**EVEN when you work in a lab**
In my lab, we study the brains of rats and mice by recording neural signals in the dorsal hippocampus. We handcraft microdrives that are capable of implanting tetrodes, a sophisticated neural recording device that allows for recording from many neurons at once, precisely where we want them with micrometer precision.
Inside the brain, we record two different kinds of neural spike patterns:
- Multiunit activity: A summation of the activity of neurons around the tetrode also known as a local field potential.
- Single Unit Activity: The firing of one individual neuron.
Unfortunately, a small number of animals perish after surgery and many animals suffer during recovery. Those that recover are used in our experiments according to our protocol. Once an animal has provided its "data quota", we need to sacrifice them to perform staining and histology that illustrates the precise position of the tetrodes.
One might think that going through the process of using mice and rats for research, where their outcome is inevitable euthanasia by your own hand, would make owning a rodent a bit morbid. Maybe even heartbreaking. However, one of the things I look forward to the most every day when I come home from lab is being greeted by and playing with my adorable pet rat, Cofi.
I started owning fancy rats (the domesticated breed people usually keep as pets since they are the easiest to find) since my first year of grad school. My first two were a pair of sister hooded rats with the species’ characteristic white fur with a dark or cream pattern that covers their face and trails down their back: Bleep and Bloop. The experience was subtly life-changing.
In my opinion, they are severely underrated. Unlike dogs, you initially have to work for their trust before you begin to establish a bond where they let you get to know them. But, once trust is established, they behave like small quiet dogs! They cuddle with you, follow you around, give you kisses (grooming you because they care), learn many tricks, can be easily potty trained, and, if you bond with them, they will love you in their own sweet, ratty way. One of the ways they show that they are comfortable and happy to be with you is that, while cuddling next to you, they will start bruxing, or grinding, their teeth and their eyes wiggle and bulge out in a cute and funny way.
However, there is a hefty downside to owning rats; their lifespans are often a mere 2-3 years, 4 if they’re lucky and well-kept.
The loss of my first two was devastating, but after having had rats as friends for 2 years, I just couldn't live without them. And so I got 2 more, one of which passed away during quarantine, my dear Tuca. I now have my ratpanion Cofi. She is the sweetest rat I've ever had and she offers me joy and support unique to her existence and personality. We love and take care of each other. She can always tell when I'm not doing well and stays next to me cuddled up and reminds me of the good things in life I forget to appreciate.
Throughout the years of my PhD, which is by far the most challenging and stressful thing I've done yet, their companionship has been one of the highlights of my experience. They are my emotional support pets and also my dearest friends.
So, this has been my experience as a multiple rat owner. I admit that rats are not for everyone, but if they are for you, you'll gain a new bond and learn to love in a way you hadn't before.
Thank you to Kiara for today's post! You can find them on Instagram at @permissiontoknowdeath or Twitter at @kiara_bellido