There has been a lot of questioning, plenty of guessing and a good dollop of excitement.
All I can say is… it is coming.
January 1st 2018
Happy New Year and I’ll see you on the inside.
There has been a lot of questioning, plenty of guessing and a good dollop of excitement.
Happy New Year and I’ll see you on the inside.
Here are some of my best finds on the internet from the past few months. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Cynthia Stuart was a professor of psychology, medical law and ethics, and has written many articles on the interaction of rats as therapy animals. She writes, “Human – animal bonds can be utilized in a therapeutic context in work that is geared towards developing positive relationships with fellow humans.” Her love of rats began in 2003 as an environmental educator for a mini-zoo that featured a family of rats abandoned on its doorstep. She’s the co-author of The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief. Thanks to her allowing me to reprint her article about rats as therapy animals.
A child’s ability to make friends, grow and maintain friendships over time not only reflects his current psychological health but his future psychological adjustment and success as an adult. When children are not progressing socially, this is a strong cue that something serious is going on. In fact, lack of friendships is often indicative of an underlying behavioral, emotional, psychological, and/or neurological problem. A meticulous evaluation is essential to sorting out not only what is going on but what therapeutic interventions are warranted. However, often, after only a brief interview, a diagnosis is formulated and a prescription is written. This is usually where treatment stops. Although medication may alleviate some symptoms, it does not teach coping strategies or skills absolutely essential to learning about relationships.
So, how do children learn to make friends? Their brains provide an internal framework for social learning but interaction and modeling fine tune the process. Yet, some kids do not naturally learn the essentials, namely social judgment and social skills. For those of us in the pet rat community, these rodents are considered one of the best pets available in terms of social interaction.
Read more: Guest Post: Rats as Therapy Pets
1. Rats really are super lovable. They absolutely love to cuddle!
2. Rats make great pets, especially if you are in an apartment because they don?t need a big yard or lots of exercise. Or any exercise!
3. Rats can be smarter than dogs and cats. They can be taught to come to their names and do tricks.
4. Rats love to eat treats.
5. Rats like to play games, like hide and seek and tug-of-war. They will also wrestle with your hand
6. Rats are nocturnal so they will sleep while you are away at work or school and play in the mornings and evenings.
7. Rats are incredibly clean animals and bathe themselves several times a day.
8. Rats can grow very strong bonds with their owners and can be extremely affectionate.
9. Unlike wild rats, which do not make good pets, domesticated rats have been selectively bred to be affectionate and gentle.
This article was first published BY Kristy on http://www.sliptalk.com/pet-rats/
It’s wonderful that pet rat guardians, often try very hard to create a pleasant and interesting environment for their rats. However, dressing cages can sometimes become as much about our preferences, as theirs. So I thought it would be helpful to think about enrichment for rats – in the cage and external environment – more from a rat’s perspective.
In a nutshell, quality enrichment alters behaviour and increases (the rat’s) control over the environment.
Behaviours can increase or decrease, depending on their nature and cause. Natural behaviours (such as foraging) are given a means of expression, while behaviours driven by anxiety and stress (such as bickering and fear responses) are often reduced.
A caged rat without enrichment has very little control over her environment. She cannot determine when or how food arrives, and may not even have a safe shelter to use to avoid cagemates or visitors if she chooses.
This lack of control extends to the wider environment surrounding her cage, and she will be affected (in terms of stress) by the lighting, temperature and noise she experiences. Enrichment considers these aspects of the environment too.
The goals of enrichment for rats could therefore be summed up as:
Enrichment stimulates a rat’s physical abilities, mental ablities (eg problem solving) and senses. It’s doesn’t over stimulate, as this can increase stress.
Increasing psychological space is a concept that has been developed in respect to all kinds of animals in captivity. It involves using the available space (however small), so that more of the actual space is used for activities that are meaningful to the animal. It aims to fill ‘dead’ space with the potential for stimulation.
This is a tool that is already often employed by rat owners, as without it, most cages are often more dead space than usable space. But there is another clause in there that may not always be fully explored – “activities that are meaningful to the animal.”
In my last blog post I listed many of the activities that rats naturally engage in, in the wild. Let’s look again at that list:
It’s very clear when reading that list that not all of these activities will have equal meaning to the average domesticated rat. Take a look at the list and pick out the six that you feel have the most meaning to your rats. That’s a tough one, but I’ll have a go.
