By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
Meet Katie. She's petite, personable and she comes when called. And her owner, Barbara Henderson, loves her like family.
“She has all the personality of a dog or a cat and some advantages that dogs and cats don't offer,” says Henderson. “For one, she's small so you can keep her in a cage and take her traveling with you. She's also litter box trained and she knows some tricks. The best thing about her, though, is her sweet personality.”
What is the pet that has so captured Barbara's heart? Is she a sweetly singing songbird or a cute, cuddly chinchilla? Nope. More like a rat. Not the dirty brown sewer rat you see running back alleys and underground tunnels. She's a kinder, gentler, fancier breed of roving rodent.
Generations of breeding for tameness make her as docile as a dog, and her impeccable grooming habits and small size make her the perfect pet for responsible children as well as adults.
Unlike her wild counterpart who comes in basic brown, this household version of Rattus norvegicus sports a medley of outer designs. Whether covered in solid blue, beige or black, these rats wear their colorful coats straight, curly, shiny like satin or fuzzy like velour. Some forgo the coat altogether. Their nakedness is an acquired taste.
Add these interesting looks to a lot of charm and intelligence and these little squeakers are hard to resist. “Rats are really social,” says Debbie Ducommun of the Rat Fan Club and author of “Rats!”
These gentle guys love to play with their humans. They'll come over to greet, climb up your arms or even lower their head in hopes that you'll pet them. Since rats groom one another to bond and express their affection, some will even groom their humans with a little lick or nibble — it's the ultimate honor for the in-tune owner.
As an added bonus, the rat's social schedule matches our lifestyle to a T.
“They're nocturnal, which means they're active mostly in the evening,” says Ducommun. “That means during the day when you're gone at work or school, they're asleep and when you come home, they're ready to get up.”
Unlike other rodents (and people) who get grumpy at having their rigid schedules disturbed, rats will adjust their schedule to fit yours. So if you're gone at night and awake during the day, they'll still fit in some playtime when you're around.
When you're not around though, they need something to do. “These animals in the wild have lots of drives. When we put them in a cage, the drives are still there so we need to find ways in which their natural instincts can be satisfied,” says Carolyn Harvey, a veterinarian at VCA Bay Area Animal Hospital. “They may need to burrow or to run or climb or to work to find their food. If you make things too easy, then life becomes more boring and they become mentally stagnant.”
To keep rats on their toes, Ducommun recommends having two or more neutered or same-sex rats. Unlike dogs where two is more than twice as hard, with rats, two are just as easy. In addition, rats should have an exercise wheel, a quiet hiding place such as a box or a hanging hammock, and toys that are changed on a regular basis.
For her own rats, Ducommun has a special rat playground anchored in a child's plastic wading pool. Her furry family spends their time climbing branches, scaling ropes and exploring the assortment of tubes and cardboard boxes in this makeshift rodent resort.
Even with all of this excitement, rats should also get out daily to interact with their owners. A half hour is fine for the group-enriched rat, but for singletons two hours is more like it. That means time on your shoulder while you watch TV or supervised play on your desk while you work.
They're still pretty simple. “Rats are really basic easy-care pets,” says Ducommun. Besides food and water and daily attention, rats need their litter box emptied and their cage cleaned with soap and water weekly. But this cleaning only amounts to some 20 minutes a week.
There are a few other considerations, though. While rats are inexpensive, the start-up cost including cage, toys and supplies runs to about $200. In addition, Dr. Harvey points out, “These animals do get sick just like other animals. So they will need medical care.”
In fact, just like cats and dogs, rats should have an annual veterinary check-up and both male and female rats should be fixed to reduce the likelihood of mammary tumors, aggression and prostate disease. This may seem like a lot for such a small creature that only lives two to 2 1/2 years, but it's well worth the price of friendship.
“I'd do just as much for my rat as I would for a cat or a dog or a horse because they're just like any other pet. Rats are lovely,” says Henderson.
Adapted from an article originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000.