Want a Cuddly Pet? Rats as Pets

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
R.I.P. 1966-2014

Katie the Rat

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 <i>Rattus norvegicus</i> 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.

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10 responses to “Want a Cuddly Pet? Rats as Pets

  1. Now that many of our pets have died, and many pet food manufacturers (including Purina) are recalling their products, how do we go about changing the way that pet food companies conduct their business? How do we insist that they stop outsourcing their business to suspect countries, suspect vendors, thereby endangering our precious pets? Humans will be next to be endangered by the “outsourced” food industry, mark my words.

  2. Rats as pets is an innovation. But like you say, this is a different breed, so hopefully it should appeal to a variety of pet lovers to go for varying rodent species. The question remains, if this variety is let loose, would be loyal to its owner?

    1. my ratties always come running back to me when I click my tongue, I think if you train them and have enough trust with them they should come back to you. letting them loose outside does not sound like a good idea due to predators like birds, 🙂

  3. I had never heard before that rats will adjust to your sleeping schedule. Just another reason they’re an ideal pet!

  4. What a shame they only live a couple of years. For me, that would take them out of the running as a pet. Just when you get most attached, they die.

  5. I bought a pet rat and he got in a fight with his roommate. He has a clear watery eye now but the eye is fully open and doesn’t seem to bother him. I have him in his own cage. Is there anything wrong?

  6. I never find rat an ideal pet because they don’t smell good no matter how I bathe them. They are cuddly but…I don’t know know, maybe I’m just not that loving to animals.

  7. The hardest thing about rats is definitely the short lifespan, but they sure do make the best of that. Their candles burn very bright. They’re so busy and funny! A roll of cheap toilet paper is an amazing toy for my rats. They unroll all the paper and cram it into boxes and their hammocks overnight. Sometimes it’s so full of paper that only my unusually small female rat Niko (355 grams!) is the only one who fits. We keep 3 rats so that when one dies we don’t have a lonely rat. It is terrible to have to say goodbye but this is a great lesson in the circle of life for my children. My daughter, age 11, was the one who made the decision to have one of our rats put to sleep this past summer. I was so proud of her. Yuka was suffering and the vet recommended euthanasia to me. My daughter was sick with a virus and temp of 103 so was lying down in the car. The vet asked me to let him talk to her when I went to get her. He gave her all the information and let her make the decision. She didn’t hesitate. It’s a terrible thing to experience, but it is also something everyone has to experience eventually. Shortly after this we adopted a new rat from a rescue. A rat who needed a new forever home and that really help us all heal.

  8. Rats are wonderful creatures and the experience of owning rats explains why numerous stories and fables have been written abourt this sort of personable and endearing animal. That said, no pet is “easy” to care for when the overall “husbandry” process is properly executed. To the tune of 100 million rats and mice killed every year in laboratory conditions which test (cruelly) for everything under the sun, evidence shows rats require distilled water and organic veggies to avert painful diseases and remain healthy as long as possible. And that is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of owner awareness. Ample cages and significant stimulus (enrichment) and companions are required. And while clean pets, rats’ healthful “poop” eating habits might not feel agreeable to every owner. Vet care? You’ll need a vet with rat know-how experience and those vet types are not a dime-a-dozen. Lastly, loving and unintentinal rat scratches can produce uncomfortably inflammed welts to unprotected human skin. Rats are certainly a treasure and rare treat, but should you get pet rats, please do so with your eyes wide open. Shelters do not need any more surrendered pet rats from people who justifiably find rat ownership overwhelming. Please note there are less involved pet ownership choices other than rats. Rats ownership should not spring from an impulse buy. People should be properly informed before taking the leap into the wonderful universe of rats.

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