Rats are ticklish!

Nat sez, "Rats laugh in the ultrasound when they're tickled. They also seek the hand that tickled them (not to bite). Listen to the Radio Lab segment on it, where the researcher who discovered the rodent guffaw talks about how he came to do so. I first found out about it in the excellent QI: The Book of Animal Ignorance, where you can learn that a kangaroo can shuffle foetuses between its two uteruses to wait for droughts to end before giving birth, monotremes are literally "one hole" (for pee, poo, and procreation), and the New Zealand kea are parrots strong enough to rip the kidney fat out of sheep. It's certainly changed my after-dinner conversation!" Link (Thanks, Nat!)


  1. I’ve had several pet rats, and they do seem to enjoy being tickled, so this doesn’t surprise me at all. They are very affectionate creatures.

  2. I know that people are going to get up in arms about the ultrasonic ‘laughs’ are actually ‘screams of terror’ and not even watch the part where the rat actively searched out the researchers hand afterwards–but not to bite him, and the rat wasn’t cowering in the corner.

    I will give them one point though: animals are smarter than we give them credit for.

  3. Spokehedz, there are a couple of videos on YouTube about cats who obviously like it a bit rough, and indeed, you should see the whinging.

    As if anyone could ever be in any doubt about what cats want or, as they say, DO NOT WANT.

  4. I used to have a little pet rat, too. He would play and wrestle around with my hand a bit, often initiating playtime himself. Or if I’d left him on the floor to run around and explore, he’d come back after awhile and want me to pick him up. I remember reading about rat laughter in those days, which made his body language make more sense.

    Rats really are very bright, loving little animals. It’s a pity they’re so short-lived. For the uninitiated, I could easily compare rats to dogs or particularly friendly cats. Rats are also quite clean, and can even be litter trained if you start when they’re little.

  5. I’ve become convinced that ticklishness is what happens when the brain is balanced between whether the contact is grooming behavior, sexual behavior, or attack. The same touch from the same source can trigger a tickle in some contexts but not others, and I think that’s based on whether a clear decision has already been made to drop defenses. Note too that a light touch is more likely to tickle than a firm touch; I think that too is tied into the ambiguity.

    As to why we (and other critters) enjoy it… my best guess is that this goes back to play-combat in young critters. If they didn’t enjoy wrestling, they wouldn’t practice those skills.

  6. I’d heard the Radio Lab episode, and been kind of skeptical – anthropomorphism alert! – but the video is convincing. Cool!

  7. anthropomorphism alert!

    I will never understand why the idea that animals experience joy is some sort of suspect notion. So my dog can’t ‘smile’ to express happiness, but the tail wagging and the barking and the dancing from foot to foot, that’s a pretty good hint.

    Animals play. Animals have fun. Rats can have a pretty good time, apparantly, hanging out with a human hand. It all seems pretty rational to me.

  8. Yoder, I believe the term you’re looking for is “anthropocentrism.”

    I’m convinced one of my cats is ticklish, but since he can’t smile or laugh to release it might actually be uncomfortable to him, so he usually swats me away when I do it.

  9. Nah, it’s anthropomorphism

    “Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.”

    Unless you are a vegan. In which case it is anthropocentrism, because that rat is obviously being tortured.


  10. He’s GOT to like tickling because people do.

    A child’s definition of a sweater: something you put on when your mother is cold.

  11. Rats are pretty rough amongts themselves, so a bit of hand wrestling doesn’t bother them. To the contrary, they’ll come back for more.

  12. I’d have thought tickling would require alot more delicacy for such a small creature. I’m not saying it doesn’t enjoy it, alot of animals like rough play and are definitely ticklish. I know my dog is.

    It’s hardly suprising rats are. I think this story become more of a human interest thing because the perception of rats is filthy scavengers (which they are, left to their own devices) but I reckon most animals of that intelligence level probably respond this way.

  13. @ TWIG: Lots of scientist-types seem to think dogs can’t smile for some reason. Maybe because most vets only see *un*happy dogs? But I’ve seen plenty of dogs smile, especially when they’re playing with people. I had a collie growing up who would come when called, but stop just out of reach with a big ol’ grin on her face, and my parents’ cairn terrier does something very similar. There’s a dog-dancing video on youtube with a golden retriever with the same shit-eating grin expression, too.

    And more bizarrely, my *cat* smiles – not the mouth-hanging-open version a dog uses, but actually curling his mouth up at the sides like a human! It’s completely unmistakable as anything else, and he only ever does it when he’s happy – combined with the normal eye-closing thing happy cats do it looks *exactly* like a human expression of contentment. It’s completely adorable, but I think it’s also pretty unusual; I’ve never seen any other cat do it even when it has its eyes shut and is purring like mad.

    But yeah, rat giggling is pretty funny stuff. Wouldn’t have guessed that one!

  14. 17: I’ve often thought that many scientists tended to maintain animals had no feelings just so they could justify doing terrible things to them in the name of science (and no, I’m not with PETA or any other organisation – it’s just that distancing yourself from someone or something makes it a hell of a lot easier to hurt it).

Comments are closed.