Rat, The Benevolent

Some humans in the animal sheltering world could stand to learn a thing or two from our friend the rat.

A new study published in the journal Science reveals that rats are empathetic creatures.  In a series of experiments, researchers placed a rat inside a tube, trapping him there temporarily, and placed the tube back in the cage with the rat’s buddy.  They found that a rat will not only work to free his cage buddy from the tube, but when researchers added chocolate to the equation, the rat waited to eat the candy until his cage friend was free and could share it with him.

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

“Behaviors have to come from somewhere,” he notes. “And so it would be almost absurd to expect not to see some sort of simpler form of human sociabilities in other animals.”

Does this study change how you feel about rats?  It definitely has affected my view of them, for the better.  Of course there are those who keep rats as pets and have long extolled their virtues so this news may not come as a surprise to them.

How about “human sociabilities in other animals”, such as dogs and cats?  Have you witnessed altruism for example, in your pet?


18 thoughts on “Rat, The Benevolent

  1. I had rats as pets when I was a teen and they are wonderful, fun, creatures. Sadly they have short lives. Studies also show that they laugh when tickled.

    My sister’s old horse went down in the pasture. My pony who loved this horse went to my sister’s house and ran back and fourth yelling in front of the windows trying to get someone’s attention to let them know that her buddy was ailing. She seemed to know that he was in trouble and was hoping that we could help. Sadly my sister’s horse died — may have had a stroke. Animals do care about each other.

  2. Of course my doggies now how to love!! Here’s what kind sweet souls I have. Maggie, my wild Lab is recovering from shoulder surgery and is on lockdown. Absolute joke with a Lab! But here comes my other dog Gigi to the rescue! Gigi who we adopted last year, her history? She should absolutely hate other dogs. Why? Because she was a bait dog, used for dogfighting and “used up” at the ripe old age of one year old. Then we adopted her. Apparently Gigi has such a big heart that she never blamed the dogs for what happened to her, still loves doggies. So here she is never leaving her best friend’s side. She will lay next to Maggie’s big playpen all day long. She walks quietly next to her on Maggie’s small trips outside. We are now 7 weeks into this. That is true love and loyalty to her friend!

  3. My sister-in-law was living in my dad’s house for a time, with her black Lab and her kids, during a family transition. One of my dad’s elderly cats at the time was severely diabetic and, though my dad did a great job caring for him, sometimes there were problems. When the cat had a seizure one day in my dad’s bedroom closet, the Lab ran upstairs — like Joni’s pony — and demanded that my dad come down. She acted so fast that, fortunately, Dad was able to help the cat, who lived for several more years. It was so striking because there was no reason for the Lab to take on unless she cared about the cat and wanted to get help for him. We’ve always believed that she saved Hobbes that day.

  4. I had two pet rats when I was young–Plato and Socrates. They were both smart, charming, personable, and loving. Fabulous companions. When Plato died (of old age, which is like 2 years for a rat), Socrates grieved deeply for a week, then died himself. I’m sure he went of a broken heart. Rats are people too! (Hopefully this does not insult the rats …)

  5. Rats are wonderful pets – cuddly, loving, sociable little beasties. I wasn’t at all surprised by the results of this study. And yes, they do ‘giggle’ – here’s a video that includes the sounds processed to be easily audible to us:


    If they only lived longer, we’d still have rats. But with a lifespan of only four years or so, it seemed like we’d only just gotten to know them really well, and they’d be gone.

    I used to have a cat, Lionel, who was very loving with other cats and kittens. Back when I fostered he was my partner – when we had orphans on the bottle, I’d feed, he’d groom their tummies and clean them up when they pooped, then snuggle them down under his fur – he had a luxuriant long black coat. We never a lost a one, and it was almost all due to him.

  6. We had a small herd of sheep when I was in grade school, and a mama ewe named Sheba was a loving mother. One day I saw that her lamb had caught a leg between a metal fence post and the fence wire. Before I could help, I saw Sheba use her head and body to push the wire fence which gave the lamb the room to pull its leg free. Of course, a mother’s behavior is almost expected to be helpful, but I’ve always been impressed since then with their empathy for others. She would also climb partways up the grapefruit trees to grab low-hanging fruit, then butt them open so that she and the rest could eat them – she never pushed any of the adults away from the fruit and seemed like she was willing to share.

