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  • Writer's pictureGina Scrofano

7 Surprising Facts About Rats

Perhaps one of the most highly underestimated species, science shows that rats are not only intelligent but also demonstrate compassion and are beneficial to humans. Below are some facts about rats that some may find surprising.

1. Rats Demonstrate Empathy

Research from the University of Chicago shows that "Rats engage in empathy-driven behavior; helping to free a trapped cagemate for no reward other than relieving it's fellow rat’s distress." Studies also show that they share their food with those fellow rats after freeing them [Ben-Ami Bartal et al., 2011].

2. Rats Detect Early Signs Of Tuberculosis

Giant African pouched rats can be trained to detect early signs of tuberculosis (TB), by 'sniffing out' the scent of chemicals present with the infection. TB is the number one infectious disease killer in the world, and early detection is key to saving lives. A 2009 study concluded that rats increased the TB detection rate by 44% in comparison to sophisticated, technologically advanced medical equipment [Alan Poling et al., 2009].

3. Rats Safely Detect Landmines

A rat identifies a landmine during training in sniffing and detecting landmines at the Sokoine University landmine fields in Morogoro, 2004 / Thomson Reuters

The African pouched rat has also been trained to detect unexploded landmines; detecting them without setting them off. According to the National Geographic, "One rat can search over 2000 square feet in 20 minutes, an area that could take a human up to four days," and that rats "helped clear 13,200 mines from minefields;" preventing an estimated 1,017 human deaths between 2012 and 2013 alone. According to APOPO (detection rats technology), the landmines and UXO's detected by who they've fittingly named their 'HeroRATs' were totaling over 100,000 in 2017, freeing 953,338 people from the threat of explosives.

4. Rats Were 'Wrongly Accused' Of Spreading The Plague

Although many fingers were pointed at rats for the spread of the bubonic plague in Glasgow in August 1900, studies now conclude that the infection was spread by human-to-human contact [Dean et al., 2019]. Scientists are also now reporting that rats may not have been to blame for the Black Death between the 1300s and early 1800s, which could've been caused by human-to-human contact, insects or parasites, such as human lice.

5. Rats Are Intelligent and Playful

Rats can utilize their intelligence to learn tricks and complex obstacle-courses that even us humans may find somewhat challenging. Rats are also energetic and playful. In 2015, the charming and insightful video, shown below, went viral, demonstrating those characteristics and abilities.

6. Rats May Combat Wildlife Poaching

Following their success with landmine detection, and with funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the APOPO began a rat training program to help crack down on illegal transport by identifying ivory, rhino horns and pangolin scales packed into crates. Based on reported seizures from criminals between 2011 and 2013, an estimated 116,990 - 233,980 pangolins were killed, 1,305 rhinos were poached across Africa, and Savanna elephant populations also declined by 30 percent (equal to 144,000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014, primarily due to poaching. With rats having a keen sense of smell and small size, they can detect illegal products that are packed inside shipping containers that are too small for dogs to access.

7. Chemical Experiments On Rats Are Outdated and Irrelevant

Animal testing, such as experiments conducted on rats, have been proven to be slow, inhumane, and unreliable. Modern-day, cutting edge technology now allows for non-animal testing, which not only yields more human-relevant, life-saving results, but is also less expensive.

As intelligent and compassionate beings, rats have much more to offer us and certainly deserve better than being part of outdated, inhumane, and unnecessary laboratory tests. The time has come to rethink how we coexist with this intelligent and beneficial species.

Straight Twist Logo, Animal Welfare


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