Observing Rat Behavior
by Ron Kurtus
You can draw conclusions about the behavior of rats by watching and observing what they do in various situations and circumstances, as well as by performing experiments with them.
Scientists study rats in both their natural environment and in the laboratory. Many people observe the behavior of pet rats in a home environment. In any situation, they are interesting animals, possessing complex behavioral traits.
Questions you may have include:
- What do rats do in their natural environment?
- What do pet rats do?
- What conclusions can be draw about their behavior?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Observations in nature
Although behavioral scientists try to study animals in their natural habitat, rats acclimate themselves so well to the human environment that most observational rat studies seem to be in a city environment. Since there is so much information on this subject, only a few highlights will be presented in this lesson.
In rural areas mice can be a nuisance, but in heavily populated urban environments large rats are often a problem. Perhaps it is because garbage is more readily available for food.
When I was a child, living in the city, I remember the problem with rat holes near the sides of old buildings, where the rats burrowed into the basements. I also remember seeing huge rats working their way down the fire escapes of apartment buildings. Boy, I'm glad we moved from that area!
Through sewer system
Rats are extremely capable of getting into houses. Studies have shown that some rats would swim through sewer drain systems to be able to come up through a toilet or sink drain.
City rats can be a health hazard from their droppings, by walking on surfaces with dirty feet, and especially from their fleas.
The Black Plague or bubonic plague of the Middle Ages killed one third of the 75 million people who lived in Europe between 1346 and 1350. The disease was caused by infected rat fleas biting people. The black rat was the primary carrier of the infected fleas.
Black rats tend to prefer living near people. The French called the black rat the "English Rat" and the English called it the "French Rat."
One reason so many people caught the disease was because cleanliness was not widespread. Since the Jewish people in those areas had cleaner habits, few of them suffered the disease. Not realizing the problem was rat fleas, the people then persecuted the Jews for somehow causing the plague.
Some miscellaneous observations on rat behavior include:
Rats need to constantly chew to keep their incisor teeth worn down. That often results in them causing damage when living in and around human dwellings.
Rats tend to live in burrows that go down to 25 feet below ground level One breed of rat actually lives in burrows up to 400 feet under the ground. This type of rat is hairless and has no eyes.
Rats can fall from 30 feet and not be injured.
Apparently, rats are suspicious of rat poison. If they suspect the material is not good for them , they will urinate on it.
Rats like to eat meat, fish and eggs. They will tolerate cheese. They don't like white bread or peaches.
Rats are colorblind.
Observations of pet rats
Rats are considered despicable, dirty creatures, but interestingly enough, they make good pets. If it wasn't for their long tail, they'd be cute animals. Rats are intelligent animals, with interesting behavior traits.
The following material consists of my personal experiences with a rat.
Wife finds rat
My wife was doing some ironing, when she suddenly screamed that there was a rat in the closet. I carefully opened the closet door, and there was a large gray rat staring at me from coat hanger rod.
I put on some thick gloves and carefully grabbed the rat. It didn't try to bite and, in fact, was quite friendly.
Apparently, my high school-age daughter had recently been given the rat, which she kept in her room. She went away for the weekend and had left the rat in a cardboard box without any food or water. The rat had chewed through the box and was then free to roam around.
I wasn't happy that she didn't even provide it water, so I took the rat away from her. Temporarily, I put the rat in an old hamster cage and kept it in my office.
Soon I grew attached to the little fellow. Although I think the rat was a female, we called her Curious George. Observing the little fellow's behavior, I gained a greater appreciation for rats and their intelligence.
Every morning, we would have the same routine. Before breakfast, I would go into the office and let George out of her cage. She could then run free around the office. Then after I finished breakfast, I would make her a meal with a mixture of food, such as greens, a small piece of banana and cereal--from my breakfast--and perhaps some cat food.
When I came back into the office, George would see me and run across the room and climb up my pants legs. Obviously, she know she was going to be fed. I put her food and her back in the cage.
We'd go through the same routine in the evening. On occasion I'd let out her during the day.
It amazed me how a rat can climb anywhere. She go from one level to another in a book case, she'd get into my briefcase, and find a way to get just about anywhere in the room.
Rat behavioral traits
Some behavioral traits from nonscientific observations of rats include:
Like to make nests where they can bury themselves.
Prefer to come out at night
Like to explore
Can recognize people
Can be very friendly
Can be dirty, especially in nature
Urine and excretion
Can be destructive - chewing through everything
Are very clever
Can climb almost everywhere
Observations on rat behavior is often done in a city environment. People with pet rats can observe their behavior in and out of the cage. Rats seem to be very intelligent animals with the ability to climb almost anywhere and achieve the goals to seek. There are clever and very persistent.
Don't judge the rat by its tail
Resources and references
Some mean experiments
Rat exploratory behavior following infraorbital differentiation or selective cerebellar lesions - Behavior studies after rat brain surgery, from California Institute of Technology
Rats in nature
"Rats, Mice and History: The Black Death Pandemic and the Middle Ages" lecture by Prof. Ronald E. Zupko, Marquette University, May 2002
Pet rat behavior
Pet Rats on the Web - A list of links
Inter-species Interactions - How Norwegian rats interact with other animals
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