Kids love to visit the pet store and look at the animals, all of them – from the snakes and tarantulas to the birds and fish. But something happens when they stop to look at the small animals with their parents. A lot of younger children tend to find all of the animals cute, whether they are guinea pigs, hamsters, mice or rats. However, some of the older kids cringe when they get to the fancy rat tank, and call them “gross”. And I cannot count the amount of parents, especially mothers, who steer their kids away from the rats, even when their kids are showing an interest in the little furballs. It is very difficult to keep a straight, passive face in these situations.
Why do fancy rats get such a bad reputation from parents and customers everywhere? They look just as adorable as their small animal neighbors, if not more so; I may be biased, but fancy rats are much cuter and amiable in appearance than syrian hamsters. They love living together (hamsters are too territorial to have cagemates), sleep in adorable rat piles, and clean themselves practically 24/7. Sure, that group of dwarf hamsters down there looks cute sleeping on top of each other, but you can’t take them home that way!
The biggest stigma with rats stems from the blame passed onto them for the black plague forever ago. Rats are seen as diseased because the fleas that caused the black death hitched a ride on their backs and later spread to people. However, rats are not the sole animal capable of “getting” fleas; any critter with fur could harbor the pests. Outdoor cats commonly come home with fleas, and occasionally dogs. Fancy rats, on the other hand, spend their lives indoors, with the chance of fleas slim unless passed on by another household pet. Fleas can even pass from a person in an infested home to another location.
On the other hand, rats are accused of being “dirty” animals because they populate city sewers and scavenge for garbage. Yes, there are plenty of sewer rats staking their claims beneath the city streets. And yes, sewers are filthy. However, fancy rats are far removed from their sewer-dwelling counterparts. They are born in cages or tank enclosures, and live in them for the majority of their lives. Fancy rats don’t step one paw inside of your local sewers, and have been domesticated for over 200 years. That is why the rats you see in stores and from breeders are not the brown, wild variety; they were selectively bred from Norway rats, and come in colors from white, to black, to champagne and more.
Furthermore, rats are often portrayed as mean or violent animals, making some shoppers lump fancy rats into that generalization. And the truth is quite the opposite – rats are social animals, more social than hamsters (which cannot be housed together), and love to spend time with other rats. I am sure that everyone by now has seen the scene from Game of Thrones where a victim is tortured to death by a rat; the torturer attaches a metal bucket to their abdomen with a rat inside, and heats one end with a torch. Yes, this was a real form of torture used during different periods in history. And yes, the rat does burrow and gnaw into the victims bowels in an attempt to escape. Why? Because it gets hot inside that bucket, and that rat wants to live. Fancy rats do not want to snack on us.
I have only been bitten by my rats a handful of times, and each time was my fault. Rats, like any animal, may bite if they are shocked or scared – it is self defense. In the wild, that action can save their life, or drive off potential attackers. And if your fingers smell like food and your rat gets confused, you cannot possibly blame the little critter (food is food, and rats love food). Yes, cases of aggression do occur in fancy rats, and there are some rats that may not get along with other rats, or even humans. This is fairly rare in retrospect, and is sometimes the result of abuse or neglect. A dog or cat that was the victim of abuse could very well behave the same way. However, the majority of little rat furbabies are lovable and loving.
Finally, as a fancy rat owner and admirer, I am here to inform you that tails are not gross. For some reason, so many people tell their kids they won’t allow them to have a rat because they “don’t like their tails”. I never really understood this, because so many of our other pets have tails, and no one calls them “gross”. Dog and cat tails are covered in fur, but if you shaved them down, you’d see that same, skinny tail. A rat’s tail is actually vital to helping its body regulate temperature, and helps with balance. I have seen people who were too frightened or disgusted by fancy rats pick them up by their tails to move them from one spot to another. THIS IS BAD (and so very rude).
If so many people didn’t have this stigma of rats, and media didn’t portray them in such a terrible way, maybe more pet parents would see them in a more fresh and friendly light. I mean, what other small furry pet will let you hang them upside down, hang out in your sweatshirt hood, or groom your fingers for you? (Grooming, not tasting, grooming).