The Debunker: Do Mice Really Like Cheese?

by Ken Jennings

It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.

The Debunker: Do Mice Really Like Cheese?

Animated mice, I am quick to note, love cheese. In 1986’s immigration parable An American Tail, we learn that animated mice will even cross an ocean on the chance of finding a paradise where, allegedly, “the streets are paved with cheese.” But the mouse-cheese link predates Tom and Jerry by thousands of years, being found in the letters of the Roman writer Seneca. It’s possible that the ancients associated mice with cheese because cheese, unlike other stored food items, needed to be left out to “breathe,” and was therefore more susceptible to household pests. Or maybe our forefathers, looking to “build a better mousetrap,” tried aromatic baits like cheese in hopes of bringing all the mice to the yard.

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But if so, they cheese-shopped in vain! In 2006, Dr. David Holmes, an animal behaviorist from Manchester, England, led a team of researchers studying the diet of mice. It turns out that cheese is not a particular favorite: rodents prefer the sugar-rich foods they eat in the wild, like fruits and grains. “Mice have evolved almost entirely without cheese or anything resembling it,” explained Dr. Holmes. “Cheese is ... therefore not something that they would respond to.” In fact, food with sharp odors, like many cheeses, was found to be a distinct turn-off for mice, what with their keen sense of smell and all.

If not cheese, then what? The Victor Pest Control company recommends an assortment of sweeter options, including gumdrops and peanut butter. But let’s be frank: mice are omnivorous scavengers famous for their ability to chew through drywall. They might have a sweet tooth, but they’re not picky eaters.

Quick Quiz: Who wrote The Mousetrap, the murder mystery play now in the seventh decade of its record-breaking run on the London stage?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.