MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s generally not a good time to be a rodent in Australia. On farms across the country, mice are being poisoned and chased out of fields by desperate farmers as the country suffers one of the worst mouse plagues in living memory.
But at one lab in Canberra, the nation’s capital, a select group of lab rats has had quite a different experience. Researchers have tickled them every day for a month to see if it will improve their emotional well-being, and perhaps make them better models for research.
“It is widely accepted that happy animals lead to improved research outcomes and ultimately better patient care, so we are always looking for new techniques, equipment and skills that will improve,” according to a poster about the project from the Center for Health and Medical Research in Canberra.
It adds, “Rat tickling is a technique used by animal technicians to mimic the play-fighting behavior that juvenile rats engage in. By participating in this behavior with our rats, we aim to lessen the impact of handling and increase positive associations with human interaction.”
Rats in captivity have been tickled in Britain and elsewhere. Rats made ultrasonic vocalizations when they were tickled and subjected to other gentle touches on different body parts, previous experiments have shown. This appears to be the first time, however, that an experiment about the practice has been conducted in Australia.
The Australian Capital Territory (Canberra is its largest city) in 2019 became the first jurisdiction in the country to recognize animals as sentient beings, and imposed penalties for their mistreatment.
So, just how do you tickle a rat?
It’s more of a science than an art, according to Carlee Mottley, a laboratory animal technician at the University of Wollongong and a certified rat tickler (no, really, there’s an online course for that.)
“There is a right and wrong way to tickle a rat,” said Ms. Mottley, who was not involved in the experiment at the center in Canberra. “If you do it the wrong way, it can be non-beneficial. At best, they could not know what you’re doing, and, at worst, it could hurt them.”
According to the center’s researchers, there are three proper ways to tickle a rat.
Dorsal contact: Touch the back of the rat’s neck with quick, light movements. Avoid the tail and haunches, as these areas are where aggression from other rats is directed.
Flipping: Gently restrain the rat around its front legs and lift it while rotating your wrist to flip the rat onto its back. This movement is “the most difficult part of rat tickling but the most beneficial,” the center said, since it closely mimics what happens when rats wrestle.
Pinning: Tickle the rat between its front legs and on its chest while applying a firm, constant pressure to keep the rat on its back.
And what’s it like tickling a rat?
“It’s fun,” Ms. Mottley said. “The last step is you flip them and let them go, and they’ll turn around and come straight back,” she said. “You put out your arm to tickle them again and they’ll try and climb up your arm because they want more.”
Ian Allsop, the lead researcher and a senior animal technician at the Center for Health and Medical Research, said in an email that the project “was really to promote the existing and well-tested research in regards to improving rat welfare through tickling.”
The technicians in Canberra tickled a group of rats every day for four weeks and tracked their reactions. Another control group went, sadly, untickled.
The researchers found that tickled rats generally responded better to human handling and were less fearful. And the rats weren’t the only ones having a good time. “Tickling is also fun for the technicians!” the center said in its poster, where it shared its results.
As tempting as all this may make you wish to dash out and tickle rats indiscriminately, Paul McGreevy, a professor of animal behavior and welfare at the University of New England, has a warning.
“It’s a mistake to assume all rats are into tickling, and a mistake to assume that all humans are equally good at tickling rats,” he said.
Just like humans, he added, different rodents have individual preferences for how they like to be tickled.
“Some of them will totally be into being handled, some of them will find tickling pleasing if done well, and others will want to avoid any physical pressure imposed upon themselves,” he said.
“If there was a way for every rat to get the dose of tickling they want, that would be ideal.”