A Wildlife Article from All-Creatures.org

Wild Rats—Scapegoats or Villains?
From Virginia Bell
May 2023

Rats have long been regarded with fear and hatred. They are the ultimate scapegoat both in myth and in reality. For instance, it is now thought that the bubonic plague which arrived in Europe in 1347 with epidemics breaking out over the next 400 years, came from gerbils from Asia or wild marmots.

wild Rat


Rats have long been regarded with fear and hatred. They are the ultimate scapegoat both in myth and in reality. Other species which cause us more harm do not receive such potent antipathy and cruel treatment.


In Ancient Rome, rats were considered lucky. Ancient Egyptians and Mayans worshipped them. This still happens in India, in Karni Mata temple, where they are highly respected and fed. They are also highly respected and fed in people’s homes, as much-loved pets. The rats that are trained to detect landmines (it’s estimated that there are still 80 million landmines around the world which are lying active and unknown) are also much valued.

Intelligent, loving and full of fun

Rats are capable of thinking about things and figuring them out. They also have clearly demonstrated empathy. In one ethically questionable study, the vast majority of the rats tested chose to help another rat who was being forced to tread water, even when they were offered the opportunity to help themselves to a chocolate treat instead. Rats can also recognize expressions of pain on other rats’ faces and react to them.

Kill or Control?

Because rats’ teeth are constantly growing, they need to constantly gnaw to contain the growth. This can be a problem for humans. In this technological age, one would have thought that rat-proofed cables would be available as standard. We live with rats; it’s their world too. It is not ecologically justifiable for humans to take up land and evict all other species from that land. It’s not possible either. So let’s learn to live with other species in a more harmonious way.

Furthermore, killing doesn’t work in the long run. In fact, it can cause the unwanted animal population to grow. As animals are killed or removed from an area, more take their place as they search for available resources, and the temporary spike in the food supply results in accelerated breeding and an increase in population. Therefore, the only sustainable solution is to prevent rodents from being attracted to an area and gaining access to it in the first place.

In the UK, home owners who set out rat traps on their property could be found financially liable for death or injury to neighbours’ pets.

The RSPCA encourages the use of humane methods, preferably trap and release, checking regularly to ensure that rats aren’t suffering from thirst or hunger before they can be relocated to the wild.
How many people are physically harmed by rats?

From the UK Office for National Statistics, I find that there were no deaths from rat bites in the years 2001 to 2017, and 7 deaths from Weil’s disease from 2003 to 2012. So not even in 1 death a year are rats involved.

Compare that with the number of accidents in the home which result in death – 6,000 every year - and the thousands of people killed by prescribed drugs every year.

Weil’s disease by the way is carried in the urine of rats and cows, among other animals, so any deaths from Weil’s disease could be from cattle urine, but people are not so afraid of cattle. Nor of domestic rats which are a popular pet. All animosity, fear and loathing is reserved for the wild rat, which could be as free of disease as a domestic rat but is marked for death anyway.

Dogs kill more people than rats. I think anything you can name kills more people than rats.

Legal Protection

As wild animals, rats have a certain amount of legal protection in the UK. Once you have a rat captured in a trap, it is protected under the Animal Welfare Act. Injured rats can be released to the wild after treatment, and it should be ensured that they can cope in the area where they are released. Defra says abandoning a rat “in circumstances in which it is likely to suffer would be an example of poor welfare and an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006”.

Control Methods

Poison The RSPCA is against the use of poisons because they cause a slow death and could harm pets and wildlife. This article, though it adds to the unjustified negative view of rats, gives good advice about how to keep rats away, and is clear on not using poison: How to get rid of rats in the garden for GOOD - and why you should NEVER use poison.

All methods which involve prolonged suffering should be banned. At last we have a ban on glue traps in England. There should also be a ban on poison, which is a horrible way to die.

Deterring rats from settling in an area where they are a proven pest is humane and sensible, because it is long term, unlike killing which only works until new rats arrive.

Sound-based deterrents work well. They emit sound waves that humans and pets can’t hear but that cause rats auditory distress.

Natural deterrents are preferable to chemical ones for the health of the natural environment. Here are suggestions: The Best Rat Repellents of 2023.

Essential oils are some of the best natural rat repellents. Rats have a highly developed sense of smell, which makes strong odors such as pine oil, cinnamon oil, peppermint oil, eucalyptus and citronella offensive to them.

Other smells. Cayenne pepper, cloves, vinegar will keep rats away as well. Onions especially are regarded as a strong deterrent - fatal if eaten, good at keeping rats away.

Contraception is another method of control. Apparently, there is an effective rat contraception available in the USA: Goodbye to Mr Rat with breakthrough contraception method.

For some species, sterilisation is an effective and humane way to control numbers, and this is used on Nutria, a species of rodent from South America, now causing problems in Italy where they were introduced by fur traders.

If we humans want to be considered humane, why do we choose the most painful methods of control when kinder methods are available?


Rats didn’t cause the Black Death plagues

It is unlikely that the Back death came from rats. According to new scientific evidence [Stop Blaming Rats: The Real Black Death Causes] it is now thought that the Black Death (possibly bubonic plague) which arrived in Europe in 1347 with epidemics breaking out over the next 400 years, came from gerbils from Asia: 'Gerbils replace rats' as main cause of Black Death or wild marmots: How did the Black Death start and what effect has it had?

Rats didn’t spread the Black Death, humans did

The plague spread too fast for rats to be the carriers. It was the fleas and ticks that humans carry around with them on their bodies and clothes, not rats, that spread the plagues. Rats Didn’t Spread the Black Death—It Was Humans.

It’s not clear where the belief that rats spread the plague came from in the first place. The researchers write that “there is little historical and archaeological support for such a claim.”
I believe it was the black rat that was blamed for plagues, not the brown rat. Black rats are rare in the UK; it is the brown rat which is taking the punishment for something that it should never have been blamed for in the first place.

Modern plagues and disease sources

1679 was the last plague outbreak until the 20th Century, which has seen Spanish Flu, Sars, MERS, Ebola, AIDS and Covid 19.

Diseases can come from many sources

Many species could potentially pass on diseases to humans. Rats are no different from other species in that respect. But the most likely source of disease is our fellow humans. That is, we are more likely to catch a disease from contact with humans than from contact with other species.

A basic standard of hygiene is the best protection. Plus keeping a sensible distance.

Our intrusion into wild areas and eating wild animals and keeping livestock, these are all disease possibilities. Our local hospital is also a potential source of disease.

Yet people visit hospitals, eat animals, care for livestock and live fairly intimately with pets, including rats, without fear. So it’s time we realised that rats have been made into scapegoats.

Of course we don’t want cables eaten into, but we should deal with that potential problem in a sensible and most of all compassionate way. 

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