The Truth About Rats - These Little Critters Can Make Great Pets

November 17, 2018 GMT

When you think of rats, you might cringe, picturing sewer rats in New York City, or dirty rodents who carried the plague. But what about a domesticated rat as a pet? Unthinkable, you might say? Think again. To know more about them just might change your opinion. I personally have known two pet rats in my life. The first was owned by the manager of Petco. I was doing dog training there many years ago. Linda brought her rat into the store office as she was going on vacation, and she asked that we care for him in her absence. We were happy to oblige. Well, that little guy was missing Linda so much that he was refusing to eat for us, and we were SO happy when she returned. The second rat showed up in my friend’s yard some months ago. At first, she thought it was an opossum, but upon closer inspection, she discovered it was a white rat. He was in a fenced-in part of her yard where her terriers could not get to him, but they sure were interested. She named him Buddy and began feeding him some peanut butter crackers and dog kibble. Buddy would come out whenever he heard her voice. One day I was visiting, and there he was! He had obviously been a domesticated rat as he was quite tame and unfazed by our presence. Buddy was pristine white with a little pink nose. My friend wanted to get Buddy off the streets so a trap was set, and he was successfully captured. A family acquaintance wanted him and had purchased all of the necessary items to provide a healthy and happy life to this little homeless rat. Buddy turned out to be Vivien. Her new owner loved her. Vivi roamed her bedroom and would climb onto her bed, ride on her shoulder, etc. Shortly after her capture, Vivi developed a mammary tumor. She had surgery to remove this large growth, and the vet said she had a 50/50 chance. Sadly, Vivi developed pneumonia and did not make it. We were all so upset. Still are. Vivi was a very sweet and affectionate companion. This column is dedicated to Vivi. 1. Rats are super clean They are fastidious groomers that actually do not like getting dirty. In general, if they get something on their fur, they immediately try to clean it off. They love to groom each other and to gather and organize their food into piles. So they are actually quite neat. Rarely do they need bathing. Typically, the only rats that require regular baths are older, obese, ill or arthritic rats that have difficulty grooming themselves, or unaltered males that mark their territory with urine. 2. Rats are extremely smart and empathetic Many people don’t think of rats as being smart, but they are actually very intelligent and easy to train. They are more intelligent than rabbits, gerbils, and guinea pigs. Their intelligence is why rats are so often used in psychological studies to help understand human behavior. They can be taught to perform tricks, master puzzles, run through mazes and even solve simple problems. All they need is a dedicated trainer and some motivation (usually with a favorite food reward). It’s incredible the tasks rats can perform when they are shown how. For example, rats can be taught to play fetch and to catch a ball. They can also be taught how to drop a ball through a hoop, as in basketball. Rats will also respond to their names when called. They also show empathy and compassion for their fellow rats when they are in distress or ill - qualities that are not often attributed to animals other than humans. Rats have excellent memories. 3. Rats make lifelong bonds with their owners Ask any rat owner, and he or she will tell you: Rats recognize their owners and respond to their sight and voice. They are very social and love to hang out with human family members on the couch or on peoples’ shoulders or in their laps. They will even try to groom their human companions as if these people were other rats in their “rat pack.” Pet rats love the warmth and contact of their caretakers and are actually very cuddly! 4. Sadly, rats are not long-lived Most people don’t know this, but rats typically live only two to three years. Also, keep in mind many rats start to develop common medical problems after even just one year of life. So if you’re considering having a rat as a pet, realize that your little buddy may not be around as long as a dog or cat. You can make the best of it, though, by making sure your pet rodent gets optimal care, including regular veterinary attention. Good everyday care for your pet rat would include things like having its bedding (preferably paper based) spot-cleaned daily and completely changed weekly. Rats should be fed a base diet of pellets specifically formulated for rats, plus clean water and a small amount of table food (fresh produce, bits of cooked egg or pasta or meat, and occasional nuts or seeds). They also need exercise - running in smooth-sided toy wheels that can be placed in their cages and by having regular out-of-cage time as well. 5. Rats need preventive medical care Rats, like dogs, cats, and people, can often develop commonly encountered medical problems, such as breast tumors, respiratory tract disease and uterine infections. Some of these conditions can be avoided altogether (such as uterine infections that may be prevented by surgically removing the uterus and ovaries before 6 months of age), while others can be treated if caught early (such as breast tumors that may be removed with a mastectomy). To prevent or treat disease, rats must have regular checkups with a rat-savvy veterinarian. They should be examined initially after purchase or adoption and then, ideally, given their limited life spans, checked every six months after that to try to increase the likelihood of diagnosing and treating disease early on. Unfortunately, many rat owners either do not bring their pets to the vet for preventive checkups or wait until it’s too late to bring their pets in when they are ill. So if you want an intelligent, interactive, entertaining and easily trainable pet, consider a pet rat. Rats may not live as long as dogs and cats, but the time you do have with them will be thoroughly rewarding. As was the case with Vivi, a homeless rat who became a loving and loyal companion, if only for a brief time. Dog bless. Resource: Dr. Laurie Hess DVM/ Judy Endo writes about pets. Contact her at