This would make a great discussion topic on Facebook, and I am sure there is no definative right answer. So here’s my explanation for my choices.
Foraging – Any species specific, food seeking behaviour that has been established over milennia, is going to be hardwired within an animal. It is unlikely that 120-ish years of domestication has impacted it much. Foraging is the number one food finding behaviour of wild rats, and is extremely likely to be meaningful to our own.
Sleeping – All mammals seem to be biologically programmed to sleep, and without sleep will experience stress. Sleep is therefore a meaningful activity.
Social interaction – As colony dwelling social creatures, rats are strongly driven by relationship with each other. This impacts many areas of their lives including which foods are safe to eat and how stressful they will find a situation. Social interaction is meaningful to a rat.
Grooming – One part of social interaction, which specifically helps to maintain connections and hierarchy within a group, is grooming. This is an essential rat behaviour that has a greal deal of meaning.
Problem solving – There is convincing research to demonstrate that rats have cognitive and reasoning abilities, at least to a degree. They are excellent problem solvers, and stimulating these abilities relieves bordem and enhances psychological well-being.
Climbing – Rats are agile and physically robust. They fully explore their environment and make use of height, even if only given cage bars to climb. The addition of branches, ropes and other similar cage furniture serves to fill up the dead space and create psychological space. Climbing increases fitness more than most other in-cage activities and therefore boosts physical well-being
The benefits of an enrichment for rats, are directly proportional to the degree that it allows the rat to engage in a meaningful behaviour. Therefore, to benefit the rat greatly and increase well-being significantly, we should probably aim to provide for the most meaningful behaviours first. As many natural behaviours as possible should probably be offered, but it would be somewhat topsy turvy to provide a rat with the opportunity to swim, while only feeding food from a bowl.
Whilst we can’t replicate truly natural surroundings, we can offer the important componants of that environment. Additionally, we can aim to reduce stresses to healthy levels. Note that seemingly positive things, like having a cagemate, can also cause pressure on an individual, if relationships are strained. Providing enough shelters and hideouts can reduce stress in such circumstances, because it allows the rat to take back control of her environment and escape unwanted attention.
A great question to ask about any enrichment for rats is, “does this increase the rats’ control of their environment?” In measurable terms, this really means, are the rats now more able to:
In the wild, a rat would have some control over many of the variables in her environment. For instance she could move away from a noise that she found disturbing, or choose to trail a smell she found intriguing. Control reduces stress and lack of control increases stress.
Take a minute or two to consider how you might increase the control your rats have over their in-cage and wider environment. Do they have choice? There might be times when you will need to take action for them. For instance, if they are sleeping, reduced lighting and protection from sudden noisy stimuli mimics, what they would try to achieve for themselves during a daytime sleep in a wild environment.
Archer, J. (1979). Animals Under Stress. London, Edward Arnold.
Environmental Enrichment: A Review, A.S. Chamove, Stirling University Psychology Dept.
Chamove, A. S. (1989). Cage design reduces emotionality in mice. Laboratory Animals, 25: 215-219.
All of us, who know and love rats, have at least an inkling of what they are capable of. We watch our rats and marvel at their curiosity and agility, but how often do we actually take stock of our provision for them? As far as is possible, the life of a domesticated animal, should offer the opportunity for exploring all of the natural behaviours of the species, with the obvious exception of reproduction. “Enrichment for rats” essentially refers to the provision of a habitat and experiences that can provide for these behaviours.
Wild rats display a number of behaviours that are meaningful to them, and all can be satisfied in a domestic environment. These behaviours include:
Some of these behaviours – like foraging – can easily be offered every day, simply by scattering the food ration, rather than bowl-feeding. Others – like swimming – will not appeal to every rat, but can bring an added pleasure to the life of many rats, as a ‘now and then’ activity.
A reasonably sized cage, with a thoughtful layout, will make many of these behaviours possible for our rats:
If you’d like more detailed ideas about enrichment for rats, you’ll love this FREE pdf I’ve prepared for you:
All listed fruits, vegetables and legumes are suitable for rats within the parameters described.
Unless otherwise stated all foods can be fed raw or cooked, but might be more palatable one way or the other, and preference may vary from rat to rat. The fruits that are only suitable for girls are those that contain d-limonene, a compound that can cause a male specific protein to clump together in the rat kidneys, which may affect long-term kidney health.
