Rats: cuddly and sociable and not a bit creepy

Guest post by Rachael Dickson

Photo by Grace Kendall. Used with permission.
I have rats.

Pet rats. Three of them — named Monty, Splinter and Rosencrantz. I happen to think they’re the funniest, cutest, greatest little balls of fluff ever, even though much of the world disagrees.

When I got my first rat, my mom informed me, “That rat will never enter my house.” I’ve had rental applications declined because of my rat pack – not because they were animals but because they were capital-R Rats. I’m regularly greeted with shrieks or exclamations of, “Are you crazy?” when people find out I husband rodents. You get used to it after a while.

Pet rats — known as fancy rats — get a bum rap. People think of New York’s subway rats, or the rats on South Park which come skittering out to chew Kenny’s bones. Though they are part of the same species, wild rats and fancy rats are quite different in behavior and looks. According to the American Fancy Rat and Mice Association, domestic rats developed from Victorian England “sport.” There were so many wild rats at the time that they’d be collected and thrown into a pit with a dog. The dog that killed the largest number of rats in the shortest time was declared the winner. Pit owners started to keep back some of the more unusually colored rats and bred them. Now, domestic rats come in a variety of colors and patterns.

A number of misconceptions make rats unpopular, so I’d like to clear them up:

  • Rats are mistakenly thought to have caused the Black Plague. However most researchers agree the Plague took root in Europe thanks to fleas. They hitched rides on the backs of the rats — but also on any other hosts they could find, including dogs and humans. Contemporary fancy rats pose no more health threat than other household pets. I kiss my rats on the nose, they lick my fingers, and I wash my hands after playtime just as others do with their dogs.
  • Our language is full of rat-based pejorative phrases. We call someone a “ratfink” or a “dirty rat” when they betray us — we “rat on” someone when we’re tattling. Despite their linguistic legacy, rats are actually very sociable creatures that are friendly, safe for children to play with, and rarely bite. I’ve found that my rats have bonded with me much more easily than past small animals have. Don’t get me wrong — they’re so mercenary about their snacks that you’ll always wonder if they just love you because you feed them -– but I imagine that goes for many cats as well.

  • Rats aren’t dirty; they’re often more organized than I am. They have a tendency to defecate in the same corner because they like their areas to be tidy. I’ve been told they’re very easy to litter train, though I haven’t tried. As long as their cages are kept clean, rats don’t smell at all. They groom themselves like cats — and it’s very cute to watch. Rats can be bathed — I gave them a bath so they’d look good to meet my parents — but usually it’s not necessary. After I SO carefully spread out newspaper bedding over his cage, my most-obsessive rat, Monty, has a habit of stacking it up in a pile so he can sniffle with joy over how neat it is.
  • My boys have distinct personalities. Monty is the oldest, crankiest rat. He beats up on the others and has to be kept in a separate cage, but he also curls up on my lap and lets me pet him. When I was sick recently, I brought him into bed to take a nap by my side. Splinter and Rosencrantz are brothers — Splinter is always exploring and finding trouble. Rosencrantz is shy — if I take him out on his own, he’s likely to shiver by my side until he remembers I’m a friend. I often refer to the brothers as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum because they’ll run and climb all over each other to get food from me — crashing over each other in a thoroughly comic way.

Fortunately, my rats have a habit of winning over those who meet them. One of my roommates was initially leery, but now I often find her cooing over them. Every little kid I’ve introduced them to has loved them –- boy or girl. My mom — who, remember, declared they would never enter her house — made them a hammock for Christmas. What can I say? I guess rats have winning personalities.

Comments on Rats: cuddly and sociable and not a bit creepy

  1. I used to have a hairless rat with one eye and a big scar down the side from a cyst removal (you think people are creeped out by NORMAL rats…) Two Shillelagh O’Sullivan. Fantastic rat. She did insane cage gymnastics and sorta felt like a shorn ball sack, hehe.

    • I love it when they do cage acrobatics! My rats are awesome at crawling up the side of their cage and staring at you from the top of it, even with food in their mouths. They also jump from my bed to the window sill, where they climb over and lick my toes under my computer desk, lol.

  2. I had a neighbor growing up who had two albino rats named Molly & Dolly, and I was fascinated by them, even though I had been terrified of street/wild rats for most of my life. They were very cuddly, loved being played with & handled even by us smaller children, and they were just awesome.

