Rats have an image problem. In cartoons and animated movies, mice are often portrayed as cute and cuddly while rats usually assume the role of villains.
Rats are bigger than mice and lack the lovable traits of a wee field mouse yet the dangers they poise to human are no greater than mice.
Mice and rats are both capable of causing a wide spectrum of problems for people, including spreading disease, contaminating food and shutting down businesses.
However, there is one fact that could perhaps lighten the rat’s reputation – rats are ticklish. It has been scientifically proven. A number of studies have shown that rats are ticklish and emit laughter-like vocalizations. A study published in 2012 by researchers at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Krakow proved that rats that are tickled can become more optimistic in their behavior.
Why would scientists spend their time tickling rats? Researchers have conducted multiple rat tickling experiments largely to explore happiness in animals. One can observe animals in nature and observe that they are acting in a playful, happy manner. But until an animal develops the power of speech, it cannot be assumed that animals experience happiness the same way humans do.
In the case of the 2012 study, the researchers carried out their rat-tickling experiment by studying lab rats in conditioning boxes that contained two levers – one lever that rewarded the rats with food and one lever that avoided an electrical shock. One group of rats were tickled playfully by the researchers and another group of were handled by researchers but not tickled.
When tickled, rats emit laugh-like vocalizations at 50 kHz that shares many similarities to human laughter. The rats that were tickled more often exhibited optimistic behavior by choosing the lever that gave them food instead opting for the pessimistic lever that avoided the electric shock.
Studies have also found that the rats that are tickled often act as if they look forward to the physical contact and will even playfully nimble on researchers’ fingers during the process. Enjoy this clip from a 1990 experiment where the rats adorably follow the researcher’s hands with admiration.
So what does this mean for rats? We don’t recommend tickling any rats that you encounter in your daily life. If rats infest your property, it is very important you enlist the help of a pest control professional immediately. However, if you are one that is extremely frightened of rats, you may take comfort knowing that rats love a good tickle just like you.
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"Sean is an Online Content and Social Media Specialist at Rentokil North America. He oversees the company's Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn company pages and is the editor of the deBugged blog and Greener on the Inside blog. Follow Sean on Google+