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.