Origin of mice eating cheese myth

I’ve done a few searches, but Snopes has nothing, and other venues were dead ends.

We’ve always heard that mice like to eat cheese. But, as a professional hired killer, I know this is not so. Peanut butter and even bacon work much better (and keep better, too).

Common sense would tell us that mice don’t find cheese-like food in the wild – they find seeds and nuts. Therefore they wouldn’t necessarily prefer cheese. But everyone thinks mice are constantly jonesing for cheese. And I’ve come across customers who are genuinely surprised when I tell them that mice aren’t going to go straight for cheese-baited traps. What gives? Where did this myth start? How did it start? It’s been around for a while, because old cartoons show it, and even Groucho Marx, when asked if he was a man or a mouse replied, “Put a piece of cheese on the floor, and you’ll find out.” I think this was in Duck Soup, in the mid-30s.

Anyone know some other venues where I might get help finding an answer?

I haven’t managed to find a cite, but I’ve run across the theory that it’s largely because of the long shelf-life of cheese. It was one of the few food products in the Middle Ages that could be stored for a really long time. Since mice will eat it if it’s available to them, and since the cheeses tended to hang around longer than other foods, the depredations of the mice were more obvious. People just jumped to the (inaccurate) conclusion that mice particularly love cheese.

It seems plausible, but I don’t have anything to back it up yet.

I don’t think we need Google cites for something that’s just common sense. :slight_smile:

Like they find wild peanut butter and bacon? :D:D


Well, I buy that to an extent, and it’s not as if mice shun cheese. But flour and other grains keep for a long time, too, and are in fact stockpiled. I would think the mice would hang around the miller’s more than the diary (unless they were also eating the stuff they fed the cows).

Another thing is that evidence of mice often includes their stockpiles of food, which would certainly contain more seed husks, etc., than chunks of Gruyere.

Thanks for the help, though. And AWB, aren’t you aware that virtually all the peanut butter eaten today is a hybrid? Originally, the wild peanut butter fields of Eastern Europe sustained Cro-Magnon Man during those periods when the indigenous wild ducks were no longer migrating.

I think that the key difference between cheese and, say, flour is that cheese will show bite marks. If you’ve got a big bag of flour, and a mouse eats a little of it, you’d never notice the difference in the amount. If it eats a little cheese, though, you’ll notice immediately that something has been nibbling.

Well, yeah, I’ll grant you that.

No-o-o-o, but you’ll sure notice the hole that gets gnawed through the bag and the spilled flour and the mouse droppings all around the bag.

It’s not hard to tell where the mouse traffic is, if you just use your powers of observation. I would agree that any mouse activity around a hunk of cheese would be noticed from the bite marks on the cheese. But you can’t convince me people wouldn’t know that mice had gotten into the flour. Besides, there’s no such thing as a mouse getting into your food. Where there’s one, there’s usually three or four.

Well, I actually DO live in a barn, along with the rodents and rodent control officers (cats) that it comes with, and I have to say that mice eat everything that can be eaten by humans. Bread, oranges, Mexi-salsa, etc.

But I think the reputation comes from the fact that pretty much all legends come from people’s homes. What did the mice have easy access to way back when? Well, whatever was stored in the pantry/cupboards. Meat was to be hung (by those who had it), breads were made or purchased each day, grains were kept in bins (usually: sometimes in sacks then in bins), which pretty much left the root cellar and whatever cheese (wrapped in cloth) you had around.

Maybe people cared more about the theft of their cheddar than some nibbles from the turnip pile, causing them to warn their neighbours of impending mouse invasions.

That’s my guess, anyways. I could always go back in time and ask, but I don’t like to abuse my supernatural powers too much.

You raise some good points, DAVE–I make no claims about the accuracy of the theory. I suspect, though, that the mice would be more prone to carrying away grain (which is more mouse-portable) and eating it someplace safe. Cheeses, OTOH, would generally be a dine-in only option. Thursday may have something in the storage location as well–grains and flour would have been stored ready to hand, as bread, porridge, and the like were made on a regular basis; any cheeses beyond the one currently being eaten by people, OTOH, would likely have been stored in as cool a place as possible --likely a dark, low-traffic area (if one were available), where mice might feel more secure in making a leisurely meal.

Finally, people may have been more concerned about cheese going missing because it has a relatively high nutritive value–the other long-shelf-life foods of the time tended to be somewhat poor in protein and fats.

In a cartoon, it’s easier to draw cheese than peanut butter?

I will also point out that before cheese came in small one-pound hunks wrapped in plastic, it came in huge 5 and 10 pound wheels, dipped in wax to preserve it. You kept your big wheel of cheese out in the pantry or the root cellar and cut off a hunk at a time, to bring in the house for the week. That would be where the depredations of mice would be most noticeable, if every time you went out to the pantry or root cellar, you saw nibble marks on the cheese and mouse turds all around. And this observation has come down to us as “mice love cheese”.

I’ve heard that chocolate is the best bait for a mousetrap.

Balance, Thursday, and DuckDuckGoose**, you make excellent points. I think that’s as workable a theory as any. It pretty much fits in with what I know of mouse habits (nocturnal, getting into ground-level areas first, etc.). Although, Balance, mice carry away their food and either cache it to eat later or go huddle in a corner to be safe from predators. Rats will stay put and eat until they’re full, but not mice.

And Thursday, I know mice will eat virtually anything humans eat. They’re scavengers and really aren’t too picky. Chocolate works well in mousetraps (and I’ve had more than one secretary grossed out over the fact that the Hershey Kisses she kept in her desk drawer were raided by rodents). But peanut butter works very well too, and is less expensive.

Thanks, all, for your helpful speculation. We’ll probably never know for sure how this idea got started, but as I said, the theory of its evolution seems as good as any.

Mice will eat anything and everything. When I first bought this house many moons ago I found out mice were eating the bar of Dove soap in the bathroom. They loved the stuff and I took to baiting traps with it and got rid of them. I did not immediately figure out what the marks on the soap were.

I also bought a box of poison but never opened it, just put it under the sink. The mice nibbled through it and ate the stuff

I do not know if the stereotype of mice eating cheese extends to other cultures but it is also deeply ingrained in Spanish culture and there are several sayings. To say someone was fooled or took the bait there are several sayings like “it was given to him with cheese”. Preparing a trap you would say “setting it with cheese” etc. So the idea cheese = trap comes directly from the idea that mice like cheese.

It could be this stereotype goes back many hundreds of years and spread all over Europe. I wonder if other European cultures share it…