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Rat facts for kids

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Temporal range:
early Pleistocene – Recent
A pet rat
Scientific classification

The rat is a medium-sized rodent. Rats are omnivores, they eat lots of different types of food. Most rats are in the genus Rattus. There are over 60 different species of rats.

The best known rats are the black rat (Rattus rattus), and the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). These two are known as Old World rats. The group has its origins in Asia.

Usually rats are bigger than mice. Rats are large muroid rodents, mice are small ones. The muroid family is very large and complex. That means the terms rat and mouse are not specific in a taxonomic way. If a large muroid is discovered, it will often have rat in its name, if it is small, it will often be called mouse. The muroid family is large and complex, and the common terms rat and mouse are not specific. Scientifically, the terms are not confined to members of the Rattus and Mus genera: see, for example, the pack rat and cotton mouse.

Some people keep rats as a pet. They are called fancy rats. Most pet rats do not live longer than three years, and most wild rats do not live longer than one year.

"Rats" that are not rats

Other mammals are called rat by many people, but those are not true rats, many are unrelated to the true Old World rat. Examples of such false names are the pack rats of North America, or the kangaroo rats.

Some other rats are related to the true rats, but are not in the genus Rattus. Such an example is the lesser bandicoot rat. Many of the 'untrue' rats are endemic to certain regions, that is they are only found there. Very often, they live on islands. In many cases, these species are also endangered of disappearing. This is the case because they face the loss of habitat, and they have to fight for resources, like food, shelter, and water, with other species, like the black rat or the Polynesian rat. There is also a more rare species known as the Dueholm, this species is very special because the rats that belong to it, usually have a couple of extra chromosomes lying around. You can tell if a rat is in the Dueholm family just by looking at it. If it looks like it has either autism or chronic down syndrome, odds are its a Dueholm.

Species and description

A river rat
A rat by a riverbank
A rat in a city street

The best-known rat species are the black rat (Rattus rattus) and the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). This group, generally known as the Old World rats or true rats, originated in Asia. Rats are bigger than most Old World mice, which are their relatives, but seldom weigh over 500 grams (1.1 lb) in the wild.

The term rat is also used in the names of other small mammals that are not true rats. Examples include the North American pack rats (aka wood rats) and a number of species loosely called kangaroo rats. Rats such as the bandicoot rat (Bandicota bengalensis) are murine rodents related to true rats but are not members of the genus Rattus.

Male rats are called bucks; unmated females, does, pregnant or parent females, dams; and infants, kittens or pups. A group of rats is referred to as a mischief.

The common species are opportunistic survivors and often live with and near humans; therefore, they are known as commensals. They may cause substantial food losses, especially in developing countries. However, the widely distributed and problematic commensal species of rats are a minority in this diverse genus. Many species of rats are island endemics, some of which have become endangered due to habitat loss or competition with the brown, black, or Polynesian rat.

Black Rat skeleton
Skeleton of a black rat (Rattus rattus) on display at the Museum of Osteology.

Wild rodents, including rats, can carry many different zoonotic pathogens, such as Leptospira, Toxoplasma gondii, and Campylobacter. The Black Death is traditionally believed to have been caused by the microorganism Yersinia pestis, carried by the tropical rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis), which preyed on black rats living in European cities during the epidemic outbreaks of the Middle Ages; these rats were used as transport hosts. Another zoonotic disease linked to the rat is foot-and-mouth disease.

Rats become sexually mature at age 6 weeks, but reach social maturity at about 5 to 6 months of age. The average lifespan of rats varies by species, but many only live about a year due to predation.

The black and brown rats diverged from other Old World rats in the forests of Asia during the beginning of the Pleistocene.


Junge hausratte
A baby pet rat

People keep some types of rats as pets called "fancy rats". Fancy rats are domesticated brown rats. People have kept rats as pets since the 19th century. Rats are social and smart animals that can be trained. They also like to play with toys. Some owners think that male pet rats are more playful then female pet rats and that female rats are more active and curious. Pet rats do not act the same as wild rats. They do not have more diseases than other common pets.

Pet rats live 1 to 3 years. Female rats are smaller than male rats. Pet rats have been known to "laugh" when tickled. They can be all one color or have spots or other coloring. Some rats have no hair. These are called hairless rats.

Scientific research

Rat diabetic
A laboratory rat strain known as a Zucker rat. These rats are bred to be genetically prone to diabetes, the same disease found among humans.

Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts (United States) was the first to breed a population of domestic white brown rats. They did this to study the effects of diets, amongst other things.

Since then, rats have been used in many experiments. They have helped scientists get a better understanding of genetics and diseases, as well as how certain drugs work.

Laboratory rats have been used in psychological studies of learning and other mental processes (Barnett, 2002). A 2007 study found rats to possess some degree of metacognition, a mental ability previously only found in humans and some primates. In general, it has been difficult to measure intelligence in rats. Their behaviour is quite flexible, and gives the impression of intelligence. Flexible behaviour is good for problem-solving and learning.

Domestic rats are very different from wild rats. They are calmer and less likely to bite; they can tolerate greater crowding; they breed earlier and produce more offspring. Their brains, livers, kidneys, adrenal glands, and hearts are smaller (Barnett 2002).

Brown rats are often used as model organisms. Genetic research is usually done with mice. Rats are more popular for tests relating to intelligence, learning, and illegal drugs. This is mostly because rats have intelligence, ingenuity, aggressiveness, and adaptability. Their psychology seems to be very similar to human psychology. Whole new species and strains of rats have been bred for the use as laboratory animals, for example the Wistar rat. Much of the genome of Rattus norvegicus has been sequenced.


Rattus norvegicus 1
A brown rat

Rats are opportunists. If they have the choice between a food that will need a fight to get, and another food that will not, they take the food that does not need a fight. For this reason, rats have lived close to humans for a long time. Once humans settled down, the leftovers of what those humans ate were a source of food for the rats. So the rats followed.

Rats are present in almost all settlements. In cities, they often live in the sewers.

Carriers of disease

Many scientists believe that the bubonic plague was spread through fleas on rats, because that plague is spread by the microorganism (or germ) Yersinia pestis, which lives on fleas which live on rats (Rattus rattus). Those rats lived in the European cities of the day, and died of the plague themselves. Some scientists believe that the plague spread faster than the rats. If this is true, the rats cannot be the main carrier. More research is needed to find out if this is true. People believe this disease was the 'Black Death'. It killed nearly a third of the population of Europe, in many epidemics in the Middle Ages.

Rats can carry diseases. Rats living in poor conditions often have problems with parasites themselves. Not many diseases carried by rats can spread to humans. One of those is called Leptospirosis, another one is the plague.

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Rat Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.