You’ve seen it on TV before–especially in cartoons. If there’s a rat or mouse on screen it’s all but a guarantee there will be a cat or a cheese joke (maybe even both). The relationship between cats and mice is pretty straightforward: cats like to kill mice. But what’s up with this cheese thing? Do mice actually like cheese?
What Do Mice Actually Eat?
Easiest place to start is probably with the diets of wild mice, which broadly doesn’t really include cheese. Mostly because we invented cheese. In the wild mice are normally kicking around in plains or forested areas. As far as their diets go, mice will eat just about anything, though they are largely herbivores. Mice tend to stockpile seeds in the wintertime. Generally they look for protein-rich food, which is why grains and seeds are staples of mouse diets year-round. They do go for fruits and stuff when given the opportunity. When mice find themselves in urbanized areas, they’re more than happy to just pick through food scraps. We litter a lot.
Mice really like sweet things, which is why they go for fruits and stuff in the wild. When getting into a home a mouse will start by looking for stuff that’s sort of analogous to its diet. So now you know why they might rinse through the sugary things and grains in your pantry.
If you keep a mouse as a pet, you probably just give it a little nutrition pellet or whatever. It’s pretty normal to supplement commercial pellets with fruits and vegetables–though there are some things the RSPCA recommends you don’t hand top pet mice. That’s grapes, rhubarb, walnuts, and lettuce if you were curious.
Why Do We Think Mice Like Cheese?
Well, as you probably figured out through context clues, cheese doesn’t fit in. Mice are pretty hardy, and they will go for cheese given the chance–especially when they make their way into homes. But that’s not because they have any particular affinity for cheese. That’s kind of it. Mice don’t like cheese more than anyone else.
The idea of mice eating cheese dates back to philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who wrote: “”Mouse” is a syllable. Now a mouse eats its cheese; therefore, a syllable eats cheese.” He uses it as an analogy mostly for knowledge, or something. That’s not a particularly compelling origin, but it does date back over 2,000 years ago.
One common origin story dates back to the Middle Ages, but is largely unsubstantiated. References to mice and cheese even appear in Shakespeare. People would stockpile grains, salted meats, and cheese to have on hand for food, since they’d keep for longer. Grains were often stored in containers inaccessible to mice, and meats were hung from the ceiling–also inaccessible to mice. Cheese, however, can kind of just sit out with a coat of wax. Being more accessible than the other two options, people may have assumed mice like cheese because it was the only thing they noticed mice eating.
So if you’re looking for mouse bait, maybe go for peanut butter instead. That seems to work really well.
Speaking of mice, consider some famous ones here.