Over the centuries, rats have acquired a nasty reputation as aggressive, disease carrying, destructive rodents. In reality, these labels are only somewhat true and only for wild rats; they are responsible for great economic damage to crops and buildings, but their diseases are mostly a result of the parasites that they carry. Domesticated ones, on the other hand, are neither aggressive, destructive nor diseased, and they make very good pets. When rats are properly cared for, the risk of disease transmission to humans is very low.
Domestic rats, those bred and raised in captivity, are the best of all caged rodents. They are extremely sociable and curious, and they love human contact. Their cousins, hamsters, gerbils and mice, are very popular pets, but tend to be more aggressive and less responsive. Gerbils very often hate to be handled by humans, and hamsters have a tendency to bite. Keeping in mind that these animals are often kept by children, rats offer a far more pleasant experience for an inexperienced handler.
Rats love to be outside of their cages and join in household activities. Many like to hang out on their handler’s shoulders while they move about. Affectionate animals, they like to groom and lick their favorite human companions, and they can easily differentiate between different people. Rats enjoy sharing meals with people and even washing up afterwards.
These animals are also more intelligent than other rodents that are commonly kept as pets. They are fast learners and very agile. Rats can easily be taught to perform tricks such as sitting on their haunches on command, retrieving objects and coming when called. The most common tricks that fanciers teach their rats are to maneuver quickly through mazes and agility courses.
Despite their reputation as dirty animals, rats are extremely clean. They bath themselves very frequently, much like a cat does. They also prefer to keep their cage as clean as possible. A healthy rat will use any available material, such as newspaper or cedar chips, to construct a large nest for sleeping in. Inside the nest, they rarely ever defecate or urinate, reserving a specific area of their cage for these functions. In fact, this instinctive behavior can work to your advantage if you provide a litter box, which makes cage cleaning easier.
Whenever possible, pet rats should be kept in at least pairs. When space permits, these animals happily follow “the more the merrier” rule of thumb. However, unless you desire and are able to provide for many rats, make sure that your pets are of the same sex, since they are profuse and successful breeders. If you are only able to care for one rat, it is important to spend a great deal of time with your pet to maintain its quality of life.
The only downside to having rats as pets is that they age very quickly. The average lifespan is only two years. Because of their charming temperament, having one as a pet for only two years can be a painful loss for anyone who has become attached.