Rats are a “love them” or “hate them” pet, but they are a very serious potential choice as a pet. They are the most intelligent of the rodents and are very interesting to fuss, watch and play with. Because of the social nature of the rats, they need plenty of interaction and time to run around in a safe environment. Some people are put off by the scaly tail and the history of bringing plague and diseases into the house. In fact, the pet rat is very clean. They love wandering around and sitting on your shoulder, even as you wander around.
Rats are ideal for children to keep in their rooms. They have a lifespan of between one and three years, so an ideal lifespan for children who, as they become older teenagers, may become less interested. It does however mean that the animal will die and this could be the first personal loss that they come up against. In fact, this may be an ideal learning for them.
Domesticated rats have developed since the 18th century by breeding from the wild brown rat so they are tamer, less sensitive to light and sound and are less wary of new foods. Pet rats are not deemed to be a new species. They come in three body types. There is the standard rat and also the Dumbo rat that is named after his large low round ears – like Dumbo the elephant. The third type of rat is the Manx rat who, like the Manx cat, has lost its tail.
Pet rats come in a selection of colors. Some retain the “agouti” – three tones of the same hair of the wild brown rat. Typical colours are cinnamon, fawn and off course agouti. Whilst others are considered to be black, there is in fact a single colour on each hair, such as black, beige and chocolate. The colours of the eye can also be different.
The rats can have different markings and some of the most common are:
• Berkshire – coloured top, white belly
• Hooded – colour runs from full head down back
• Capped – full head colour only
• Dalmation –spots and masks
• Siamese – a gradient of colour along the body
• Downunders – solid colour stripe on the belly
There are many other types such as variegated. An unusual breed of rats are the sphinx rats which are hairless, though you can see the pigment markings.
How many rats should you get? The answer is a minimum of two. Rats are very social animals and, while you can play with them, for the other 23 or so hours, they will be alone. In the wild, they live in large communities where they groom and play together. Lone rats often get depressed so it’s important that rats have companions and you will want to have a minimum of two rats of the same sex.
You will also have to decide whether you want males or females as there are a number of differences between the sexes. Sexing rats is easier than for most rodents as after about four weeks the testicles have dropped and are visible.
Male rats are typically larger, lazier and more relaxed than the women – some may say another similarity with humans. Lying around all day, the males therefore make a great lap pet. The downside is that they mark their territory with urine so their cage needs more frequent cleaning. This marking with urine also happens when they are on you so you will often need to wear an old sweat shirt.
Female rats are more active, curious and inquisitive so need more time to play and interact.
So where to buy your rats? I would advise looking on the web for a nearby breeder and visiting them for more advice than we can give here. The alternative is to buy from a pet shop, but buy young, particularly if in a group, as you want one not a whole family by buying a pregnant female. If buying two rats to be together, make sure they can sex them so you have two of the same sex because rats can breed rapidly.
Having had rats ourselves, we would be more than happy to be your London Rat Sitters.
“I think Sarah definitely took good care of him and provided me with regular updates (including pictures). The information sheet that you left in the kitchen to track the work and the health of the pet on a daily basis is also very helpful.” Mr H.G and Carlos of Southwark