Cats Working With Rats To Find Landmines?

No doubt you have heard about dogs that have been trained to find landmines.  There are millions of live mines all over the world, placed in the last 70 years during wars, insurrections and even by criminals such as drug dealers. Dogs have proven to be very successful at helping to locate landmines that can then be disarmed by the people working with the dogs.  But recently, scientists have begun to explore using other animals to find landmines.  Some such as rats, may be even better at it than dogs.

Several recent news articles report that scientists in Colombia are breeding and training domestic rats to detect landmines so that they can be removed.  Thousands of mines have been laid in Colombia by guerilla groups and drug dealers over the years and hundreds of people are injured or killed by them every year. 

The rats have been bred to be tolerant of the outdoors conditions (after all they are laboratory rats, not wild ones) and they have been trained to recognize the odors of the metals and explosives used in landmines.  The training is similar to that used with dogs to detect landmines. The animals are trained first to discriminate the odors associated with landmines from other odors and then taught a signal which they give when they locate the odor.  The signal is that they stop and scratch the ground for five seconds when they locate the odor.   The advantage to using rats is that they are lighter than dogs and less likely to inadvertently set off the mines. It is also claimed that they are easier to teach than dogs and they are certainly less expensive to train and maintain.  Interestingly, the researchers also use the rat mothers to help train their offspring at the task by allowing the pups to follow along with their moms during training sessions.  

 A disadvantage to using rats is that they are easily preyed upon by birds, snakes and wild cats, foxes, coyotes and dogs. This is where the domestic cats come in.  The rats and cats are raised together so that they form attachments to each other.  Then the cats are trained to go along with the rats on their landmine hunting jobs to provide protection against predators. Did you ever think anyone would use cats as body guards for rats?

 While it seems strange to use cats to protect rats, there really is no reason why they can’t be used in this way.  Research from the 1920s showed that cats and rats are not born enemies and that cats have to learn who their friends are, and who they should prey upon.  Cats that were raised since birth with rats, didn’t attack them when they were tested for predation as adults while cats that weren’t reared with rats readily attacked them. So raising cats and rats together leads them to treat each other as friends and makes it easy to train the cats to protect them.  A similar technique is used in training sheep guarding dogs such as Great Pyrenees and Komondors.  The dogs are raised with the sheep from a young age and become socialized to them. Then as adults they become protective of their flock against predators.  (If you want to learn more about the socialization process in dogs and cats, and how it influences behavior, we have a two-hour webinar and summaries of scientific articles available on our membership site  the BehaviorEducationNetwork.com. BEN is the premier website for scientific information about pet behavior.)

 Colombia is not the only place where unusual landmine detector animals are being used.  In Mozambique, Giant Pouched Rats, which are native to Africa, and so are adapted to the environment, have been successfully trained to locate landmines. They are claimed to have cleared hundreds of square kilometers of mines. There is also preliminary research suggesting that honeybees can be trained to locate landmines as well. We are just beginning to understand how we can make use of the natural abilities of different animals to help us with pressing problems.  We just need to be sure that while these animals are serving us in these dangerous tasks, we are also looking after their welfare. 

3 Comments

  • Carmen Buitrago

    Reply Reply May 31, 2012

    Great article! FYI, the country of Colombia is spelled with two o’s, not a u.

  • Suzanne and Dan

    Reply Reply June 1, 2012

    Thanks Carmen – you always keep us honest!
    suzanne

  • Christina Sigrist

    Reply Reply October 8, 2012

    Hello

    Thanks for this very intersting article.
    As I am very interested in cat’s ethology I wonder which way exactly cats are protecting the rats against predators. Do they attack, fight against enemies or do these predators not dare to attack the rats when they are near cats?

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