How Smart Are Rats, in Reality? Cognitive Abilities & More

by Joshua Paulson

How Smart Are Rats, in Reality Cognitive Abilities & More


Most people view rats as a menace and look for ways to eliminate them. Yet, even though they have an awful reputation, these rodents can make great pets. How smart are rats? is a popular question among people who wish to breed them.

Rodents have excellent episodic memory, and their ability to master patterns and complex concepts is impeccable. Understanding their intelligence can help you appreciate how much fun they can be as pets. It can also help you create an appropriate, stimulating environment for them to thrive.

Read on to discover the brilliant cognitive abilities of rats.

Historical Perception of Rats

There are different types of pet rats: brown and black breeds. The first known evidence of rat domestication was by the Japanese in the 1600s. The Europeans and North Americans began to breed them in the 1800s. They all, however, had different reasons for domesticating the rodents. Japanese rats were primarily bred as ornamental pets. For the Europeans, the rats were used for blood sports. The animals also served as food for carnivores in parks and zoos. North Americans specialized in selective breeding, mainly for laboratory research.

Rats are often associated with plagues, filth, and squalor. On the contrary, they are very clean critters. Similar to cats, they frequently clean their coats using their tongues. In Christianity, this Rattus species symbolizes evil because of its destructive nature. According to Christian beliefs, rats shouldn’t be regarded as food due to their unclean nature.

The use of rats in scientific research has significantly contributed to improving drug efficacy and safety. The rat genome is remarkably similar to the human gene. This has made them an easy species for the study of diseases and has provided medical and research experts with a specimen to use in finding cures. Diabetes, cardiovascular, and neural disorders are some of the fields where rats have made a significant impact.

The Cognitive Talents of Rats

Several research studies depict the rat’s intelligent nature. These rodents can learn, memorize, and master different tasks remarkably well. To the extent that they can match human cognitive abilities and even surpass them. For an in-depth understanding of their superior intellectual capacity, check out this comparative research study between humans and rats by Ben Vermaecke.

Rats Are Maze Masters and Puzzle Solvers

Research labs with rats as test subjects typically use mazes to keep the rodents entertained and study their behavior. This setup often involves bait for the rodents to find. The whiskers are vital in helping rats navigate their surroundings and notice a change in the wind flow. This typically points to the presence of predators or prey. Their tails are essential in providing balance.

Rat on a cage

Their curious nature and memory ability allow them to solve puzzles like child’s play. If you want to bond more with your pet rat, providing these enriching experiences is ideal. It will keep them mentally stimulated, which is healthy for them and helps extend the rat lifespan. Pet rats tend to have a shorter lifespan than wild rats, with the former living an average of two years and the latter surviving for up to 12.

Rats Show Remarkable Memory Capacities

Rodents have an uncanny ability to remember exact details about an event. This remarkable episodic memory helps them avoid familiar traps quickly and identify smells. They can remember numerous contextual events occurring in a specific setting with ease. The high levels of rat intelligence match that of a dog or pigeon, making it easy for them to learn tricks.

Rats Are Social Butterflies

Pet rats are generally affectionate and friendly animals. They communicate through chirps and squeaks that are difficult for humans to catch. The reason being, most of their vocalizations are ultrasonic. They groom each other when in discomfort, play, and even sleep together.

Rodents use urine as a way to communicate and mark their territory. They also mark tracks to available food sources this way. This is especially essential in helping them survive. Rats also learn effective survival strategies by observing their peers when foraging for food or rearing.

Rat being held by a human

Rats Can Show Emotions and Empathy

Numerous scientific studies have suggested that the human and rat brain anatomy and functions are similar. They show care for other rats in distress and will choose to free them from a trap instead of attaining a food reward. They can also show signs of discomfort if a peer is in trouble.

You’ll know when a rat is excited if it keeps jumping and twisting in the air. They love attention and will request it by nuzzling their owners. Bruxing is also a way for rats to show happiness, which they tend to do when relaxed. But they may also grind their teeth if distressed, so owners should carefully observe them to determine the situation. This will help you administer proper rat care.

Memory Capacity

Scientific research has shown that rats do have good memory, and they can find their way through mazes relatively easily. Even better, once they figure out the paths to follow, they can quickly navigate the obstacles on subsequent occasions. This high memory capacity can be attributed to the rat IQ. They are also easy to train, especially if you provide them with a treat at the end. Their thought process is incredible, allowing them to make decisions based on what they know about their environment and what they don’t know.

Two rats on a cage

Intelligence Comparisons: Rats vs. The Animal Kingdom

Rats are one of the most intelligent rodents. They feature surprising mental abilities that help them survive by recognizing the environmental threats surrounding them. Similar to orangutans, dogs, pigeons, and elephants, rats boast long-term memory. This is the primary reason why they’re used as laboratory research animals.

Rats are highly adaptable and can survive in diverse weather conditions except for the polar and desert regions. But they need an enriched environment to thrive and sharpen their intelligence. The reason is, that the environment increases the rodents’ brain activity, allowing them to think and survive difficult situations. If bred in restrained habitats, rats will get bored and depressed and may eventually die.

How to Enhance Your Rat’s Potential

Rats generally love to learn, and training them is relatively easy. This is especially true when the teaching is based on a reward system. It’s best to start them off with simple tasks, like getting them to respond to their name, before introducing them to complex tasks, such as mazes, hoop jumping, and training them to stand on two feet.

Ensuring they stay mentally stimulated will keep your pet rat happy and healthy by helping them expend energy. Plus, they’ll always be glad to show off their tricks if you treat them well. Remember to be patient with your pet rat when training them.

Engage and Enrich: Caring for Your Whiskered Genius

Rats are intelligent animals, and their metacognition skills can’t be understated. Often depicted as the epitome of evil, their intelligence is usually overlooked. Yet, these rodents can make friendly companions if well cared for. You can train them to perform tricks efficiently due to their curious personalities. Ensure you provide rat food as treats for a great success rate.

Rats are much more than test subjects for scientific research. These intelligent rodents are sociable and require attention to keep them happy. Mental stimulation is also a primary need for these animals. You’ll need to build or purchase a decent rat cage to keep your pet safe in terms of space and durability. Ensure you provide proper bedding, adequate food, and water.

Brown rat on a wooden platform


How smart are rats compared to humans?

This varies depending on the situation. Because of their complex structure, humans sometimes require more time to perform information integration assignments. This makes rats appear smarter than humans, which can be attributed to self-doubt. But humans are always superior when competitive tasks are set using rule-based systems.

Are rats smarter than dogs?

According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardener, there are varying forms of intelligence that can be used to measure human intelligence. But it’s challenging to determine which species is more intelligent since they can’t communicate. Dogs, however, tend to have higher intelligence scores than rats.

What is the average IQ of a rat?

While animal researchers don’t have a universally acceptable measure of animal IQ, studies show that the rat IQ score stands at 105.

Do rats get attached to their owners?

Yes. Rats are sociable critters and thrive on affection as long as they’re treated well.


Have Questions About Pet Rats?

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Author: Joshua Paulson and Quality Cage Team
Josh is the owner and CEO at Quality Cage Crafters since 2015. During his time at Quality Cage Crafters, he has been able to learn from tens of thousands of pet owners and pet educators. He blends his ambition for manufacturing and passion for animal care to create solutions for pet owners, breeders, animal rescues, and zoos. He has brought together a team of great animal lovers to create high-quality pet care content for the Quality Cage Crafters audience.

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