How intelligent are rats?

How intelligent are rats? Can you teach them to do cool rat tricks? Would you like to have your very own rat pack? Here are 7 fascinating facts about these super smart rodents that could make you fall in love with them… Rats are highly intelligent Want a pet that’s smart? Rats are an excellent choice. Did you know that,
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3rd December 2020

How intelligent are rats? Can you teach them to do cool rat tricks? Would you like to have your very own rat pack? Here are 7 fascinating facts about these super smart rodents that could make you fall in love with them...

  1. Rats are highly intelligent

Want a pet that’s smart? Rats are an excellent choice. Did you know that, along with chimpanzees, bottlenose dolphins, elephants, dogs, pigs, pigeons and octopuses, rats are considered by experts to be one of the smartest species on the planet? Scientists have discovered that, just like us, rats can make decisions based on what they do or do not know – something called metacognition. A PhD study conducted by Dr Ben Vermaercke and his colleagues at KU Leuven University in Belgium states: “Even though the rat brain is smaller and less complex than the human brain, research has shown that the two are remarkably similar in structure and function. Both consist of a vast amount of highly connected neurons that are constantly talking to each other.”

  1. Rats love to show off new skills by learning tricks

Rats make great pets as they love learning new things, which makes them quite easy to train. By using food treats, patience and positive reinforcement (always go at your rats’ pace), you can teach your rats some simple tasks and tricks. You could start by teaching your rats to come to you when you call them. Begin by saying your rat’s name when he is in front of you and rewarding him with a treat when he reaches out to take it from your hand. Once he does that a few times, start saying his name when he is further away from you and comes to get the treat from your hand. Eventually, when he hears his name, he will come to you anticipating the treat. Once your rats have mastered the concept of performing new behaviours in exchange for rewards, you can train them to perform tricks – such as jumping through a hoop or racing through a maze. As with any kind of animal training, kindness and patience is key – never tell your rats off if they don’t get something right.

  1. Rats purr and giggle to show that they’re happy in your company

Once they’ve bonded with you, pet rats will happily sit in your lap or on your shoulder, grinding their teeth to show they are quite content – this is called ‘bruxing’ and is similar behaviour to a cat purring. What’s more, rats laugh when you tickle them – although it’s not a sound that can be heard by the human ear. In the late 1990s, neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp discovered that rats emitted a unique ultrasonic vocalisation while playing or anticipating the opportunity to play with other rats, indicating a positive emotional state. Further study revealed that the rats laughed the most when being tickled by the human scientists involved in the experiment.

  1. Rats recognise other rats on the small screen

Like to watch a movie cuddled up with your pet? If you’ve got rats, a good choice would be Ratatouille or Flushed Away. It was once thought that rats have poor vision but, according to findings of a PhD study, rats can actually see pretty well. Lead researcher Dr Ben Vermaercke reveals: “We know that their visual abilities are pretty advanced. We’ve done research showing they can tell the difference between a movie that features a rat and one that doesn’t.”


Contrary to popular belief, rats are fastidiously clean and like to groom themselves regularly. Just like cats, their tongues are rough, which helps them keep their coat dirt free. They can also be trained to use a litter tray.

  1. Rats care about others

Want a pet that loves you back? Rats will definitely fit the bill. Erin Stromberg, a keeper at Think Tank, an exhibit that highlights animal cognition at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, points to some research that demonstrates rats' amazing capacity for empathy and compassion – qualities that are not often attributed to animals other than humans. He reveals: "When given the choice, rats chose to free other caged animals rather than take a food reward."

  1. Rats like to be friends for life

Dogs may be considered ‘man’s best friend’, but rats are in the running for the title – they’re even known as ‘pocket dogs’. Although their lives are quite short (around two to three years), these loyal and affectionate rodents quickly learn to recognise the sight and sound of their human and, once they’ve learnt to trust you, will love to spend time every day hanging out with you.

  1. Rats are heroes

In Africa, the APOPO HeroRat non-profit organisation trains Gambian pouched rats to detect land mines that have not been detonated. For each one they identify correctly, they get a food reward. These superhero mine-detection rats can search 200 square metres in one hour – with a metal detector this would take two to four days. Landmine detection rat Magawa recently received the PDSA Gold Medal for his life-saving work in Cambodia, making him the first rat to receive this distinguished award for bravery.

How to have your very own rat pack

If you’ve decided that becoming a rat guardian is right up your alley, here’s some essential information:

  • Rats are social animals and need the company of their own kind – same sex bonded pairs or small groups, or a female and a neutered male will create an ideal rat pack.
  • Rats need plenty of things to do to keep their curious minds and sprightly bodies busy. Their accommodation should be large and multi-level, with lots of space for them to run about, along with hammocks to perch in, tubes to scamper through, ropes (made of natural fibres such as cotton) to climb and toys to investigate. Also invest in a large, sturdy rat wheel, which should be solid so they don’t catch their paws or tail in it. Natural explorers, rats love the opportunity to check out the world outside their cage. Once they’re well-handled and relaxed, let them out in an area where they can’t hurt themselves or escape where you can closely supervise their activities. Find out more about creating the perfect enrichment environment for rats >>
  • Encourage natural foraging behaviour to keep those smart little ratty brains active. A good way to do this is to make feeding time a bit of an adventure. So, try scattering rat nuggets around their accommodation and among fresh bedding for them to forage for. Hide some in an old rolled up sock, paper bag or cardboard tube for them to investigate, or push some into a pinecone for them to extract. Rats will happily dig in trays of chinchilla sand to find hidden favourite food items.
  • Rats are omnivores – which means they’ll eat almost anything they can get their tiny paws on. However, as a responsible rat owner, it’s essential that you don’t let them. Rats are renowned for being selective feeders – for example, with muesli-style food, they’re likely to just pick out the bits they fancy and leave the rest. This puts them at risk of not getting all the nutrients they need. The way to overcome this is to feed them an all-in-one food – Burgess Excel Rat Nuggets are ideal. These contain all of the nutrients your rats need in every tasty mouthful. Rats need a range of essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals from their diet that they cannot produce themselves. That’s why you should never feed them food designed for rabbits, guinea pigs or hamsters as these formulas simply won’t meet rats’ nutritional needs. Find out more about what rats should eat >>
  • Rats love to chew stuff, so adding some Burgess Excel Gnaw Sticks to the mix will go down a treat. They also like variety and will enjoy small amounts of fruit and vegetables, along with a few sunflower seeds that they can manipulate in their paws while they eat. Also try the occasional cooled, hard-boiled egg – they’ll enjoy working out how to get it out of the shell.
  • Rats are nocturnal and are most active at night and at dawn and dusk, so don’t house them in an area of your home that has lots of activity going on during the day. Also, schedule things such as cage cleaning, food provision and interactions with the times your rats are awake and active. After a busy time exploring, digging and playing, these little rodents need to recharge in peace and require a quiet, cosy area in their accommodation to be able to sleep undisturbed.

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