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Tricks and Treats (and Rat Laughter)

The other day my friend Pete sent me a post about rat laughter. About 10 years ago scientists proved, using bat detectors, that pet rats laugh when tickled, but they do so ultrasonically; inaudible for the human ear (hence the bat detector). How intriguing! Scribble, a mischievous little character, surely must laugh. She appears to be giggling every time she tries to run off with something that I am working on.

This lead to researching rats and sound further, where it was learned that training rodents was best accomplished by including a specific and consistent auditory association with a treat. Once the rodent associated the sound with the treat, the sound could be used in training rodents to do tricks, and some pretty complex tricks too. Even I, admittedly now a fan of rodents, was surprised at the array of things people have taught their rats to do. The first stage is to make a distinctive sound specifically when presenting the rat with a specific treat.

We are indeed veering off the topic of rodent laughter now - though hopefully we will be able to follow up with more on that eventually. Ultrasonic detectors are very expensive! And they are almost always designed specifically for working with bats and different bat species communicate on different frequency bands. Bat detecting is certainly a fascinating topic and worthy on its own merit, but at this time, our particular adventure is about rats. The bat detector folks have seemed a little thrown by questions about using their equipment with rats. Fortunately the frequencies used by Norwegian rats are well documented, but Dusky-footed Woodrats are overall much less documented. It's unknown whether rodents like Eek makes ultrasonic sounds - it would be surprising if she doesn't - but broad testing would be necessary to ascertain what frequencies she uses. Also, unlike Scribble, Eek does regularly makes human audible sounds - multiple quick cheeps when happily snuggled in, irked-sounding squeals at Scribble.

So while we're still working on ultrasonic sound detection, it was also time to try training these two perhaps unlikely candidates, and we needed to start with properly compelling treats. In the case of Eek and Scribble, this is particularly challenging because there is only one treat that consistently gets both of them quite excited: "cheese-flavored Yogies" (yoghurt drop) by EcoTrition, a product that is no longer available in our area. Cheese-flavored Yogies are never turned down! Even various yoghurt drops for humans, mainly babies (pricey!) have been tested, with limited results. With about 20 small cheese-flavored Yogies left, and no other available brands so highly sought after by the girls, something had to be done.

We made our own yoghurt drops . Given Eek's tendency to prefer vegetables, the recipe is slanted towards her tastes:

2 Tablespoons whey powder
2 Tablespoons kitten formula*
1 teaspoon lecithin
2 Tablespoons nonfat plain yoghurt
2 Tablespoons "One Meal" (a dried veggie supplement for humans full of ingredients appealing to Eek)**

Mix thoroughly together in a bowl with a spoon. We also added a couple of blackberries to the first batch for additional interest. Spoon into a ziplock bag. Snip off one corner of the bag to create a tiny (1/4" maximum) hole. Squeeze individual 1/4" drops onto waxed paper. Let dry. Placed in the sun on a warm day, the drops will be dry in an afternoon.

*The kitten formula addition was because we have lots of leftover kitten formula containing assorted nutrients, but mainly whey. Substitute whey powder.
**Powdered (freeze-dried) berries or other fruit would be a good substitute when making drops just for Norwegian rats. Anything additionally sweet would increase the appeal. Like humans, rats love sugar. Though they do not like artificial sweeteners like saccharin.

With yoghurt drops in hand, for several weeks now, the treats have been associated with a percussive sound made with the mouth (sounds like "clock"): The sound is made and they are immediately presented the treat. After about a week, both rats consistently displayed comprehension of the association, so we moved into the phase of associating the sound and treat with coming to me for the treat. So far the results have been mixed. Scribble is probably the most successful, though her timidity sometimes interferes with all other interests. Eek is the most responsively avid, active and direct when she's interested, but if her attentions are focused elsewhere, it's challenging to distract her and catch her interest.

So for now, we continue to just continue to plug away at the basics and dream of soon possibly moving on to more interesting tricks (and bat detectors!)

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Blog_post | by Dr. Radut