by Mary Jane Checchi

Child and pet ratIt is an enduring myth that rats are smelly, vicious, and dirty, and of course could never be pets. In fact, rats may be the perfect New Millennium pet for busy families. Domestic or 'fancy' rats are clean, intelligent, affectionate, and playful. They can even be trained to use a litter box. They do not smell (as long as their habitat is kept clean), and are less likely to transmit diseases or parasites than a dog.

Fancy rats are the descendants of Norway rats that have been used in scientific and medical research since the late nineteenth century. Fancy rats have been selectively bred for intelligency, gentleness, and appearance. They may now be found in more than twenty-five different colors and seven different patterns. Basic colors are white, beige, black, brown and agouti or a combination of two or more of these colors. More subtle shades have exotic names: lilac, amber, pearl, fawn, and cinnamon. Most pet rats have a smooth coat, but there are also rex (wavy hair) and hairless rats.

Fancy rats are excellent pets for children above the age of eight. They bond easily with a friendly child. Considered the most intelligent of small mammal pets, they are active and playful, and can learn to play tag, hide-and-seek, and other games. Debbie Ducommon, a fancy rat expert, has written that rats are "social butterflies that love to be with people and beg to come out of their cages to play or be patted."

Because they are so small (weighing a pound or less), rats are easily injured if dropped, squeezed, or improperly handled. Their small size makes it difficult for very young children, whose fine motor coordination may not be well developed, to handle them. Youngsters under the age of eight can enjoy watching rats play with each other (it's always best to get two, because rats need company of their own kind), and can handle these small pets under parental supervision.

Because rats are smart and active, they need attention, mental stimulation, and exercise. A spacious habitat furnished with safe (non-toxic) litter, a nest box, toys, ladders and other equipment are a requirement, plus daily attention and the opportunity to exercise and play in a safe area outside the habitat. The area must be carefully rat-proofed (including covering electrical cords and outlets, removing certain plants, plastic bags, open containers, sharp objects), and the pet must be supervised.

Like all rodents, pet rats need appropriate chewing materials. To protect them from respiratory infections and pneumonia, which are common problems, the habitat must be kept dry, clean, and warm. A balanced diet of specially formulated pellets should be supplemented by fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, and nuts. Fresh water must always be available in a hanging sipper bottle. Pet rats can be left alone with fresh food and a clean cage for one night, but no longer.

There are good books available about choosing and caring for fancy rats, and numerous sites on the Internet that answer frequently asked questions about this pet. There are fancy rat and mouse clubs in many states; some of these publish newsletters and hold shows. These clubs can be a source of information and pets.

The bad news about pet rats is that they don't live very long -- only about two to four years.

Because fancy rats require less time, daily, than a dog, and cost less to maintain than many other pets, they may come into their own in the New Millennium. Individuals and families with a little indoor space to spare for a good habitat, but a limited amount of time, may discover that these small creatures make fine companions. But with these, as with all pets, the bottom line is: the more time you spend with them, the more fun for all.