  3. I would love to have a Rat! I’ve had friends who had them and they are so cuddley. Unfortunately I can’t. First off if you have a pet rodent at home (including a rabbit, squirrel, hamster etc) you can’t enter the animal quarters at work for fear of spreading something to our super sterile immunocompromised lab rats. Secondly, I’m afraid what my rat terrier would do to them! She’s quite the huntress. I know it sounds off, but I really enjoy my little rat friends at work. I tell them all the time how they are helping make better drugs and cure cancer. I even convinced my boss to let me put their drug doses into treats!

    • Yeah the few times I’ve had my rats around a dog, I kept my hands tightly on them the entire time. They don’t necessarily get along very well.
      That’s a side of rat love I haven’t gotten into- how they help us too! I mean, you’re never going to see seeing eye rats – but physically, they’re so important to us! What experiments are you running with your rats? I’m so glad to hear that you’re loving on them and giving them treats. My friends are always joking how they want to put my rats in a maze and see who gets to the end quickest.

      • I’m a biochemist working on Focal Adhesion Kinase. We think it might be one of the keys to metastasis. I am trying to develop a drug that would inhibit this protein and hopefully prevent cancer cells from moving around the body, making it much easier to treat!

        As for never having seeing eye rats who knows! They have bomb sniffing rats to detect land mines, since they are too light to set them off. I have also heard stories of rats that can detect TB by sniffing a persons breath, which is good in developing countries. A rat is much more affordable than a TB test!

        • That’s so cool! Seeing eye rats might work in some cases- but as for my boys, they’re probably near blind. I’ve been told rats with red eyes lose their eyesight with exposure to normal light over time. You can’t really tell in most cases- they’re so good with sniffing out and hearing where I am – but there have been a number of occurrences that have shown me that yes, my rats are probably blind. Plus I don’t know how a rat would take to a harness or leash- they’re out there but I’m leery of trying one with my babies.
          I had a friend who interned at http://www.herorat.org in Africa – they train rats to sniff out bombs and disease. It’s a wonderful program.

          • One of my friends had her rats harness and leash trained. It worked quite well, we took them to the park a lot.

  4. I had rats for 5 or 6 years a while back and they’re absolutely gorgeous. They have such quirky little personalities 🙂

    Now i’ve got a ferret, and pretty much no one other than me and my boyfriend will touch her because everyone is just terrified that she’ll bite and latch on and that she’s dirty.

    Sigh. i miss having ratties 😀

  5. I snuck a Rat into the house at 13 and kept it in an old hamster cage in the closet! I later had 2, Punky and Cherry, they were the greatest. Most of the time when I was in my room I would leave the top of their cage off and they ran around my futon bunk usually coming to cuddle up with me. Amazingly smart and clean animals!

  6. I had two rats whilst I was a student (Mr Rat and, *ahem*, Rat Boy Slim) and I absolutely ADORED them. They extremely intelligent and were never anything less than wildly entertaining and hugely loving. At night, Mr Rat used to sleep curled up in the small of my back beneath the duvet, and when he was an old man he’d join me instead on the pillow. I miss them horribly 🙁 but sadly have a husband who’s not the least bit interested in any animal other than cats, so in all likelihood I’ll never have another. Harrumph.

  7. I don’t know rats, but having a hamster has completely wonme over to rodents.

    I thought they were the most pointless pets ever, but an ideal wayfor young children to learn about death (which is why we got ours – for my daughter to experience the death of something hopefully before any family members).

    BUT wow! Our hamster is SO COOLand extremely tidy, and does the cage gymnastics too. She’s very sociable and watching her stuff her face with treats and them push them all out again is hilarious! It’s like having a tiny pet bulimic.

    • LOL wow. I’ve never had a hamster myself, but the local news site I edit recently ran a story on the local Hamster Ball Derby. Those hamsters were so fast and adorable!
      I brought my rat Splinter with his big exercise ball to the derby to see if he’d be interested at all but when he did attempt to move at all, it was sideways. Mostly he sat forlornly and looked at me like “what are you doing to me lady?” It was a magnificent rat fail – those hamsters thoroughly showed him up!

  8. My family and I took a rat into our home because it had nowhere else to go (owner was moving to Turkey). To say that I did it grudgingly is to put it mildly, but little Noodles turned out to be an awesome pet-I totally fell in love with her. I bawled like a baby when we had to put her to sleep after her back legs stopped working. We’re planning to get another now that we’ve stopped moving around, but I’m saving up to get one of those super deluxe tall cages. Noodles came with one of those and after seeing how much she used the whole thing I’d never be able to put a rat into a small cage.

