There is a great deal of fear and hatred directed at rats, and that animosity has existed for centuries. It doesn’t help that rats were blamed for spreading one of the worst plagues in human history, which killed at least 25 million people in the 14th century.
But many people keep them as pets and will swear that they make excellent companions. So are rats friends or enemies, and more than that, do rats actually have feelings? Science says yes! Rats are quite capable of expressing a range of negative and positive emotions.
Here, we discuss what kinds of emotions rats experience and what science has to say about them. We hope that this will also help clear up common misconceptions about rats!
Are Rats as Bad as We Think?
For centuries, rats have had a bad reputation as disease-ridden pests. Let’s break this down by first looking at a few fallacies that many people believe about rats.
The Black Death
It was long said that rats caused and spread the bubonic plague in Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages. Then it was thought that fleas on the rats were to be blamed. This still emphasized that rats were the cause, albeit indirectly.
However, a study in 2018 found several causes for the spread of the bubonic plague, including fleas and lice.1 But these ones are believed to be found specifically on humans alone.
People during the Middle Ages didn’t bathe all that often, so fleas and body lice were prevalent. This makes more sense than rats spreading the disease, particularly due to how fast the plague spread.
Another common myth about rats is how filthy they are. This one likely stems from the brown rat, which is the most common rat found worldwide—it is also known as the sewer rat.
Due to the plague and seeing rats scurrying around in trash and sewers, many people think that they are dirty animals. But it may surprise you to learn that rats are quite fastidious groomers and clean themselves frequently throughout the day.
Rats rarely need a bath and are even likely to give themselves a quick groom after they’ve been picked up and held. Rats are as clean as dogs and cats or even cleaner!
It’s also a common myth that all rats are aggressive and won’t hesitate to bite. Wild rats are more likely to bite, but like most wild animals, wild rats will generally go out of their way to avoid any contact with humans. If they are cornered, this is when they will bite and seem more aggressive.
But domestic rats are generally quite sweet and affectionate pets that love spending time with their owners. In fact, another common small pet, the hamster, is more likely to bite than a pet rat.
If a pet rat does bite, it is likely from fear, illness, or hormones or because they smell food on your fingers, which can happen with many other pet species.
What Kinds of Feelings Do Rats Have?
Rats are capable of expressing several emotions, some of which might surprise you!
Scientists in Switzerland discovered that when rats are happy and feeling positive emotions, their ears flush a bright or deep pink color. Their ears also move into a more “relaxed position.”
The scientists used tickling to measure positive emotions, which in previous studies, was proven to be something that rats enjoy. Rats are individuals, though, and not all enjoy being tickled.
The study was used only with rats that showed that they enjoyed it by always returning to the hand for more tickling. The scientists would take a picture of a rat, tickle it, and then immediately take another picture. Pink and relaxed ears were noted as a sign of happiness.
One of the main reasons for the study was to improve the quality of life for many of the rats used in experiments.
A 2014 study described an experiment that showed that rats are capable of regretting their actions.
The researchers set up a test similar to when we need to wait in line at a restaurant. One “restaurant” had the best food but a long wait time, and another “restaurant” had a short wait but food that wasn’t as appealing.
In this scenario, when the rat gave up on the ideal food and moved to the area with the not-so-great option, they would often look back at the previous “restaurant.” When the experiment was repeated, they would stay for the appealing food with the long wait time.
This means the rats modified their behavior and decision-making, suggesting a form of regret. When humans experience regret, the orbitofrontal cortex part of the brain becomes active. These rats had active orbitofrontal cortex during the experiment, which helped researchers determine that the rats were experiencing regret.
Another study found that rats opted to help their companions over eating something sweet. The rats had the option of eating chocolate or freeing a cage mate that had been restrained. This occurred even when both rats had had no actual social contact with each other.
Once freed, the two rats would eat the chocolate together. To highlight the intelligence of rats, they were never taught how to open the cage doors, which were difficult to open. But the rats would keep trying until they opened the door and freed the other rat.
Like with the happiness study, this one highlights that rats experience empathy and should likewise be treated with empathy in return.
Rats Are Amazing Creatures
Rats experience emotions that all living creatures feel, such as fear, anger, and anxiety. But further research has demonstrated how incredible rats really are! They have been known to trade favors and cut deals with other rats. For example, they will trade food for grooming and vice versa.
They understand when they’ve forgotten something, and apparently, they dream of a better future, just like we do. Their empathy also translates to the ability to read pain in other rats’ faces, and they will attempt to help when they can.
If you’re in the market for a different kind of pet, rats make incredibly amazing companions. They are smart and loving, arguably even more so than most other rodents.
It’s been proven by science that most animals have feelings, including the long-misjudged rat.
Featured Image Credit: Varga, Pixabay