CZAAWE Resource Article

What is it like to be a rat? Rat sensory perception and its implications for experimental design and rat welfare
Publication Type 
Journal Article
Year of publication 
Applied Animal Behaviour Science
This review of rat sensory perception spans eight decades of work conducted across diverse research fields. It covers rat vision, audition, olfaction, gustation, and somatosensation, and describes how rat perception differs from and coincides with ours. As Nagel's seminal work (1974) implies, we cannot truly know what it is like to be a rat, but we can identify and acknowledge their perceptual biases. These primarily nocturnal rodents are extremely sensitive to light, with artificial lighting frequently causing retinal degeneration, and their vision extends into the ultraviolet. Their olfactory sensitivity and ultrasonic hearing means they are influenced by environmental factors and conspecific signals that we cannot perceive. Rat and human gustation are similar, being opportunistic omnivores, yet this sense becomes largely redundant in the laboratory, where rodents typically consume a single homogenous diet. Rat somatosensation differs from ours in their thigmotactic tendencies and highly sensitive, specialised vibrissae. Knowledge of species-specific perceptual abilities can enhance experimental designs, target resources, and improve animal welfare. Furthermore, the sensory environment has influences from neurone to behaviour, so it can not only affect the senses directly, but also behaviour, health, physiology, and neurophysiology. Research shows that environmental enrichment is necessary for normal visual, auditory, and somatosensory development. Laboratory rats are not quite the simple, convenient models they are sometimes taken for; although very adaptable, they are complex mammals existing in an environment they are not evolutionarily adapted for. Here, many important implications of rat perception are highlighted, and suggestions are made for refining experiments and housing.