From daily supplements for rats, to those that support aging and illness, finding our way around which are suitable, and at what stage of life, can be a confusing journey. This post aims to clarify which supplements are most commonly used and recommended for rats. With a link to a purchase point for each item, I have tried to make finding them as easy as possible for you.
Micronutrients have been studied extensively, and many interesting studies point to their role in terms of ‘wellness’. They help in supporting the immune system, maintaining brain health and combating illness. Nothing replaces a great diet, and the micronutrients in grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, vegetables, fruit, eggs, fish and meat are the basis of vitality and health for all rats.
We know that all commercial rat food is supplemented with a range of vitamins and minerals. These include, vitamins A, D, E (occasionally B group and C) plus calcium and copper. This is necessary because these micronutrients are not found at suitable levels in a grain based mix. Also, some naturally occurring vitamins are sensitive to processing (such as heat extrusion).
Hence, we need to add the right supplements for rats to any straight grain diet. If you make up a mix where straights make up a reasonable proportion, even when a commercial mix is used as a base, you’ll need to supplement. Beyond this, however, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that giving extra micronutrients for other reason may be useful. The prudent use of supplementation during times of stress, pregnancy, illness and for rapidly growing and aging animals can be of benefit.
The following information does not include dosage, as this can vary according a number of variables. Please refer to the Scuttling Gourmet for guidance, or email me. I would also like to note, that where a product link directs to Amazon – should you choose to purchase an item via that link – I will receive a small referral fee from Amazon. This does not affect the price that you pay. I have no affiliation to any product, and have searched each useful supplement for rats, to find the most appropriate in terms of pack size and quality. Many of the products that I have also chosen are also powders or liquids, as these are easier to measure and administer. Finally, I have tried to find the cheapest product that meets these criteria and have considered postage costs too.
These nutrients need to be added to all grain based mixes. If you feed a commercial rat mix, these should already be in there. For those of you who feed straight grain mixes, or half straights and half commercial feed, it’s down to you to add them.
NB. If you really don’t like the idea of supplements, cooked chicken bones and liver cake fed regularly, would cover the need for extra calcium and copper, but you’d be hard pressed to get enough vitamin D into a rat without supplementing. It is in ALL commercial rat food.
Rat Rations DailyRat3 contains all off these essential supplements in a palatable powder, which can easily be mixed into wet food, or sprinkled over washed (damp) vegetables or fruit. Designed for anything up to daily use.
Dr Squiggles Daily Essentials 1 (AKA The Bird Care Company Daily Essentials 1) is a soluble powder that you add to water. It is a multi vitamin and mineral mix, without calcium, so needs to be used in conjunction with liquid Calcivet. Rats find it highly palatable. Dr Squiggles Tiny Animal Essentials and Calcivet powder are the dry alternatives to mix into food.
Vetoquinol Calo-Pet (previously NutriCal) is marketed for cats and dogs. It has a good range of vitamins and minerals including D3 and calcium – but no copper – in a high calorie, palatable paste. Copper is easily given as liver, liver cake or liver products.
Vetcal Pro Gel is another similar high calorie paste with D3 and calcium among many other micronutrients.
Arden Grange Liver Treat Paste is one useful way to give a drop or two of liver for a copper top up!
Omega Aid is a liquid supplement that contains omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, plus vitamins A, D, and C. Its remit is to promote healthy skin and coat condition. A diet with a mixture of seeds, fresh fruit and veg and a little fish oil would achieve the same.
Kalm Aid is a blend of specific amino acids and B group vitamins, thought to have a calming effect in high anxiety situations. Could be useful for rats before they travel to shows, in and after rescue, during introductions and during events such as home improvement projects, that can cause fear and distress.
Senior Aid is designed to support aging animals, and it contains glucosamine and chondroitin, omega 3 fatty acids, immune system boosting polysaccharides (complex sugars), brain protecting Phosphatidylserine, amino acids and vitamins (B group and E). You can use this alongside the daily supplements to help support your older rats.
Salmopet Salmon Oil is an excellent source of omega 3 and vitamins (A and D).
As well as Senior Aid and salmon oil listed above:
Flaxseed Oil is thought to slow the progression of kidney disease and is a great source of omega 3 and antioxidants.
Vitamin B12 Complex Sublingual Liquid contains all 8 B vitamins in a liquid form. May help support brain function and help protect against spinal nerve degeneration (often called hind leg degeneration or HLD).
