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Fancy Rats: The Often Overlooked Pet

29/04/2013 12:53 BST | Updated 24/06/2013 10:12 BST

Pets, the furry faces that lighten up a home and bring joy to households worldwide, are an invaluable part of life. When most people think of pets they may consider dogs of all shapes and sizes. They may picture cats reclining glamorously on the living room sofa. What most people don't often consider is the domestic rat, often called a 'fancy rat', as these are animals often overlooked. Rats have long been accused of being filthy, disease carrying creatures that have no place as household pets. I'd like to take a moment to explain why this assumption is wrong and persuade you to consider a rat if you're ever looking for an animal companion.

When I moved away to university I never expected that within a few weeks I'd be sharing my room with two small rodents. In fact I had previously had very little contact with rats apart from the ones my cats lovingly left on the doorstep. Back home every member of the family had a cat which brought the feline population of our home to a total of four. We also have a rather old dog who likes to think that he's a cat. Having been raised in a loving home where, due to the creatures within it, one was never alone. Moving to university presented a stark contrast. Though I was living in a shared apartment with eight other people I'd never felt more alone. I had travelled from Essex to the sleepy, rolling hills of Yorkshire. I would find myself wandering around the shops during the day in an attempt to familiarise myself with this new place. Eventually I found myself in the local pet shop, or as I called it during my time at university 'the cheap zoo', and found myself face to face with a large lump of a grey rat. It was in that moment that I realised how much better I'd feel with some animal companionship. I had been raised with cats, all of whom have grown up now, and couldn't remove them from the area they'd grown up in. The exciting notion of buying a new pet came to mind. I left the pet shop, but kept this rat in mind. Within the week I'd bought and set up a cage on my desk and the next day I came home with the very rat I'd seen and her sister.

The initial response I would hear from people was 'But aren't rats dirty?'

I suppose any animal is, to an extent, dirty. Fancy rats, however, clean themselves regularly. There is a very clear definition between wild rats and fancy rats. Fancy rats have been raised to be domestic pets and are often far more clean and socialised than the rats you'd see on the street or in the countryside.

It was later, when I brought home a third rat, that I decided to have some fun with people and their assumptions about these sweet creatures. I named my third rat 'Rabies' so that, in conversation, I could see people's reactions when they heard the word crop up in conversation.

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Rats are a particularly good pet for children. Owning a small mammal of their own will teach them basic responsibilities as they will be primarily in charge of feeding it, cleaning the cage and ensuring it has clean water. Having a rat is also less commitment than buying a dog or a cat. Though our canine and feline allies tend to be household favourites they can present problems that a rat wouldn't. People will often choose hamsters for their child as a first pet though, having owned both rats and hamsters, I must say I've always found rats to be more affectionate and rarely bite. Rats are also less expensive and less maintenance than a rabbit. Rats only live a few years so they aren't a huge commitment that will span decades. Many have cited the tail of a rat as an off-putting factor that I've never quite understood.

I would say that rats make the perfect student pet. They're intelligent and easy to care for. If you're at university and you're lonely then they provide companionship and require such a small amount of effort in return that maintaining their nutrition and cage hygiene won't be time consuming. Many dismiss rat ownership because they perceive rats to be filthy creatures. There have been so many negative reports on rats that many simply associate them with urban landscapes and visions of the plague. I can assure you that if you bring a rat into your home you won't find yourself calling work to explain that you can't come in due to a slight case of the bubonic plague. It certainly doesn't help that rats have often been portrayed as villainous characters, particularly in children's films, which perpetuates the negative image of their species. I have found rats to be very sweet. They have their own personalities and tricks. They come in a variety of colours, they're sturdy and sociable. If you're considering getting a pet for yourself or a child all I ask is that you do not simply write off the humble rat.