Interested in pet rats? Here we discuss the basics of pet rats, their history, some exciting rat facts as well as common myths and misconceptions about pet rats.
Rats: Man’s Best Friend?
Many people have negative associations with rats, and indeed, wild rats may lay waste to crops, chew through stored food, and prove difficult house guests to remove when they infest your house. However, the domestic rat is quite a different animal, you may even compare the friendly domestic rat to our current dogs, and the wild rat to their wolf ancestors! Domestic rats are social, clean, intelligent pets that often make wonderful pets for gentle children and adults.
Rats are much more people-oriented then many small pets and tend to be much more interested in interacting with and playing with their humans than some other species of small animals. Many rats love to ride shoulders, hang out in sweaters, or be carried around and cuddled by their owners.
From the Wharf to Your Home – A Brief History of Pet Rats
Pet Rats are the domesticated descendants of Rattus Norvegicus, also known as the brown rat, Norway rat, Hanover rat or wharf rat. It is believed that rats originated in Asia, moving into Europe in 1553 and then on to the US in 1775. While the specific origin of the pet rat is uncertain, many people believe it traces back to European rat catchers who would occasionally catch unusually colored rats, and began to breed and sell them as pets. One rat catcher, Jack Black, was employed by Queen Victoria as her rat and mole catcher. Jack Black bred rats and sold them in 1840-1860 to well-bred young ladies, who kept them in gilded cages, even Queen Victoria had her pet rats!
In 1895, rats began to be used by the scientific community as testing animals and a population of white rats was established at Clark University for research on diet and physiology.
Laboratory rats have contributed to studies on genetics, diseases, drug reactions and mental studies. A variety of strains are commonly used in laboratory testing including the Wistar Rat, Sprague Dawley Rats, Long-Evans Rats, and Zucker Rats; all of which refer to specific genetic strains that may have been formed for different specific types of testing.
Just the Facts: Rats in a Nutshell
Rats live on average for 2.5-3 years, although some rats may live to be over 4 years old. The length of their body tends to be around 9-11 inches, with a tail length of 7-9 inches. Rats generally weigh anywhere from 350 grams to 650 grams, with males being larger on average than females. Domesticated rats are nocturnal and will generally be awake during the evening and night, although they are moderately adaptive to the schedule of their human families. Rats are omnivores and their teeth grow throughout their entire lives. Rats are extremely social and should be kept in same sex pairs or groups, or in groups where all of one gender type has been spayed or neutered to avoid reproduction.
Female rats come into heat every 4-5 days and have a 21-23 day gestation period. The average litter size is 12, with litters over 20 being reported.
The Mislabeled Rat – Rat Myths and Realities
Many people are afraid of rats because of commonly held beliefs about their behavior or history. Here, we’d like to dispel a few of those myths.
Myth: Rats bite humans and are aggressive
Reality: Anything with a mouth bites, including humans, but a properly socialized rat is much less likely to bite than many other species of domestic animals. While there are aggressive rats, there also aggressive dogs, cats, and bunnies, and aggression often results from a form of abuse or neglect during the rat’s life. It is much more common for a rat to bite out of fear, or to bite when someone pokes their fingers in a rat’s cage, and the finger is mistaken for a treat.
Myths: Rats spread diseases and spread the black plague
Reality: Fleas that were on rats spread the black plague, and it also killed the host rats carrying the fleas. Rats were not the only host for the black plague, and fleas could also spread it on dogs, cats, and humans. There are very few zoonoses that can be transmitted from a rat to a human, and we are much more likely to get them sick then they are ever to get us sick.
Myths: Male rats cannot be housed together and will fight / Male rats cannot be introduced to other male rats
Reality: Proper introductions and housing are important, but many intact male rats live very happily together. As long as the rats are provided with enough space to avoid social arguing, it is rare that a single male rat would need to be housed alone. For those male rats that do fight with other male rats, neutering can drastically reduce aggression towards other rats. Male rats can be introduced to other males later in life, as long as proper introduction methods are used it’s possible to bond a pair of male rats (with compatible personalities) at any stage of life.
