Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The fancy (or pet) rat is a domesticated breed of the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus). The name "fancy rat" has nothing to do with the "fanciness" of their appearance but derives from the meaning of "to fancy," i.e. "to like": "I quite fancy her." Thus one who keeps pet rats is said to be involved in the "rat fancy."
The origin of the fancy rat is probably the ratcatchers of the late 19th century who trapped rats and were paid by town governments per rat, and who also kept certain rats for exhibition/gambling fights. They began breeding rats (possibly to collect more money from the towns, or because it was easier than catching new ones all the time), and became attached to some as they discovered how intelligent and trainable rats can be. One of the most famous of these rat catchers was Jack Black, ratcatcher to Queen Victoria, who became known for breeding and selling pet rats around 1840-1860. Rats became more and more domesticated and people enjoyed them since they are easily bred, social, intelligent and clean pets. The first rat show was held in 1901 in England. Beatrix Potter, author of the "Peter Rabbit" series of children's books, had a white pet rat of which she was very fond. Ratkeeping grew in popularity in the 1970s, leading to the formation of the National Fancy Rat Society in 1976.
As in other pet species, a variety of colors, coat types, and other features that do not appear in the wild have arisen in pet rats through selective breeding. Some pet rats retain the "agouti" (two tones on the same hair) coloring of the wild brown rat, but other colors available now include blue, silver, black, white, pearl, fawn/champagne/beige, and red/cinammon. In addition to solid colors and the "Berkshire" pattern (colored top, white under), there are many different markings, including one similar to Siamese cats (with seal or blue points), merle spotting, Dalmatian spotting, blazes, hoods (darker color on the head, shoulders and spine, generally a white body), caps (dark only on the head), and masks (only around the eyes), and "downunders", an Australian variety that has rapidly gained favour in Europe, which have markings on the belly that correspond to those on top. Rex coats are curlier (the whiskers are also curled), and satin coats are extra soft and shiny; several different genetic traits can produce hairless (or partly hairless) rats. "Dumbo" rats, which emerged as a new variety in the US and have now attained "Guide Variety" status in the UK, have ears which are lower on the sides of the head than normal "top"-eared rats, and genetically tailless rats are called "manx" just like tailless cats (manx rats come in the same stumpy, rumpy, and rumpy-riser varieties as Manx cats).
There is controversy amongst rat fanciers if breeding hairless or tailless rats is ethically right. The tail is vital for rats balance and for adjusting body temperature. Tailless rats have greater risk of heat exhaustion and falling too high. Similarily hairless rats are missing their warmth preserving coating and are more likely to get sick from the cold.
Rats make excellent pets for urbanites with small apartments, as they bond with humans and offer much in the way of affection and entertaining activity, but require less space indoors (and don't need to be taken outside at all). Though they do urinate occasionally when allowed to wander outside the cage, the smell and damage to flooring is nothing like that from cats or dogs. They do have a tendency to gnaw, but notably less than average rodents. They are less costly to feed than cats or dogs (a basic rat chow can be supplemented with many leftovers from the human table, as they are omnivores; however, see the Food section, below). Their veterinary care, however, is just as expensive.
Although rats are generally nocturnal, many pet rat owners have found their fancy rats to be crepuscular instead: most active for a few hours around dawn and dusk, napping for a few hours at a stretch between these times.
Rats are social creatures, best kept in same-sex pairings or groups. Pet rats live on average 2-3 years, though the oldest rat on record reached a purported age of 7. Bucks (male rats) reach an average weight of 500g whilst does (female rats) can reach up to 300g.
Rats can be kept both in cages and in terrariums, both of which are available in pet stores. However, cages with thin bars (thick wire) are strongly preferred, as rats need to climb for proper exercise and mental stimulation. Rats enjoy climbing the cage walls (the cage should have horizontal and vertical bars) and use their noses to sample the scents of the outside world (scent is very important to rats.) Rats kept in glass terrariums cannot climb, become lethargic and sometimes shown signs of psychological distress.
Despite a rat's modest size, appropriate housings should always have a floor space of at least 24 by 12 inches, and at least 24 inches in height. If affordable, larger cages with multiple levels are preferable. Rats with a bigger and more interesting home will live longer and provide more visual entertainment.
The perfect place for the rat's home is a well-lit room of constant, moderate temperature (18 to 26°C, 64 to 80°F). Do not place the cage in direct sun light which could cause dangerous overheating. When wire cages are used, it is especially important to avoid air drafts. Though they cannot see very far, rats become more relaxed and curious when positioned somewhat above the ground (at least 65 cm (2 feet)), from where they can perceive their surroundings.
Various types of litter can be used to cover the base of the cage; most rat societies advocate the use of a good recycled-paper-based litter, aspen shavings, cornhusk, hemp or shredded paper. Softwood shavings like pine and cedar should be avoided, as the phenols given off from these woods can cause serious respiratory and/or liver damage in rats.
Regular cleaning of a rat's home is crucial for the pet's health. The home must be cleaned at least once a week by replacing the soiled bedding where necessary. Another important component is a hiding place where the animal can rest during the day. Not all commercially available houses are adequate. The houses should be of sufficient size and be closed on at least three sides. The same building materials are appropriate for these as for the larger cages, although even a small cardboard box will work (and which will have to be regularly replaced). Some houses add features such as a removable roof that helps to take away collected food (especially perishable items).