Chromium Picolinate Solution is easy to add to wet food, and has been shown to support cardiovascular health, glucose metabolism and in one rat study extended lifespan.
Coenzyme Q10 Powder is an expensive supplement, but widely considered to have excellent antioxidant properties and boosts energy. Has been shown to have anti-aging effects in rat studies.
Ipakitine Powder is a phosphate binder that helps to reduce urea levels in rats with failing kidney function. This creates a greater feeling of well-being.
Vet UKs kidney powder is similar in function to Ipakitine.
Rubenal tablets can be crushed and are known to support kidney function. They seem to be universally out of stock from outlets around the UK. Might indicate re-branding?
As well as flaxseed oil, vitamin B complex, co-enzyme Q10 listed above:
CLA Powder (conjugated linoleic acid) is an antioxidant that is thought to hinder the growth of tumours.
Curcumin is likely to effectively slow the growth of any tumour. It is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.
High antioxidant Complex is a powder that gives a mega boost of antioxidants thought to support immune system function, promoting cellular death and mopping up free radicals that can lead to tumour formation.
Interesting review for anyone interested in the role of nutrition on brain health (essentially included for you humans, but rats have brains and neurotransmitters too!)
Most – if not all – rats who reach old age, will arrive there with some degree of kidney disease. Male rats are more readily affected due to a male-specific protein found in their kidneys. This shouldn’t cause us too much anxiety, as a rat can lose around 70% of kidney function without showing any signs of a problem. That said, we can still aim at supporting kidney health, by feeding kidney friendly rat food for the majority of our rats’ lives.
So what is kidney friendly rat food? Well, in principle it is a diet that:
Kidney friendly rat food shouldn’t be used until a rat has stopped all of it’s infant and adolescent growth (around 6 to 8 months). Protein, phosphorus and calorie requirements are higher during this phase of life, and need to be met. But there’s still likely some benefit in meeting most of the protein needs after the rapid growth phase (approximately 10 to 12 weeks) with egg or soya.
The three main factors that delay the onset of kidney degeneration in rats are calorie restriction, low to moderate protein and that protein being mainly egg or soya.
So the biggest dietary influences over the first 18 months of your rats’ life are probably your method of feeding and the amount you feed. By this I mean, feeding at volumes that are less than the amount a rat would eat given constant access to food – but enough to maintain slow growth, lean weight and good condition.
How much food is that? Well, it varies from rat to rat, based of genetics, nutritional background, size, gender, activity levels and such like. There’s a discussion here to guide you, but I would encourage you to learn how to tell whether your rat is under/over weight and be able to spot a drop off in condition for yourself. This will be helpful, not only in your day to day dietary management, but also in detecting illness, parasites etc.
A good place to meet and handle a wide range of rats is at a rat show, and these are held around the UK on a regular basis. They make a great rattie day out and you’ll be able to pick up some rat goodies too. Find out more on the Fancy Rats forum, you’ll have to create an account to see this area, but that’s worth doing as there is so much help and information there. The rat shows are listed under You and your rats, once you log in.
The best method of food delivery to keep your rats in great shape is scatter feeding.
Up to the age of 16 to 18 months (when the aim is prevention) the main thing to consider – beyond the amount and style of feeding – is the protein level and source in your food. Protein should be around 10-14% of overall diet, with a gradual reduction over time and around 10-12% being the maintenance level from a year or so onward. Actual requirements are less, but not all protein that is eaten will be fully digested. Most easily digested and with the least toxic load on the kidneys is egg, while soya seems to have some kind of protective effect, especially in male rats. Rats fed a soya based diet in labs, have been shown to show significantly less kidney degeneration by age, than those fed other proteins.
From 16 to 18 months (when the aim becomes slowing progression) more thought needs to be given to reducing levels of phosphorus in the diet, and adding in some flax/linseed.
There are a few choices available when deciding what to feed your rat as a kidney friendly alternative.
Elderly rats (or those with active kidney problems) would have the mix without the shrimps, Ryvita, Weetabix, Shredded Wheat and oats, but with a little extra soya and an increase in any of the other grains or cereals, to replace the lost volume of grains.
This is not an exact science and you can leave things out or put a bit more of one thing and less of another into it. Only the soya is needed for it’s protective effect. If you don’t want to use soya, I would suggest some EMP mixed in instead, so that at least your mix uses a kidney friendly protein. Egg protein can, of course, also be given as fresh food.
