Rat Myths Debunked

27th Mar, 2023

Written by Brenda Snyman – Exotic Animal Rescue and rat behaviourist

Photography by Tiny Toes Photography

What springs to mind when you think about rats? Dirty? Aggressive? Maybe even dangerous? You may be surprised to find out that many of the myths associated with them are simply that: myths. In fact, rats are highly popular pets – and with good reason. Find out more about these remarkably attractive, sociable and loving animals.

MYTH: Rats are dirty and disease-ridden

Most depictions of rats in stories and history are of evil, red-eyed, dirty and scruffy creatures. In reality, rats are very clean animals. Similar to cats, they groom and clean themselves continuously and are easily litter trained. Rats also work together in their mischief* to clean and groom each other. They help the older rats with hard-to-reach places and check each other’s tails, ears and other parts for any dirt. Pet rats will also often get into the habit of grooming their human, for example, meticulously going over their hands to make sure they’re clean. This is one way rats show care and love to their humans.

Additionally, as far as diseases go, rats have fewer communicable diseases that can spread to humans than cats and dogs do. A cat or dog is much more likely to give you a virus, bacteria or parasite than a rat is. Since there are many cat and dog owners and very few cases of illness contracted from these loving pets, that can give you an idea of the even smaller chances of a person falling ill from pet rats.

*Mischief: Collective noun for rats; what you call a group/colony of rats.

MYTH: Rats spread the bubonic/black plague

This is one of the most pervasive and popular myths about rats. However, it turns out that they’ve been unfairly blamed.

Ectoparasites living on people, such as hair and body lice, were the biggest culprits of spreading the plague. Lice were so common back then that humans even had elaborately ornate delousing combs! The richer you were, the more bejewelled was your delousing comb. Living conditions were incredibly unhygienic at the time; sewage was commonly found on the streets outside homes and rubbish and food weren’t appropriately disposed of. This did create excellent conditions for rats, the scavengers of nature, to thrive. They’re the cleaners of the world, and there was a lot to clean. Due to their prevalence at the time, they became an easy target to blame.

The second guiltiest ectoparasite spreading the disease were fleas. Fleas were spread by cats, dogs, humans and, yes, also rats. However, as a matter of interest, fleas prefer animals such as cats and dogs much more than rats and humans. Fleas will and do feed off rats and hitch a ride, just like with humans, but neither rats nor humans are natural hosts for fleas.

Recent journal publication on this: Human ectoparasites and the spread of plague in Europe during the Second Pandemic.

MYTH: Rats, wild and domestic, are aggressive and bite

Rats are prey animals and have an inherent instinct to avoid conflict. Wild rats are very unlikely to bite unless cornered and feeling threatened. When they bite, it’s a defensive reaction and not one of aggression. They don’t stalk or chase people, as movies often depict.

Domestic rats also very rarely bite. They’re naturally social and affectionate and enjoy human company. Compared to other pocket pets, such as hamsters (who are solitary and can be more temperamental), they really are the least likely to bite.

On the rare occasions that pet rats do bite, there usually is a good reason for it. Possible causes could be mistakenly identifying fingers as a treat (due to the smell of food on them), illness, hormones, past trauma or fear. Biting can be addressed by a knowledgeable rat behaviourist.

MYTH: It’s fine to keep a solo rat

Rats are very social animals and, although they can bond closely with their humans, they really do also need other rats’ company to thrive. It’s advisable to get at least three rats at a time; this way they’ll still have a friend if one was to pass. Rats help support each other through grief and can often pass shortly after a friend if they don’t have this extra company. Ideally, a mischief consists of rats of different ages to make socialising opportunities optimal.

On average, solo rats live shorter lives than those that live in groups. They’re also more prone to illness and behavioural issues. Rats learn to “rat” and socialise with each other. People often worry that their rats won’t bond with them if they have other rats as friends. This isn’t the case at all; in fact, the opposite is true – rats in bonded groups are much more confident and settled and able to trust their humans and therefore bond with them more deeply too.

MYTH: It’s fine to buy rats from a pet shop

It’s highly advisable to find an ethical rescue or breeder from which to adopt rats. Pet shops don’t follow ethical or up-to-date practices where breeding of small pets is concerned. They tend to mass-breed animals in cramped spaces and feed them inadequate diets. Rats can fall pregnant as young as five weeks old and have litters back-to-back. This is often what happens because boys and girls are kept together too long. Does (female rats) are bred multiple times in their lives. Ethically, and for their best health, a doe shouldn’t be bred more than twice in her life and only after six months of age. Never back-to-back.

The general health and longevity of domestic rats have taken a huge drop in the past decade in South Africa due to the bad breeding practices of pet shops and backyard/unknowledgeable breeders. Many different strains of bad bacteria have been introduced into the domestic rat population due to unhygienic living conditions and incorrect bedding and diets used. Rats are smaller and frailer and often have anxiety or other behavioural concerns.

Pet shops also don’t do home checks and will sell to any impulsive buyer. They sell babies too young and often misgender them, which causes further “oops litters”. They also give very outdated care information and sell small and inappropriate cages, accessories, food and bedding. All these practices result in more abandoned and dumped rats, rats not being cared for adequately, solo rats being kept, and rats being abused.

Please consult with the South African Rate Breeders Union (SARBU), South Africa’s oldest rat breeder association, if you’re interested in pet rats. They can advise on ethical rescues and breeders from which to source your rats.

MYTH: Rats are cheap/easy/practice pets

Perhaps due to their tiny size and the ease with which they’re acquired, people mistake rats as “easy” or “less than” the bigger popular pets. Just because rats are small doesn’t mean they don’t deserve proper health care and living conditions. They’re not expendable. They do require a firm commitment which includes correct housing, vet care and regular caretaking.

Appropriate cage set-ups and accessories are expensive. They also often require specialised vet care from an exotic vet. General vets don’t always know how to treat rats correctly and can make mistakes since they’re mostly trained in predator-style pets such as cats and dogs. Rats are prey animals and therefore show illnesses and pain in very different ways.

The costs to keep rats are completely worth it, but you need to be prepared for them.

MYTH: You can set a domestic rat free in the wild/Domestic rats and wild rats are the same

The current lines of fancy rats have been domesticated since the 1800s. This means they started to be tamed at the same time as many dog and cat breeds. There are also accounts of rats and mice being bred in Japan as pets as early as the 1600s. However, unfortunately those lines (and detailed information about them) have been lost to time.

Domestic rats are Norvegicus rattus, which means their wild ancestors were the brown rat or sewer rat. They, however, don’t have the wild instincts or survival abilities of their wild ancestors anymore. Comparing domesticated rats with their wild counterparts is like expecting dogs to act as wild as wolves.

The reasons why domestic rats don’t survive in the wild and should never be released are plentiful. They’re vulnerable to temperature fluctuations, humidity and the sun. They cannot instinctively find food or water, and often are unable to digest most of the foods available outside. They’re also no longer adapted to all the bacteria and pathogens in the wild and often succumb to illness when exposed to the elements. They’re usually released alone with no help to fend for themselves or protect themselves. Wild colonies see them as a threat and won’t help or support them. They’re also unable to identify and avoid all threats and predators, and since their coats aren’t natural colours, they stand out and are easily spotted.

Dumping domestic rats is cruel and abusive. Please contact your nearest exotic pet rescue if you spot any unnaturally coloured rats in nature – the quicker they can be rescued, the better their chance of survival.

For more information and photos on rats, follow @luvtinytoes on Instagram.

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