Why are Rats Important in Today’s World?

Rats are a source of food for many wild animals, and they help humans in unique ways. Discover why rats are more than mere pests in our guide below.

Oct 20, 2023By Lisa Szymanski
why are rats important

For decades, rats have remained pests that wreak havoc when they infiltrate our homes and businesses. These rodents have adapted to an urban lifestyle where food and safe hiding spots are abundant. But there’s more to a rat than just being a nuisance. Rats are important to people and the environment because they help with seed germination and provide food for predators. These burrowing animals have facilitated medical research that has led to life-saving breakthroughs. In this article, we look at the importance of rats across the world.

Rats Get Rid of Waste

rat in street eating food covered in foil
A rat scavenging for food.

Rats will do anything to access food, and that includes climbing into trash cans to reach your scraps. These large rodents will scurry along city streets, across backyards, and across forest floors in search of a meal. As they aren’t picky eaters, they do a good job of getting rid of food and plant matter. Scavengers reduce all types of waste, including seeds, fruit, meat, processed food, and garbage. Their feeding habits prevent an influx of insects and other rodents from being attracted to the area. While rodents are useful in tackling waste, their numbers should always be controlled near human settlements. The purpose is to protect people and animals from exposure to bacteria and viruses.

Lab Rats Have Contributed to Clinical Discoveries

brown and white rat against white background
A large brown and white rat.

Rodents play a significant role in medical research. Rats, in particular, have assisted in studies involving medical products and supplements for decades. Astonishingly, they have a biological makeup that mirrors that of humans. Scientists have focused on genetic alterations in rats that can carry diseases that are specific to people. This has facilitated the development of safe medications and treatments to improve people’s lives. Rats and mice are used in behavioral studies because they are intelligent animals that have advanced cognitive research in humans. Such rodents are excellent problem solvers and are often required to perform puzzles.

Rats Provide Food for Predators

boa snake eating a rat
Boa constrictor eating a rat.

Rats are important because certain types of predators hunt them for food. Animals such as owls, snakes, and coyotes regularly feed on mice and rats. For small to medium predators, the large numbers of rodents reduce the possibility of starvation. Rats can adapt to a wide variety of environments, making them an easy and constant food source. Without this food source, many of these predators would move closer to residential areas or invade farms by preying on other animals. This phenomenon would disrupt the ecological balance as people and domestic animals would encounter wildlife more frequently.

They Spread Seeds

rat eating a seed outdoors
A rat eating a seed.

Rats consume everything from plants to leftovers, but they absolutely love seeds. These rodents are vital to seed distribution across the globe as they pass whole seeds through their droppings. If they cease to exist, many types of vegetation that depend on rats for dispersal will no longer grow. This could lead to a catastrophic decline in indigenous flora. An example of their ecological importance is the role played by the giant forest rats of South America and Africa. Researchers have carefully documented the behaviors of these rodents when eating the seeds that fall on the ground from the surrounding trees. The rodent expels the seed a distance from the established tree, allowing saplings to develop.

Additional research shows that hoarded seeds that are forgotten by seed-eating rodents also have the chance to germinate and grow. This process is a necessary part of maintaining the lifecycle of many trees and plants in forests.

Rats Carry Specific Viruses

rat standing on its hind legs
A rat standing upright on its hind legs.

When rats make their way into residential and commercial properties, they become pests. They can chew through furniture and get into food, and they can spread diseases to people and pets. Specific viruses are known to spread through rat droppings. Without rats, you would imagine that certain viruses would disappear, but a virus has a remarkable ability to mutate and find a new host. This increases the risk of viral mutations and infections transmitted to people and animals. Despite these rodents being major nuisances that must be controlled in urban and rural areas, they are important in understanding the transmission of viruses.

Rats Keep Mice Populations in Check

rat eating seeds in the grass
A rat eating scattered seeds.

Both rats and mice compete with each other for resources such as food and spots to nest. If rats didn’t exist, mice would no longer have to fight for these resources, and their numbers would increase. The problem with explosive populations of mice populations is that these tiny rodents can get into places that rats can’t. Higher numbers of these little creatures would place an economic burden on businesses and agriculture. Furthermore, there is a high risk of many diseases being transferred to mice and smaller rodents, which would pose an additional threat.

Recognizing That Rats Are Not All Bad

white rat with red eyes in cage
Domestic rats make good pets.

Rats are food for predators and contribute to a balanced ecology, making them an important part of our existing and future fauna and flora. Recognizing the importance of rats in our environment doesn’t mean that we should encourage them onto our properties and into our homes. It means that rodents play a part in sustaining plants and animals. These creatures have supported pertinent medical research, paving the way for new products and safer treatments. They are smart animals, and many domesticated rats make affectionate pets that are easy to care for. To live in harmony with these rodents, their populations should always be monitored and controlled.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.