence is showing they have a deep concern for the welfare of other rats.

Some of the most recent research documenting this behaviour comes from the work of Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. Mason found that rats repeatedly freed a cage-mate trapped inside a transparent container, which could only be opened by the free rat, even though there was no clear reward for doing so. This behaviour was described as deliberate, purposeful, helping behaviour, demonstrating that a rat recognises the predicament that another rat finds itself in and actively helps to free it from this predicament.

The rats didn't bother opening empty containers or those holding stuffed rats. In addition, when presented with both a container with a rat inside and a container containing chocolate chips, the rats not only chose to open both containers, but also to share the treats with the rat that they had liberated. The researchers conducted additional tests to determine empathy was the driving force in the rats' behaviour. In one experiment, they rigged the container so that opening the door would release the captive rat into a separate arena. The free rat repeatedly set its cage-mate free, even though there was no reward of social interaction afterwards. 

Click here to watch a video with the details of this research

This demonstrating that rats have empathy for their fellow rats just as we have empathy for our fellow humans and at the same time questioning what amounts in many cases as our appalling treatment of such an emotionally sensitive animal.

Rat population control

The methods traditionally used to control rat populations include the widespread use of poisons, many of these cause rats to bled uncontrollably internally leading to immense levels of pain and suffering. 

Fortunately, in recent years a non-invasive and pain free alternative has been developed which targets the rat’s reproductive ability. ContraPest is a contraceptive bait which works on both sexes of rats, inducing egg loss in females and impairing sperm development in males. It has been approved for use in the United States and has been successfully trialled in areas of both Chicago and New York.

The hope is that over time it will replace the widespread use of rat poisons as a more humane approach to controlling rat populations around the world.


View details of Peggy Mason's scientific research in to rat behaviour at the University of Chicago HERE