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First Pets: Rats!

The only bad thing about a pet rat is its PR

It is my considered opinion that rats are the best small pets for kids — and not just by a whisker. They're better than turtles, gerbils, hermit crabs. And if you think I've watched one too many Ratatouille trailers, just ask any pet shop owner. Rats are super smart. Dog smart. They're also gentle, meticulously clean, and, unlike their skittery rodent brethren, keen for human attention. They come when called, do tricks, play games. They'll even read bedtime stories to your kids.

Okay, so I made that last one up. But I can't overstate what the friendship of a good rat can mean to a kid. In my own too-large household menagerie we have a dog, a cat, mice, guinea pigs, and a hamster. But it's the two rats, Esther and Edie, who swoon over my son Jack, and vice versa.

At age 11, Jack has one toe in the exhausting grown-up world of Big Obligations. Take yesterday: He had school and basketball practice, then spent half an hour looking for a misplaced schoolbook (no luck), then read 15 pages of Johnny Tremain (the butcher's son threatened to kill the cat!), and in the end was denied screen time, once again, by his curmudgeonly parents. When at such times Jack just needs a little adoration, where does he retreat? To his room, where Esther and Edie wait, sitting up, beckoning. They want a handful of Cheerios, a little rubdown, a frolic among the stuffies in the closet.

It's no secret to us that on the world stage the rat might well lose a popularity contest to a cockroach. First, there's the bald tail. (Jack: "I don't know why humans, who are practically bald all over, have such a hard time with rat tails.") Then there's the bad rap in history books, due to the pet rat's icky dump- and sewer-dwelling cousins, best known for spreading bubonic plague. (Jack again: "Fleas started the bubonic plague. Rats just carried them around.") I assure you, though, Esther and Edie are no more like those critters in the horror movie Willard than your Lab is like an Arctic wolf. Rats just need a better publicist.

So here are the basics. Rats are social, and I think should be kept in pairs (at least) or they will be crazily bored and glum. Start with babies if you can, or a pair of oft-handled older rats who already know each other. Boys or girls, doesn't matter; just don't mix them up unless you really want to dive headlong into this rat thing. (Males, however, do tend to mark their space with urine, which can be stinky.) Templeton notwithstanding, rats are fastidious groomers with soft coats, so feeding them and keeping the cage tidy is a quick stop on your chore list.

The only thing time-consuming about rat ownership is the fun part: At least several times a week for half an hour or more, you and your kids should allow them out of their cage. Rats are nocturnal, so they're game for playtime in the evening and early morning — which fits nicely with most families' schedules. This play might include perching on shoulders, playing with a ball, sitting up and begging for treats, or tug of war. Gentle kids ages 8 and up can play with their rats unsupervised. Younger kids should be attended to and can best learn their ratty manners by sitting on the floor while the rats explore their laps. Rats rarely bite, so the oversight is much more for the rat than for your child.

The most fulfilling pets for kids are those that enjoy human companionship. Our own humble rats, bald tails, pink eyes, and all, seem to have a bottomless well of love for kids, and that suits Jack (and me) just fine.

Ratkeeping Basics

  • Rats cost less than $10 at most pet shops, so you can afford to give this active, acrobatic critter the mansion it deserves. We love our Rat Skyscraper ($92 at martinscages.com).
  • Bedding for the cage can be pulp (like CareFRESH) or aspen chips, but pine and cedar are toxic for rats. The cage needs a quick cleaning weekly or biweekly, and only the occasional thorough washing out — realistically, all your job.
  • Commercial rat blocks and seed mixes give the rats a sound basic diet, but they love healthy snacks, like leftover fruits and vegetables, and feeding them is a kick. Fresh water — from a water bottle — is a must.

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