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Life With Your First Pet Rat

Rat owners share the joys, challenges and unexpected fun of owning pet rats.

Patricia Knight
Posted: March 14, 2014, 3:15 p.m. EDT

rat on shoulder
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Kaitlyn Blake was surprised that her rat Linguine was as companionable as a pet cat.

A lot of people have not heard of keeping rats as pets, and it’s a minority who actually decide to take the plunge and bring one home. So what is life like with your first pet rat? The best way to find out is from current ratkeepers. Rat parent Tony Adams of California said, "It was everything I expected and then some,” which seems to be a common experience. Pet rat owners interviewed about their first experiences with rats prove that life with a rat can be as rewarding as with other animals, though it has challenges too.

three rats side by side
© Courtesy Cindy Rasmussen
Cindy Rasmussen said it is worth the effort to teach pet rats like her Jules, Baxter and Norman that people are great.

Discovering Their Personality
One of the biggest rat pros is their personality. Most new rat owners do not expect their little rats to have so much character. New rat parents seem surprised at how tame they are. One rat mom, Cathy McDonagh of Connecticut, said that her first rat, Tippy, came knowing how to be a "shoulder-rider”— but this isn’t always the case. Rat owner Cindy Rasmussen of Minnesota had a good experience with her first rat and has had others since, but notes that a majority of rats "haven’t had a chance to learn how great humans can be,” adding that it can take months to teach them that. She also mentions, however, that the effort is worth it.

First-time rat owners are surprised that having a rat can feel a lot like having a dog or cat. One rat owner from California, Kaitlyn Blake, reflects this feeling discussing her rat, Linguine: "I grew up with cats and didn’t think he could match the level of companionship…but he definitely is comparable.”

Linguine is also more affectionate than expected. "He’ll give me a bunch of 'kisses,'” she said. This level of affection is another rat quality that first-time ratkeepers find pleasantly surprising.

Kim Green has two rats, Sammie and Sugar. "I didn’t know how loving they are,” she said. One of her rats crawls under the bathroom door and "visits” them, and also plays with their dog and cat.

New rat owners also find that rats truly are intelligent. Stories of trained rats are one motivation for petkeepers to try out a rat — and those stories turn out to be true. Lindsay Pulman of Pennsylvania enjoyed her first rat experience, became more involved with them, and now has rats that come when called, do tug of war, and can stand on their hind legs on command. She said they "can be trained to do any trick a dog can do, taking into consideration their size.”

Despite their overall fun and loving personalities, like all animals, rats’ characters can vary. Kelly Yann of Pennsylvania has enjoyed rats since 2004 but is currently keeping a rat named Yoda that is more playful than most males. The other male rats have not accepted him, though they are all neutered. "I’m currently searching for a girl rat that needs to be rescued to try with Yoda,” Yann said. "Girl rats tend to be more playful.” Yann hopes that a "Mrs. Yoda” would be more suited to him.

rat on desk
© Courtesy Cathy McDonagh
Tippy seemed to instinctively know how to ride on Cathy McDonagh's shoulder when she first got him.

Potential Challenges
All pets present challenges, and rats are no exception. Green mentions that she did not keep one of her rats on her shoulder at first and now has problems with this rat chewing things in their home. She also finds rat nests in her home containing items such as candy, fishing bobbers, and even socks and undergarments.

Another challenge lies with people’s perception about rats: the perception that rats are dirty and unclean. "The opposite is actually true,” Adams said. "They are constantly cleaning themselves, and if you ever do detect a bad odor on them, it’s because you haven’t kept their cage cleaned — not because they’re dirty by any means.”

rat in hand
© Courtesy Kelly Yann
Kelly Yann weighs her rats once a month as one way to monitor their health.

Health
On a related note, people keeping their first rat encounter more veterinary bills than expected. Spaying and neutering is recommended to help avoid mammary tumors. "I didn’t do that with my first rats,” McDonagh said, making sure now to get her female rats spayed.

Since their first rat experience, Pulman and her husband founded the Pittsburgh Rat Lovers Club, and Pulman suggests finding an exotics veterinarian who treats rats. "The average dog and cat vet has very little specific knowledge about rats.”

Yann had an experience that has led to increased vigilance. "I was not sure if my one rat was getting fat or the other was getting skinny. I waited too long, and it turned out the skinny one was very sick.” Yann now checks the rats’ weight on a kitchen scale once a month.

And finally, rats typically live to be about 2 years old — a hard fact that first-time ratkeepers will need to deal with. Ratkeepers mention this as being perhaps the most difficult part of rat ownership.

rat eating
© Courtesy Kim Green
Sammie is one of Kim Green's rats, which have been known to play with her dog and cat.

Lessons From Their First Rats
Most ratkeepers have great experiences with their rat and end up getting more. Still, they do so keeping some important lessons in mind.

Yann suggests starting a veterinary fund. "Most rats don’t experience a lot of problems, at least not early in life. As a rat ages, many issues can develop, and you want to be able to care for them properly.”

Pulman gives another piece of advice for living with your first pet rat — or rather, "rats.” She recommends a minimum of two rats of the same sex, as rats are social creatures that need each other’s company.

Living With Your First Rat
Overall, living with your first pet rat is like living with any other pet for the first time —and surprisingly, people find that it’s like living with a dog or cat. People often bond with their first rat and go on to get more rats. "The most important thing is that you love your rats. The rest will fall into place,” Rasmussen said, pretty much summing up the rat experience.

See questions and answers about rat health, click here>>
See questions and answers about rat behavior, click here>>

Posted: March 14, 2014, 3:15 p.m. EDT


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