Saying rats are sweet and clean might strike some as more oxymoronic than talking about diet French fries. But rats really are clean, sweet — and intelligent — and make for some very cool pets. We’re not talking about scouring your nearest garbage dump, wharf or sewer drain and plucking a rat off the street. That’s akin to bringing home a feral dog. But we are talking about Norway rats, the same variety you find on the street that were instead bred to be domestic, usually with the intent of feeding reptiles. You can get Norway rats at pet stores around the world, with the savvy stores knowing they can jack up the price if they happen upon one with fancy patterns and colors. But even a high price is worth it for a pet rat based on all the rewards.
5. Rats Are Clean
Rats probably groom themselves more diligently and frequently than your average cat. They don’t get hairballs, either. They also don’t roam around spreading rabies or other disease. Domesticated rats are safe to keep — and even street rats get undeserved credit for being riddled with infections. The bubonic plague, for instance, was passed on by the fleas on the rats, not the rodents themselves. Because rat tongues have a slight sandpaper texture, they are very good at scrubbing off any dirt and dust. Rats even share bathing duties with their cage mates. It’s quite common to see a rat lick and wash a fellow rat and it’s equally common — and comical — to watch a rat lick his paws and then wash behind his pointy little ears. Rats have a subtle, sweetish aroma, not unlike a field of fresh strawberries. OK, it’s not exactly like fresh strawberries, but it is sweetish and unobtrusive, unlike a cage full of guinea pigs or mice. Yes, we know sewer rats stink. But so would you if you lived in a sewer.
4. Rats Are Easy to Care For
Due to their habit of not stinking, cleaning a rat cage is painless indeed. Just scoop out the old bedding material, add new bedding, wipe the cage sides down with a damp cloth and you’re done. Do take the rats out first. Rats can also live dandily in a cage the size of a 10-gallon fish tank, or in the fish tank itself provided you use a screen cover and don’t fill the tank with water. Others have kept rats sans cages, which is best done in households that do not have cats or rat terriers, and rats can live happily on a shelf, dresser or other area as long as they have a little enclosure to make their home base. Such easy care make rats ideal pets for people who live in small spaces, such as your average New York City shoebox apartment, or for people who don’t want to walk their pets on a daily basis or regularly scoop rancid stuff from a litter box. Rats don’t puke, either, which means one less cleanup duty. They don’t puke because they can’t, actually, which is why rats are so easy to poison.
3. Rats Are Smart
The crafty part of their reputation holds true, as rats are highly intelligent and have infinite ways of getting what they want. Their intelligence also means they are easily trainable and, just like most humans, will go out of their way to do something if they know a reward is in store. Some of their simpler tricks have included coming when called, responding to a treat bell and knowing not to roll the plastic, rolling exercise ball down a flight stairs when they are secured inside it. While the latter might seem like common sense, it was not too common for the poor hamster that tried it. Some of rats’ more elaborate antics have included quickly rushing through mazes that would take humans several hours to figure out, jumping a ship when it’s sinking and playing basketball. Not with the regulation-size basketball, of course, but rather with a miniature ball and a miniature hoop that combined for a miniature slam-dunk. Go, rats, go.
2. Rats Have Personality
Some are hyper. Some are laidback and sweet. Some are hyper and sweet while all are downright comical. There’s no way a rat cannot have a personality based on all the fascinating facts about the species. While they fall into the rodent category — which is the same place you find hamsters, gerbils, mice and even rabbits — they are quite distinct from the rest. Their hairless tails are one fascinating feature, since it is typically as long as the rat and serves to balance him when perched atop a windowsill or play tube. They have the ability to jump incredible distances, and elongate their bodies, enabling them to skitter through the smallest spaces. If a rat’s head fits through an opening, he can contort his body to fit through, too. And if you think that’s something, just wait until they like you and start licking your arm.
1. Rats Are Affectionate
Like most pets that are raised with love (reptiles aside), rats learn to trust you absolutely and thank you when credit is due. Don’t bring home a brand-new rat that has known nothing but life in a crowded pet store in a snake food tank and expect instant results, however. They, too, need to be shown love before they will return it. And return it they will. While there is no way to gauge how many people keep pet rats, we do know there are dozens of rat clubs, rat Facebook pages and rat YouTube videos that prove that plenty of folks are reaping the rewards of rat ownership. If you do purchase one from a pet shop’s snake food tank, know you are also doing the rat a favor by saving his life. Also know your nurturing, love and care will be amply rewarded, perhaps with a tender, tickly, sandpaper-tongued kiss.
Ryn Gargulinski is the author and artist of the illustrated humor book Rats Incredible, former president of the New York Chapter of the former Northeast Rat and Mouse Club and current owner of two happy rats.