Today I want to talk about the virtue of rats as pets. Before most of you can say eeeeew gross, just hear me out. There are many people in this world who have discovered how delightful rats can be and I have many clients who are as dedicated to the health and well-being of their rats as anyone is to their dogs and cats. If you haven’t ever gotten to meet a pet rat personally you may be inclined to think of them as dirty vermin, but once you get to know one you may find that their charms are hard to resist.
Rats are very intelligent and interactive. They all have individual personalities and most are quite sociable. They are considered to be at least as smart as dogs (although in some cases that might actually be an insult to the rats.) They can learn tricks and they like to play with you and provide input on all of your activities. Homework is almost guaranteed to turn out better when completed under rat supervision. I rarely meet a pet rat that bites.
Because rats have been housed in captivity for research purposes for a very long time we have the benefit of decades of refinement for what constitutes a good environment and a well-balanced diet. You won’t have to look hard to find appropriate enclosures and nutritious rat diets. Almost all places that sell pet supplies will have what you need readily available.
As far as pet maintenance goes, rats are pretty easy. Of course the cage needs to be kept clean, and food and water needs to be constantly available. They don’t need walks in a snowstorm or a college education, but consider how you would feel if you were locked in your bedroom all day every day even if it had a glorious buffet table and a team of maids to sweep through regularly. It should be no surprise that rats need to get out for exercise and mental stimulation on a daily basis. I wouldn’t recommend, however, leaving a rat to run free all day because amongst other potential problems, the wires to all of your electrical devices will be expensive to replace, and an unlucky rat may discover the principles of electricity the hard way.
There are a few medical issues that new rat owners should be aware of. First, rats have a reddish pigment in their tears that tends to make their tears look very much like blood. Normally you would not notice it, but when a rat has a cold the irritated eyes will produce more tears, the extra tears will also drain into the nose, and the rat will be sneezing and looking like it is bleeding from its eyes and its nose. Save yourself the panic now, it is just an ordinary upper respiratory infection and as long as the rat is acting otherwise normally it will probably resolve on its own. A rat that is sick will be spending a lot of time curled in a corner, often breathing hard, and often not eating or interested any other normal activities. Hunched and huffing rats need to go to the veterinarian.
Mammary tumors are another common affliction of rats. The tumors appear as soft lumps on the underside of the rat anywhere from the armpits to the groin and are very moveable under the skin. They are benign, meaning they don’t make the rat sick. The problem is that as the rat is going about its business, health seemingly unaffected by the lump, the lump merrily grows and grows. It is not uncommon for me to see mammary tumors that end up larger than the rat, and a rat teetering on top of a mammary tumor has some quality of life issues. The good news is that these tumors are usually quite easy to surgically remove (especially before they become humongous). The bad news is that many affected rats will eventually make new tumors somewhere else on the mammary chain.
The major downside to rats as pets is that their life span is short. Two years is about average, although I have met rats that have lived five years. It is just enough time to really fall in love with them and then you have to let them go, and this means that although I think rats are in many ways a good pet for older children, having to part with them after such a short time is a part of the deal that everyone should be prepared for.