Thinking outside the lab: Can studies of pet rats inform pet and laboratory rat welfare?

  • Key finding:

    The welfare of rats used in scientific research is an important concern; in the European Union alone, 1,146,299 rats were used in scientific procedures in 2017. An improved understanding of how to measure and enhance the welfare of rats is thus an important goal. Studies of laboratory rodent welfare have focused almost exclusively on experimental studies of potential housing and husbandry modifications. However, Neville et al. (2022) wondered whether there is also scope and untapped potential from survey studies of pet rodent welfare. More specifically, they anticipated that surveys of pet rat owners might be able point to housing and husbandry practices of concern, and those that may be associated with high welfare. To this end, they investigated whether surveys of pet rat owners might provide useful data that could pave the way for more targeted empirical studies of pet and laboratory rat welfare. Moreover, studying pet rats had the added benefit of elucidating welfare problems in rats, who have received little attention as a companion species. To achieve this, they conducted a survey of pet rats owners in which they asked questions about the conditions, behaviour, and health of their pet rats. In total, there were 677 respondents (who completed the survey in full) owning a total of 3893 rats. They firstly identified well-established and intuitive findings that supported the validity of this approach, including age-dependent changes in behaviour. The study also identified behaviours that are commonly performed by pet rats, many of which are restricted by standard laboratory cages and may be restricted in poorer pet rat housing (e.g. climbing and bounding). This includes the first scientific report of ‘boggling’ in rats; a behaviour in which the rats' eyes bulge in and out of the eye socket. Additionally, by assessing which behaviours varied according to predator exposure (which is likely to be aversive to rats), the study identified potentially novel, spontaneous behavioural indicators of rat welfare. Specifically, rats with greater exposure to predator species were less likely to be observed digging, bounding, pinning, and bruxing. If further research confirms an association between these behaviours and better welfare, they could provide a valuable cage-side measure of welfare in both pet and laboratory rodents. They conclude that survey data obtained from pet rat owners may provide useful and fruitful information that can inform both pet and laboratory rat welfare.

Links to Open Access Publications or DOI:


Neville, V., Mounty, J., Benato, L., Hunter, K., Mendl, M., & Paul, E. S. (2022). Thinking outside the lab: Can studies of pet rats inform pet and laboratory rat welfare?. Applied Animal Behaviour Science246, 105507.