When I was little, I had just about every pet under the sun. Dogs, cats, snakes, scorpions, fish, turtles, birds, guinea pigs, mice, iguanas... and rats.
Maybe reading that last one (and probably a few before it, actually) made you squinch up your face a little and your brain is saying "errrrrnopethanks". But to be honest, rats are pretty much the most affectionate little critters and if you have a kiddo begging you for a crummy hamster, you should definitely reconsider and head for Ratsville, population at-least-two-so-they-don't-get-lonely.
In my life, I've had two pet rats, and my partner Rich had two as well, which is why we surprised my daughter Gretchen with a pair of ratties this past autumn. I wish I had a video of her reaction when she realized why we were at the pet shop and that I'd actually already bought and set up an entire rat cage at home. It totally blew her mind.
And then we brought home Kate and Charlotte -- not at all named for the royal fam, even though we think they're pretty rad.
As if anyone could say they aren't adorable.
These two sweeties, who are now about 6 months old, are so friendly, always happy to see us, an love snuggling, hanging out on our shoulders, or running around the house (when supervised of course, and with the dog in his crate).
Gretchen taught Kate (with the darker fur) how to run up and down the stairs when called. See, rats are SMART and pretty much all around awesome.
When they were smaller, and to keep them safe during playtime, Gretchen would sit in our big whirlpool tub (without water, of course) and the ratties would run around and climb her like a jungle gym. This was perfect until they discovered they'd grown large enough to jump right out of the tub, so now we do supervised floor playtime. It works just as well and they always come when they are called. (Or at least when they are presented with food.)
A few friends have asked if it's tricky to have the rats with our dog, but actually if you know my dog, you know he's pretty much a weirdo and he's absolutely terrified of the rats. Especially Kate.
Let me back up a moment. Kate and Charlotte have completely different personalities. While Charlotte is very docile and come-what-may, Kate is curious, fearless, and really, really, really wants to bite the dog. As soon as she sees him outside the cage, she reaches her tiny paws out to grab him.
Winston, our loveable, slightly pathetic Boston Terrier, cowers in fear.
Basically, I'm not at all concerned about the dog and the rats. The rats would win that battle and we'd never let them battle anyhow, so there's nothing to worry about.
If you have other pets, just make sure your cage is nice and secure, and if possible, out of the way of where your other pets might hang out -- ie. on top of a dresser or table where a dog can't hop up, or on a surface where your cat can't get beside the cage. Most rat cages don't have bars wide enough for kitty paws, but just to be safe, and more to protect your cat/dog from rat bites.
I suppose since I've mentioned bitey-rats a few times, I should explain that while rats definitely have the capacity to bite, they are SUPER easy to train. Just holding them each day and showing them you're their pal is enough. Hand feed them little ratty treats, let them curl up in your pocket or allow them to explore your lap, and talk to them. They love company, especially in the mornings before they go to sleep for the day, and in the evening when they wake up again. (Sup, nocturnal lifestyle.)
Because of their sleeping habits, I'd opt to keep their cage away from sleeping areas or you'll find yourself hollering "stop chewing that box!" and "OMG quit climbing upside-down like that!" at 2am.
Before we brought the ratties home, Gretchen had been doing lots of research and reading every rat book she could get her hands on. This was great because the books taught her all about their diet, what their home should be like, how to train them, and how to keep them generally safe and sound and happy.
They are simple pets, but you should always read up about animals before welcoming them into the family. This way you'll know things like "rats have red mucous" so you don't think they are dying when they have red blood-lookin' specs on their fur.
It's just rat bogies.
I'm hoping that you're starting to think about ratties as a cute alternative to some of the less kid-friendly rodents like gerbils, hamsters, and mice. While they may have a crummy reputation, I promise you they'll start to feel like a part of the family once you see just how sweet they can be.
If you have any ratty-raising questions, feel free to leave them in the comments! If you have rats, I'll love you to tweet me your pics! Follow @thatdesiree and come say hi on Twitter.