When most people think about cute and furry low-maintenance “pocket pets”, they tend to think of hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, and guinea pigs. But there’s another pet in this category that is often highly underrated – one who is gentle, sociable, affectionate, clean, highly intelligent, and even enjoys napping in your lap.
Meet the modern day Fancy Rat.
The domesticated pet rat is a descendent of the wild brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), and has been bred as a pet for about a hundred years. These sweet and inquisitive creatures average around 14-18 inches long (including their tails), and have a lifespan of about 2 to 3 years. They come in a wide variety of colors and coat types, including smooth, curly, and even hairless. Similar to purebred dogs and cats, fancy rats conform to written standards established by rat clubs and associations, and can exhibit exotic coloration and marking types such as Siamese, Himalayan, Cinnamon, Blue, Silver, Fawn, and Chocolate.
But there’s more to them than just their pedigrees – fancy rats make wonderful companions for both adults and children. Here’s why!
Why Rats Make Great Pets
Rats are highly intelligent.
This is precisely why rats are used so often in maze studies. They love to play, and will entertain themselves and make up games with simple items like ping pong balls and toilet paper rolls. They also love to solve problems, and enjoy puzzles and obstacle courses.
Rats are extremely clean.
Rats actually groom themselves more frequently and diligently than cats do. They have rough tongues like cats that help keep their coats clean of dirt and dust. Rats in the same household will also groom each other.
Additionally, rats can be trained to use litter boxes, which keeps their cage cleaner.
Rats have great personalities.
Rats are entertaining, loyal, affectionate, interactive, and inquisitive. Once a rat has acclimated to his surroundings and gotten to know and interact with you, his own unique personality will begin to emerge.
Every rat is different – some are high-energy, while others are quieter and more laid back. Some rats will even give you kisses in the form of licks on your arm or fingers.
Rats are easy to care for.
Rats are hardier than hamsters, mice or gerbils. They are also very easy to feed. Rats eat commercial diets in the form of “rat blocks”, which are nutritionally complete pellets that are available at pet stores. You can supplement these foods with almost any fruits and vegetables straight from your kitchen, such as peas, bananas, apples, and broccoli.
Cage cleaning for rats is easy to do – once or twice a week, you just scoop out the old bedding, wash out the cage with a solution of bleach diluted with water, let it air dry, and add new bedding.
Rats make great pets for children.
Unlike some other pocket pets, rats rarely ever bite, making them perfect pets for children. They are also easier to hold and carry than smaller rodents since they are calmer and don’t tend to make sudden, fast movements.
Rats sleep for 13-15 hours per day, so they don’t need constant attention during the daytime hours that kids are usually in school. These little guys are nocturnal, but they will wake up to play during the day because they are so social. Any handling of rats by younger children should always be supervised.
Rats are highly social.
Rats will seek out your company, and many love to perch on their caregiver’s shoulders or sit on their laps. Rats often get along well with other pets in the household such as dogs (with supervised interactions, of course). They love to be out of their cages and enjoy exploring around the house. They can even be trained to walk outside on a leash with a harness.
Rats can be easily trained.
Rats are one of the most trainable of all small pets.They are quick learners and love to perform for treats. Clicker-training works very well with rats, who can be taught to come to you when you call them. They can also learn fun tricks like dunking tiny basketballs through hoops, playing on swings, and shaking hands, all on spoken request.
Rats are low-maintenance pets.
Rats don’t bark, don’t need to go outside to do their business, and don’t require daily walks, making them them ideal for apartment and urban living. They are less expensive to keep than cats or dogs, and take up very little space.
And unlike cats and dogs, rats don’t require vaccination. They also don’t get hairballs or throw up (rats don’t possess the neural connections in their brains needed to coordinate all the muscles used for vomiting), so no worries about ever having to clean up rat vomit!
Other Fun Rat Facts
- A happy and contented rat will make a noise by chipping his teeth together. This is called “bruxing” and is similar to a cat purring.
- Rats can jump incredible distances by elongating their bodies. They can also fit through tiny openings – as long as the rat’s head fits, he can contort his body to fit through too.
- A rat’s teeth grow continuously, so they need to be provided with an unstained block of wood to chew on in order to wear down their teeth.
- Since rats are so social, it’s highly recommended to get 2 rats together so they can keep each other company. A pair of females is often recommended for first-time rat caretakers.
- Female rats tend to be more active, while male rats tend to be more like lap cats.
- Rats have a sweet tooth. However, just like in people, sugar will cause weight gain and tooth decay in rats, so it’s best to avoid it.
- Rats are prone to colds, so their cages need to be kept out of drafts. They are also highly susceptible to heatstroke.
- Just like dogs and cats, rats can be spayed and neutered. Spaying and neutering is recommended because it not only reduces the risk of the rat developing tumors, but also leads to a longer lifespan.
Where To Get Fancy Rats
Purchasing from a Breeder
The best place to buy a rat is directly from a responsible rat breeder. A good breeder not only ensures the quality and health of the rats being bred, but is also able to start handling the babies at a very young age so they are well-socialized.
Baby rats obtained from a breeder have been spared the trauma of being shipped off to a pet store, so they are less stressed. They are also less likely to be exposed to illnesses and disease.
Rat breeders are excellent sources of information, and often make themselves available for questions or advice long after you bring your new rat home. They can provide education about some of the special needs of rats (such as using the proper bedding), and what health issues to watch for. You can locate a good rat breeder through your local or national rat club.
Just like for dogs and cats, there are organizations that rescue and rehome pet rats. Rescued rats are often surrendered by owners who are moving, or by people who bought a pair of rats from a pet store and didn’t realize they had a male and a female until the rats began having babies. Sometimes rats are seized by animal welfare organizations from pet stores or individuals who were not caring for them properly.
To find a rat who needs a home, you can check out Rathelp.org or Adoptapet.com. You can also search online for rat rescue organizations in your state, or check with your local humane society. Many local shelters have pet rats available for adoption.
A Word About Pet Stores and Rats
Although many pet stores sell rats, please don’t purchase your rat from a pet store. Most of these rats are from “rat mills” that are frighteningly similar to puppy mills – they are bred in very poor conditions in huge numbers, taken away from their mothers way too early, and sent to pet wholesalers who then sell them to stores. During the process, these baby rats suffer great stress and can be exposed to a number of diseases and parasites.
Additionally, the more rats that are purchased from pet stores, the more rats that will continue to be bred in these conditions. There are many caring and responsible rat breeders, so please consider not supporting the rat mill industry with your dollars.
You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby
Fancy rats are a far cry from their city sewer-dwelling cousins. Not only do they sport beautifully-colored coats and markings, they are also delightful and noble companions for any pet parent who is looking for a smart, entertaining, easy to care for, and loyal addition to their family.
Do you have (or have you ever had) a pet rat? What do you like best about them? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!