URBANANIMAL: Rats can make great pets

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Feb 27, 2013 in Rat News | Subscribe

Dear readers,

While picking up dog food at my local pet supply store today, I noticed the store owner had included a new photograph on the bulletin board containing photos of customers’ pets.

Dozens of cats and dogs graced the board, but the latest entry was a pet rat, photographed while perched on someone’s shoulder. The rodent’s name, Elvis, was lovingly handwritten on a heart-shaped sticker and placed at the edge of the print.

Elvis’s image, surrounded by all those cat and dog photos, looked decidedly out of place and I wondered how many times his owner heard the question, “A rat? You have a pet RAT?”

It’s one of those animals that can make people shudder. But it’s also one of the most popular pet rodents, right up there with hamsters, gerbils, mice and guinea pigs.

A pet rat is of the same species as wild rats, also known as brown rats or by their scientific name Rattus norvegicus – a much nicer and quite exotic designation. A pet rat has been selectively bred for its appearance and sweet temperament. Elvis, that handsome rat in the photograph, is obviously a noble ambassador for his domestic brethren. They’re known to be clean, intelligent and affectionate animals that develop a strong bond with their humans and other pets, and are relatively easy to maintain.

A female rat is called a doe and a male is a buck. Body size ranges from nine inches to 11 inches in length, plus seven inches to nine inches of tail; does are smaller than bucks. Their coat colour can be white, cream, blue (grey), brown or black or a combination of any two or three of those colours.

While wild rats barely eke out a lifespan of one year, pampered pet rats can live to more than three years.

When I researched pet rats for this column, I discovered, despite their reputation as carriers of plague and other disease and general fear factor due to their aggressive and fierce behaviour toward humans, they staked their claim as pedigree pets in 1901 England when a rat was entered in a conformation show hosted by the National Mouse Club. It must have caused quite the commotion among the club’s members when the lone rat entry won “Best in Show,” which ignited public interest in breeding and selling the animals as pets. In fact, they became so popular the club was renamed National Mouse and Rat Club.

Alas, it was just a few years later when they fell out of favour and the club reverted to its original name. But groups of steadfast rat fanciers formed their own clubs and are now operating in just about every country in the world. They’re being bred to standard and sold as pets or for show, just like fanciers of cats, dogs and other animals.

Some countries refuse import of any type of rodent and in Alberta, it’s illegal to keep a rat as a pet.

Rats are considered highly intelligent. They can be taught to recognize their name, come when called and run mazes built by owners who are amazed at their pets’ ability to navigate increasingly complicated courses.

Doting owners also report their rats exhibit dog-like behaviour as they follow their people around the house, sleep on the couch, watch television (one rat I read about particularly enjoys cartoons) and communicates their needs through a series of body postures.

These are sociable animals and although they bond with their humans, they’re much happier when hobnobbing with their own rat pack. Keep the does and bucks separated, though. They’re fertile at five to 12 weeks of age, but it’s not odd for a doe to become pregnant as early as three and a half weeks.

Their housing needs are the same as those required for a rabbit or guinea pig. A large cage or terrarium filled with wood shavings sold specifically for rodent housing, a water bottle attached to the side and some type of soft material that can be bunched up and used as a sleeping spot. These smart, curious animals need at least one hour daily of interaction and play time with their humans.

Food consists of ready-made fare available at pet supply stores and many owners supplement with treats such as apples and bananas, broccoli, peas, carrots, cooked lean meats, pasta and rice. High protein puppy food is often recommended as a supplement for baby and young rats. Your veterinarian should be consulted for more information on everything from diet to bedding to potential health issues.

Interested in adopting a pet rat or learning more about them? Contact a breeder through Canadian Pet Rat Club www.lilratscal.com or ask about adoptable rats through your local animal shelter. Did you know there is a rat rescue group in Toronto? Offer to adopt a rescued rat through Henry’s Haven Rat Rescue at www.petfinder.com/shelters/ON340.html

Email jacque-newman@rogers.com with a question, comment, or suggestion that you’d like to submit to UrbanAnimal? I’d love to hear from you! Please contact me at

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One Comment

  • Nikki says:

    Be sure that, if you use wood shavings in your rats’ cage, you don’t use cedar shavings. Cedar can cause respiratory problems in rats.

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