  9. Awwww now I miss my rats!
    I had a pair of females in high school – Mina and Lucy. I’ve had guinea pigs and rabbits, too, and rats are by far the most inquisitive, friendly, and clean.
    A note to the smell issue – they definitely have a bit of a musk, but then again so do dogs. The females usually smell a bit less than the males do.
    Also, they’re happiest when kept in pairs, so they have a little friend to play with when you’re at work or school or whatever. They’re very social creatures.

    • You’re right (lol, I wrote rat at first)- my boys do have a musky smell. It really doesn’t bother me though, I like giving them nose kisses and I think they smell like the lovely little animals they are.

  10. I’m guessing this isn’t the thread to discuss our pest rats, the £200 they have cost me in plumbing & electrical damage, & our frequent visits from pest control…

    • Probably not. However I would LOVE to see a post on humane/affordable pest removal. We had squirrels in our attic and they would eat our electrical. We couldn’t afford an exterminator so we put our rat terrier up there. She got one, and it scared the rest of them off.

      • Sorry to further the unrelated thread, but just wanted to put in my vote for a post on pest removal, too. Not just affordable, but environmentally friendly. We’re anti-chemical and poisons and we grow edibles but we’ve also inherited a roach problem from next door and I can’t convince my husband to spray for them. I don’t really WANT to either, but feel we have to. Would love to know if there are other options!

          • I know this was a while ago, but thought I’d mention that I’m in Western Australia and use these guys for eco-friendly, pet and people safe pest control: http://www.greedygecko.com.au

            While it does kill bugs, we didn’t actually have as many as we expected, but it did deter them from coming into the house, which means that ultimately less die. Plus, my husband’s and house cat’s ears were safe from my screams when I see a cockroach 🙂

        • Also, cats. We live in the subtropics, where roaches are just a fact of life. You can more or less control them with chemicals, but we’d rather not because it makes us squeamy about eating the food we grow in/around the house. Also, with a dog and a fish tank, how pesticides might affect them was also a concern. Then we adopted a pair of young cats. Haven’t seen a cockroach in months. Except the ones the cats puke up. So, not a perfect mess-free solution, but the bug population is not reproducing uncontrollably.

        • Also – pet rats act as a deterrent to wild rats. Our old housemate had 2 pet rats and we had no rodent problems at all – she left 5 months ago and we’ve had recurring infestations since then…

  11. I adore fancy rats! Such gorgeous and intelligent animals.. sadly, they’re illegal in my province due to the aforementioned prejudice against them.

    They’re owned by universities for testing, but private ownership is punishable by a hefty fine and the death of the rodent, and if your pet were to become sick, you couldn’t take him to a vet.

    I hope that someday the authorities realize the difference between fancy and wild rats, but I’m not optimistic about it. Your rats are adorable!

      • Oh Alberta… When I first moved here and they told me the province was rat free I laughed. I mean it’s not like we have walls to keep them out. But pest control will go nuts if one is reported and they send out squads of people to track down and eliminate any sighted rats. It’s intense.

        • Alberta is terrified of rats and it’s hilarious – you hear about ‘sting operations’ and think that it must be really serious; but no, it’s just a SINGLE rat
          I would love to join the “Rat-Underground” (honestly, it’s a real thing – and I have ‘connections’) but my hubby is training to be a cop and he can’t risk keeping an illegal animal. I guess we’re stuck with a dog who has the IQ of soup.
          If I am ever able to get a rat I will name him/her Squiggles

        • Considering the $5000 fine you can get for having a pet rat, and the fact it would be hard to find Vet care for it without facing that fine even if you could find a vet to look after it (cuz you know someone in the waiting room might say something) it wouldn’t be good for the rat or for the owner. One of those things about living in Alberta.

  12. Aww, they’re precious! I owned mice when I lived in the dorms in college. My RA was a fan and let me put them in their little rolling ball and send them down our long hallway. They loved that!

  13. My childhood best friend had a rat named Byron. I loved him. He used to sit on her shoulder as she went about doing things, played in her hair and loved treats. I loved the rat I had for awhile, but noticed I itched like crazy whenever I held them. I’d break out in hives from where they walked on me. Bummer. I had to give him away. 🙁

  14. My grandchild Bea had, at first, one shiny rat-then two-then three. They lived in a colorful tall purple cage except when traveling-like visiting Gramma Clara (me). Because that cage was smaller, they needed to come out and scamper about. I tried, I really did, to like these little guys. We cut up elaborate feasts of fresh vegetables for them to nibble. I was encouraged to pet and coo over them. They were clean; I’ll say that for them. They were even somewhat cute occasionally. I wasn’t entirely unhappy when that passed away, one by one, to be buried in their little rat plots out back.