The rat is a natural forager; finding its food wherever and whenever it can. Historically, we have fed our small, caged animals out of food dishes, but only by scatter feeding rats, can we allow them to mimic this natural foraging behaviour. Being a true omnivore and opportunistic by nature, means that despite their neophobic tendencies (reluctance to try new things) – rats will eat almost anything.
A large part of a wild rat’s ‘day’ is given over to seeking, finding, stashing and eating a myriad of different food-items, from roots and leaves, to insects and even faeces. Rats will get their nutrition where they can, but it is well documented that they can often go to great lengths to get their hands on something special. Rats will steal eggs from nests, dive for molluscs, raid stables for stored grain and scavenge for food waste in the rubbish left lying around our city streets. The desire to search for food is an instinct driven by thousands of years of evolution, which has created a small mammal capable of thriving in almost any environment, eating almost any combination of available food sources. Even in a domesticated rat, this instinct remains strong, and creating an in-cage environment that encourages foraging is both enriching and supportive of natural behaviour.
Scatter feeding refers to the act of spreading the rats’ daily allowance of food around the cage; hiding it under cage litter, in enrichment feeders or small cardboard boxes. When you are scatter feeding rats, there is no requirement for a food bowl other than for fresh foods, but these too can often be scattered. In many ways, the more imaginative the placement of food, the more enriching the experience of finding it can be for the rat.
A rat is in some ways very human-like in its approach to food. Rats don’t just eat functionally – though in times of scarcity they will eat whatever is available – they also derive pleasure from eating. Rats have been shown to emit the same high pitched (above our natural range) pleasure noises when anticipating a delicious treat, as when being tickled and played with.
They often have strong preferences in relation to food, which are based on their own, their mother’s and their colony members’ past snacking experiences.
A rat can make a decision based on whether or not they know something, driven by the likelihood of getting a really desirable (high-value) food reward.
However, their overwhelming pattern of feeding behaviour – whether wild or domesticated – is foraging and sampling. A good chunk of their time is spent looking for food and then sampling anything unknown, in small amounts. This is done in order to establish physiological consequences – is the food safe? Desirable and undesirable food preferences can also be learned as an infant and weanling from the mother, and throughout life from other group members Rats in a colony will avoid the food that a scouting rat smells of, should that rat get sick.
Imagine for a moment that you are a rat. You are designed to forage and have learned that some foods are both delicious and safe. Imagine your joy when digging about in one corner of your environment, you discover a really tasty morsel.
Scatter feeding rats, not only relieves the boredom that can arise from in-cage living, but it provides for the expression of natural behaviours (such as searching, digging, problem solving, foraging and sampling). Add to this the enrichment of the emotional life of the rat and it’s clear that from the rat’s perspective, this is a preferable way to feed.
Happily, there are also real advantages for us humans, when it comes to managing the different needs of individual rats within one cage group.
Managing the nutrition of a number of rats within a colony hierarchy, when feeding from a bowl, can be difficult. At best, there can be wide discrepancies in the rats’ weights, and at worse, a very low ranking rat can be bullied into not eating enough to maintain his health and well-being.
Scatter feeding rats helps to balance out the needs of each individual. A greedy rat can no longer hog the food bowl, and a dominant rat – distracted by his own search for the ‘best bits’ – is more likely to leave a low ranking rat in peace to feed. In the process of scatter feeding rats, food is distributed around the cage, on different levels and to some extent, hidden in more challenging places. With a little planning, it is easy to offer growing kittens food that larger adults cannot easily reach or gain access to.
Scatter feeding rats, also helps to make food last, especially where the rats have to work to access the food. This is preferable to a group of rats descending on a bowl at feeding time and leaving only scraps within a matter of minutes.
Stashing food is a natural rat behaviour and scatter feeding allows this to happen without a rat jeopardizing their share of the food. When competing around a food bowl, an efficient feeder will remain at the bowl and not leave to stash, thus consuming a larger proportion of the available food than a rat who leaves to stash.
Rats who are scatter fed exercise their minds and bodies in their search for food around the cage. This is one reason why it is a good idea to be imaginative, rather than just placing the food in the same area every day. This daily forage for food aids metal and physical fitness and well-being.
At its simplest, scatter feeding is taking the food you would normally place into the food dish each day and spreading it around the cage. The more effort you take about making food accessibility a challenge, the better! Only very old and sick rats need food to be readily available, and while these rats will still usually enjoy a rummage in the cage litter for a tasty morsel, their nutrition should be offered in a bowl for the main part.
