As a longtime rat lover, I need no convincing that rats are amazing. However, I regularly come across people who don’t seem to share this sentiment. They tend to be as fixed on their impression of rats as I am on mine, but their impression of rats usually stems from misinformation.
Is it possible to change a rat-skeptic’s mind through education? Unless they decide to leave their comfort zone and also willingly spend time handling a rat, it’s likely to be an uphill battle. If you’re up for such a challenge, here are some interesting facts (at least to me) about rats that might or might not impress rat skeptics. You be the judge.
Pet Rat Origins
Domesticated rats were originally bred from the Rattus norvegicus, or Norway Rat, aka the brown rat, aka the sewer rat. They originated from southeast Asia but didn’t colonize Europe until about 1,800 years ago. These tenacious critters inhabit every continent, except mainland Antarctica.
Taming rats started in the 1800s, as did using them for lab studies. And now, with two centuries of domestication, our pet rats have physiological and temperament differences from wild rats. But they are still the same species as their wild ancestors, which means even your sweet PEW (pink-eyed white rat) is a cousin to the large brown rats running around New York City.
In China, the intelligence, quick-wittedness, resourcefulness, and adaptability of the rat earned them first place in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Those born in the years: 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, and 2020 were all born in the Year of the Rat. Merchandise, art, carvings, and even food, are adorned with the likeness of rats as a way to honor these animals during their zodiac year.
In Deshnok, Rajasthan, India, stands the Karni Mata Temple, home to over 20,000 rats! Within the temple walls, rats are worshipped and thought to be the reincarnated descendants of Karni Mata, an incarnation of the goddess Durga.
These sacred rats are cared for by devotees of the goddess and are fed grains, milk, and coconut shells. To avoid any risk of injury to the rats, shoes are not allowed in the temple and many will shuffle their feet rather than lift them off the ground.
Among the 20,000 brown and black rats, there are a few white ones. These are believed to be the manifestations of Karni Mata and her four sons, and it’s considered a special blessing to set eyes on one.
Things Rats Lack
Rats only have four fingers on each front paw, and lack opposable thumbs. They do have little thumb-like nubbins however, and the muscles in their palms help grip their food.
Rats are also lacking canine teeth, tonsils and gallbladders. But they do have belly buttons.
Like many rodents, rat also can’t burp or vomit. They don’t have the esophageal muscle strength needed to open the barrier between the esophagus and the stomach, which is required for vomiting. They also lack the brainstem circuitry that communicates to the muscles involved in the vomiting process. This poses a large threat, should a rat eat something bad or poisonous, but their tendency towards food neophobia, (the fear of trying something new), may be why their species still manages to prevail.
About Rat Language
Your rats are having entire conversations with one another, without you ever hearing it. Rats communicate in many different ways, but one of the most fascinating is the use of ultrasonic sounds that range in different frequencies. These vocalizations can communicate fear, happiness, pain, and pleasure. Pups separated from their mothers even have vocalizations that alert their mom to their location.
Peek Into The Rat Thought Process
Rats have an internal “GPS system” of sorts that helps them map locations, friends, and predators. Thanks to specialized cells, they can remember and visualize spaces they’ve been in and how they navigated them. This allows them to make mental images in their mind’s eye, which helps them problem-solve and make decisions.
Brain Similarities Between Rats And Humans
Rats may have small brains, but it has been shown that theirs are quite similar in function and structure to our own. These amazing little animals are able to learn and perform tricks and even know the names we give them. They are also capable of problem-solving, discernment, remembering faces, and adapting to human habits. They are able to form strong bonds to their owners and grieve during the death of a cagemate.
Scientists have even discovered that rats do better in some cognitive tests than human test subjects do. Another recent discovery showed that rat eyesight might be more advanced than originally thought, which then uncovered the rat’s range of understanding. Scientists have now learned that rats are able to recognize 3D objects, even if its size is changed or the object has been rotated. Rats can even discern between movies featuring rats and ones that don’t.
The word “rat” is notoriously used for people of questionable morals, but rats are in fact compassionate creatures that are capable of showing empathy. Different studies have been done to see what one rat would do if another was in distress. Despite food bribes, the rat test subjects regularly worked to help free their companions from tubes or drowning simulations.
Rats Are Heroes
If I haven’t already proved how amazing and capable rats are, then maybe the stories of the following rats will impress you.
Dani Moore, a woman with debilitating health issues who has used pet rats as service animals since the early 2000s, suffers from spasms so bad that they can leave her bedbound and at risk of fractures in her vertebra. But, thanks to training, Dani’s rats sense the spasms in the early stages while they are weak enough to still treat. Once the rats alert Dani, she can try specific stretches or take medication before the spasm escalates. Not only have her rats provided ways for Dani to cope with her condition, but their spasm-warnings also allow her the freedom to leave her home.
In 1998, in Devon, England, a rat named Fido saved his owner, Lisa Gumbley, her two daughters, and their grandmother from perishing in an electrical fire. After the carpet and furniture started to burn, Fido got out of his unlocked cage and immediately went upstairs to where Lisa was sleeping and scratched at her door. The sound was enough to wake up Lisa. As she carried Fido back to his cage, she realized his visit had been a warning of the fire. Fido’s alert allowed Lisa enough time to get herself and the rest of the family out of the house safely.
These outstanding little heroes prove why no one should ever underestimate the awesomeness of rats!