    Will there be rats in Heaven? I hope not.

  15. LOVE your rat story. I have had a few fancy rats in my life. One time I was sleeping and one of them got out of his cage. He curled up next to me to sleep. I got scared from feeling something on me when I was sleeping. He ran but after that I knew it was him and we both slept like that.
    I love rats. They really are loving and smart. Mine used to burrow in my hair on my shoulders. I’d walk around with them on there. Ah, I miss them.

  16. Awwww… I fell in love with rats (but never got to own one) when I volunteered at the Humane Society as a kid. They were surrendered to the shelter and we hand-raised them from babies. They were super sweet and we took them out for special meet and greets with the public all the time.

    I never worried about them biting and I think they are easier to handle than hamsters or gerbils (of which I had several growing up).

  17. I love this story! My roommate had a rat when we were in college together, so I know how cute they can be. They were left over from a behavior lab in the school’s science center. These guys were really wild though. My roommate has had rats all her life and she trained her past ones. She couldn’t train these ones and when she looked it up, she determined that they were either too smart or too stupid to be trained. We don’t know what the labs trained them to do, but we guessed the rats just learned early on that learning things is too much work.

  18. Awwww. Some of my earliest memories involve taking baths with our pet rats 🙂 (A hooded and a Himalayan)
    They were so sweet. As a previous kid myself, I can vouch for their kid-friendliness.
    We also had cats- measures need to be taken to keep them separated but we never had any…fatalities.

    • I never had a problem with my cats and animals. They liked looking at the rats, and at the fish, and the chinchillas, but never wanted to eat them or anything. But the dog. Whoa. I’ve never seen her move so fast as to try to get into the room where we keep the chinchilla cages!

  19. I loved having rats! I had many sweet boys, but two went entirely crazy and mean (we think it was tumors in their brains- because they were both sweet and loving for a long time before they changed). Unfortunately, I developed a MAJOR allergy to them and eventually couldn’t even be in the same room. If I let them climb on me, it was instant hives and eyes swelling shut. =( We tried everything, from changing bedding to bathing them daily. Once our last rat died, that was the end of rats for me.

  20. Aww, we had them when I was kids — my mom suggested them as a midway point on the way to getting a dog (ie if we could take care of rats responsibly, she’d consider a dog). Mine was named Houdini and I LOVED her, she was so great. They were really fun pets, and I still miss them.

  21. I had a series of rats when I was in high school. The first was Honey, who was very smart and sociable (she knew her name and would come when I called her). The last was Dexie, who was huge and gorgeous. She would come places with me in her rat ball or in the breast pocket of my leather coat. Sadly, I was for some reason allergic to her little claws, and would get a rash on my neck whenever I touched her (this happened once an hour before my junior prom, which I was attending with an ex “as a friend”, and he accused me of having a hickey from another boy and was mad at me all night). Dexie was also blind, so cats freaked her out (she could smell them but not see them). She went to live with a cat-free friend in Texas and survived to a ripe old age.

  22. I loved our series of pet rats … my only complaint was that their incredibly short life spans (three years if you’re lucky) meant that I was having my heartbroken every couple years. RIP Whisker Kisses, Jaamini, Hephestus, and so many others…see you at rainbow bridge, little guys.

    • I was going to say the same thing. Had a great little rat named Einstein that I trained and spent a lot of time with. When she died a year and a half later I was totally heartbroken. Of course my sisters rat lived FOR-EV-ER (ok like 3 years, but it felt like forever) and that thing was MEAN!

  23. I had two Himalayan ratties a few years ago when I was an undergrad in college. Their cute little faces and playfulness really helped with de-stressing after a long day 🙂

    They were brothers, and a friend of mine had their other two brothers. Mine were Leonardo and Raphael, and hers were Michelangelo and Donatello (^_^) Unfortunately, they both fell into bad health after 2 years and passed away. It’s tough, but they left so many good memories. They loved loved loved playing in my hair, running around on my shoulders and arms, collecting pieces of paper I would shred for them to make nests, and of course sleeping in their hammock. And eating. Eating anything they could get their little hands on 😛 Carrots, yogurt drops, the wasabi pea that fell behind the couch…

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