Although I've kept rats in the past, I'm really just a beginner - my previous rats are a distant memory, and there wasn't nearly as much information about them available to me then. Newly returned to ratkeeping, I've already become an enthusiastic owner. I've never had such a responsive and easy to keep pet. Below are my reasons for preferring rats over ANY other pet.
First of all, rats aren't dirty! They constantly wash and groom themselves. Rats usually learn not to toilet outside their cage by about three months old. You don't have to take them for walks. All you have to do is keep their cage clean, and give them some love and attention each day.
Well socialised rats are capable of forming a real bond with their owners, and act more like miniature puppies than anything else. Our males really enjoy a cuddle, and are ready to doze off in your lap. I've read that females are generally more active, and provide mischief and entertainment. Having said this, each one has their own personality, and their own little habits. Our rats have become attached to their pet humans, and beg to come out of their cage and play, or just ride around on our shoulders.
Because they are so sociable, it's unfair to keep a rat on its own. They need to have the company of their own kind, because it's impossible for you to be with them all the time. Rats can usually be kept in single sex groups without problems, thus giving the perfect excuse for getting more than one! We have decided to keep only male rats because this eliminates the chance of any little 'accidents'.
Of course there are some minus points. Rats are not as low maintenance as many other rodents - they benefit from daily interaction with their humans and their cages need frequent attention, with a tidy up each day or two and a full clean out each week. Male rats tend to scent mark, which means they often leave a small drop of urine on your hand just to say that you belong to them. This also makes their cage smell a little more than one full of females, but we've had very little problem with smell - maybe it would be worse if they were housed in an aquarium. I'd put their smell/cage cleaning factor at about hamster level - they need cleaning more often than gerbils, less often than mice.
Some people find that they have allergy problems with rats, so it may be as well to handle someone else's rats before spending a lot of money setting up a rat cage. I find that I'm O.K. with ratties despite getting hayfever symptoms from both cats and dogs, so it can work both ways.
Another problem is that female rats are prone to mammary tumours (although males can get them too). These can usually be operated on successfully, although anaesthetics are risky in small animals. My first ever rat had two operations on tumours before she eventually died of a stroke. Rats do have a fairly short life, living only two or three years, so you don't have long to enjoy them.
One thing I have learnt this time around is that woodshavings may not be good for rats. Here's the saga of my search for the perfect litter.
My experience is that rats can be rewarding and loving pets who can form close bonds with both children and adults. If you are willing to spend the time to care for them, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them as the ideal pet.
Annette, March 2002
The best and the worst things about keeping rats - survey replies