Rats do not typically elicit joyous reactions from people. In fact, they downright scare most folks, partly because of their appearance, partly because of their unpleasant history and association with disease, death, and life's less than pleasant elements. Since rats have such a negative association for most people in waking life, they typically represent the same in dream life.
However, rats are not all symbolically bad. For example, the attributes of both the Year of the Rat and the Chinese astrological sign of the rat are overwhelmingly positive. Rats are viewed as industrious and clever, and the Year of the Rat is considered a year of fortune and prosperity. Rat ranks 1st in the Chinese Zodiac, making it to the top via her cleverness. This association with the rat has stuck--at least in Chinese astrological mythology. For a person who associates positively with rats, a dream rat may represent some of the Chinese astrological rat's better attributes.
Still, there is no denying that rats carry pretty unpleasant connotations in waking life--connotations that are usually transposed onto their mirrored symbols that appear in dream life.
Think about what rats do in waking life. They gnaw, they will eat practically anything (including dead flesh which they scavenge), and they breed at amazing speed --"breeding like rats" is a common phrase used to describe something that is out of control, usually something negative. Rats can be an unseen menace that wreak havoc on your home with their chewing. In fact, they have been known to cause electrical fires by eating through electrical cords. Rats are also associated with disease (think bubonic plague) and death which may be one of the reasons for the often unexplainable fear many people have of them.
With these images in mind, think about that rat in your dream. Is there something gnawing or eating away at you? Are you feeling guilty about something? The nagging problem, nagging fear, anxiety or nameless unpleasant emotion is one of the more common ways of interpreting the rat as a dream symbol. The problem may be physical, mental, or spiritual in nature. Is there something in your life that is unhealthy--a situation that is disease-like --something unhealthy emotionally, spiritually, or physically? Alternatively, ask yourself if there is a situation that threatens to get out of control in a short period of time. Something "breeding like rats".
Another common association with the gnawing rat is some negative situation that is draining you of your energy. The situation may be something that you are suspicious of but cannot see--something that may blaze up in the future, causing damage to yourself or your relationships.
Are you personally afraid of rats? If so, the rat may be standing in simply as a symbol of fear. Looking at the dream's surroundings may help you understand what you are afraid of.
A rat in a dream may also be a pun. "Rat" is a slang term for an informant so dreaming of a rat could signify some form of betrayal or treachery. Or the rat may be a pun on feeling like you are in a "rat race".
As with all dream symbols, it is important to consider your own personal association with rats. Some people like rats and even keep them as pets. If you are such a person, look to the more positive interpretations, however if you don't find rats positive creatures, the less appealing ones are likely to be more appropriate.
As always, sleep well and dream out loud!
*~Aisling Ireland~* is an ordained Spiritual Counselor providing dream interpretation and Tarot readings. To make an appointment check out her website at: web.mac.com/aisling.ireland
"Man and His Symbols" is probably the most accessible and informative book you can find on C.G Jung's ideas on dream interpretation while Gayle Delaney's book is a great book for learning to interpret dreams - perfect for both beginners and experienced interpreters!