Do Rats Eat Their Babies? Science, Facts, Tips


Is a rat likely to eat its babies? This is not the nicest of questions to ask, but it’s an important one that we need to deal with.

So, before we delve into the details, let’s give a basic answer.

Do Rats Eat Their Babies?

A mother rat can potentially eat her babies, but this is a very rare event. This normally only happens for a range of reasons, including the mother is close to starving to death, the baby is already very ill or dead, or that the mother has some kind of mental health issue.

So yes, a rat can indeed eat its babies, but it’s not as clear-cut as all that.

In this article, I’m going to analyze exactly what’s going on, why they would do it, and obviously, the times when this action may occur. After all, it’s not something rats are going to go ahead and do just for the sake of it.

Mother rat with baby rats drinking milk from her

A Rat is Not Alone 

First, let’s clarify something. A rat is not the only creature on this planet that is going to be guilty of eating its babies, so don’t think badly of them, as it’s a natural instinct, even if it’s not the nicest one we could ever talk about.

Instead, other rodents will also go ahead and eat their babies, along with lions, birds, fish and many others. 

This act is known as infanticide, and while some animals will only go as far as killing their young, there are others that take it that extra step. 

It’s Quite Rare

Also, this action of eating their young is not common.

It does happen, but don’t think for a second that every mother is going to be thinking about eating at least one of their young. It’s only going to occur in severe circumstances, so it’s not a regular event.

This form of cannibalism is not something us humans like to think about, or talk about either, but you must understand that rats are not going to view things in the same way.

Instead, their cannibalistic nature is all about survival, and that’s something that is completely different to anything else.

But if we accept that it happens, then we need to be aware of the reasons or situations that could lead to a rat feeling that this is the only action available to them.

The Reasons

There are actually a multitude of reasons as to why a mother rat could go ahead and eat one of their young.

As you will see, it may kind of make some sense as to why she goes ahead and actually does this.

When you look at the reasons, you should also spend time thinking about how your own pet rat could be helped in order to avoid this happening.

However, we will also include a few key tips later on that should make a bit of a difference for you.

She is Stressed About Being a Mother

The first thing we need to say is that it’s entirely possible she is feeling rather stressed about being a mother, and she believes she cannot cope.

This is more common when it’s their first time of being a mother, and also if they have had a larger than expected number of babies.

At this point, the mother is basically making the decision to kill and eat one of their young, to then use it as food, because she knows it will end up being neglected and will not survive.

So, she is putting the baby out of its misery before it gets to that sort of situation.

The problem here is she is inexperienced at being a mother, and she has no idea what she is doing.

This is scary, and as you will see, stress in general is going to be a pretty big deal when it comes to cannibalism within rats.

This is something that has been viewed even in laboratories where virgin mothers have been more likely to act in this way, rather than experienced mothers who sort of know what they are doing. So, if it happens in a controlled environment, then you can only imagine what happens in the wild.

There is a Scarcity of Food

Another reason is that there is a real scarcity of food, and that’s another type of stress that the mother is going to have to contend with.

At that point, it’s a relatively simple decision that needs to be made, as she has to think about the majority, as well as her own survival.

You must remember that the natural instinct is to survive and to largely protect your own self in the animal world.

If food is scarce, then the mother is going to basically give up one of her own, as she knows that this is a possible food source that could help her to survive. [Source]

This can also apply if there’s a lack of water for them to drink.

While this is going to be easier for the mother to find, it can still play a major role in what she then goes ahead and does with her babies.

Remember that dehydration can change how we see things, and us humans are not unique in having dehydration, causing us to act or think different from the norm.

Of course, we don’t know how difficult a decision it may be for her, but we can guess that she does largely select the one that is deemed to be the weakest in the group.

At that point, it really does become the survival of the fittest.

The Baby is Injured, or Dead

If the baby is either injured or dead, then there’s every possibility that the mother is going to go ahead and consume the baby.

With this, there are two reasons as to why this is going to be her intended course of action.

First, it’s a source of food.

No mother rat is going to pass up the opportunity to go ahead and get some food from an easy source. It’s just not in her natural instinct.

However, the other reason is something that is perhaps even more important for the mother, and that’s the risk of predators.

You must remember that the rat is pretty low down on the list in the animal world. They have a vast number of animals that will see them as prey, and they don’t want their homes to be disturbed by a predator.