Trust your rats to do what they have evolved to do. Forage. Caged rats can become lazy, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t revert to foraging if the opportunity is presented to them. Don’t be tempted to overfeed in case your rats don’t find every piece of food. This will lead to selective feeding (eating only the most preferred foods), wastage and the rats becoming overweight.
When scatter feeding rats, your aim is to find very little uneaten food around the cage when you come to clean out. Monitoring this waste food alongside the condition and weight of your rats (visually), will help you to get the amounts right. When you feed fresh food (unless your rats are on an entirely fresh food diet), only give about a dessert spoonful, per rat, per day and remove any uneaten fresh food after 12 – 24 hours depending on the ambient temperature.
I’ll be looking at some enrichment ideas for feeding in a future post
Behaviour Components in the Feeding of Wild and Laboratory Rats S. A. Barnett Behaviour Vol. 9, No. 1 (1956), pp. 24-43
Dot Paul, University of Georgia. “Rats Capable Of Reflecting On Mental Processes.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 March 2007.
Individual differences in anticipatory activity to food rewards predict cue-induced appetitive 50-kHz calls in rats.
Before considering the emotional life of the rat, we must begin by trying to define an emotion. This is a really difficult concept to pin down with words, especially since definitions vary between different areas of scientific study. This is my attempt.
An emotion is a conscious experience that is felt. It is essentially a biological reaction to environmental or social triggers; a cascade of neurotransmitters in the brain – and hormones around the body – that creates a felt experience, which is informed by external circumstances and (especially for humans) by thought.
It is widely recognised that there are basic emotions which are experienced by many animals, including all mammals, and these comprise:
Within social grouping animals (including humans), emotions seem to have evolved to catalyse relationships and allow fluid adaptive behaviours. Social environments are not static, and individuals who are able to adapt in respect to relationships with the group – and individuals within it – are more likely to thrive and reproduce.
However, because the emotional life of the rat (or any non-human animal) is difficult to measure or quantify, it is also impossible to accurately say “This is how it feels to be a rat.” All we can do, is study the available evidence and draw our own conclusions from it. One way of describing emotion at a functional level – rather than when they are muddied by cognitive processes; as they are for humans – is that an emotion is an evaluation of an event (either consciously or subconsciously) in order to determine how the event will impact a goal. As an example: if the goal of a rat is to be safe – a major goal for all animals, but perhaps closer to the surface for those who might easily become someone’s dinner – then the goal would be impacted differently by different circumstances. If a rat were to smell a passing cat, there would be a negative impact – I do not feel safe – experienced emotionally as fear. If a rat was resting in a warm nest, with a relative asleep beside him, there would be a positive impact – I feel safe – experienced emotionally as happiness (comfort, contentment). In each situation the feeling is driven by different physiology. The cascade of neurotransmitters and resulting hormonal soup in response to smelling a cat, would include stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, to initiate a freeze-flight-fight response. The resting rat, in the company of a bonded friend, would be experiencing the calming effects of neurotransmitters like serotonin and oxytocin, enhancing the feeling of well-being and restfulness, as well as increased relational bonding.
Note that love is not considered to be one of the basic emotions shared by all mammals. When considering the emotional life of a social mammal, such as an elephant, dog or rat, I think we would be foolish to discount their ability to experience a feeling of deep bonding. The real difference is that, as humans, we often over think our emotional world, write books about it and make Hollywood films to popularise our fairytale princess version of its expression. Many of us are confused about what love really is. Love is – biologically – a feeling of deep bondedness, and can occur within or across many species. It’s not special as an emotion, in as much as it “works” in the same way as the others; our bodies produce a physiological response to our evaluation of an event that impacts on our goals. In this case the goal may be to belong, to feel safe, to be protected, to nurture, or to reproduce. Grief at the loss of a life long companion is an indication of deep-bonding in rats, as is much of their day to day social behaviour, such as non-self-grooming and the favouring of their familiar human over all others.
The research available into rat behaviour, shows that rats show empathy, cognitive bias and learned helplessness, as well as some higher cognitive behaviours, such as, being able to base their decision-making on what they are aware that they do – or do not – know. They have some concept of ‘self’ and a sense of ‘other’ in terms of friend, predator or prey. They co-operate socially and demonstrate morality in the widest context of the word – knowing (and often doing) what is right for the good of the group.
