Rats have feelings too! (parenthetically speaking by Max)

Dear all my Best Friends and Fans,

I’m here to tell you that rats have been given a bad rap.  First,  they are very small and don’t eat much.  Second, they are fun to chase.  Third, THEY HAVE FEELINGS and are very upset they have been so maligned for so long by you humans.

And now I have proof.  So please read this and I won’t say “I told you so.”

Cagebreak! Rats Will Work To Free A Trapped Pal

“Calling someone a “rat” is no compliment, but a new study shows that rats actually are empathetic and will altruistically lend a helping paw to a cage mate who is stuck in a trap. (Do you think my human has ever lent a paw to help a rat get out of a cage? NO! She smiles when the poor little thing is trapped)

Not only will rats frantically work to free their trapped cage mate; they will do so even when there’s a tempting little pile of chocolate chips nearby, the study reveals. Instead of leaving their pal in the trap and selfishly gobbling the candy all by themselves, rats will free their cage mate and share the chocolate.” (My human gobbles up all the chocolate and won’t share with anyone, much less a rat)

“To me that’s absolutely stunning,” says neurobiologist Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. “The fact that the rat does that is really amazing.” (Ms Mason would share her chocolate)

Mason and her colleagues designed a series of experiments, described in the journal Science, to explore the evolutionary roots of empathy.

They wanted to look at rats because they already knew, from previous work, that rodents can be emotionally affected by the emotions of their cage mates. For example, during lab procedures, mice seem to experience more pain when they see another mouse in pain.

This is called “emotional contagion,” and humans have it too — just think of how one crying baby can make other babies cry. “But in the end, emotional contagion doesn’t take you very far,” says Mason. “It’s an internal experience. It doesn’t actually do anything for another individual.”

Helping A Fellow Rat

So Mason and her colleagues devised a test to see if rats would take the next step and actually try to help out a fellow rat in distress. They took two cage mates, who knew each other, and trapped one of them in a narrow Plexiglas tube. That’s a mild stressor and one the trapped rat doesn’t like (now that’s a stupid observation – what’s to like. . .unless there’s chocolate in the tube)— it would sometimes make an alarm call.

The free rat outside of this tube seemed to immediately “get” the problem and would work to liberate its pal, says Mason.

The free rat would focus its activity on this plastic tube, crawling all over it and biting it, and interact with the trapped rat through little holes in the tube. “And if the trapped rat has a tail poking out, the free rat will actually grab that tail and kind of pull on it,” says Mason.

Eventually, all this activity would lead to the free rat accidentally triggering a door that opened, releasing the trapped animal. The rats quickly learned to purposefully open the door, and during repeated experiments they would do so faster and faster — but only for a trapped rat. They didn’t act this way when the plastic trap was empty or contained a toy rat.

Rats would free their pals even if the experiment was set up so that the other rat was released into a different cage, so that the two rats did not get to interact after the door was opened. This suggests that the door-opener was really trying to aid its fellow rat, and not just working to get a playmate.

A Helping Behavior

The researchers had a question for the rats: What is it worth to you, to free your fellow rat? “Obviously we can’t ask that question verbally, (now that’s a stupid statement, Rats can’t speak English because their tongues get stuck in their buck teeth) so we wanted to ask it in terms that a rat can communicate to us,” says Mason.

So the scientists used chocolate. They put rats into a cage that held two different clear plastic traps. One contained chocolate chips. The other contained the trapped cage mate.

What they found is that the free rats quickly opened both cages, in no particular order. And they did not eat all the chocolate — instead, they shared it with their fellow rat. (I said I won’t say “I told you so” so I won’t)

A ‘Pro-Social’ Behavior

Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University in Montreal, who has studied empathetic behavior in mice, says this is a surprising study.

“You know, it’s one thing to free the trapped rat that might be making alarm calls. It’s quite another thing to share the chocolate chips,” Mogil said.  (Would my human share chocolate if I were trapped, I think not)

Even though, in the past, many scientists have assumed that altruistic behavior is something uniquely human,  Mogil says we really should not be so surprised to see it in the lowly rat.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.



P.S.  (The next time you are called a rat. . . Smile and have a piece of chocolate.)

14 comments on “Rats have feelings too! (parenthetically speaking by Max)

  1. Hi Max!
    I used to have ratties several years ago. They are quite intelligent, and even affectionate, pets. I’m not surprised they try to help out their buddies. It tallies with behavior I noticed my ratties doing. Unfortunately, when ferrets came into my life, I had to stop having ratties at the same time. The ferrets tried to hunt them. Fortunately, the ratties’ cage was secure enough the ferrets never -quite- made it in. But it made for stressed ratties.


  2. I find this very interesting. They do so many lab experiments on rats, can you imagine how not only is the rat being experimented on distressed, but all his buddies in the room are too.

    I wonder how that effects all those tests?

    Max, you must watch the movie Ratatouile if you haven’t already! You will love the hero!


  3. Dear Max,
    I am glad you like RATS. I am sorry but I do not like them. They surprise me and surprises scare me and I tend to jump on tables and scream “eek, eek a rat or it’s rodent cousin, a mouse.” If I saw a rat, I would have to move somewhere, like Switzerland. I am glad that they share but they are not sharing when they take bites out of my Jarlsberg cheese and leave me crumbs. True, they may be sharing with their other rodent meshpucha (family in Yiddish) but they should not go where they are not wanted.I will try to be more respectful of them, in general, as long as they don’t come anywhere near me. They are big, fast and scare the blankety blank out of me. Love and hugs and dog treats, Laurie F.


    • Dear my best friend Laurie F.
      I think I’ve figured out your “problem”. Instead of jumping up on tables, chase them! Quite fun and very good exercise.

      Your canine meshpucha,
      P.S. Switzerland sounds like a good alternative. Rats there are polyglots.


  4. A very informative study… but we are a bit rusty about rats.. because, one came into our house and trust me.. cut our TV, Telephone and many other electrical wires when we were away.. and he was there to welcome us and had stayed for another 15 days.. would be noisy in the nights and boy, were we disturbed … it was an excited call from my wife one fine afternoon.. telling me she found him dead on the floor.. don’t know what killed him… but then…. That was that, when came in our house, a big fat rat… Just can’t forget that….

    Yet the study as shared by Max is very interesting.. .


    • Ramesh,
      Rats can be very destructive and carry disease. It’s hard to hold onto the fact that all creatures are created by God when the critters are not being very nice. I’ve not found the answer even though Max has.


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