Thu, Feb 09, 2012 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Maligned rodent can become the ideal best friend

AP, Washington

Rat lovers are used to being misunderstood.

“When my husband told his ex that we got rats, she said: ‘On purpose?’” said Tami Kaplan of Waltham, Massachusetts, proud owner of three of the maligned rodents.

Look past your preconceptions and you might fall in love, like Robin Rushlau of Dresden, Maine, foster and adoption coordinator with Mainely Rat Rescue.

“I had friends who had rats — I wouldn’t even look at them. I thought they were the creepiest pets ever,” she said.

However, her daughter convinced her to care for one while the owners were on vacation.

He was far from the perfect specimen — obese, lice-ridden and the exact color of a wild rat — but, Rushlau says: “I couldn’t believe how wonderful he was. At the end of the two weeks, I wouldn’t let him go back.”

In contrast to their icky reputation, rats are playful and affectionate, their owners say. They’re also a lot smarter than you might realize.

Erin Stromberg is a keeper at Think Tank, an exhibit at the National Zoo that highlights animal cognition. Alongside our brainy relatives the orangutans, Think Tank houses three brown rats.

Stromberg suggests that the conventional dislike for rats is partly because of their intelligence.

They’re a challenge to control because they’re flexible and adaptable enough to learn to avoid new dangers and exploit new food sources, and, she said: “Flexibility is one of the key components of how we define thinking.”

Stromberg also pointed to recent science that demonstrates rats’ capacity for empathy: “When given the choice, rats chose to free other caged animals rather than take a food reward.”

The result is a pet that, as Rushlau describes it, is much like a small dog, but less time-consuming to care for. And compared with other rodents, Kaplan observes, rats are tidier than guinea pigs and less likely to bite than a hamster.

Rats love human companionship because they are social animals — in the wild they live in large colonies. That means they also need the company of their own kind, so you should keep at least two. A multi-level cage will allow them to climb, and takes up less floor space.

A rat’s other basic needs are fairly simple. Mainely Rats recommends feeding them a good-quality, lab-rat diet and some fresh fruits and vegetables. Since they are rodents, their teeth grow continually, so you need to supply safe items for them to chew on.

Be sure that if your rat needs medical care, you take it to a vet with rodent experience. Be aware that rats are susceptible to tumors and serious respiratory problems, Kaplan said. If your rat is sniffly, don’t assume it’s just a cold. And feel the animal frequently for any lumps.

The other downside is that rats don’t live long — only two to three years.

“You get very attached to them, and it’s hard to have pets that don’t live that long,” Kaplan said.

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