Empathy: this is a sophisticated social emotion based on sharing (experiencing) the emotion of another creature, in a given set of circumstances, made more intense by having experienced something similar yourself in the past.
The experiment detailed above, demonstrates that a rat will show empathy in working to help another rat in distress, and all the more so, if they have previously experienced the same circumstance themselves.
Cognitive bias: this refers to the way that decision-making is affected by a pessimistic or optimistic emotional state, at the time of making the decision. Rats who were tickled and played with by their human, before being given a task to complete for either a great food reward, or a mediocre food reward, took a more optimistic approach to their decision making, than those who were not positively primed.
Learned helplessness: this is a feeling that arises in many species, when all choice and control over their environment is removed. When bad things happen, regardless of what we do to try to stop them, learned helplessness kicks in and we stop trying. It’s a “shut down” state of passive acceptance of whatever happens, akin to depression. Loss of control over one’s environment will lead away from mental and physical well-being, towards stress, passivity, social anxiety and aggression. This happens across many species. Elephants, for example have been shown to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), when orphaned as youngsters in violent circumstances. Choice is considered to be so important to well-being, that simply knowing there *is* a choice is enough to help overcome adverse situations.
Before closing, I would like to suggest that although we might have a superior cognitive ability than other mammals, many species are superior to us in other ways. Rats hear and communicate in ranges we can only experience with electronic help. Dogs smell vividly and their experience of the world through scent is so much richer than ours, that it would be hard for us to imagine – let alone experience – it. Bats can catch an insect in the pitch black while flying! To see other mammals as ‘lesser’ than us is an inaccurate evaluation. In many ways the emotional life of the rat may be far richer than ours, because it is probably less affected (and devalued) by thinking. Rats, in common with many mammals, *feel* life. We, very often, *think* it!
Scruton, R; Tyler, A. (2001). “Debate: Do animals have rights?”. The Ecologist 31 (2): 20–23. (looks at the work done on the physiological responses in animals when undergoing ’emotional’ experiences).
Ruchey, A.K; Jones, C.E; Monfils, M.H. (2010). “Fear conditioning by-proxy: social transmission of fear during memory retrieval”. Behavioural Brain Research 214 (1): 80–84. (rats showing empathetic behaviours).
Rat diet can be so varied and interesting that it is really easy to think of ways of giving rats food that are stimulating and fun. With a bit of thought and imagination anything is possible. Here are a list of 10 rat diet enrichment games for rats to play with food.
Place upside down small plastic plant pots around the cage, with little portions of food or treats placed underneath. The rats will upturn them or dig in underneath them to get to the food. If they need a nudge in the right direction make the food something smelly like sardine.
A rattie favourite. Place a selection of small pebbles and shells in the base of a deep cat litter tray and half fill with water. Throw in a handful of peas and another of sweetcorn and add some rats! Most rats love water once they get their confidence and will have a splashing time trying to reach the food.
Get a toilet roll inner and cut it into 2cm rings. Take three rings and one hazelnut in its shell and create the ball by placing one ring over another at roughly 90 degrees. Push the hazelnut inside and add a third ring, adjusting all three to completely encase the nut. Make one for each rat and then offer them.
This is a really easy one that rats adore. Hard boil an egg for about 10 minutes, then leave to cool and give to the rats in the shell. They will go a little crazy trying to get “into” the egg, but may be unsuccessful, in which case, once they are beginning to tire of it, crack open the shell and watch them go wild!
Now that you have used the eggs, you can use the egg boxes. Open the box and fill each little egg ‘cup’ with some rattie treats. close the box lid and if you want to be really mean then seal it with some tape. Give the whole thing to the rat group. They will try the lid and the proceed to chew their way in through the cups.
Thread a large dining needle with some thick thread and – using the needle – create a popcorn garland using sugar free popcorn. Tie across the cage.
Fill a suitably sized deep plastic storage tub with substrate. Add some dry rat treats and mix into the substrate. Place into cage and add rats!
Collect some little boxes – toothpaste, face cream, cheese etc. – and fill with dry mix or some dry rat treats. Seal with a little tape and give to the rats.
There are many feeders (mostly designed for birds) that can be used for rats. All you need to do is hang from the cage and add some rat mix.
Take any mini chest of drawers and fill the drawers with tissue and treats. If the drawers are too challenging to open, leave them slightly ajar and ensure that some of the food is strong smelling, eg. dried fish.