  7. Oh, dear. I moved to MO with two horses – one a yearling and one an adult. After four years, I sold the young horse to a very good home, not even considering what this would do to Luke. Oh, dog! He stood by the gate, looking up the lane for an entire day, mourning the loss of his “baby.” Of course, I bought him another horse but will never forget how he and Dancer cared for one another.
    My aged GSD mix, all of 16 years old, went to defend a Beagle from a neighbor’s dog. As he tottered down the low hill, I kept watch, esp. concerned after the neighbor’s dog’s “girlfriend” showed up to help him – but another dog of mine made the stand-off equal – she joined Dooz on Louie’s behalf (who had no clue what was happening). Each dog seemed aware this was going nowhere and each slowly, without growls or snarls, backed off as Louie blithely trotted home, oblivious to his danger and to those who were ready to defend him.
    Heard a snippet of the rat story on NPR this morning – wonderful to now know from where it came….

  8. One of the biggest joys of dog mushing is watching the dogs interact. They are as unique as humans in that some are bossy, and some are supportive. I consider my job as musher to be more of a coach or teacher in that I orchestrate opportunities for the dogs to teach each other. (A dog will learn from another dog way faster than they will learn from me!) If I had a bossy snotty pup, I’d put it next to a solid but perhaps harsh adult. If I had a soft and timid pup, I’d put them next to a kind and supportive dog. I give verbal cues often in hopes that more than just the lead dogs are paying attention! Each of the members of my pack have favorite friends and most will play better, faster, longer in a supportive environment. Some grouchy dogs are that way for a reason. A learned behavior? Or a medical issue? I’ve seen it all.
    I actually think that bugs have compassion, although I find myself lacking same when interacting with them.

  9. I had a neutered companion rat named Oliver. He was an all-white “feeder” rat a snake would not kill. I’m glad. He was in love with Thelma, a hooded rat I had rescued from the shelter (along with her sister, yes named Louise).

    Oliver loved tiny apple pieces. I taught him to touch my hand, nose my hand, and stand up on his hind legs using little bits of apples. But his favorite part of the training session was at the end, when we would pass by Thelma’s cage (they also got outdoor/training time). He’d chatter eagerly, and I would place him on the open door. And he’d give his hoarded apple piece to Thelma. And although he didn’t LIKE like her, he’d save a little piece for Louise. He was such a charmer!

    1. It’s posts like these that give me a whole new level of appreciation for rodents. All while making me smile.

  10. I’m leaning toward a rescue rat, or a few later down the line. They seem so sweet and smart. And of course animals have empathy, I am not clear in my memory if I read it Wild Justice, The moral life of animals or another book along similar lines that some researchers thought bonoboos lacked empathy because when the researchers playacted hurt or injury they didn’t seem to care. But finally someone noticed they cared for other bonobos who were hurt or scared, they just had scant sympathy with humans who kept them captive and experimented on them. So, points for empathy and smarts.

  11. One of my favorite memories from volunteering at the rescue shelter was probably 7 years ago. I took this little chow mix out for a walk, I think I’d walked him one or two times before (he was new-ish). And I was sitting in a white lawn chair with his leash around my wrist and behind us about 6 feet away was a wading pool (we fill up pools in the summer for the dogs who like to play in water) and somebody was letting a dog play in it. The chow mix decided he wanted to play too and YANK! pulled me over backwards right on to the gravel. You might expect that the dog just continued to the pool, but as I lay there in a little pain (and laughing a bit because the situation was funny), the chow mix came right back over and started licking my face like “OMG I’m sorry! Are you ok??” lol he was a good boy. :)

  12. Dealing with wild as well as domestic animals for so long, I have never thought they DIDN’T have many of what we so arrogantly call ‘human traits’. I have seen too much and I know better. We are the only ones who think we’re so “special”.

  13. i think a lot of ‘colony’ animals have a lot more interesting behaviors than most people give them credit.
    I appreciate that Guinea Pigs will help raise babies- makes pregnancy fosters so much easier where there’s another adult female in the cage- mom can get a break from babies while ‘auntie’ can watch the group (and piglets can play follow the leader). I find that piglets raised by more than just mom tend to be better socialized, more confident, and more inquisitive. And who doesn’t want that in their guinea pig?!

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