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Sentient Rats: Their Cognitive, Emotional, and Moral Lives

Rats are clever, caring, and playful despite claims they're not really animals.

"Rats are clever, quick thinkers; successful, but content with living a quiet and peaceful life."

2020 is the year of the rat, and a lot of attention is being directed toward these clever, sentient, and caring beings. A number of people have asked me to write about some of what we know about these smart and emotional beings, and I'm pleased to do so. I've known many rats, all of whom were wonderful companions. Of course, these amazing rodents also are used by the millions in all sorts of horrific research, and the United States' Federal Animal Welfare Act claims they're not really animals.

A brief summary of the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of rats

“Rats are a misunderstood pet...People think of them as vermin and pests. People who think they are a really gross pet just don’t realize what they have to offer. If you are looking for a rodent pet that (sic) you are going to have a personal connection with, I would recommend a rat.” —Veterinarian Cory Bassett, "They’re intelligent and friendly. Why some people think rats are the perfect pet, for fun and comfort."

Detailed research clearly shows rats cut deals and trade different favors with one another (they follow "tit-for-tat" when trading grooming for food, and food for grooming); know when they've forgotten something; dream of a better future (just as humans do); display empathy for other rats by reading pain in their faces (also see Virginia Morell's "Rats see the pain in other rats’ faces"); save drowning rats rather than eat chocolate; play, laugh, and like to be tickled; tell you they're happy by relaxing their ears; regret what they didn't do and recognize what might-have-been; and free familiar trapped rats from being restrained.

Let's focus on a few of these cognitive and emotional capacities. All of the above essays are available for free online along with many other references

Rats Know When They've Forgotten: In an essay by Diana Crow called "Rats can tell when they’ve forgotten something, just like us" we learn, "Much like students doing a test, rats tend to skip questions when they have forgotten the answer. A series of smelly experiments suggests rats are aware of what they remember and behave differently when they can’t recall something." Crow is writing about a study published in the journal Animal Cognition by Victoria Templer, Keith Lee, and Aidan Preston titled "Rats know when they remember: transfer of metacognitive responding across odor-based delayed match-to-sample tests."

Empathic and Fun-Loving Rats Dream of a Better Future: A study published in eLife by a team of researchers at University College London with the unwieldy title, "Hippocampal place cells construct reward related sequences through unexplored space," shows that dreaming by rats may "support preparation for future experiences in novel environments." The original research paper that's highly mathematical and technical isn't an easy read and a review by Jessica Mendoza called "Daydream believer: Rats dream of a better future" does a good job of making the results intelligible to non-researchers. She begins, "It seems humans are not alone when it comes to dreaming of a better life for themselves: apparently, rats do it, too. When at rest, rats and mice conduct mental rehearsals of journeys toward a desired future, such as a tasty treat, researchers at University College London (UCL) have found."

What this all boils down to is that the ability to imagine future events may not be unique to humans. One of the researchers notes, “What’s surprising here is that we see the hippocampus planning for the future, actually rehearsing totally novel journeys that the animals need to take in order to reach the food.”

Let's use what we know on behalf of rats and other animals

Knowing about the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of rats is important for a general audience, because more and more research on sentient rodents is clearly showing that we're not alone in being able to accomplish complex tasks, solve difficult problems, or experience wide-ranging emotions. Nonetheless, the United States' Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) continues to make the utterly inane claim that rats, mice, and other animals aren't really animals.

The science that clearly shows these rodents are sentient beings continues to be totally ignored. Thus, in the 2002 iteration of the AWA we read,

"Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of 'animal' in the Animal Welfare Act, specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research." (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004). (My emphasis)

The first time I saw this I had to read it a few times to be sure my eyes were still working. They were and are. One would think based on these research findings, all of which have been published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals and covered in popular media, that the U.S. Federal Animal Welfare Act would grant rats at least some protection. The money-driven animal-industrial breeding industry does well to have rats and mice removed from the animal kingdom: It's a shameful self-serving sham. Scientists also need to speak out about this ludicrous claim, especially those who continue to do all sorts of research on the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of these fascinating rodents and freely tout how amazing they are. However, rather than being outraged by this absurd and ill-conceived misclassification, very few have actually openly questioned it.

As Dr. Alka Chandna writes in an excellent essay published in The Hastings Center Bioethics Forum called "Rats Have Empathy, But What About the Scientists Who Experiment on Them?," "At least one such experimenter recently acknowledged the inherent conflict: 'The more we do experiments like this, the more we wonder if we should do experiments like this.'” The same researcher also notes, "if we want to study pain and pain treatments, 'there is no alternative. Tissue cultures and computer simulations won’t work. We must do animal experiments, as we will never get ethical approval to do these tests on humans.'” Of course, there are numerous non-animal alternatives that are extremely reliable, but he and others simply choose not to use them. It's about time they did.

Where to from here?

Research continually shows that rats have highly evolved cognitive and emotional capacities, so why do we continue to torture them in labs and refuse to recognize their membership in the animal kingdom? It's long overdue for legislators to factor research findings into their guidelines and laws protecting rats and other animals and for researchers themselves to speak out about the removal of rats from membership in the animal kingdom. We've known a lot about these fascinating rodents for a long time, and it's anti-science and heartless to continue to allow rats to be abused by the millions.

Rats deeply suffer just as do companion and numerous other animals, and solid science and decency demand that it's high time to recognize rats for who they are, namely intelligent, emotional, and caring beings. New Zealand's assault on rodents and other animals is especially egregious and immoral.

Let's hope that by calling attention to them in the Year of the Rat, a lot happens to help them along in a world in which they're routinely mistreated as if they're insentient objects, including by people who know they're not but nonetheless continue to abuse them. Clearly, rats are sentient, feeling animals and deserve much more care and love than they typically receive.


Bekoff, Marc. Rethinking the Ethics of Research Involving Nonhuman Animals.

_____. Voracious Science: A Journey from Animal User to Advocate.

_____. Jane Goodall Says Don't Use 1080, Jan Wright Says Use More.

PETA, Do Mice and Rats Make Good Animal Companions? (Are mice and rats right for your family? Possibly, if you know a little about them before you decide to adopt.)

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