Rats are popular pets, not least because they are said to form tight bonds with their owners.
But can rats really recognize their owners? And can they learn their name and come to you when called?
Pet rats are very intelligent and can easily distinguish one human from another. They can recognize their owners by sight, smell, taste and by the sound of their voice. Pet rats also learn their name if you use it consistently; and they can be trained to come when called.
If you want to find out how to teach your rat their name, read on below!
How Smart is Your Pet Rat?
Do Pet Rats Know Their Owners?
Thanks to research performed on laboratory rats, we know a lot about the cognitive functions of rats. Our pet rats are descendants of lab rats and are therefore extremely similar to them.
This strongly suggests that rats will also use their sense of smell to identify the humans close to them.
Rats have been shown to consistently recognize different human faces1, even though their eyesight is not the keenest . And that is not the only way they can recognize their caretakers. In fact, the most important part in recognition between rats is played by olfactory cues2.
Additionally, due to olfactory cues, rats can “smell” pheromones in their vomeronasal organ. We humans may not be able to communicate with each other using pheromones, but we do produce them3. It’s therefore possible that rats can perceive our pheromones.
And last but not least, taste could also potentially play a role as a recognition cue which explains why your pet rat may lick or nibble your hands.
Using all these senses, rats recognize familiar humans and seek out their presence over that of strangers4.
In the research environment, it has been shown time and time again that bonds can develop between rats and their caretakers5.
In the last 20 years or so, the laboratory animal/human bond has even become a respectable area of academic research in itself6. There is increasing evidence that interactions with familiar humans may result in both behavioral and measurable physiological changes in research animals7. In fact, interacting with familiar humans is in itself a reward for laboratory rats8.
And all research aside, just by spending time with your pet rats, you will be able to tell that they can recognize you, as opposed to unfamiliar people.
Your rats will be happy to see you when you come to play with them; and the more you interact with them, the more they will come to trust you.
Do Pet Rats Know Their Names?
To be able to recognize their own name, rats must first be able to recognize human language as a communication form and distinguish between the various words you are saying.
And can they?
Research clearly indicates that they can. In fact, they are even able to distinguish between Dutch and Japanese9 and learn vowel-consonant patterns10!
Rats can be trained to recognize different words and commands. If you use their name consistently, they will recognize the word and understand that you are talking to them.
How To Teach Your Rat to Come When Called
If you would like to teach your pet rats to come when called, you must first accustom them to their names. Repeat the rat’s name frequently when they are near you, so that they can get used to the sound of that specific word.
To encourage them to come to you when called, a food-based reward works best. Pick a small treat that your rat loves. Call your rat’s name and reward them as soon as they look your way.
Gradually increase the difficulty, by rewarding after the rat takes a couple of steps towards you, and finally only rewarding when your rat comes to you after you called them.
Keep practicing, and soon you can probably drop the reward altogether (or only use it occasionally).
Rats Make Clever Companions!
As we’ve just seen, rats are exceptionally smart companions and very attuned to human interaction.
Your rat can recognize you, seek out your company, and understand words that you teach them.
Rats can learn their names and other verbal commands – in fact, they love to learn tricks!
1. Schnell AE, Van den Bergh G, Vermaercke B, et al. Face categorization and behavioral templates in rats. J Vis 2019;19:9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31826254/.
2. Popik P, Vetulani J, Bisaga A, et al. Recognition cue in the rat’s social memory paradigm. J Basic Clin Physiol Pharmacol 1991;2:315-327. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1822146/.
3. Trotier D. Vomeronasal organ and human pheromones. European Annals of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Diseases 2011;128:184-190. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187972961100010X.
4. Davis H, Taylor A, Norris C. Preference for familiar humans by rats. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 1997;4:118-120. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225883123_Preference_for_familiar_humans_by_rats.
5. Bayne K. Development of the Human-Research Animal Bond and Its Impact on Animal Well-being. ILAR Journal 2002;43:4-9. https://doi.org/10.1093/ilar.43.1.4.
6. Russow L-M. Ethical Implications of the Human-Animal Bond in the Laboratory. ILAR Journal 2002;43:33-37. https://doi.org/10.1093/ilar.43.1.33.
7. Davis HE, Balfour DA. The inevitable bond: Examining scientist–animal interactions: Cambridge University Press, 1992. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1992-98751-000
8. Davis H, Pérusse R. Human-based social interaction can reward a rat’s behavior. Animal Learning & Behavior 1988;16:89-92. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03209048.
9. Toro JM, Trobalon JB, Sebastián-Gallés N. The use of prosodic cues in language discrimination tasks by rats. Anim Cogn 2003;6:131-136. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12728358/.
10. de la Mora DM, Toro JM. Rule learning over consonants and vowels in a non-human animal. Cognition 2013;126:307-312. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23121712.
Featured Image Credit: Image by Hutzpah from Pixabay
Nina has a degree from the Veterinary School in Zurich, with a special focus on microbiological research. Nina has a passion for sports, nutrition and the outdoors and she loves all pets, but rats have a special place in her heart. When she’s not working or reading and writing about all things related to pet health, she loves to travel and surf.
As a small animal veterinarian, Nina is your go-to expert on pet health and nutrition.