The problem with a dead rat is that it will end up decaying, and that’s going to give off a smell to potential predators. That’s not something the mother wants to happen, as she has a need to stay under the radar as much as possible.

In this instance, the mother is going to eat the dead baby, as that’s a fantastic way of removing the evidence.

Also, it takes away the smell, and the rest of her family, and herself, can remain undetected from possible predators.

Unequal Care Leads to Death Which Leads to Food

It has been shown in various studies that a baby rat that is perhaps not receiving the correct amount of care in the earliest part of its life will be more likely to die due to neglect.

Now, that’s not to say that the mother is actively trying to kill their baby in this instance, but their inability to care for each one of their young in an equal manner is going to play a role.

But this then has a knock-on effect.

The baby gets weak, the mother fears for its safety, so she then kills it and uses that baby as food and energy for the others in the hope that they will then survive.

It’s a natural thing to do, even though we see it as being quite brutal.

It Can Be Hormonal

But here is a reason why a mother rat may eat one of their own young, and it’s to do with hormones. 

It turns out that they may suffer from a drop in certain hormones not long after giving birth. In some rats, this dip will then lead to them doing different actions that they would have otherwise not done.

Cannibalism is viewed as being one of those things. [Source]

The main one that seems to be at the root of this is oxytocin, and stress from being a mother can also lead to that dip being even bigger than it would have otherwise been. 

So, it does put a slightly different slant on things when you realize that it’s pretty much out of her control, as she can hardly go and get hormones from the vet to help her out.

Postpartum Depression

Staying on this hormone idea for just a second longer, there’s also some scientific evidence that rats can suffer from postpartum depression after giving birth. That can ultimately lead to them acting out in different ways.

From this form of depression, she becomes stressed and is incapable of looking after all of her young in the way she wanted or would have liked to do.

We know how depression can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do, but when the concept of infanticide is already built into the mother rat, then it’s not a huge leap forward to then realize why she may go ahead and do this while depressed.

Pet rat in its cage

It’s Not Just Wild Rats

But here is an important point that needs to be made.

It’s not just wild rats where this is going to be an issue. Your pet rat could find herself in the exact same situation, but with some differences.

While you will make sure that there’s enough food to go around, she can still feel the same stress of being a mother.

There may not be the risk of a predator, but they may not be fully aware of that, and that also won’t change their depression or hormonal changes.

What that means for you is you need to be aware of what is going on should you be attempting to breed rats. You need to understand when things may be going wrong, and to then rescue the situation before anything can happen.

Key Tips

So what should you do to stop this with your own pet rat?

Well, there are several things that may prove to be rather helpful in certain circumstances.

First, make sure there’s always enough food and water.

You must be aware that the mother rat is going to be feeding all of her babies for the first few weeks.

That takes a lot of energy, so she needs to be able to eat in order to continue to do this.

Also, keep in mind that sudden noises and disturbances will stress her out.

We already know that if her stress levels increase that this can then lead to infanticide happening, so it makes sense that one of the things to do is to prevent those loud noises or anything else from occurring in the first place.

You may also want to cover up her cage from time to time. This will provide her with a sense of safety, and that can also reduce those stress levels enough for her to feel that she can indeed cope with caring for her babies.

Finally, pay close attention to how the babies are doing.

If one appears to be weaker than the others, then you may need to rescue them to prevent the mother from killing and eating them. You will need to quickly learn how to rear a baby rat if this is going to be the case.

Summary

Rats can eat their own babies, but they aren’t alone in doing so. Infanticide is more common in the animal world than most people realize. 

She can go down this route due to a number of reasons and causes, and they are all due to something that is out of her control. From stress, to fear of predators, to the baby dying, and a lack of food and sustenance, there are various reasons why a mother may end up eating her baby.

As a pet rat owner, make sure there’s enough food and water. Also, make sure there’s enough peace and quiet, and reduce the stress she may feel after giving birth. By doing this, you will reduce the chances of her taking this action, but it cannot be guaranteed that it won’t happen no matter what you end up doing.

Barry Gray

Barry is a freelance writer from Scotland. He has written about pets for over a decade, and his work has been turned into a range of ebooks, courses, and material for diplomas. Barry is passionate about all animals, but particularly dogs, fish, rabbits, birds and spiders. You can find out more about Barry at https://mercurypets.com/our-writers/

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