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Rat Background Information

Use this information together with the printed material available in class and the internet resources together with any library books, magazines, or other resources that you find.


Kingdom     Animalia
Phylum     Chordata
Class     Mammals
Order Rodents
Genus     Ratus
Species     ratus (laboratory rat)


Rats are nocturnal and live in a wide range of different habitats from in the wild to sewers, buildings and ships. They are often found living in areas where food scraps and other refuse is available.


Rats are omnivores, they feed on both dead animals, grains and other foods. Their food is gnawed using their large incisor teeth and then ground up by the action of molars at the back of their mouth. The incisors grow continually through out their lives and it is important that rats in captivity are provided with hard wooden objects to gnaw on so that their incisor teeth don't grow too long.

The food is digested or broken down into smaller particles in the stomach and small intestine. Most of this digested matter is absorbed in the small intestine and then passed on to the liver and the rest of the body where it is used for growth, repair and movement.

Food matter passes to the large intestine where most of the water is absorbed to leave faeces which are stored in the rectum before being egested through the anus.

Rats use their fore paws to hold and manipulate food as they eat.


Rats move on their four feet. Usually three feet are in contact with the ground at any one time, however when it jumps it can use its back two legs to launch itself into the air.

The tail is important in helping rats maintain their balance as they walk along narrow ledges or ropes.

Rats can also "stand up" on their back legs when they are exploring new areas or smelling air currents.


Rats have a well developed sense of smell and good hearing. Their eye sight is adapted to night conditions and so their day vision is probably not as good as ours. White laboratory rats with pink eyes are blind and must rely on their other senses to move around and find food. If you watch a white rat as it moves around and interacts with other rats and objects then this may give you an idea of the relative importance of sight compare with the other senses.

Rats also use their whiskers to sense their environment. As they move close to other objects this causes their whiskers to bend and so they can be aware of close objects even in complete darkness.


Like all other mammals, rats have a pair of lungs in which oxygen is passed to the blood and carbon dioxide leaves the blood. They inhale fresh air into the lungs by contracting their diaphragm (at the base of the rib cage) and their intercostal muscles (between the ribs). Only mammals have a diaphragm to help in their breathing.


All mammals remove waste products by the filtering type action of their kidneys. Useful materials are returned to the blood and the waste material consisting of mainly urea, water and some minerals is passed to the bladder for temporary storage.


Rats communicate by smell, sight and sound. New rats are often sniffed when they are introduced into an established cage. During breeding time male rats will often sniff the females urine to see if she is ready for mating.

Sight is important in establishing dominance other another rat. The weaker or less dominant rat usually signals submission by rolling onto their back.

Rats can also communicate by sound but much of it is so high pitched that we don't usually hear them unless they are fighting or sounding warnings to others. Sometimes we may hear baby rats as they call for their mothers but much of the time they appear silent to us.


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