From the editor: At Public Health, we recognize the risks associated with rats. But not all rats are creepy, and they’re certainly not all filthy. In fact, one of our Public Health Nurses, Lauri Serafin, and her family are owners of sweet, domestic rats. She offered to share her insights – and some pretty cute pictures too. Our Public Health Veterinarian Beth Lipton also weighed in.
By Lauri Serafin
There are many misconceptions about rats! Rats have been kept as pets over 100 years. Domestic rats are variants of the Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus. Domestic rats differ from their wild cousins. They are calmer, less likely to bite, tolerate greater crowding, breed earlier and produce more offspring. They are curious about their environment and do approach novel situations or objects in their environment, something quite dangerous for a wild rat.
Our family has many domestic rat pairs and wanted to share our “top 10” things you might not know about domestic rats.
- Rat individuals have different personalities. Some are shy, mischievous, adventurous, curious, assertive, or affectionate.
- Rats are incredibly smart and they can be trained to perform many different tasks. Rats are able to understand behaviors, routines, reward systems and portions of the human language.
- Rats form strong bonds in their social group and with caretakers. It is cruel to have a solitary rat unless you can spend very large amounts of time with it. Rats do want to spend time with you and will flex their schedule to match yours.
- Domestic rats can communicate satisfaction and contentment by “bruxing” or grinding their teeth and “boggling” their eyes simultaneously. Boggling is a rapid eye movement in which the eyes appear to be vibrating. For the uninformed rat caretaker, this can interpreted as a seizure!
- Rats are clean. They typically designate an area of the cage for a bathroom. Male rats will leave “urine trails” to mark territory in and out of the cage and a towel is needed for “out of cage time” on the sofa or bed.
- Costs are generally low and rats are easily acquired. We use a recommended block food and supplement with peas, corn, grains, and small amounts of fruit. Adult rats should have low fat and low protein diets.
- Rats enjoy our family vacations! Our rats have been on sailing vacations and visits to Eastern Washington. A few of our ratties have been prone to getting motion sick during car or boat travel, but rapidly recover when the motion stops.
- Rats are not generally not aggressive and have a lower risk of becoming aggressive than other pocket pets. They are unlikely to bite, but do explore their world with their front incisors since they don’t have good vision. My experience is that they know exactly where their teeth are and avoid biting.
- If a rat is cared for properly from birth, it tends to stay healthy until end of life issues. Female rats can be susceptible to mammary tumors. Risk is drastically reduced by spaying at 4 to 5 months of age. Rats are susceptible to a certain mycoplasma infection that can cause chronic respiratory issues. But, balanced diet, a large and clean cage, and exercise make for a long lived, healthy rat. Keep in mind that a “long life span” is 2 to 2.5 years.
- Domestic rats come in all colors, varieties, and sizes! Common rats such as albino whites and black hooded rats can be easily found via “rat rescues” and animal shelters. Rarer rats are acquired from a breeder or a large rat show. “Ratapolooza” is a Seattle rat show held in April. It is a great opportunity to see, learn, and interact with domestic rats!
Interested in having a pet rat of your own? Dr. Beth Lipton has sage advice that makes sense for almost any keeper of small animals.
- Although rats can make good pets, there are germs that rats can spread to humans, just like with any pet. These diseases include salmonellosis, rat bite fever, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), and others. Rats sometimes carry these germs without appearing sick themselves.
- Owners should be aware of ways to stay healthy while enjoying their pet, such as hand washing after handling or playing with the animal or handling the cage or bedding. Small animals should be kept out of kitchens and other areas where food or drink is prepared, stored, or consumed. Cages and cage items should be cleaned outside the house, not in kitchen or bathroom sinks, to prevent contamination with germs.
- If bitten by a rat, wash the wound with soap and warm water right away and know when to seek medical attention.
- Children younger than 5 years of age, older adults, or people with weak immune systems should use caution when handling or touching small mammals such as rats. These groups are at higher-risk for infection and serious illness.
- Small rodents are almost never found to be infected with rabies and are not known to transmit rabies to humans. Rabies vaccinations are not needed for your pet rat, but you should get regular exams by a veterinarian who is familiar with small mammals.