By Pete Wedderburn

Rats are not popular creatures in our culture. The way that the word “rat” is used in the English language provides a good example of society’s negative opinion of the creatures.

If you “smell a rat”, you have a strong suspicion that something is wrong. Smelling a dog, cat, rabbit or guinea pig just would not carry the same meaning. We tend to think of rats as being dirty, disease-carrying and aggressive.

Hollywood has tended to magnify the unattractive aspects of rats, playing up to people’s unpleasant expectations. Many people are nervous about rats to begin with, and after being showered with society’s negative images of rats, many end up having a serious rat phobia. I met somebody this week who saw a rat in a ditch while inside her car.

She was so overcome with distress that she had to pull over the car, and she almost fainted. When I take patients into TV3 for my weekly vet spot, I am usually surrounded by people “ooohing” and “aahhing” fondly over the animal, but when I took a rat in recently, almost everyone seemed to shrink away from me.

Nobody came up to me enthusing about the small, cuddly animal. In fact, rats are friendly, intelligent and affectionate animals. To like a rat, you need to get away from the popular stereotype. If you imagine a hedgehog without any spines, you will probably find that you start off with a more positive attitude. Rats make excellent pets, but unfortunately, rats that are frightened of humans do tend to bite when picked up, out of fear. If you obtain a rat when it is young, soon after weaning, and handle it frequently from this early age, it will grow up being very comfortable with humans.

A tame rat is no more likely to bite than the average friendly pet dog. Tame rats are happy to be held and petted. Indeed, they are generally more affectionate than other popular pets like hamsters or gerbils. Rats are easy to keep. They live in the same type of cages as other small furry pets. You can buy special dried pellets designed as “rat food”, but they also enjoy snacks of a wide range of human food. One rat owner who I know always gives her pets a small portion of her own dinner every night. When training rats to be friendly, it can be useful to give a treat now and again.

Rats especially enjoy small pieces of chocolate. People worry that rats might be carrying disease. It is true that a serious disease of humans called Leptospirosis (or Weils Disease) can be spread by rat urine. Healthy pet rats are very unlikely to be carrying this disease, but as with all pets, it makes sense to wash your hands after handling animals, and again before meals.

Rats only live for two or three years, and as long as their living conditions are good, they tend to be healthy. The rat that I took to TV3 was an unusual case. Her name is Sis and she suffers from a heart condition. She is nearly three years of age, which makes her elderly for a rat rat. She is showing some other signs of aging, with creaky joints due to arthritis, but she’s in good condition otherwise.

We’re hoping that she’ll respond well to simple treatment for her heart disease. Her owner is doing everything possible to help her live as long and as happy a life as possible. Sis has an owner who completely dotes on her: to use another popular expression, she has been a “lucky rat”! 

Read Pete’s Pets every week in Ireland’s Own