By Laura Doering
If you are looking for an intelligent pet companion yet small family pet, rats are at the top of the list. Rats are well known for their excellent memories, and they are considered masters at learning navigation routes. And they are also quite sociable. In fact, researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that rats engage in empathy-driven behavior after a study there found that rats chose to stop to help free a cagemate stuck in a tube, even when another tube held tempting chocolate chips (which, outside of this scientific experiment, are on the “no-no” list of foods to feed a rat!).
According to Karen Robbins, president of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, pet rats (also referred to as fancy rats) can be loyal like a dog and, similar to a dog wagging his tail when his person comes home, they also show excitement when greeted by their people.
“Rats do know their owners,” Robbins said. “I once babysat a rat pair and when the owner returned a couple weeks later, he was greeted with distinctive excitement when he arrived. They obviously knew who he was.”
Robbins also pointed out that rats, like cats, keep themselves clean with meticulous self-grooming.
Sharing Your Life With A Pet Rat
While rats tend to prefer to keep nighttime hours, they can adjust their sleep routines to be more in tune with the family’s schedule. Robbins said that, unlike hamsters — which generally don’t appreciate being woken up during their natural daytime sleep cycle to be played with — rats are more apt to respond favorably to being roused for play or social interaction.
“Rats are not as sound daytime sleepers,” Robbins said. “You can teach them tricks, hang out with them to watch TV or do homework. The more you interact with them, the more they’ll want to be with you.”
The simple act of hand washing before (and after) handling the family’s pet rat goes a long way in preventing unintentional nips and bites.
“The main thing with rats is if you just ate something the rat finds appealing, like a sandwich, and then go to handle the rat, it might nip your fingers because it thinks it’s biting into food,” Robbins said.
Diligent hand washing before and after meals is a healthy habit for all children, so having a pet rat can be all the more reason to reinforce a proper hand-washing routine.
Another good habit to have for families with rat companions is to feed the rat by opening the cage door and placing food/treats into the food cups, as opposed to pushing/dropping food through the cage bars.
“Most people keep rats in wire cages and it’s much easier to poke food treats through the bars,” Robbins said, “but by doing so you’re basically teaching them to bite whenever you poke your fingers through the wires [they think it’s food coming through].”
Speaking of food, like dogs, rats are opportunistic eaters — they will essentially eat anything offered, so adults in the home should ensure that the family rat isn’t being fed unhealthy food, which can lead to obesity and other health issues.
“If you’re eating a French fry, they’ll eat it, too,” Robbins said. “They’re like kids [when it comes to junk food.”
She pointed out that if a rat is fed healthy foods, such as kale or broccoli, it will view that healthy food as a healthy treat that can be fed along with lab blocks, which are recommended as a rat’s main diet.
Keeping Rats Safe
With rats, however, we are talking about a significantly smaller/lighter pet companion than even the smallest cat or dog breeds — a pet that is more likely to be carried around and/or hang out on shoulders. Therefore, adult supervision is especially warranted with a rat in the family mix. One of the biggest risks to the rat, according to Robbins, is in regard to younger children, who tend to want to squeeze the rat instead of petting it.
“An adult needs to be around to make sure the rat isn’t being squeezed and that the child is shown how to gently pet the rat instead,” Robbins said.
With older children, it’s more about ensuring that the rat is properly returned to the cage; i.e., that the cage is not left open.
“With older kids, adults need to make sure the rat is put back,” Robbins said, “as rats are very good at getting in and behind things when afforded the opportunity to wander, and they like to chew things, especially electrical cords.”
Because of their propensity to not only chew but also to squeeze behind small, out-of-reach spaces, Robbins does not recommend allowing pet rats free range within the home. She instead suggests that the family have a designated play area, such as a tabletop.
“The adults have to take measures to protect the rat and items in the home,” Robbins said. She added that domestic rats, in addition to having deep-rooted chewing instincts, also like to hoard found items, such as paper and other items to chew.
Another thing to keep in mind is that rats’ eyes are sensitive to sunlight. Robbins explained that because rats are normally asleep during the day, their eyes could become damaged if kept in bright sunlight for too long.
“If you want to take your pet rat to show and tell at school or over to a friend’s house, the rat should be in a carrier that’s covered,” she said. “If you have long hair, the rat will hide in there or if you have a sweatshirt he’ll hide in it to avoid strong sunlight.”
Because of their social nature, Robbins recommends getting a rat pair, either two boys or two girls — but never a male and a female, which, in a short span of time, can lead to an abundance of offspring.
“There’s still many hours in the day after the child/family interacts with the rat,” said Robbins. “A person can only do so much to give the rat the social interaction that it needs. Hamsters, on the other hand, are solitary by nature and if you put them together, they can hurt/kill each other. Rats are not like hamsters.”
Having rat companions can be a great lesson in responsibility for children in regard to offering food, water, interaction and cage cleaning/maintenance. However, as Robbins points out, the adults in the household should always be in the background to ensure proper care is carried out each day.