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15 Unique Characteristics of Rats

Rats’ characteristics are similar to those of mice and gerbils because all three are rodents. However, there are some clear differences that set them apart from each other.

Among the 56 rat species on Earth, there are many similarities. Continue reading to learn more about rats’ behavior and physical traits.

15 Characteristics of Rats

Characteristics in Animals 

The following characteristics of rats are present in their behavior and physical structure. Physical characteristics include all aspects of the animal’s physical body, including its shape, size, sensory organs, and visual appearance.

Behavioral characteristics are the types of actions the animal takes when it interacts with its surroundings. They include hunting for prey, bonding with other members of its species, or investigating a territorial threat.

1. Rats are rodents

Rats on lumber
Rats on lumber | Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Rats are members of the group Rodentia, which is a group characterized by animals with gnawing teeth. They are placental mammals, which means that pregnant females deliver live pups that drink milk. Rats have a coat of fur, sensitive whiskers, and bare ears and tails.

2. Rats are prey animals

Many animals eat rats; so these prey animals are constantly on guard. They are a quick snack for flying predators like hawks, burrowing carnivores like weasels, and ambush predators like cats.

Humans have historically considered rats a nuisance. One predator of rats was bred by humans. Terrier dogs were developed to kill rats that invaded farmers’ storehouses and barns.

3. They have continuously-growing teeth

Brown rat with peanut
Brown rat with peanut | image by Steve Herring via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Rats are rodents, and one trait of rodents is that they have teeth which never stop growing. This comes in handy when most of a rat’s effort to find and eat food require it to gnaw and wear down its teeth.

Along with four sharp incisors they use to gnaw, they have back molars that help them chew chunks of food. Rats in urban areas gnaw through many materials in order to build nests and tunnels. They chew through electrical wiring, sheetrock, wood, and even cinderblocks!

4. Rats can adapt to harsh environmental conditions

Rats live in the coldest climates as well as the hottest. The only areas inhospitable to rats are the far reaches of the Arctic Circle and Antarctica.

5. Their eyes can see in almost any direction

White rat on loam
White rat on loam | Image by Robert Owen-Wahl from Pixabay

Because their eyes are on opposite sides of their head, rats have a wider range of vision than humans do. They can see events happening behind them.

However, this comes with a trade-off. Rats have less binocular vision and worse depth perception than humans do. They are extremely nearsighted and can only see a few inches in front of their noses.

6. Their tails help them regulate their temperature

Rats’ naked tails might be repulsive to many people, but they serve many important purposes: temperature regulation, balance, and predator evasion.

One of the most interesting ways rats use their tails is when escaping predators. If the predator snags just the rat’s tail, the tail’s outermost layer of skin falls away, letting the rat run free.

7. Rats breed prolifically

Young rats on yellow sheet
Young rats on yellow sheet | Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay

A single female rat can give birth to up to 100 baby rats, called pups, per year. She can mate up to 26 times a year and her pregnancy lasts for just three weeks. A single litter can have up to 20 pups.

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8. Rats are gregarious

If you see one rat, there’s bound to be more. Rats are extremely gregarious and group-oriented.

Rats use the safety-in-numbers paradigm. By living together in extensive warrens and burrows, they consolidate food, and have safe places to raise their young.

9. They can eat almost anything

Black Rat eats food on a wooden floor
Black Rat eats food on a wooden floor

Rats are known as ‘cosmopolitan’ animals. This indicates that they pick and choose the best of whatever food sources and environmental conditions they can find.

In the wild, rats eat grains, seeds, and nuts. They source small amounts of protein from insects, small lizards, and even other tiny rodents.

Cannibalism isn’t above them either. Some rat mothers unable to care for their young will kill and eat them.

10. Rats groom themselves often

Despite their reputation for being dirty, rats are some of the cleanest mammals on earth. They groom themselves several times per day with their front paws and tongue.

To wash, they perch on their hind legs and whet their front paws with saliva, then swipe their paws around their fur and ears. If they have fallen into mud or some other kind of muck, they might swim in water to clean themselves.

11. Rats are easy to train

Rat on wooden train
A rat on wooden train | image by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Rats can be trained to accomplish tasks, solve puzzles, and navigate mazes. Their intelligence is one reason many scientists use them in experiments. Pet rat owners who develop a bond with their rats can train them to play dead, roll over, and even ring bells!

12. They have a powerful sense of smell

Rats’ sense of smell is extremely strong. They have two ways of detecting smells: the typical smell receptors in the nose and the vomeronasal organ. They have a high-definition picture of what they’re smelling.

From a single sniff, a rat can learn about food several yards away, a potential threat, or whether a rat which passed by several days ago was male or female.

13. They can carry serious diseases without dying

Brown rat on hole
Brown rat on hole | Image by Sapto Cahyono from Pixabay

Rats helped spread the bubonic plague throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The fleas that lived within their fur jumped to humans, bit them, and spread the plague.

People made the connection that dirty things increased the rates of disease, but they didn’t know about germs, bacteria, or disease transmission until hundreds of years later. Today, we know that rats contribute to the spread of 40 diseases.

14. Rats live to be about 2 years old

Rats are not long-lived animals. They face many risks in their short lives, including dangers from predators and poisoned food.

To compensate for their short lifespan, some species of rats can breed as young as five weeks old. Females usually raise their young independently, without male assistance.

15. They are larger than other small rodents

Rats are larger than mice, voles, gerbils, and even some guinea pigs. Most rats are about 10-12 inches long, but some rat species can be up to 16 inches from nose to tail!