Leo the rat, about a half-pound of sweetness and light, sat in Bill Sager’s palm, as patient as an old dog, while the veterinarian listened to his heart and lungs, examined his eyes, ears, and nose, and felt for lumps.
Gently, the vet pressed the rat’s tiny body, feeling its vital organs — liver, kidneys, intestines — assessing its joints, and concluding that Leo, the pride and joy of Isabella DeScenza, was fit to compete in the Pocket Pet show at the Middlesex County 4-H Fair in Westford.
“I love the way people look at me when I say I have a rat,” said DeScenza, 17, of Westford.
Sager, who owns and operates Sager Animal Hospital in Acton and has been practicing veterinary medicine for 29 years, said small pets are more common than they used to be. But his is the rare practice that sees lots of them.
“A lot of people have a negative image of rats,” he said. “More so with the older generation.”
Meetups, online discussion groups, and other social media have boosted visibility and appreciation for rats and other rodents as pets, including gerbils, hamsters, degus, and guinea pigs.
“There’s a very high reward for the investment of time,” said Libby Hanna,
president of the American Gerbil Society and founder of Shawsheen River Gerbil Rescue. “They’re great if you’re busy, live in a small space, and can’t have traditional pets.”
Hanna, a Boston resident who served as a judge at the 4-H competition, said gerbils and other small pets are underrated.
“I’ve gained a great respect for them,” she said. “They’re far more intelligent and sensitive than people give them credit for.
“I’m not saying they’re
Rhodes scholars. But they have complex social needs, require companionship. They’re not happy on their own.”
Not all rodent owners are as sociable.
Four years ago, Shauna Norton, who runs Little Critters Holistic Training Care
in Framingham, started a monthly meetup for rat owners, held at the Panera Bread on Cochituate Road.
“Once in a blue moon, someone shows up,” said Norton, whose affinity with rodents goes back to her childhood.
“I grew up very poor, in an old house with big holes, drafty, with spiders and mice,” she said. “I didn’t have friends. I heard the mice in the walls and I wanted to catch one for a pet.”
The professional pet-sitter said she learned about pet rats through a friend, then adopted two that died within two years.
She tried again with the same result and was so heartbroken she swore them off forever (rats have an average life expectancy of two to three years).
But she couldn’t say no when a client asked her to adopt two that were languishing. One died and she re- placed it. The other has thrived. “They’re wonderful pets,” she said.
Ellen Harasimowicz for The Boston Globe
Dr. William Sagar, who operates a vet clinic in Acton, gives Totoro an exam before Pocket Pet judging at the Middlesex County 4-H Fair.Hattie Bernstein can be reached at email@example.com.