If you’d have said to me a few weeks ago that I’d not only be the owner of two rats but utterly thrilled about it, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet here I sit, with Scrabble and Nicodemus upstairs in the huge cage we’ve lovingly decorated for them and I am honestly totally converted to rats to the extent that I feel defensive when anyone holds the same views I did a few weeks ago.
Based on the research I did, and our experiences so far, here are the top ten reasons why I think rats are great pets - especially for children.
1) They are sociable. Unlike many small pets (such as many of the hamsters and guinea pigs I’ve known), rats enjoy and seek out human company. Ours come rushing to the front of the cage when they see us. They climb up to the gates eagerly ready for you to open it. They take treats from our hands. They climb onto our shoulders and snuggle into our necks. We have girl rats, for reasons I’ll explain later, and they are more active whereas boys are generally cuddlier and lap pets. Being so sociable, it does mean that they must be kept in pairs and you must be able to spend time with them every day or at least nearly every day.
2) They are very clean. If you think of rats you probably think ‘filthy, disease-ridden animals’. First of all, rats are extremely clean. They spend a huge amount of the time washing themselves (and look extremely adorable as they pull both ‘hands’ over their ears at the same time) – more even than cats. They also do not carry disease. Wild rats do but pet rats or ‘fancy rats’ as they are called do not carry disease.
3) They can be litter trained. This is huge for me and our ratties have astounded me on this front since day 1. Rather than pooping and peeing all over the cage the way that many small animals do, rats (being so clean) like a toilet. We set up a litter tray right from the start and they have used it consistently since day one, despite arriving age six weeks and not trained. To aid the process we (sorry gross) put a couple of the poops they did in the carrier on the way home into the litter tray to give them the idea. We also put a big smooth stone (about fist size) into the tray as rats seem to like to squat on a smooth stone to pee.
4) They don’t stink. Tying in with points 2 and 3, one thing I was very concerned about was the smell of rats. When visiting breeders’ homes, there was definitely an odour but I came to realise that that was the result of having scores of rats and multiple other pets, and was not directly related to the rats themselves. Ours don’t smell. We have used a fleece blanket instead of loose bedding (which you can do if you have a litter tray) and this means that you just throw it in the wash every couple of days, spray and wipe the cage and then pop a new one in. I’ll probably wash down the cage properly once a month or so. I’ve ordered some odour eaters for the room, too, and have read about things you can do like adding apple cider vinegar to the water bottle (a tiny bit) or a drop of vanilla essence to make the wee not smell, but so far I haven’t needed to utilise either of these. We also gave them a little bath in the early days to get any ‘breeder smell’ off their feet (probably not necessary and didn’t go too well as one did the most tremendous flying leap out of the bath!) We have some sensitive baby wipes that we wipe them down with when they come out to play as well, which just takes any pee off their feet from being in the litter tray. I’m not sure how much of this is necessary really as, like I said, there is no smell, but them smelling is my biggest fear. This was one reason we chose girls over boys as boys do dribble wee around their cage a bit (scent marking) and have a stronger general odour.
5) They are really clever. Rats are a bit like little dogs. They can learn all kinds of tricks like coming when you call, fetching a ball, playing games and obeying many voice commands (YouTube video if you don’t believe me!) This makes them a whole lot more fun than a hamster, rabbit or similar. We haven’t started training ours yet as they are still young but it means lots of future fun. Girls are apparently much easier to train than boys (so boys are cuddly, stinky and a bit stupid and girls are busy, clean and clever… )
6) They don’t live very long. OK this sounds super callous but it was a plus for me. Getting pets is a big commitment, and my initial thought had been Guinea pigs. One of the things that put me off (apart from the smell) was that they live for about 7 years. That means that if the children lost interest within a few months, I’d be stuck with these things potentially for a long time. Some have been known to live more than a decade, meaning Arran could even be at university before the thing popped it’s clogs! Rats live about 2 years. Rarely 3 and hardly ever 4. That means that if the children lose interest, the whole thing can be over fairly swiftly. It also now means that these adorable little creatures that we’re all smitten with are on way more of a clock than we would like of course, but with my practical head on, dealing with the death of a pet is a really good way for children to start to understand about the temporary nature of existence.
7) They’re inexpensive. Rats generally cost around £20 - £30 a pair. Our cage cost a bit (about £80) as we bought a big one. We did this because entertained, active rats are healthier and happier and nicer than bored, fat rats. We also bought bits and bobs for the cage but much of that can be made from fabric, shredded paper, tubes etc. They are not insured because they don’t live long enough. I would always make sure any pet of mine had proper and swift vet treatment and get antibiotics for respiratory infections (fairly common in rats) but if there were any serious health complications I wouldn’t pay for complex and expensive procedures, considering it kinder to euthanise. Their food is not expensive and they can also eat basically everything that humans eat so we supplement a lot with eggs, pasta, veg, nuts and whatever else we happen to be eating. Cheerios are a favourite (though not many as rats have a sweet tooth like humans and are equally prone to fat tummies and tooth decay) and we call them rat doughnuts.
9) They are quite robust. Obviously I would always recommend being very careful with little living things and supervising young children when they are handling small pets but these are far hardier than other breeds of small pet, and can deal with the occasional clumsy handling.
10) They don’t bite – or rarely anyway. Unlike other small pets, rats bite far, far less often. I’ve been badly bitten by a hamster (jeez it hurt) and Stef had a guinea pig bite at a petting zoo. I was nervous to learn that rats’ teeth never stop growing, but have discovered that research shows they are actually seldom biters. Ours haven’t bitten at all so far (despite the bathtime panic), and we hope that by handling them from babies we won’t ever get bitten. We feed them pasta and provide wooden toys for them to grind their teeth down on. We also have ‘lava ledges’ – rough stones underneath their water bottles for them to file their claws down on as their little toes are sharp. You can clip their toenails but we haven’t tried that yet. I used to clip the cat’s ones when she was a kitten but now she’s a mouser (yes we have a cat – they are kept separate and everyone is fine) so I leave them.
Of course, even with all of the above, these little mini puppies might not be for you. I went and spent some time with some rats because of ‘the tails’. I get it. Those tails are creepy and I don’t really know why. I think it must be some kind of primal, inbuilt defense mechanism but I wanted to be sure I could cope with having them as pets without wanting to hit them with a shovel – and I can! I don’t notice the tails at all now. Also, when you cuddle them, the tail doesn’t feel weird at all, they are actually really soft and silky. I also talked to people who had experience of keeping rats (and the feedback was almost always overwhelmingly positive) and read up a lot.
So far, I couldn’t be happier with our new pets. They are friendly, cute, inquisitive, social and are a pet you can truly bond to. We look forward to seeing what they can learn, watching them grow, feeding them interesting new treats – and watching them nibble them as they hold them in those little ratty hands!