A pet rat can be an ideal companion for many people: rats are friendly, intelligent, loving creatures who will bond to you and trust you to care for them. There are no ‘starter pets’ in this world, however, and you need to do your homework before adopting a pet of any kind.
Did you know that our domesticated pet rats are of the species Rattus Norwegicus, and have been domesticated for over a hundred years? The wild brown rats (aka ‘wharf rats’ or ‘sewer rats’ ) are of the species Rattus Rattus.
Rats are basically nocturnal, meaning their natural tendency is to sleep during the day and become active at night. Pet rats will somewhat adapt to your schedule in order to spend time with you, but they are still going to be more alert in the late afternoon or evening, and will need a relatively quiet room in the house in which to nap during the day. A rat's cage should be thoroughly cleaned on a weekly basis and spot-cleaned every couple days. Your rat spends almost all of her time right on top of that bedding, and she is not going to appreciate living in stinky, urine-soaked bedding. Rats also require their food and water changed daily .
Rats are social animals who love the companionship of (ideally) other rats, but can bond with a human as well. If you have a single rat, it is up to you to provide companionship and prevent your rat from becoming lonely, bored and depressed. Rats are intelligent creatures who enjoy routine and look forward to their daily time spent with you. You may wish to consider adopting a pair of rats. Rats very much enjoy having a rat pal to play with, groom, cuddle and sleep with. Rats are nocturnal by nature, and while they will adapt to your schedule, a pair of rat buddies can also wake up and play by themselves in the middle of the night when you are asleep!
Rats need time out of their cage every day (ideally an hour or more). This can be time spent running around and exploring their environment, sitting in your lap or riding around on your shoulder while you clean house, but this daily interaction and attention is vital for the well-being of the rat. Rats love to play on the floor and explore, but they are avid chewers and can trash cords and baseboards in moments (rabbit owners: does this sound familiar?). Be sure to have at least one rat-proof room that has no exposed wires, poisonous plants or other toxins accessible to the rat.
Rats do NOT make good pets for small children under the age of ten years or so because small children are generally not restrained and/or coordinated enough to properly handle a rat. Some children are still not mature enough to properly handle a rat even at age ten. Children must always be supervised when holding rats: rats are small, fast, delicate creatures, and can easily be injured or lost. Young children lack fine motor skills and self restraint, and improper handling of domestic rats can – and has - resulted in rats being knelt on, sat on, dropped, and thrown. Rats can have bones and internal organs crushed from being held too tightly. Children have picked up rats and swung them by their tails causing the skin to tear away exposing the tail bone (degloving). Rats must never ever be picked up by the tail! Socialized pet rats do not bite unless extremely frightened or injured. Small children are therefore more likely to be bitten than anyone else.
Young children are also at greater risk for zoonotic (‘transmitted from animals’) diseases because of their underdeveloped immune systems and improper hand-washing habits. Children under age five are particularly susceptible to ingestion of Salmonella , a type of intestinal bacteria that rats can carry (and that humans can contract if not diligent about hygiene). To reiterate: rats are not suitable pets for small children.
If you have older, responsible children and are considering a pet rat for them, consider how the pet will fit into your family's schedule. Can your son or daughter incorporate pet ownership into an already busy after-school schedule and other commitments? Are you responsible enough to assume care for the pet if your children are not able/willing to do so? If the kids lose interest or go off to college, you are going to have to care for and play with the rat. Are you sure your rat will get enough attention?
These are just some of the things you need to be aware of when considering adopting a pet rat – supplies and other expenses will be covered in the next article!
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