by Mary Grace Mauneymmauney@mistermigs.com
Did you know that there’s a World Rat Day? Well, there is, and this year it happened to fall on the Saturday preceding Easter Sunday. Since Easter took up a lot of the spotlight, we at Mister Migs decided that a belated Happy World Rat Day might be better, to give these little furry friends of ours the full attention that they deserve.
When most people think of rats, they recoil in disgust, imagining plague-ridden pests populating sewers, and dirty, mean animals that bite people. As a long-time rat-lover and rat-owner, I speak from experience when I say that pet rats are nothing like this at all. Just as dogs have been bred into loving companions from their wolf cousins, so too have pet rats been domesticated into a very different creature from their wild counterparts. In fact, they’re more like dogs than not; they are as intelligent as most dog breeds, can learn many of the same tricks (fetch, sit, come, etc.), and love their owners. While most rodents simply tolerate their humans, pet rats actively enjoy their company. They love to play and be handled, and I’ve never had one that didn’t just adore riding on my shoulder like a fuzzy little parrot. Many pet rats will lick your hand like dogs, and while some people think they just want the salt from your skin, it is in fact a gesture of affection; they are trying to groom you. This is how rats bond with one another, much like horses, and when they do this, they are trying to bond with you.
Also like dogs, horses, and other more popular pets, rats have diverse and distinct personalities. While many of my other rodents have had blander or more interchangeable natures, every one of my rats has been unique. To name a few: Simba had a low-key personality, Sam (the cute little black-headed rat at the bottom of this article) was a high-energy sprite who wanted to explore everything, Miss Blatz (the lovely white rat at the top of this article) was calm and loving and motherly, Jenner was an alpha male that wanted to claim everything as his and fight any male that wasn’t his friend Justin, Justin was content to let Jenner be boss as long as he got to stuff his face, Scurvy wanted attention attention ATTENTION, and Lance could do just fine without attention from people or from other rats. They were all different, but they were all great!
Here’s a few fun rat facts:
- While rats have been pets in the Western world for more than a hundred years (their domestication began in Victorian England), they have recently become therapy pets and service and animals as well. Rats are now used to help autistic children, children with medical problems, and to help people with physical disabilities.
- Rats are the best small pet for children, as they are much less likely to bite than hamsters or gerbils, and are also sturdier so children are less likely to hurt them when handling them (just be sure to still keep an eye on things!)
- Rats are very social animals. In the wild they live in huge colonies, and in captivity, they need at least one rat friend to live with, or else they can become depressed and even die of loneliness. Just be sure to get a friend OF THE SAME SEX or else there will be babies everywhere!
- That said, there are special cases where a rat might need to be kept on its own. Every so often, there’s a rat that just can’t live with other rats. For instance, Nikolai had not been kept with other rats when he was young, and had become so used to being on his own that he was dangerously cage-dominant. I didn’t want to risk putting another rat in his cage with him in case he hurt or killed it. In another case, Deckie would not accept any new cagemates after his friend Charlie died. In these cases, the best thing to do is give the single rat lots of extra human attention and entertaining cage toys, so it doesn’t get too lonely or bored.
- Even if they have rat friends, rats still need attention and handling from their humans. Again, they are more like dogs than they are like other rodents; if I were to stop handling my hamsters or mice, all that would happen is that they would stop tolerating it, and probably become biters, but there would be no adverse affect on them. They’d be fine. A rat, on the other hand, will become sad if its owner doesn’t regularly interact with it. In addition, it may become more scared of humans, prone to nip, etc., like other rodent types.
- While wild rats come only in shades of brown, gray, and black, pet rats are bred in many fancy colors and patterns such as fawn, champagne, silver, and blue (like a Russian blue cat). Albino rats (white with red eyes), while rare in the wild, are very common in captivity due to their common use as lab animals.
- There are rat shows, just like cat shows and dog shows! They have trophies, ribbons, everything; rats are judged on their conformation, coat quality, and temperaments. Rats can also run agility courses as well!
- Everyone who has had a female hamster usually has a horror story about when she ate her babies. For whatever reason, this is just something that most rodents tend to do. Rats, however, are the exception; they are the least likely to ever consume or otherwise harm their young. In fact, the only time a mother rat will usually eat her young is if the baby was born dead. She does this because the smell of a decomposing body might attract predators to the nest, so she is trying to protect her other babies. This is also why rats and other rodents will often try to eat their dead cagemates; many owners find the gruesome remains and assume that their pet killed their friend, but in fact it more often than not happened after the fact. To humans, this is disgusting and wrong, but for them, it’s instinct, and doesn’t mean that they didn’t love their cagemate. In fact, many rats mourn the death of their friends; my rat Fidget cried for a week after his cagemate Bubonic (“Boo”) died.
- Yes, I said he cried! Rats can cry tears just like humans, and, like humans, they do so when they are sad, upset, stressed, or sick. What makes this less cute and more alarming for many owners is the fact that their tears contain a red pigment called porphyrin, so when the rat sniffles and cries, it looks as if blood is coming from its eyes and nose. Many an owner has rushed their rat to the vet convinced that it’s having an internal hemorrhage---and unfortunately many vets are too inexperienced with small animals to know better, and may put the rat down as a result. So if you have a rat, be sure to get a vet who knows their rodents!
- Rats are compassionate towards other rats. In a recent experiment, rats were offered the choice between chocolate and freeing another rat that was trapped and in distress. The rats chose to free the other rat, and share the chocolate with them. In the wild, rats will often take care of sick, elderly, injured, and disabled colony members, such as bringing food to rats that can’t walk or leading blind rats. This is especially remarkable for wild creatures, who have limited resources and thus are giving up more for themselves by giving it to other members of the colony who can do nothing in return for the favor. Survival of the fittest? Not with rats---survival for everyone!
- The main downside of rats---the only downside, in my opinion---is their short lifespan. They only live two or three years. If you are very lucky and have gotten a very healthy rat with good genetics from a breeder and take excellent care of it, it may live longer. But if your rat is from a pet store, then that is, alas, all the time you have. Cancer and sudden respiratory illnesses, both of which rats are very prone to, may take them even earlier. The fact that they do have such amazing, vibrant, loving personalities and do bond with you as much as a dog makes the heartbreak of losing them so soon all the worse. It’s a heavy, bitter price to pay in return for the joy and delight that they bring, and it’s why, after having steadily kept rats for several years, I’m finally taking a break after the recent death of my last rat Nikolai. I will never stop loving rats, and I will keep many more in the future, but for now, I need a break from the loss.
Even if you don’t run out and buy a rat after reading this article, I hope that, if you never thought of rats as pleasant animals before, you’ve at least considered thinking of them a bit differently than you did before!