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The unconventional pet

My role as a rat mom

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My only experience with pet rats was when my uncle would bring his furry friends along for holiday visits. I was amazed watching the rats climb on his arm or perch on his shoulder. When most people think of rats, they cringe, but these furry companions were the exact opposite of cringe-worthy. I remember thinking all those years ago how interesting it would be to have a pet rat, and a few months ago, the opportunity presented itself.

I had made a run to the pet store to purchase a few toys for my very spoiled cat, Luna. I turned a corner and found an associate changing the bedding of a tank, and beside it in a box there were four small-sized rats.

I asked her how often the store sells the rats as pets. “Not often,” she responded. “Most of them end up being sold as snake food.” She went on to explain that she breeds the rats and tries to encourage customers to consider these unconventional pets, but most people won’t even entertain it.

I played with them for a few minutes and contemplated adopting all four, but I realized I didn’t know how to care for them—so I settled on adopting just one. She was the smallest out of the four and had grey fur with white markings. The associate put some bedding in a small box before gently placing my new companion, Rita, inside.

When we arrived at home, I quickly set up Rita’s new home with bedding, filled her food and water dishes and introduced her to her new living space. As she was getting acquainted, I decided I would start doing my homework about owning and caring for a pet rat. Two hours of research later, I felt a little more confident in my role as a “rat mom.”

It’s important for owners of a new rat to handle it as little as possible for the first few days, as the stress from a new environment and too much stimulation can be fatal. She seemed to be settling in rather quickly, and three days later, I started to handle her a little more.

It wasn’t long until Rita started to feel more comfortable with me. One day she crawled up my arm and nestled in the back of my neck, and a few minutes

later she started making a strange, grinding sound that I had never heard before. After looking it up, I discovered that what she was doing is called “bruxing.” Apparently, when rats make this sound it means they are content and relaxed, similar to when a cat purrs.

If you’re reading this and suddenly considering adopting a pet rat, understand that they need to be stimulated often; having toys and creating a maze for your rat to play in is key. I used recycled materials, getting creative with cardboard and paper towel rolls, which Rita loved to use. I even made a ladder out of fabric I tied together. After creating her playground, I was amazed to come home later that night to see she had changed everything around.

Rats tend to have short lifespans, two to three years, and are prone to respiratory infections and other illnesses. After a few months, Rita began showing signs of being ill—lethargy, weakness in her limbs and a poor appetite. I soon noticed what looked like blood around her eyes and nose. It turned out to be Porphyrin staining, which is a symptom of a respiratory infection. Pet stores use pine bedding, which is extremely toxic to most rodents—I learned this too late, and unfortunately, she passed away.

If you plan on adopting, do research on the pet stores in your area or find an independent breeder.

A rat may seem like an unconventional pet, but Rita was a wonderful companion. Keep an open mind when it comes to these furry rodents; they may surprise you.

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