Myths: Rats are dirty and stink / Male rats stink
Reality: Rats are extremely clean animals, and with proper care have very little odor. Rats bathe themselves frequently, generally more than ten times a day, which means you are likely not nearly as clean as your rat! As long as you provide your rat with a clean cage and proper bedding, your rats should never smell unpleasant. Male rats do tend to urine mark more, and some can develop more oil on their coats then others, but male rats are just as fastidious about keeping their coats clean as female rats. If you have a male rat who is a dedicated scent marker, neutering can help drastically reduce or eliminate this behavior.
Myths: Rats can live with other rodents like mice or hamsters
Reality: Rats should only be housed with other rats and not with rodents of other species. Rats are omnivorous and creatures that are smaller then they are on the menu. Rats will kill and eat insects, small birds, and other smaller rodents; rats should ONLY be housed with other rats.
Rat Societies – The Socialite Rat
Rats are very social creatures and thrive with the companionship of other rats, and keeping a pair of rats can be less work and no more maintenance than keeping a single rat alone. There is no way for humans to replace the companionship of another rat, as we cannot wrestle, cuddle up in a hammock, and most of us are not willing to lick and groom their fur.
It is a good idea to keep rats in same-gender pairs or groups, or groups where all of the males or females have been neutered or spayed. While there are occasionally male rats that won’t get along with other males, or females that won’t get along with other females, it’s rare that you simply cannot find a suitable buddy for a lonely rat.
Rats can be introduced at any age, although it’s recommended to introduce rats that are roughly the same size. Introducing a very young baby rat to a full grown adult can result in injuries to the baby if the match is not immediately compatible.
The Truth About Boys & Girls – The Great Gender Debate
The question often rises from new rat owners: Should I get boy rats or girl rats? There are several factors to consider when picking the genders of your new rats.
Female Rats: The Good and The Bad
The Good: Female rats tend to be smaller, slimmer, and generally cleaner then male rats. They do not scent mark as often as male rats, and generally, do not have the same problems with oil build up in their coat. Female rats often do better in large social groups than male rats.
The Bad: Female rats are more active and can be more skittish or hyperactive. Due to their busy nature, some female rats are not suitable pets for young children. Female rats are prone to developing mammary tumors which require surgical removal. Female rats should be provided with plenty of time out of the cage and toys to keep them occupied.
Male Rats: The Good and The Bad
The Good: Male rats tend to be larger and chubbier then female rats, which can make them easier to handle for younger children. They are more docile and are better for people who are looking for a lap pet, or a buddy to hang out on the couch with. Male rats are less active; they may require less time exercising out of the cage then a more active female. Male rats are less likely to develop tumors then female rats.
The Bad: Male rats may need more elbow room when living with other males. Some male rats scent mark and will leave small drops of urine behind as they walk, although neutering may lessen or eliminate this behavior. Some male rats will develop “buck grease” on their backs and may need an occasional bath to help keep their coat clean.
While these are general guidelines that apply to the genders, every rat is an individual so there may always be a very active male rat or a very docile female rat out there. Young rats will always be more hyper, active, and energetic than an adult rat; it’s important to remember that young rats go through the same “puppy” phase as dogs and most rats will calm down after they are 6-10 months old.
Not a Disposable Pet – Rats, Veterinary Care & Surgery
In the past, many owners have been under the impression that there were no medical services available for rats, or that for a “cheap pet” that it was not worth investing the money in veterinary care for their pet rats. Depriving an animal of medical care is neglectful and abusive, and rats should be given the same consideration when they are ill as any companion animal.
Rats are prone to developing respiratory problems, which can be irritated by dust, allergens or ammonia in their environment. Early treatment of respiratory problems is important, and they can often be easily treated with antibiotics as prescribed by an exotics veterinarian.
Rats who develop tumors can have their lives extended and significantly improved by the surgical removal of the tumors by an experienced exotics veterinarian. Particularly in female rats, mammary tumors are often benign and by removing the tumors early on, your rat will have an easier surgery and a faster recovery time.