The emotional life of the rat

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.

Six basic emotions

It is widely recognised that there are basic emotions which are experienced by many animals, including all mammals, and these comprise:

  • anger
  • fear
  • disgust
  • joy
  • sorrow (grief)
  • surprise
    Why did emotions evolve?
emotional life of the rat
Strongly bonded rats

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.

Can we measure the emotional life of the rat?
Much scientific study has been done to understand the nature of the emotional life of higher mammals, such as rats. There is a growing wealth of evidence to suggest that rats not only experience the basic emotions listed, but that they can show various aspects of empathy, cognitive bias and other ‘higher’ emotions.

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.

What about love?
emotional life of the rat
Cross species 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 emotional life of the rat

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.

emotional life of the rat
Capable of desperate grief and depression

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!

References:

Excellent website with ongoing new articles about the emotional life of animals.

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).

Rygula, R; Pluta, H; Popik, P. (2012). “laughing rats are optimistic”. PLoS ONE 7 (12): e51959. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051959. (rats showing the cognitive bias effect).

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).

Panksepp, J.B; Lahvis, G.P. (2011). “Rodent empathy and affective neuroscience”. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 35 (9): 1864–1875. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.05.013.

10 rat diet enrichment ideas – playing with food

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.

Rat diet enrichment 1: Hide and seek inverted planters

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.

Rat diet enrichment 2: Cat litter tray pea fishing

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.

Rat diet enrichment 3: Hazelnut balls

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.

Rat diet enrichment 4: Boiled egg in its shell
rat diet enrichment
One egg – add rats – sit back and enjoy!

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!

Rat diet enrichment 5: Egg boxes

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.

Rat diet enrichment 6: Popcorn strings

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.

Rat diet enrichment 7: Deep litter digging box

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!

Rat diet enrichment 8: Little boxes

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.

Rat diet enrichment 9: Feeders
rat diet enrichment
Coconut feeders – fill, hang, and enjoy.

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.

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Rat diet enrichment 10: Chest of drawers

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.

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Rat diet – 10 frequently asked questions

I’ve put together my answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about feeding pet rats. Find out whether fresh food should be included in your rat diet, what time of day to feed, whether pellets are a good idea and so much more.

1. How much should I feed my rats?

This is a little tricky, because it’s a bit like saying “how much should I eat?” That depends on who “I” am – my age, my height, my build and how fat I am already. Many people feel that different breeding lines of rats may also have different requirements, so asking your breeder is a good place to start.

There are 2 ways of estimating how much dry food to give a rat. One is based on the weight of the food and the other is just a simple volume measure. The really useful thing about a rat is that by the time he is ready to live in his new home (about 6 to 8 weeks) he is also growing really quickly, so he tends to eat approximately the same amount as he will eat as a fully grown rat.

rat diet shellfish
This winkle comes inside a fun toy! great enrichment.

So each rat will eat between 12 and 20g of dry mix a day unless you are giving a lot of fresh carbohydrate and protein; then you will need to reduce the amount. Vegetables can be fed as extra. As a small, human female I also find that one handful of food is roughly the correct amount for two rats. You may not be able to use handfuls (if you have bigger hands), but it’s convenient not to have to measure the food out, so try to find a small container that holds roughly the total amount of dry rat diet for your cage group.

Start with around 17g per rat and see if they eat it all. You need to check under the cage litter to make sure that any small seed or grain cases are empty. Increase the amount if you feel the rat is underweight, or the tail has squarish ‘edges’ near the root. A well nourished rat has a round tail. Reduce the amount if you are throwing away a lot of actual food with the cage litter come cleaning time, or if the rat visibly looks plump.

2. How often should I feed my rats?

Rat babies are often fed two or three times a day, but by the time they are homed, this is usually down to once or twice a day.  Again, check with the breeder what they have been doing. If you feed your new rats twice a day, don’t continue this beyond about 10 weeks as this is when their growth slows and they will benefit from having some lean hours each day, when food is not freely available.

