MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: How do you run a rat though a rat maze??

Date: Fri Nov 12 06:21:07 2004
Posted By: Janet Hoff, Staff, Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine, University of Michigan
Area of science: Zoology
ID: 1099259609.Zo

Hi Clarisa,

Iím sorry I donít know of any good websites that demonstrate how to train 
a rat to walk through a maze, but I think I can help answer your question.

I work at a large University in a center that provides equipment to 
laboratory personnel who use animals to study human disease.  We have 
equipment like balance beams, electrocardiogram (ECG), and a system that 
measures the blood pressure in mice and rats via their tail vein.  You 
can learn more about us at:

When a scientist wants to use animals to study medicine, there are many 
rules and regulations they have to follow.  When anyone at the pre-
college level wants to use an animal for a science project there are 10 
principles or guidelines which should be followed.  There are called, 
Principles and Guidelines for the use of animals in precollege 
education.  You can find them on-line at:

So, why teach a rat to go through a maze?  There are different reasons 
why scientists do this.  One may be during the development of a new 
drug.  A group of rats are trained to go through a maze then, half the 
group is given this new drug and the other half gets a placebo (a pill 
that contains sugar, has no effect on the rat).  The rats are put through 
the maze again and if the group that had the drug canít remember how to 
go through the maze but the group that got the placebo can, scientists 
can conclude that the drug caused memory loss.

Other reasons may include analyzing a particular ratís memory.  There are 
many breeds (or strains) of rats that scientists use in medical research.  
In order to find the right strain for a particular study a scientist may 
need to make sure that he can perform a task such as learning a maze.  
Different strains are compared to each other and opposite sexes are also 

Since it sounds like you just have one rat (Iím assuming you already have 
the rat), you may be able to use your ratís age as your project, 
i.e., ďcan you teach an old rat a new trick?Ē

Now, finally, how to do you teach a rat how to run through a maze?  I 
have experience training mice how to walk across a balance beam, turn 
around and come back.  The way I do it is, place the mouse on the beam, 
he usually sits there and may look around for an escape.  I just wiggle 
my fingers at his rear end, just touching his fur or his tail with the 
tips of my fingers.  When he moves forward, I move my hand away, when he 
stops, I approach again.  Itís an approach and retreat method.  The 
mouseís reward is my hand (which ďbothersĒ him) is moved away when he 
moves forward.    When he gets to the end and turns around and comes 
back, he is allowed to escape (the beam is inside of a box, the top of 
the box is open, there is an ďescapeĒ hole at the start, which I cover 
with my hand until he has gone to the end and comes back).  Then he is 
placed back in his cage (thatís the ultimate reward for a mouse, getting 
to go back into his cage where he feels safe).  

Your rat maze can be constructed of cardboard, PVC, and old boxes.  Use 
your imagination.  It may be fun to have tunnels and/or a rope or plank 
of some sort that he has to walk across as the final task.   The 
longer/more complicated, the longer it will take to train.  You could 
break a large maze up into parts and train one part at a time if you have 
the time for it.  Training consists of giving clear direction and reward 
for the right behavior.  Rats do not rely on their sight, they canít see 
much past the end of their whiskers, so use olfactory (sense of smell) or 
physical contact cues (not visual cues).  Food is a good motivator, 
especially when theyíre really hungry or if they have a favorite treat.   
If you take the food away at night your rat will be much quicker to look 
for food in the morning.   Food is not the best motivator and in fact, 
some argue about using it at all in animals that are not meat eaters 
(herbivores).  Meat eaters (carnivores) have to hunt for their food.  
When they are young their mom brings them food, this is a treat.  
Herbivores have food available 24/7, so getting a food treat is nothing 
special (in theory).  So if you donít use food, give direction, approach 
and retreat.  Give direction: put them down and face them in the 
direction you wish them to go.  Approach with your hand, bother them a 
bit till they move forward, when they move, move your hand away.  Let 
them explore.  Let them run into a dead end and let them make a choice 
(even if itís wrong), but bother them if they try to escape.  At the end 
reward by putting them back in their cage and/or offer a special 
If you have two rats you could compare how long training takes with and 
without a food treat.

Good luck and have fun!

Janet Hoff

Licensed Veterinary Technician
Coordinator for the Center for Integrative Genomics

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