BY BRIANA MAGISTRO
SC Staff Writer
A rising trend in the pet world is owning rats. Pet rats, or fancy brown rats, are a totally different species than their street rat cousins.
There are many differences among street rats (Rattus rattus), wild brown rats (Rattus norvegious), and domesticated brown rats, also known as fancy rats.
Many people believe that street rats are diseased and ferocious animals, due to their involvement in the Black Plague.
Although street rats live in dirty conditions, they are not all flea-ridden homes for bacteria.
Wild brown rats and fancy rats are the same species.
This is similar to domesticated dogs. All dogs are descended from wolves. The species that all dogs are included in is Canis lupus.
However, domesticated dogs, such as the golden retriever, include the subspecies name familiaris. This subspecies name indicates that the dog has been domesticated for many generations.
Keeping pet rats only developed in the late 1800s, so the fancy brown rat will not get its subspecies for a few hundred more years.
The main difference between domesticated and wild brown rats is their coat color. Wild brown rats have a brown coat.
Being bred over the years, fancy rats have developed a variety of coat colors and textures.
Rats come in various colors, like cinnamon, gray, blond, and white.
Rats can be found with different kinds of coat markings, like large patches or Himalayan-style markings.
It is possible to get a rat with thick, wavy fur. These rats are called “rex” and are almost always breeder-exclusive.
Pet rats live about two to three years, so their time with us is relatively short.
However, fancy rats develop fewer illnesses than their wild counterparts.
Keeping rats really developed in the late 1800s. During that time, rats were an issue in many homes. Thus, terrier breeds were developed to take care of these pests.
The size and shape of a terrier allows it to get into small places and hunt down rats, gophers, and mice.
From this, men developed a blood sport involving rats. Rat-catchers would sell rats to wealthy men who held blood sport events.
In blood sport, a bunch of rats were placed in a ring and a terrier was introduced to the ring. Bets were made to see how long it would take the terrier to kill all of the rats.
The silver lining in this sport was that the women became intrigued by these little creatures and started to collect them. The rat-catchers would take the tamest and prettiest rats and sell them to the ladies, who would then breed them.
The race for owning a pet rat really took off in 1901 when a rat won “best in show” at a pet mouse competition. The bigger size, longer lifespan, social activity, and larger brain made the rat a more suitable pet.
Today, rats are becoming one of the most commonly owned pets. They are relatively low maintenance and do not cost as much to feed or take to the vet.
The main requirements for a pet rat are a large cage, food, and lots of toys to play with. Rats need a lot of stimulation, or they can get bored and restless. Playing with them frequently and giving them things to play with tends to make them very happy.
Toys do not have to be expensive. In fact, rats are “great recyclers.”
“I give them…cardboard boxes and tubes as toys!” says rat owner Emily Fox, a junior at ESU.
She loves her “girls,” as she calls them, and believes that “people have a lot of misplaced preconceptions that for the most part is false! My rats are actually a different species than street rats, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”
It is true that many people believe that pet rats are just as nasty as street rats.
Roommates Ariel Elliot and Carolyn Gildea, both ESU seniors, own three rats.
“It’s like having children. Each rat has their own personality and they are the most intelligent pets I’ve ever had. I love them!” says Carolyn.
Rats are known to be as smart and as affectionate as dogs. According to a study at Oxford University, rats are one of the smartest animals and are capable of reasoning based on actions they have taken in the past.
Bottom line — are rats meant to be pets?
“[Carolyn and I] both recommend them to anyone! They really become attached to their owner and grow to love you just as much as you do them,” says Ariel.
Next time you see a rat in the pet store, or know someone who owns a rat, don’t judge them! They can be your very closest friends.
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