Cannibal rats swarm in lockdown infestation

Hungry: There are an estimated 1.3 rats per person in the UK – 81 million in total. © Alamy

Do rats deserve their evil reputation? The news that a hungry army of rodents is closing in on our homes will probably fill you with disgust. But some say we are too hard on the humble rat.

It is the stuff of nightmares. With restaurants closed and city centres empty because of the coronavirus lockdown, an army of starving rats is closing in on our homes. They have been spotted using cat flaps, climbing up drainpipes, and swimming into toilet bowls.

US officials warn of “unusual or aggressive” behaviour as desperate rodents resort to cannibalism.

From the Pied Piper of Hamelin to the dreaded Rat King, this little beast has a terrifying grip on our imagination. And of course in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Room 101 contains our worst nightmare. Which can only mean one thing: rats!

Behavioural scientist Val Curtis says rat-phobia is hardwired into our DNA. “We are preprogrammed to learn to avoid things that make us sick,” and rats harbour as many as 60 different types of humans disease.

But many believe rats are not all bad. In some parts of the world, their fertility and cunning earn them respect and devotion. This year is the Chinese Year of the Rat, and Hindus in South Asia consider the black rat a sacred animal.

In tests, rats show concern and empathy for their fellow rodents, rescuing them from cages, and comforting each other when distressed. Many owners of pet rats describe them as affectionate, loyal, and sensitive.

Small, smart, and natural burrowers, they have even been used to find people trapped under collapsed buildings.

So, do rats deserve their evil reputation?

Dirty rat!

Yes. Rats are horrible little vermin. Everything about them is disgusting, from their yellow teeth to their high-pitched squeaking and long slithering tails.

No. They are very tidy animals. There is much to admire in their intelligence, adaptability, and the affection they show each other.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever keep a rat for a pet?


  1. Draw a design for a humane rat-catching device.

Some People Say...

“I don’t like rats any more than the next bloke, but they ain’t wicked and cruel like people can be. They’re just ratty in their habits.”

Philip Pullman, British author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that rats can pass on diseases to humans. Rodents are genetically similar to us, allowing them to be a host for diseases that can cross over to the human population. They are also a vector for disease, spreading bacteria from rotting food and rubbish bins to human hands through their faeces and urine. This makes them a serious public health problem that governments tackle by keeping streets clean, laying poison, and setting food health and safety standards for shops and restaurants.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether it is fair to blame the rats for what some argue is a human problem. We live in densely packed cities and produce a huge amount of waste. When we reduce our waste or dispose of it responsibly, the rat population falls. Squirrels and pigeons are urban dwellers that also spread disease, but we do not have the same reaction to them. So, what is it about rats that makes us feel so uncomfortable?

Word Watch

Rodent expert Bobby Corrigan explains, “They’re mammals just like you and I, and so when you’re really, really hungry, you’re not going to act the same – you’re going to act very bad, usually […]. So, these rats are fighting with one another. Now, the adults are killing the young in the nest and cannibalising the pups.”
Pied Piper of Hamelin
The story of the rat-catcher who lures the children of Hamelin away with his magic pipe. In the 19th Century, another rat-catcher called Jack Black bred “fancy rats” to sell to high-society women. Queen Victoria and the author Beatrix Potter are said to have owned Black’s pet rats.
Rat King
A collection of rats whose tails have become permanently entangled. This weird and disturbing sight was considered a bad omen in early modern Europe, and preserved specimens are on display in museums in Germany and France.
As a verb, it means to keep (often secretly).
Having skills to achieve things by being sly.
Year of the Rat
The Chinese Zodiac is represented by twelve animals. The last Year of the Rat was 2008, and people born in that year are thought to have creativity, generosity, and ambition.
Sacred animal
As many as 15,000 black rats live in the Karni Mata Temple where they are worshipped as an incarnation of the Goddess.
To be able to understand the feelings of another.
One that burrows (digs). An animal that lives in an underground hole that it has made itself.
Wild animals that carry disease.
Ability or willingness to change in order to suit different conditions.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.