What’s the Science Behind Lab Rats?

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Much has been made about scientific studies using laboratory rats and mice for testing before using humans. Everything from children’s books and films to common slang references these furry friends and their contributions to science. Of course, this all begs the question: Why did we decide to use rodents? What can their biology tell us about our own? At Anderson Pest Solutions, we’re more experienced with getting rid of rats than experimenting on them, but you should know that not all these whiskered critters are bad – some have even incredibly benefitted mankind.


What we commonly think of as a “lab rat” is actually the common brown rat – Rattus norvegicus – which is bred and kept for scientific research. Lab rats have worked as a key animal model for research in psychology, medicine and other scientific fields. There are many different types, or “strains,” of lab rats which have been bred for a specific area of study. The following are perhaps the most common:

  • Biobreeding (BBDP) rat
  • Brattleboro rat
  • Hairless rat
  • Knockout rat
  • Lewis rat
  • Long-Evans rat
  • RCS (Royal College of Surgeons) rat
  • Shaking rat Kawasaki (SRK)
  • Sprague Dawley rat
  • Wistar rat
  • Zucker rat


Nobody is sure exactly why rats were selected as the subject of choice for scientists everywhere, but the commonly-held theory centers around the sport of “rat-baiting” in England during the 1800s. This sport involved filling a pit with rats and betting on how long it would take a trained terrier dog to kill them all. Rat-baiters began to breed their rats to be quicker and smarter to avoid the terrier, which may account for their variations in color and intelligence when compared to wild rats. The first of these special strains to be used in a lab study was an albino variety for an 1828 experiment on fasting.


Rats would go on to become the first animal domesticated purely for scientific reasons. Domestic rats are different than their wilder counterparts in a few ways – they’re calmer, less bite-prone, breed earlier and more often to produce more offspring, and the majority of their internal organs are smaller. Many of them are inbred in order to maintain their identical genetic makeup and, because they only live 2-3 years, several different generations can be used in a single study.


Why Are Rats Used in Studies of Human Diseases?

The brown rat has been a major fixture in human civilization for millions of years and have co-evolved alongside us. They live in all of the same places and eat most of the same things we do. Per one study, city-dwelling rats preferred to eat things like cooked corn, macaroni and cheese, and scrambled eggs! They can also contract many of the same diseases we do – in fact, some strains of rats are genetically engineered to mimic human ailments like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, hypertension and diabetes, to name a few.


Because of the extensive amount of studies conducted on lab rats, we know a great deal about the species and its genetic makeup. In 2004, scientists were able to completely sequence the entire genome of a lab rat, allowing them to understand exactly how these creatures click on a cellular level. By contrast, the Human Genome Project was completed a little less than a year before. Nowadays, 95 percent of all lab animals are rats and mice, and 30 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research based on rats.


Though it may seem like they do more harm than good, rodents have been key players in the understanding and advancement of human health for hundreds of years. Domesticated rats can even make good pets! However, if you find you have a rodent control problem – and you’re not interested in running scientific experiments anytime soon – leave it to Anderson to help you with your pest problem. Contact us today to schedule an appointment with a pest management professional.