PVM Research on Rat Tickling Impacts Human-Animal Interactions

June 9, 2016

by Kelsey Johnson, PVM Summer Communications Intern

Recent experiments conducted by Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Megan LaFollette, a master’s student in animal welfare science, and her co-advisors Dr. Brianna Gaskill and Dr. Marguerite O’Haire from the Department of Comparative Pathobiology, offers unique insight into human-rat interactions in the pet store environment using positive handling, or tickling. The research investigates the effects of tickling pet and laboratory rats on their welfare, as well as on caretakers, the public, and future owners.

Dr. Gaskill, PVM assistant professor of animal welfare, said that the majority of study on applying rat tickling in a research environment up to this point was conducted by Dr. Sylvie Cloutier, a colleague of hers currently serving on the Canadian Council on Animal Care and assisting with LaFollette’s research. When Petco reached out to Dr. Gaskill to help improve their facilities and rodent welfare, she said that she saw an opportunity to do more research on rat tickling to improve rat and employee welfare and to help Petco rats be more ready for purchase as pets. She said that this research is unique in that it focuses on human, as well as rat, welfare and the human-animal bond.

Megan LaFollette said that pet store rats often experience inconsistent and unfamiliar interactions with humans, which can increase fear, and that pet store employees that sell rats as feeders may be at risk for occupational stress. Tickling, or playful handling, is a human-rat interaction that reduces fear and improves welfare by imitating rat rough-and-tumble play, LaFollette explained, though some rats enjoy tickling more. LaFollette said that these rats, called high-callers, emit more positive vocalizations than other rats, low-callers. “Short-term tickling could improve some unfamiliar human-animal interactions for rats with minimal effect on employee affect,” Lafollette said.

Preliminary results of the experiment indicate: tickled rats tend to be more easily restrained, even with an unfamiliar handler; high-callers may be more adaptable to unfamiliar human interactions; pet store employees that tickled rats showed a decrease in negative affect over the course of the experiment; and pet store employees had lower positive affect at sale for rats that they tickled, that have been in the store longer, or were sold as feeder rats. “That’s one thing we were a little worried about. If the employees create this bond, and some of the rats that are sold in pet stores are sold as feeders…we wanted to make sure this wasn’t going to be an issue,” said Dr. Gaskill. “We wanted to see the positive, but we absolutely did not want to see the negative, since that would be detrimental to the emotional health of the employees. We didn’t see any negative, but we didn’t really see a whole lot of positive. This could be because the experiment was so short.”

This research could prove to be useful when rats need to be restrained to receive an injection, as both lab animals and pets go to a veterinarian for check-ups. Dr. Gaskill said that by performing a restraint test on the rats, the team found that high-caller, tickled rats tended to show less anxiety after being restrained than the control animals or the low-callers. “When they’ve received an extensive amount of tickling, they don’t seem to mind; they just want to get back to being tickled,” said Dr. Gaskill. This also suggests that high-callers may be happier and calmer in general, and thus more suited for becoming pets. Dr. Gaskill said that Petco could use the findings to identify which rats have the greatest potential to make good pets; specifically, high-calling, tickled rats.

Funding from Grants for Laboratory Animal Science has been received to conduct future research exploring the specifics of how to playfully handle an animal for optimal positive effect on welfare. Because there isn’t a standardized protocol, Dr. Gaskill wants to look into how often and how long animals should be tickled and whether tickling is more beneficial for high-callers than low-callers, or if tickling is actually a negative experience for low-callers.

The research was funded by Petco and Dr. Gaskill and Dr. O’Haire’s start-up funds for students. Click here for information on rat tickling from Dr. Gaskill's lab, including a how-to video.

A laboratory rat enjoys being tickled by a member of Megan LaFollette and Dr. Gaskill’s research team. (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Brianna N. Gaskill Laboratory)

Writer: Kelsey Johnson, pvmnews@purdue.edu


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