People are always asking me to recommend a good pet for a child – an affectionate animal that can be cared for with a minimum of adult assistance.
"A rabbit?" they ask.
I shake my head. Rabbits, especially the bigger varieties, are hard for a child to hold. When they don't feel secure, rabbits will kick – and in doing so sometimes break their backs. The result? A dead rabbit and a heartbroken child. So no rabbits, at least not for young children.
"Too small, too fragile," I reply.
"Better, but too interested in sleeping during the day, plus they're escape artists and somewhat nippy," I say.
"Well, what then?" the parent will demand.
To them I say, "Rats."
And after the air clears of expressions of revulsion and disgust, I explain why a healthy rat from a reputable source is a great pet for a child – and indeed for almost any animal lover.
Forget horror movies and the bubonic plague. We're not talking about wild rats, but domesticated ones. Let go of everything you've ever thought about rats and consider the benefits with an open mind.
Rats are social animals: Many small pets don't like being handled, but rats get used to careful socialization easily, and come to enjoy riding in pockets and on shoulders. They like people!
Rats are smart: They respond quickly to food-based training and seem to love performing. A friend of mine trained a rat for her college psychology course and came to like the little guy so much that he's now a doted-on pet in her home.
Rats are agile and sturdy: Try to get a guinea pig to run a maze or climb a ladder and you'll appreciate the fleet-footedness of a rat. Unlike mice, rats can stand up to the handling and, occasionally, to the unintentional mishandling of well-meaning children.
Rats are cute: Think sleek, shiny fur with dark, glossy eyes and cute little ears. You say it's the tail that gets to you? Give a rat a break. If he just had a fluffy tail, he'd be a squirrel, and people would give him nuts in the park. Really, is that fair?
Rats are diverse: Did you know that rats come in many more colors and patterns than the gray-brown of a street rat and the white of a lab rat? Think colors such as silver mink, platinum, blue and chocolate, and markings including hooded (the head a different color than the body) or masked. Gorgeous!
Rats are easy to keep: Get a cage sized for a slightly larger animal, such as a chinchilla or guinea pig, and your rat will be content. Add bedding, a place for the animal to hide and sleep, a food dish and a water bottle, some toys, and you're set. Your rat will happily eat the food manufactured for it and will love you if you add fruit, nuts, vegetables and other "people food."
It is essential to get your pet from a reputable source. And as with all pets, teaching safe handling skills – especially with regard to hand-washing after playing with pets – is a must. You should also prepare to teach your child lessons in life's losses, since rats typically live about three years.
Even with those caveats, the only thing rats need to become more popular as pets is a good public relations campaign, and maybe a new name. Skinny-tailed squirrels, perhaps?