3. Should I feed them in the morning or evening?

Preferably in the evening, and late evening is helpful. Rats will naturally be most awake in a diurnal pattern at dawn and dusk. Most rats are very active from around 5-6am for a few hours and then again from around 5-6pm. This means that if you feed in the morning when you get up (say around 7-8am), they will be eating at their most active time. If however, you feed them before you go to bed, they will have the whole evening when they are both awake and fasting and this is a healthy pattern for a rat, and helps to maintain a good weight. Don’t let it get too late though, so that they have a chance to digest their food before they are ready to sleep again. I feed around 10pm. The rats are extremely wakeful at this time and are able to forage, graze and digest, before settling to sleep for a few hours. If you really need to feed them in the morning, then try to push it back to 9 or 10am. In reality, your rats will fit in with any schedule – and so long as it’s regular, their awake periods will be predictable.

4. Is it necessary to feed fresh food as part of rat diet?
Rat diet fresh vegetables
A variety of fresh vegetables can be fed daily.

No, it’s not strictly necessary, but it is advisable, at least a couple of times a week. Your rats will survive quite happily on a good dry mix, but our aim is to help our rats to thrive and to have a long and healthy life. The micronutrients found in fresh foods are helpful for maintaining a really robust, healthy immune system. Add to this, that rats get great pleasure from food and many types of enrichment involve fresh food, such as offering a whole boiled egg in its shell or fresh peas, still in the pod.

5. How much fresh food should I give?

Green leafy vegetables are a great daily staple, the best of which – in terms of nutrient balance – are kale, broccoli, dandelion leaves and spring greens. These provide a good balance of easily digestible calcium and phosphorus, and they can be given freely.

Protein and carbohydrate foods can also be fed as part of the fresh element of a rat’s diet. Growing, moulting, breeding and sick rats, all need extra protein. Giving oily fish or chicken two or three times a week will supply this, and it can be mixed into rice or any other cooked grain if extra calories are needed too. Most fatty or highly processed food should be kept to a minimum, the exceptions being oily fish, coconut and avocado. These contain very healthy and helpful fats. Other than vegetables, think about fresh food in terms of around one dessert spoon full per rat.

6. My rats seem to leave a lot of their food. Why?

Almost certainly  – assuming they are well enough to eat – you are feeding them too much food and/or too little variety. If they look well covered in firm muscle under the fur, then you can try simply feeding less. Try to judge the amount by giving only what you can see they are actually eating. Use a bowl for a few days until you get the amount right, but remember to check for stashes around cage. Watch their behaviour after they have been fed, and then assess how much uneaten food is in the cage 12 hours later. At this stage it should be very little; just some grains and tiny seeds, which might be less desirable for the rat. by the time you look again sround teatime, there should be almost nothing edible left. If you are feeding the right amount and they become reluctant to finish it, consider how to make the mix more interesting. Rats have a huge amount of variety in their natural diet.

7. Do I need to give my rats supplements?

It really depends on how you feed them. Many generic rat and rabbit muesli feeds have supplements added. Straight grain mixes, such as those from Rat Rations, don’t have them added, so you need to do this yourself. Calcium, Copper and Vitamin D are the three main nutrients that could be lacking, even if you feed a variety of fresh foods.

8. How do I change my rats from one feed to another?

This is easy, because rats thrive on variety and no real changeover period is necessary. If you wanted to mix the two feeds together for a couple of days that’s fine, but there’s really no need. A rat is an opportunistic omnivore and will try most foods, though he won’t like anything that tastes bitter.

9. What is scatter feeding?
Rat diet wheat grains
Whole raw grains are nutrient rich and challenging to retrieve from the substrate.

Scatter feeding is a way of delivering food to rats that helps to stimulate their natural behaviours, such as foraging and digging. It can help with equal food distribution in a group where the rats have different needs, such as old and young, or thin and fat. A very food oriented rat will have to work much harder to feed if the food is distributed around the cage and mixed into the substrate. Scatter feeding is excellent for all but the weakest old or sick rats. It is an effortless form of enrichment.

10. Should I feed a complete rat pellet so that I am sure my rats are getting all they need?

Definitely not, because rats are opportunistic omnivores and will eat almost anything edible they come across.  Rat diet should be full of variety and plenty of raw food, which is packed with micronutrients that pellets simply cannot match. Indeed, a rat’s attitude to food and the pleasure he derives from it is similar to ours. Pellets also deprive rats of the enrichment of various smells, textures and tastes, not to mention finding a tasty morsel buried in the substrate. A varied rat diet is more likely to give your rat “all that they need” (which is more than just nutrition), than pellets ever will. Some people add pellets to a richly varied dry mix.