For most of this blog series, I have focused on the interaction of rats in humans in only bad ways. Which, for the average American, is a very commonly shared opinion. However, rats and humans are able to coexist peacefully sometimes, especially with laboratory testing and some people even keep rats as pets. For this post, I wanted to delve deeper into the human and rat interactions, especially in laboratory testing settings and people keeping rats as pets much like any other rodents (mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, chinchillas, etc.). In addition, I wanted to look more into if rats were part of the movement against animal testing that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to resurface occasionally.
For a majority of history, animals have been the subjects of tests for varying scientific purposes, whether it is testing a new medication, cosmetics, or for psychological testing. Animal testing dates back to the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs who each had scientists that conducted some kind of research on animals, especially in the fields of anatomy, physiology, and psychology . In more modern times, the more common use of animal testing is for pharmaceutical drug testing. Drug testing was even required by the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, partially due to a product called sulfanilamide, that was used to treat streptococcal infections, turned out to be poisonous to humans. During the 1970s and 1980s, a rise in viewing animal testing as cruelty to animals led to reform of using animals as test subjects and the adoption of “the three Rs” which are replacement (of animals with non-living models), reduction (in use of animals as test subjects), and refinement (of animal use practices) . Animal testing was not completely removed, but it improved tremendously. Rats were a very common source of animal testing, accounting along with mice for about two-thirds of the total number of test animals . It seems that with the new guidelines, testing on other species of animals decreased much more than it did on rats and mice. However, rats were still a major part of the movement to reform animal testing. This 1985 New York Times article discusses the fundamental clash that was occurring between animal rights activists and medical scientists and it discusses both viewpoints well .
While researching this topic I learned that the rats used in laboratories are typically not the same Norway rats found commonly in cities. Instead, they use Norway rats that have been specifically bred to be tested and typically come from specific strains of DNA, primarily the Sprague-Dawly rat (which is an albino rat with a long narrow head, high reproduction rat, and low tumor rates) and the Wistar rat (another albino rat and is typically considered as a base model rat). I remember reading while researching rat control and rat fighting that many rat catcher, such as Jack Black, would often sell the rats they caught to scientists and other researchers as test subjects. While laboratory testing is a common human-rat interaction, rats sometimes are kept as pets by some people.
Why someone would want a rat as a pet is beyond me, however, rodents are traditionally a common pet, more so with other species such as mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, and chinchillas. However, like lab rats, pet rats are not typically the common Norwegian rats found in cities, but instead are a different breed of rats called fancy rats, which is a domesticated subspecies of . A short guide on how to keep pet rats can be found here for anyone who is more interested. According to a pet rat website, domesticated rats are just as different from wild rats as dogs are from wolves. Domestic rats are social and personable, extremely intelligent, playful, keep themselves clean by grooming themselves, and rarely bite .
While pet rats are not for everyone, myself included, rat and human interaction is not always a negative interaction, and can be very beneficial to humans such as in lab testing. Although many view animal testing as animal cruelty, which in many cases it is, lab testing on rats and mice still is a very common practice today. Many pharmaceutical drugs are tested on rats prior to being released to humans, preventing accidental poisoning such as with sulfanilamide. Whether we like it or not, human and rats will coexist until one or both are extinct.