A nose for trouble – rats to the rescue

The humble brown rat. Image: Jean-Jacques Boulot via Flickr

Rats might not be the first animals that spring to mind when you think of ‘man’s best friend’, but take a closer look and you’ll find they’ve been unjustly vilified for too long.

While most people would, somewhat begrudgingly, have to admit they’re clever little creatures, few would readily cite rats as productive members of society. Well, it might be time to re-consider, as a growing number of projects and studies from around the world show.

One of the organisations contributing to this change of attitude is APOPO, an NGO founded in Belgium and active in Africa and Asia where it trains Gambian pouched rats to be ‘HeroRATS’ and to sniff out land mines and tuberculosis.

The rats are trained to identify the smell of explosives and to indicate the location of land mines by scratching the soil. Their main advantage over human mine clearance experts is that rats aren’t heavy enough to trigger the deadly traps. APOPO are happy to report that no HeroRAT has ever died whilst on duty as land mines require around 5 kg of pressure to be activated, and even the chubbiest pouch rat weighs no more than 1.5 kg.

It’s a pretty nifty solution as the rats enjoy a nice life and respectful treatment, while the local population (some of whom are employed as rat trainers) get mine-free land in exchange.

A detection rat receiving her food reward. Image: Gooutside, via Wikimedia Commons

Another project APOPO has been working on is tuberculosis detection using rats. Their intelligence and great sense of smell makes them ideal helpers in the fight against one of the most deadly infectious diseases in the world.

In many developing countries, where TB is traditionally detected through microscopy, detection rats can provide much faster evaluation of the samples. While a lab technician needs around a day to process 40 samples, a trained rat can deal with the same amount of samples in just 7 minutes.

There’s certainly a huge potential to better the lives of humans and the reputation of rodents in projects like these, but it’s not just their amazing sense of smell and their intelligence that make them stand out. Several studies in recent years have confirmed that they are also incredibly loyal and helpful towards each other.

One Japanese study shows that they will actively try to help other rats that are at risk of drowning and research at the University of Chicago demonstrates that they show empathy-driven behaviour and would rather free rats in distress than give in to tempting treats. Yes, friends are (sometimes) more important than chocolate.


How do you feel about these underrated rodents? Maybe you’ve already got pet rats? Or maybe you feel inspired to give some pet rats in need a good home? They make great companions and they’re easy to keep – but do make sure they get enough attention and love as they are very sociable creatures.

By: Leandra, 23.10.2016



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