Following World Rat Day (4 April), the RSPCA is calling for wider recognition of rats’ amazing abilities to think and experience feelings.
The growing awareness of animal sentience raises many questions about the way in which many animals like rats are treated.
The animal welfare charity is urging people to see rats for the amazing animals that they are and to look at them as pets, not pests.
Dr Julie Wrathall, RSPCA Chief Scientific Officer, said: “An individual rat can come into the world in many different circumstances – living in the wild, for use in a research laboratory, reared to be killed and fed to other animals such as reptiles, viewed as a ‘pest’ and poisoned to death or introduced into a home as a much-loved pet.
“These rats are valued, and treated very differently, but they all have the same welfare needs and can all be caused by suffering. Rats are capable of mental processing that is equal to many so-called ‘higher’ animals. People might not realise it, but rats can be trained to count, fetch a ball and high-five a human.
“Some rats have even been trained to safely locate landmines in war zones so that they can be removed. They really are an extraordinary group of animals. Behavioural experiments have also shown that rats will ‘laugh’ when they are tickled and can empathise with and help one another by releasing a fellow rat who is trapped in a tube. It is for reasons like these that the RSPCA is calling for more respect and kindness for these remarkable animals, regardless of the circumstances in which they are found.
“Animal sentience – the capability to experience ‘feelings that matter’ – has been a hot topic in the media, and there is increasing discussion about which species are sentiment.”
The RSPCA highlighted rat sentience in its response to last year’s Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill. The government has year to bring back last year’s Animal Welfare Bill, which could see animal sentience enshrined in law, as they cannot agree on the process or scope of how animal sentience should be measured.
Following the #BetterDealforAnimals campaign, backed by the RSPCA and 36 other animal welfare groups, backbencher MP Kerry McCarthy has this week put forward a proposal for an Animal Sentience Bill to make sure that animals don’t become victims of Brexit.
Dr Wrathall continued: “All human activities will have an impact on other animals – and sadly, the interests of rats and humans can often clash.
“But rats are intelligent, sentient animals, who are aware of what is happening to them and have complex social relationships. Its time rats were given the recognition they deserve, including more protection from avoidable suffering; even at times when they are viewed as ‘pests’.”