The pet rat is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of all of the animals that people keep as pets. When one announces to a general crowd of people that they have a pet rat the crowd tends to get a little nutty. They say things like: "Ew! That's gross!" and "Rats carry disease." and "Why would you want to keep vermin as a pet?". However, the pet rat is one of the oldest types of domesticated animals and is also one of the friendliest types of domesticated animals.

The pet rat, most commonly known as the 'fancy rat' (Rattus Norvegicus) has been domesticated for about a hundred years. The first domestication occured when men would release rats into pits and see how many their dogs could kill and bet on the outcome. The most interesting colored of these rats were kept and then bred. Customers for these pet rats mainly comprised of women who would keep them in bird cages or squirrel cages. Indeed, one of these women was future storyteller Beatrix Potter who dedicated Samual Whiskers to ... "the intelligent pink eyed representative of a persecuted (but irrepresible) race, an affectionate little friend and most accomplished thief."

Domestication continued and in the early 1900s was picked up by other rodent breeders as an appropriate breed of animals. Indeed, there are many shows where rats are the primary focus. Though this fascination with Rattus Norvegicus is most prominent in Britain it has found a home in the states as well. Rattus Norvegicus is also the common species used in lab rats.

As rats are social creatures by their nature, it is suggested that rat owners have more than one rat. They establish clear pecking orders and enjoy playing with one another. Rats that are kept alone can often become sullen and depressed and won't live nearly as long as rats who have other rats to keep them company.

Male rats (characterized by the testes at the base of their tail) tend to be the more docile of the two sexes, while female rats (characterized by nipples on their chest) tend to be more rambunctious. Each rat has it's own personality and no two rats are quite alike. Most all pet rats enjoy a ride on their owner's shoulder and love being outside their cage.

Rats should have plenty of space to run and play. Ferret cages can be great for rats, though it is suggested that any metal bars be covered with a softer surface such as carpeting to keep their feet from being hurt. Aquariums, while a long-time favorite for rodents, are not very good for rats as the enclosed nature of the cage can cause a build-up of ammonia which can make a pet rat sick.

Pet rats should be out of their cages and handled for at least an hour a day. Very curious in nature, pet rats love to run around, explore and see the world that is around them.

Common Misconceptions about Pet Rats:

    1. Rats Carry Disease

    With over one hundred years of domestication, the pet rat has lost most of the characteristics of its cousin, the wild rat. It does not carry large amount of disease. Indeed, a well-bred domesticated rat should carry no diseases. The most common affliction to pet rats are Mamory Tumors, Respiratory Diseases and Heart Diseases. A particular pesky organism that affects rats is Mycoplasma Pulmonis which causes blisters on the rat's lungs and can eventually kill a rat. Being virulent in nature, this organism's resulting symptoms can not be cured, only treated. It is important to note that Mycoplasma Pulmonis is not an organism that can affect humans in any way, thus rats are very safe.

    For more information about pet rats and disease and infection, head to www.ratfanclub.org. Debbie "The Rat Lady" Ducommun has some very thorough information.

    2. Rats Bite

    Rats do not bite. Rats who bite have often been poorly taken care of. They weren't handled very often during their younger months, they weren't fed enough or of the proper food or they were somehow mistreated. A well-loved, well taken care of pet rat never bites and are often very friendly. It isn't rare that a pet rat will give you lots of 'kisses' in the form of licks when you put your hand in their cage.

    3. Rats Smell

    Rat cages can smell if not properly taken care of. However, with the appropriate bedding, cleaning and care a rat cage won't smell at all. Rats in and of themselves don't smell at all. In fact, my rats smell like grape soda.

    4. Rats are Dirty

    Pet rats are far from dirty. In fact, they fastidiously clean themselves many times during the day and after every handling.

    5. Rats are Stupid

    Of all of the commonly-kept rodents, Rats are perhaps the smartest. You can teach a rat to do many things such as fetching a ball, coming when you call their name and giving you kisses when asked.

There is a ton of information about pet rats all over the web. Just hit your favorite search engine and start looking. You may find that the pet rat isn't such an 'icky' pet after all. I did!

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