Thoughts on human and rat ethology


Human and rat dominance

I am intrigued by the flip-and-pee method advocated by some rat owners to get rats to be less aggressive towards each other or towards their human owner. This method involves flipping the rat over on its back, yelling at it, rubbing one's own human urine into its fur, and repeating this at random intervals until the rat is appropriately subordinated. Here is a description of the method from a proponent:

Take a tip from your big dude rat...Show the little thug who is *really* in charge. [snip]. Put some of your urine in a cup and set it aside. Grab the little imp and flip him on his back, agressively scratch his belly and brush your urine on his nose and belly and sex organs... If he protests, yell:"NO!" and continue to hold him on his back. Release him. If he gets up fast, throw him on his back and hold him till he squeaks. When he gets up slowly, let him. Do this several times a day when you feel like it and especially if he gets nippy. [Ratlist, April 2003]

Proponents believe that by doing this they are acting just like a dominant rat, and by taking over the dominant rat's role and subordinating their pets these rats will not be aggressive towards each other or their owner. This method and the assumptions that underlie it are misguided, as described in the sections of the FAQ entitled Should I pee on my rat? and Should I flip my rat over and yell at him?

However, this does not answer a fascinating question: why is this method so appealing to human owners? I think there are three reasons for this method's appeal:

1. Speaking rat

This method appeals to a deep-seated desire of pet owners to understand and be understood by their pets on their pets' level -- to "speak rat." It also gives pet owners something to do when faced with rat aggression so they don't feel so helpless.

2. The shock value of human urine

Secondly, using human urine has enormous shock value and humor potential. On a mailing list, where this idea is propagated, people remember it, giggle over it, startle newcomers with it, treat it like an in-group secret shared by the secret society of rat owners, and bring it up time after time for the laugh. The idea itself has great staying power.

 3. It uses familiar, human behaviors

On the surface, the flip-and-pee method may appear to be very strange. But when I examined the method more closely, and then examined what rats actually do, it became obvious to me that the flip-and-pee behaviors were very human and not ratlike at all:

Human behavior

In attempting to behave like a rat, to treat the rat in a way that it will understand, the human is actually behaving like the large primate that it really is. The behaviors on display here: holding a rat down with one's hands, yelling at it, and rubbing urine into its fur, are all human behaviors used to intimidate or insult other humans. These are not behaviors that rats use themselves to dominate each other.

The hand hold-down: Humans are very hand-centered. We use our hands a lot in our interactions with other humans. We pet and stroke and caress each other, we slap and pinch, we twist and punch. Thanks to our opposable thumbs and powerful muscles we have a vice-like hand-grip that allows us to catch and hold, grab and overpower other individuals, hold them helplessly close to us or to the wall or ground. Hands are powerful appendages and we use them in our interactions with other people.

But rats do not have hands like this. A rat's forepaws are tiny and weak. Rats have no opposable thumbs. Rats cannot punch or slap or grab others in a secure grip. Rats never overpower each other by gripping and holding each other down with their forepaws.

Rats are, after all, shaped like flexible furry sausages with tiny, peg-like forelegs. The most a rat can do to overpower another is to lie on top of it and bear down, but even this is relatively ineffective: a determined rat, even a smaller one, can arch its back and struggle free of the weight of another quite quickly.

A rat could grip another with its teeth. However, this grip would also be relatively ineffective because teeth are too sharp to hold flesh firmly without piercing it. A grip would just tear through. Plus, a tooth-hold would leave the holder vulnerable to being bitten himself. Rats do not, in fact, grip and hold each other with their teeth. Teeth are used for slashing and biting. The only gripping and holding with teeth that rats do regularly is when a mother carries her pups by the nape of the neck, and this is done very gently so as not to break the skin, and it even triggers a special reflex in the pup that causes it to hang very still.


The yelling: Humans are extremely vocal. We communicate primarily though sound, and not just through language. Tone, volume, frequency and non-verbal noises add great depth to human communication. When we want to soothe and reassure, we use soft, high-pitched, coaxing tones. When we want to intimidate others we speak in a loud, low-pitched voice, or scream or yell.

A rat, however, never yells at another rat to intimidate it. A dominant rat bent on intimidation is silent. At most, it may chatter its teeth. It's the losers, rats in pain or distress or fear who squeek and whine and shriek. Therefore, yelling at a rat is not dominant rat behavior at all.

Of course, shouting at an animal is often used for another purpose, which has nothing to do with acting like a rat. Loud noises startle and frighten animals and can be used as negative reinforcement in a purely Skinnerian sense, like an electric shock ("No!" "Stop!"). This punishment is supposed to reduce the frequency of behavior performed immediately preceding the punishment. Note, however, that an animal punished at random intervals as described above will not make a connection between its behavior and the punishment meted out by the human. Therefore, such punitive yelling is futile.


The urine-rubbing: Among humans, rubbing one's urine or feces on another person is one of the most obscene insults one person can heap on another. The human insult is so vile, in fact, that rat owners who advocate this behavior frequently feel the need to justify it by saying that rats do this to each other, therefore implying that it's okay.

But rats do not pin other rats down and rub their urine forcibly with their paws into the helpless rat's fur. Rats never rub their urine onto another rat's "nose and belly and sex organs" as advocated in the description above. This behavior never occurs. Rats do urine mark each other, but this involves walking over other rats in a peaceful context and depositing tiny drops of urine on the other rats' fur.

In fact, far from being a foul liquid, rat urine is a form of chemical communication that contains all sorts of useful personal information about one's species, age, sex, reproductive status, social status, and stress level. Between adults of the opposite sex, these marks function as a sexual advertisement.

There mere act of urine marking does not catapult a rat into dominant status: all rats urine mark all others to a greater or lesser degree (males mark females, females mark males, dominants mark subordinates, subordinates mark dominants, adults and juveniles mark each other).

Dominant males do tend to urine mark subordinates more than vice versa, but this is because subordinate rats can't walk over the dominant rat as much as he does over them. When subordinates do walk over the dominant individual, they mark him copiously. Therefore, urine marking is not the exclusive purview of the dominant rat, it is not an insult, and it does not confer dominant status. Urine marking is a form of communication. The dominant rat's urine may contain signals that derive from his dominant position -- more testosterone, perhaps. But this cannot be faked by another rat, and it certainly cannot be faked by a human.

Unfortunately, humans are largely illiterate when it comes to chemical communication. Our sense of smell is so pathetic that we do not perceive most of our urine's chemical information. All we can do with urine is flush it down the toilet. We occasionally use artificial methods of gleaning a fraction of urine's information: home urine tests for ovulation and pregnancy, for example, or urine samples given at a doctor's office for laboratory tests. But rats read this chemical information, and much more, from other rats' urine just by sniffing it.

So, what does human urine mean to a rat? Very little. Human urine may be briefly intriguing to a rat because it's a novel smell, but rats are quite capable of telling urine from different species apart. The vast amounts of personal information the human urine contains is of little relevance to a rat (though it would be interesting to see whether a male rat would be briefly interested in the urine of an ovulating woman). Ultimately, a rat dabbed with human urine might sniff it curiously, then groom it off. The dabbed rat won't suddenly treat the human like a giant alpha rat.


In sum, when attempting to dominate a rat and communicate with it on its level, humans are, in fact, acting exactly like humans: large social apes with overpowering hands, loud voices, and a complete blindness to the subtleties of chemical communication.

For more on rat urine marking, see:

If you are interested in more reading on human primate behavior and how our behavior might be interpreted by animals, I highly recommend "The other end of the leash: why we do what we do around dogs" by Patricia McConnell.

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