Are New York City’s Rats Really Partial to Chinese Food?


Here’s a Google Map that shows where evidence of rats was identified in official reports by inspectors for all of 2014 and up to January 20, 2015. Click over to the map to also see the more than 7,700 restaurants cited as having evidence of mice during the same period.

As anyone who’s ever ridden the subway or walked through Tompkins Square Park after dark can attest, rats are a problem in New York. In fact, in a city with more than 8 million residents, there is roughly one rat for every four people in the five boroughs. So it’s no real surprise that, according to public data released by the city health department, inspectors found rats at more than 900 New York restaurants in 2014. Meanwhile, a report based on that data, released by Vocativ, reveals that those rats appear to frequent American, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants more than any other establishments.


According to a spokeswoman at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, signs of rats in restaurants are not all that common. In 2014, the department conducted more than 80,000 inspections in over 24,000 restaurants, which resulted in 1,111 rat-related citations in the city. Some places had citations for both rats and mice.

“When signs of rats are found, restaurants are often closed by the department until the problem can be addressed,” the spokeswoman said.

But why were the rats found at these restaurants and not others?

According to the health department, rats are more likely to show up at restaurants where surrounding “high density” businesses are throwing their garbage on the curb. If an inspector finds rats inside a restaurant, he checks for signs outside the building, too, and notifies the landlord. If a restaurant is following the department’s rules — closing holes and cracks, using licensed exterminators, and properly storing food and waste — rats shouldn’t be coming in uninvited.

Indeed, geography or neighborhood may be something to consider. In the wild, rats form colonies, or territories. They do the same in the city, and, according to a Time magazine article that mapped New York rats, different colonies are everywhere. In that case, it’s unclear whether neighborhood matters.

And it doesn’t appear as though cuisine-type does, either. Whether or not rats base their dining decisions on preference remains to be seen.

“We know that rats have a sophisticated brain for cost-benefit analysis, which they are probably doing constantly, particularly when it comes to foraging,” said Hillary Schiff, a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who studies rodent behavior, learning, and memory. “However, the costs and benefits they are weighing are much more likely to include things like danger and time required to find and consume food and how many other rats have already found this particular watering hole than the actual flavor. On the other hand, if the rats have developed a preference for certain cuisines, then at least it looks like they have good taste.”

Chris Cain, a research assistant professor of neural science at NYU’s Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research who studies rodent learning and memory, says there’s not enough data to determine if rats prefer one place over another.

“I’m sure rats have preferences, and it’s possible that they prefer American and Chinese cuisine,” he said. “[But] you’d have to normalize the data somehow — if there are more American and Chinese restaurants, which seems likely, then that could explain the whole effect.”

Cain adds that it’s possible that the restaurants with rats just have lax standards that make it easier for the rodents to find their way inside.

“I bet you would find plenty of American and Chinese restaurants where no rats were found because they care more about keeping them out, not because they make lousy food,” he said.

The number of citations for evidence of rats is a drop in the bucket when compared to that for mice. We failed GIFs 101, but here’s an attempt at illustrating the difference. Check our Google Map for details on mice locations.

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