There are substantial differences in the performance of various rat strains in tasks of learning, memory and attention. Strain, age and sex differences are not consistent over procedures: poor performance in one paradigm does not predict poor performance in a different paradigm. Some strain differences are not readily apparent until a direct comparison is made between one or more strains. Moreover, large differences in nominally the same strain but obtained from different suppliers have been observed in behavioural, pharmacological and physiological parameters and can have important consequences for interpretation of drug effects. Longevity, and the effects of ageing can differ dramatically from one strain to another; drug effects can alter radically with increasing age and show strain (and individual) differences in their action. Sex can further complicate interpretation of results. Thus, non-cognitive factors may exert a major effect on results in cognitive testing, and strain-dependent effects may account for many conflicting results in the literature concerning mnemonic performance. Strain differences in particular must be identified and used to help identify fundamental effects on memory, rather than continue to be ignored and allowed to obscure interpretation of drug effects on cognitive processes.