Like many rodents, their teeth grow continuously. Rats with healthy properly aligned teeth will grind them together and maintain a proper length even if they are never allowed to chew on anything. The notion that a health rat's teeth will grow out of control without hard items to chew on is an old wives tale. Rats with misaligned teeth (often genetic, but sometimes the result of injury) will benefit from hard chew toys because their teeth cannot properly grind down against one another. Although it is not physically necessary for rats to have hard "chew toys", it is psychologically necessary. Rats have a very strong instinctual need to chew. Chewing on things is both fun and psychologically soothing for them. If you do not provide appropriate chew toys then they may chew on inappropriate items (like your furniture). Rats must be kept in enclosures that they cannot chew through, so wood and/or plastic cages are not appropriate.
Some cheap and effective chew toys for rats are: branches or pieces of non-toxic organic wood (maple, oak, apple...), flavored nylon chew toys for dogs, and chicken or steak bones. Unlike with dogs or cats a rat will not choke on bones because they slowly wear away the bone by gnawing on it. A dog or cat will try to crush the bone with their teeth and this causes the dangerous splintering.
Exercise and entertainment
Like all pets, rats need exercise and entertainment to maintain their physical and mental health. An exercise wheel allows rats to run full speed to their hearts' content, although some rats show no interest in them. Open metal wheels with a slotted floor are very dangerous to their tails and legs. If a tail or leg gets caught between the bars it can easily be broken. Several companies now make solid floored plastic wheels that are tail/leg safe and strong enough to accommodate a ratís weight.
If they are handled frequently, rats enjoy being out of their enclosures and having the opportunity to explore. However, they must be kept away from holes in the wall or in large pieces of furniture, because they sometimes seek out the dark and burrow-like confines of those areas and it can be difficult to convince to come out again.
Training any animal takes an investment of time and energy. All rats have the ability to learn to recognise their name and come when called. This is especially helpful if your pet is ever lost in the house. It is relatively easy to train a rat to use a litter tray or pan, and some people have even house broken their pets rats and let them run free in a rat-proofed room. The full extent of a rat's ability to be trained through patience and the use of treats as rewards can be seen in the popularity of rat agility classes at many rat shows.
Pet stores can provide basic food for rats that provides their nutritional needs, but they also enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits, and small amounts of cooked chicken or beef (cooled to a safe temperature, without spices or sauces). The diet should not comprise of more than 25% animal protein. Studies have shown that high protein intake shortens their lifespan and increases the likely hood of kidney trouble. It is believed that some rats may develop protein sores at levels over 25%, however this correlation is not scientifically proven. It is possible that certain types of proteins (seeds or dairy) can induce an allergic reaction in large amounts in certain rats.
Not all foods are suitable for rats. Certain foods like raw beans and sweets/candies are not recommended. Many household plants like the leaves of the tomato, are poisonous and dangerous to a rat's health. Like with most other animals (including humans), rats show poor judgement when it comes to food. Rats are often unable to decide which foods are good for them and consequently they will usually eat anything that is offered. Unlike with dogs (and other domestic animals) chocolate is completely non-toxic to rats, but it should only be fed in small quantities because it is high in calories and sugar. Due to its beneficial effect as a bronchiodilator it can be useful to offer a small amount of good quality dark chocolate to rats suffering from respiritory infections however.
Rats should also always have fresh water available. Appropriate drinking devices such as gravity drip-feed bottles can be found in stores. Both water and vegetables must be fresh and have to be exchanged frequently, usually once a day. Water must not be given in open jars, since it is likely to be polluted, or spilled.
Solid food components can be divided into three categories: dry, fresh, and animal food. Dry food usually makes up the main part in this listing. Many pet stores now stock commercial rat mixes and lab blocks specifically designed to cater to the dietary needs of rats, as most ordinary rodent mixes usually contain too high a level of fatty seeds and not enough protein. Most other kinds of seeds, kernels, and nuts can be given. Care should be taken to limit the amount of fat contained within the diet. Especially sunflower seeds, nuts, almonds, and sesame are most nutritive and are to be considered as a treat rather than as basic food. It is becoming common practice among many ratbreeders to make up their own mixes which often contain a balanced blend of cereals, wholegrains, and puppy biscuits amongst other ingredients; dried corn should be avoided as it can not only contain fungus, but also creates nitrosamines in the stomach which are potentially carcinogenic.
Poisonous plants (check all indoor plants) may constitute a danger; particularly as rats are not able to vomit and therefore cannot regurgitate the poisonous matter.
- National Fancy Rat Society
- Yorkshire Rat Club
- Rat Fan Club of America
- Rat and Mouse Club of America
- International Rat Fan Club
- Finnish Fancy Rat Society
- Swedish Rat Society
- Australian Rat Fanciers Society
- New Zealand Rat Club
- Norwegian Fancy Rat Society
- Info on Rat Genetics/Breeding
- SueBee Rat Diet: an example of a homemade rat mix
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