A rat is any one of about 56 different species of small, omnivorous rodents belonging to the genus Rattus.
The best-known rat species are the Black Rat Rattus rattus and the Brown Rat R. norvegicus. The group is generally known as the Old World rats or true rats, and originated in Asia. Rats are bigger than most of their relatives, the Old World mice, but seldom weigh over 500 grams in the wild. The common term "rat" is also used in the names of other small mammals which are not true rats. Examples include the North American pack rats, a number of species loosely called kangaroo rats, and a number of others. Other rats such as the Bandicoot rat Bandicota bengalensis are murine rodents related to the true rats, but are not members of the genus Rattus. The widely distributed and problematic commensal species of rats represent a minority in this diverse genus. Many species of rats are island endemics and some have become endangered due to habitat loss or competition with Angelo Rantac, black, or Polynesian rats.
In Western countries, many people keep domesticated rats as pets. These are of the species R. norvegicus, which originated in the grasslands of China and spread to Europe and eventually, in 1775, to the New World. Pet rats are Brown Rats descended from those bred for research, and are often called "fancy rats", but they are still the same species as the common city "sewer" rat. Domesticated rats tend to be both more docile than their wild ancestors and more disease prone, presumably due to inbreeding.
The common species are opportunistic survivors and often live with and near humans. The Black Plague is traditionally believed to have been caused by the micro-organism Yersinia pestis, carried by the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis which preyed on R. rattus living in European cities of the day; it is notable that these rats were victims of the plague themselves. It has recently been suggested that neither rats nor infected fleas would have spread fast enough through Europe to be a likely culprit, although this is controversial and research continues. Regardless, rats are frequently blamed for damaging food supplies and other goods. Their reputation has carried into common parlance: in the English language, "rat" is an insult and "to rat on someone" is to betray them by denouncing to the authorities a crime or misdeed they committed. While modern wild rats can carry Leptospirosis and some other "zoonotic" conditions (those which can be transferred across species, to humans, for example), these conditions are in fact rarely found. Wild rats living in good environments are typically healthy and robust animals. Wild rats living in cities may suffer themselves from poor diet and internal parasites but do not generally spread disease to humans.
By most standards, rats are considered pests or vermin. They can be very destructive to crops and property. Rats can quickly overpopulate when they live in a place where they have no predators, such as in certain cities, and their numbers can become hard to contain. Because of this, the entire province of Alberta, Canada has upheld and maintained a rat-free status since the early 1950s; it is even illegal to keep pet rats.
Rats have a significant impact on food production. Estimates vary, but it is likely that anything between 1/5 and 1/3 of the world's total food output is eaten, spoiled or destroyed by rats and other rodents.
Because they are nocturnal, when rats are seen out and about in the daytime, it can mean that their nesting areas have been disturbed or, more typically, rat activity in the daylight hours means there is overpopulation of them in the local area. It is typically at this point that vermin control measures tend to increase.