Difficult as it was for me to picture a rat as an affectionate pet after viewing the movies 'Willard' and 'Ben' which featured many rats attacking people, I came to realize these fictional rat portrayals have done more harm than good towards cleaning up the rat's rather tainted reputation. (That's even after knowing Ben was a friendly rat who had been given a boost by Michael Jackson's song of the same title.) I hope to be able to clear up some of these misconceptions now.
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Rat lovers are accustomed to being misunderstood. If you're able to look past their disease ridden reputation (the bubonic plague was passed on by fleas on the rats, by the way, and not the rats themselves) you'll soon realize that rats are playful, affectionate and a lot smarter than you think!
The Domesticated Rat
In reality, rats have been bred in captivity throughout history and they have been bred to be gentle and affectionate animals. Domesticated rats are not the same as wild rats. If you want to make a comparison, you could say domesticated rats differ from wild rats as dogs differ from wolves!
Rats Rarely Bite
I'd bet you'd be surprised to hear that rats rarely bite and like a cat they groom themselves several times a day! Rats are a lot tidier than Guinea pigs and are less prone to bite than are hamsters. You could probably go on and say that rats, as pets, have received a bad rap!
A Bonding Animal
You wouldn't think an animal like a rat would be a bonding animal, but the truth is they bond strongly to their owners (they are social and personable). Because they are social animals it's best to buy them in pairs if you want to have rats as pets.
The Problem Solving Rat
Intelligence is another area wherein a rat soars! Rats are problem solving animals and they devise solutions to get what they want. They are even intelligent enough to learn their own names when you call out to them! Rats also can learn tricks like dogs, some of which are learned after only two tries. Tricks they can learn include sit up, fetch, walk a tightrope, jump through a hoop and pull up a basket on a string. Think up a trick and your pet rat will learn and perform the trick!
The Individual Rat
Rats are individuals. Each rat has his or her own personality. Again, like dogs, there are some smarter rats and some less smart, but even they make adorable and loving pets. A recent study demonstrates a rat's capacity for empathy. When given a choice, rats, instead of choosing a food reward, chose instead freeing other caged animals! Now those are some empathic rats!
Why Buy a Rat?
Rats make great pets for both adults and children, and because they are mostly nocturnal animals who don't mind sleeping all day and play in the morning or at night. Rats also make a good pet for apartment living because they take up hardly no space. Just be sure you can devote some time for them daily so they're not being ignored.
What a Rat Loves
Rats love to be rubbed behind their ears (as well as being petted) and some will even roll onto their back for a tummy rub. They show their affection much like a dog, so don't panic when they lick you (they're not trying to get a taste of you for their next dinner!)
And Speaking of Dinner…
A rat's basic needs are simple. They require a good lab rat diet and fresh fruits and vegetables. Their teeth are constantly growing so it's best to supply them with safe, chewable items to keep their teeth filed down.
An Easy Clean
Rats do not stink (stop thinking of sewer rats, look where they live!). Domesticated rats have a sweet odor about them. Not stinking makes cage cleaning easy. Scoop out the old bedding material and put in the new. All that's left is to wipe down the cage with a wet cloth and you're finished. An easy clean, right? A cage about the size of a 10 gallon fish tank makes a great home for a rat.
Keep in Mind
On the downside, and this is sad news especially if you've owned an animal like a cat or dog, rats have a rather short lifespan of two to four years. So if you become attached (and you will), be prepared. (An interesting side note is that a rat doesn't vomit, because a rat can't vomit. This is why rats are so easy to poison!) Also be on the lookout for bumps on your rat because they are susceptible to tumors and respiratory problems. A simple cold could be something serious, so if your rat requires medical care, make sure you take it to a vet with rodent experience!
About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He specializes in hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and occasionally writes about such topics as animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife Tina and his beloved cockapoo, Angel. CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article was written in a way that may be construed to mean that it is acceptable to use a 10-gallon sized glass fish aquarium to house a rat. Experts have stressed to us that an aquarium of this size will NOT provide enough ventilation, and will cause respiratory damage due to ammonia inhalation. Though a 10 gallon aquarium is too small, 40 - 60 gallon aquariums may be acceptable, though will require a lot of maintenance to keep clean. For this reason, cages are the safer option. Please visit this site for more information. We thank those who have brought this to our attention.