Note that many of the rat-husbandry tips given on this site are based on the usual accepted wisdom in Britain. Some authorities in America consider that wood-shavings made from pine or other resinous woods are harmful (see Housing), and recommend routine spaying, specially-prepared healthy foods and etc.. The increase in ratty lifespan which is gained by these methods seems to be very small: of the order of two weeks. However, they may reduce the incidence of mammary tumours in does; which are almost never life-threatening, but are an expensive nuisance to remove. Some sources believe neutering also reduces the incidence of pituitary tumours, which seem to be extremely rare in British rats but are said to be a problem in American strains. However, both spaying and castration are major and highly invasive procedures and castration in particular involves a (slight) risk of death, since rat testes go all the way up into the body cavity: so personally I would strongly recommend against routine neutering except in strains with an extremely high incidence of inoperable tumours.
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We're Norwegian rats
Because what we love the most
Is to gnaw and wee
Robyn, Queensland, Australia
The Norway rat is the only animal other than man which has been scientifically proven to both laugh and dream, to imagine their own actions and to experience regret. No doubt many other animals do dream, or regret, but only the Norway rat has been proven to.
Norway rats' cries are mainly ultrasonic, too high for most humans to hear, but with suitable electronic equipment young rats can be heard giggling as they wrestle and play - a sort of staccato, clicking "Eh eh eh". [If you want to hear your own rats, the Belfry Bat and Rat Detector can be obtained from Convergence Tech, Inc.] In a study published in January 2001, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that they had monitored the brainwaves of rats while solving a maze, and while sleeping afterwards, and found that the rats seemed to be running the maze again in their sleep. Experiments at the University of Minnesota show rats apparently visualising their actions in advance while Cambridge found them visuaolising them in memory. The University of Minnesota, again, found them regretting poor choices.
Norway rats appear to have evolved from a Far Eastern population of ship rats some time in the last 10,000 years, and are said to have reached Europe by way of Central Asia. According to The Brown Rat by Graham Twigg they arrived in Britain only in about 1720, carried on Russian ships from the Baltic, and didn't hit Norway for another 40 years. However, in British folklore "Norroway over the sea" can refer to the whole Baltic area; so the name "Norway rat", in the general sense of "rat from the Baltic", is reasonably sensible.
Prior to the Eighteenth Century the usual rat in Europe was the ship rat, Rattus rattus. The rise of the Norway rat may have been associated with the drop in temperature from the late Middle Ages on, as they do not tolerate heat very well. In other respects, however, they are exceptionally hardy and adaptable, and once they had established themselves they rapidly out-bred and out-ate the ship rat, and became the dominant rat in cold and temperate countries. Their jolly, sociable and laid-back nature made them ideal candidates for domestication, and they began to be kept as pets in Britain in the mid Nineteenth Century - initially because rat-catchers saved unusually-marked kits instead of killing them.
Attractive variations of coat-colour and markings soon followed, and the Rat Fancy was well-established in Britain before the First World War.
[A "Fancy" is a sort of club devoted to breeding a particular animal to compete for prizes awarded for colour, coat and conformation on the show-bench: the best-known Fancies are those for pedigree cats and dogs. Hence, "fancy rat".]
Rat Fancies now exist in many countries, most prominently in Britain, the US, Australia and Scandinavia. The modern pet or fancy rat has been selected for appearance, health and temperament. It comes in a wide variety of attractive colours, markings and coat-types, and is calmer and more tractable than its wild cousins.
N.B. The wild Norway rat can also be tamed and kept as a pet if, for example, your cat brings a baby one home and dumps it on you: they are shyer and shaggier than domestic fancy rats, but can make affectionate and playful friends. I am told by someone who has kept several that they are more socially responsible than the domestic strain, such that healthy wild Norway rats will bring food to sick members of their pack - rather than swiping food from them, as pet rats tend to do. However, they can be an infection-risk to both humans and fancy rats: see Health section for advice on rendering them safe.
Some idea of what Norway rats are like as pets can be gained from the following, which I found on the net. There was no author's name with it (if anyone knows who wrote it please let me know) but it came originally from a rat mailing-list: probably from the major ratlist whose latest incarnation can be seen, and joined, at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ratlist.
A Little Fun
When a rat does something you don't like, and you pick it up and put it on the floor and say, "No," I've determined that what this means to the rat is, "Oh, what fun, he wants me to run up there and do it again!"
Exactly! Rats seem to actually hear the exact opposite of what you're telling them. For example:
When I say: "Get down!"
My rats hear: "Please continue to try to claw your way into the neck of my shirt."
When I say: "Drop that!"
My rats hear: "Please carry that to a place that I cannot reach and leave it there."
When I say: "Eat this here."
My rats hear: "Please carry this broccoli to a place that I cannot reach and leave it there to rot."
When I say: "Stop!"
My rats hear: "I like it when you shred or pee on whatever I'm reading."
When I say: "Get down."
My rats hear: "Please climb all over me while I attempt to eat this sandwich/cereal/meal."
When I say: "Time to go back to the cage."
My rats hear: "Please hide under the furniture and refuse to come out for the next hour."
Pros & Cons.
The advantages and disadvantages of fancy rats as companion-animals.
Bucks & Does.
The comparative merits of male and female rats.
Interactions within groups of rats: how to introduce new animals to an existing group etc..
Types of cage, nest-box etc. suitable for rats.
How much and what to feed.
Cage-cleaning, handling, training etc..
Lifespan; some common medical problems and what to do about them; things your vet may not know about rats; safety-precautions if taking on an orphaned wild rat.
What rats are best at... Includes advice on hand-rearing.
Things to bear in mind if introducing rats to other animals.
A Note of Caution.
How to cope with the (fortunately very rare) aggressive rat; what not to do if you don't want to be bitten by even the friendliest one.
The Wild Rat.
Wild rats as a health-hazard to pet rats; how to foster an orphaned wild rat safely; how to evict unwanted wild rats without hurting them etc..