MELBOURNE, Australia – Usually now is not a good time to be a rodent in Australia. On farms across the country, mice are poisoned and driven from fields by desperate farmers as the country suffers from one of the worst mouse plagues in living memory.
But in a lab in Canberra, the nation’s capital, a select group of lab rats had a rather different experience. The researchers tickled them every day for a month to see if it would improve their emotional well-being and perhaps make them better models for research.
“It is widely believed that happy animals lead to better research results and ultimately better patient care, so we are always on the lookout for new techniques, equipment and skills that will improve,” according to a attach on the Center for Health and Medical Research project in Canberra.
He adds, âRat tickling is a technique used by animal technicians to mimic the play behavior that juvenile rats adopt. By participating in this behavior with our rats, we aim to reduce the impact of manipulation and increase positive associations with human interaction. . “
Captive rats have been tickled in Britain and elsewhere. Rats made ultrasonic vocalizations when they were tickled and subjected to other gentle touches on different parts of the body, previous experiments have shown. This appears to be the first time, however, that a practical experiment has been carried out in Australia.
The Australian Capital Territory (Canberra is its largest city) became in 2019 the first jurisdiction in the country to recognize animals as sentient beings, and imposed penalties for their ill-treatment.
So 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 is an online course for that.)
“There is a right and a wrong way to tickle a rat,” said Ms Mottley, who was not involved in the experiment at the Canberra center. âIf you do it the wrong way, it may be unhelpful. At best, they might not know what you are doing, and at worst, it could hurt them.
According to researchers at the center, there are three good ways to tickle a rat.
Back Contact: Touch the back of the rat’s neck with quick, light movements. Avoid the tail and hips, as these areas are directed towards aggression from other rats.
Rollover: Gently hold the rat around its front legs and lift it up while rotating your wrist to roll the rat onto its back. This move is “the hardest part of tickling rats but the most beneficial,” the center said, as it closely mimics what happens when rats fight.
Pinning: Tickle the rat between its front legs and on its chest while applying firm and constant pressure to keep the rat on its back.
And how does it feel to tickle a rat?
âIt’s fun,â Ms. Mottley said. âThe last step is to turn them over and let them go, and they will turn around and come right back,â she said. “You extend your arm to tickle them again and they will try to climb on your arm because they want more.” “
Ian Allsop, the lead researcher and senior animal technician at the Center for Health and Medical Research, said in an email that the project “is really about promoting existing and well-tested research in regards to improving well-being. of rats by tickling “.
Canberra technicians tickled a group of rats every day for four weeks and monitored their reactions. Another control group was unfortunately not tickled.
The researchers found that tickled rats generally responded better to human manipulation and were less fearful. And the rats weren’t the only ones having fun. âTickling is also fun for technicians! the center said in its poster, where it shared its results.
As tempting as it all can make you want to rush out and tickle indiscriminately rats, Paul McGreevy, professor of animal behavior and welfare at the University of New England, has a warning.
“It is a mistake to assume that all rats like to tickle, and a mistake to assume that all humans are equally good at tickling rats,” he said.
Much like humans, he added, different rodents have individual preferences for how they like to be tickled.
âSome of them will be totally manipulated, some will find the tickling pleasurable if done right, and others will want to avoid any physical pressure on themselves,â he said.
“If there was a way for each rat to get the dose of tickle they want, that would be ideal.” “