Many people dislike rats, mainly due to the bad press these lovely little animals get. Having owned several, I’ve found that they are great companions: intelligent, amusing, loving and remarkably flexible. Here’s a few facts about rats that you might not know:
Rats can reproduce from the age of only five weeks. They generally have multiple offspring in each litter. Obviously, this is one of the reasons they are so numerous!
Rats cannot vomit. For this reason, they’re really careful if they encounter some kind of food with which they’re unfamiliar. They will generally take a little nibble and go away for a while. An hour or two later, assuming they don’t feel ill, they’ll come back and eat the rest. This is why many rat poisons simply don’t work – the rat is too smart to gulp down unfamiliar food simply because it smells nice.
A rat can survive without water for longer than a camel. Not that you’d be likely to be keeping both in your house, of course. If it find itself in a damp situation, a healthy rat can tread water for three days. And yes, they can survive being flushed down the loo.
Rats are necrophagic – that is, they eat their own poop. Many animals are like this, but it can be a little off-putting. Thankfully, rats maintain a healthy variety in their diet by eating fruit, meat, vegetables, dairy and so on. Apparently, city rats have a preference for (amongst other things) scrambled eggs and macaroni cheese! (Though cheese itself raises their blood pressure, so should be avoided in pets.)
Many rats enjoy licking their owner’s teeth. Given the last point, this may not be to your taste! However, the up-side is that if you do allow them to do it, their saliva is capable of removing all sorts of junk from your teeth, including cigarette stains and, by some accounts, tartar.
Contrary to popular belief, rats do not carry hosts of diseases. In the wild, there is obviously a risk due to the places they set up home, but a pet rat is generally a very clean animal. Domesticated rats do not carry the bubonic plague – that was carried by rattus rattus, the black rat, not by rattus norvegicus (the domesticated variety).
Rats use their tails to control their body temperature. Unlike mice, rats should never be picked up by the tail: their relatively heavy body means this is painful for them. It’s rather like someone picking up a human by the arm and can, in fact, break their tail. Rats should always be picked up by placing a hand under their body or by allowing them to climb onto your arm.
It’s quite possible to train rats. They’re very intelligent and can learn all sorts of tricks, the same as a very small dog would. They can, for example, recognise their name and be taught to come when called – which can be very useful indeed if they escape their cage and hide behind the cooker (not that this has happened to me, of course!).
It’s very difficult to contain rats. Their cage has to be very tough and sufficiently large and interesting to provide them with activity and space. They are particularly fond of climbing, so height is even more important than floor-space when deciding on a potential home. The cage doors must be firmly closed: rats will learn how to counter any simple latching mechanisms in a matter of hours, so opening the cage doors must be beyond their strength.
Although keeping rats is seen as a modern choice, they have been kept as pets for around two hundred years. Rat catchers in London are known to have domesticated them as far back as the early 1800s and they have been bred specifically as pets since late in the same century.
And as a bonus, an eleventh fact: rats have belly-buttons!