There are many misconceptions, tall tales, and urban legends about rats. They have lived side by side with humans for thousands of years and throughout that time, folklore surrounding these complex rodents has been known to stretch the truth. Here, we'll tackle five common myths about the rats and how these clever animals have managed to spread all over the world.
Myth 1: Size: "I saw a rat the size of a dog"
People often assume that rats can grow to truly astonishing sizes. Part of this myth stems from humanity's general love of urban legends. Most people are at least a little nervous around rodents. What's more, the animals tend to live in dark or murky areas which sometimes makes it hard to properly gauge their size. When people look into a dark alleyway and see those gleaming eyes, they're not likely to grab a ruler.
On top of that, most people aren't well versed in taxonomy. Even reporters for large news organizations are prone to make mistakes when talking about biological species. This is where a lot of news stories about a rat the size of small dog comes from. There are quite a few species which bear the label of rat as a nickname, but which aren't truly part of the rattus genus.
Coypu, or myocastor coypus, is one of the most common sources of confusion. Coypu are often called a river rat or swamp rat. Even their genus is often nicknamed spiny rat. Despite this, they're only a very distant relative of the true rat. Instead, the coypu is more closely related to guinea pigs and chinchillas. However, it's an easy mistake to make when we look at the animal's very rat-like tail.
Coypu have an impressive body mass which helps in their semi-aquatic lifestyle. The rodents can weigh up to 37 lbs. and reach nearly four feet in total length when we include their tail. All of these facts combine to lead people to believe they are looking at a giant rat, when in fact, they're encountering a coypu.
In reality, common rats like the black rat (Rattus rattus) or the Norway rat (Rattus Norvegicus) can usually only grow to around a foot. What's more, they're unlikely to weigh much more than about 1.1 lbs. While it's true that a rat can be detrimental to humans, at least we don't need to worry about encountering any the size of a coypu or dog.
Myth 2: Intelligence: "Rats are stupid"
Many people look at the small size of a rat's head and assume there's not a lot going on in there, but in reality, the rat species displays an impressive intellectual capacity. This is one of the big reasons why many pest control efforts end in failure. People set rat traps assuming that they're working against animals which aren't much more intelligent than an insect, but in reality a rat is intelligent, social, and even capable of teaching its family.
In some cases, rats have even outperformed humans in certain cognitive tests. They are notoriously suspicious of anything new. This "neophobia" comes from millions of years of evolution and evading predators. When a new trap appears in their environment, they are smart enough to avoid it, at least initially and if they aren't desperate for food.
They are far more complex and intelligent than we can give them credit for, and thus deserve our consideration when determining dispatch methods for rat control.
Myth 3: Stigma: "Rats are only attracted to dirty, run-down areas"
People tend to assume that a rat is only interested in run-down environments. This is a common mistake which often has quite severe results for people who buy into it. Many homeowners refuse to accept the presence of a rat population because of what they feel it implies about their home. But in reality, a rat really doesn't understand or care about human ideas of cleanliness.
A rat is primarily concerned with finding food, shelter, and water. On top of that, they have certain preferences within those necessary items. For example, they like dark, out of the way places for shelter. And if they can find shelter near food and water, then they'll be very happy rodents. Often times a very clean environment is ideal for these requirements. For example, a rat can often gnaw through a well-organized pantry wall and browse for their favorite items as needed.
Myth 4: Cats: "I don't need traps, I have a cat"
One of the most popular rat myths involves their relationship with cats. People often assume their housecat will take care of any potential rat problem. In reality, the average house cat won't be overly interested in hunting down a rat which crosses their path.
One of the main issues is the size of the average house rat. It's true that a rat isn't as huge as some of the rat myths make them out to be. However, cats are often hesitant to attack a rat for the same reason that a rat won't want to attack humans. Animals usually size up their potential prey before an attack. If the prey poses a high risk of injury, then the animal usually won't attack. The only exception is in cases of extreme hunger.
A rat is generally just large enough to cause a little concern for the average cat. This reduces the likelihood of a cat taking care of any rats in an area. On top of this, the average house cat is very well fed and really won't feel any need to put themselves at risk by attacking something which might be able to fight back. Cats have a much higher chance of going after smaller house mice than a comparatively large rat. But on average, house cats just aren't very interested in going on a rat hunt at all.