At home with the fat rats: Hazel Shaw shares nibbles with Dalton and Patagonia, two of Britain's luckiest rodents

We are sitting on a pretty, floral-covered settee, chatting, when suddenly I see what appears to be a thin rope protruding from a rolled-up navy blue T-shirt behind Sarah Handley's head. When the 'rope' begins to move, and then to twitch, I lose the thread of our conversation. A pointed face with sparkling black eyes and whiskers reveals the largest rat I have ever seen - 18in from nose to tail.

As the rodent climbs on to Ms Handley's shoulder and nibbles around her face, she tells me that this is Dalton, her favourite. There are six more rats upstairs. In the past she has kept up to 42, but now that she is judging rather than breeding rats, the number has fallen.

Ms Handley lives in a pretty Wiltshire village and is one of Britain's leading rat breeders. She has judged rats in Finland and Sweden as well as the United Kingdom and for many years edited the National Fancy Rat Society's journal, Pro-Rat-a. Why rats?

'Why not? I've always kept rats. My parents were given a pair when they married, and we kept them as children, although my brother's were kept mainly to feed his snakes,' she says. 'The fancy rat is thought to have originated from the pet rats kept by Jack Black, Oueen Victoria's rat-catcher. He caught them, and if they were of an interesting colour and pattern, he kept them.'

Ms Handley's house must once have appeared normal, but now the rats have taken over. Hundreds of rat figures are displayed in a glass cabinet: tiny rats of glass, porcelain, wood and metal; a wrought-iron cut-out of a rat; and my favourite, an ancient carved ivory rat, originally used as a belt-fastener on a Japanese costume.

As we examine the memorabilia, the origins of various items is explained: 'There are plenty of 'mousey' mementoes, because mice are seen as rather cute and cuddly Mickey Mouse characters, but rats have had such bad publicity that people fear them. They think they are going to be attacked, or catch a disease, which is quite unjustified. Fancy rats are much more likely to catch an illness from humans than to pass anything on.'

These points are illustrated in a 1987 issue of Pro-Rat-a. In a column entitled 'Hatch, Match, and Despatch' is an entry: 'Sweet Valentine (kissyface, cuddles, Rudolf Valentino), a beautifully sleek, mismarked chocolate-capped buck, suffered a violent seizure - presumably a stroke, while convalescing from a chest infection, and died almost instantaneously, aged 20 months. Although a coward over medical procedures, he was courageous towards humans, cats, and rats alike. A safe journey and a safe return - you were the nicest person I ever met, of any species.'

Do rats make suitable pets for children? 'Yes, most certainly they do. They are ideal. Much better than hamsters, which tend to bite, and gerbils, which are too quick. Rats are affectionate, and above all, they recognise their owners, which is important to children,' Ms Handley says.

Dalton was becoming fidgety. He had left his owner's shoulder to nibble Crunchy Nut Cornflakes from a tiny dish wedged beween the sofa cushions. I am taken upstairs to meet the rest of 'the family'. There I am introduced to Spillikins, a fat cream-and-chocolate-hooded rat with a striped tail, and a huge and even fatter rat called Patagonia, named after the 'Patagonian nose vole', a character in the comedy series The Goodies. Patagonia is so named, I am told, 'because given half a chance he will be up your nose or halfway down your throat. He's always very curious about what you have in your mouth'.

Ms Handley allows Dalton and some other rats to crawl over her. Seeing my distress at the odour, she says that I have come on a bad day - tomorrow the cages will receive their weekly clean. The 'girls', she says, pointing to a cage, come out to play on the floor every night, and the boys are allowed down in the dining-room while she and her husband are eating. They will eat whatever is on offer, but they are especially fond of chicken, which they devour down to the bone.

How does her husband get on with her pets? 'Oh, he is very even-tempered. He doesn't mind them except when they snatch the food from his mouth.'

We stagger downstairs with 'the boys', who are placed in their special armchair in the sitting room. It is high- backed and very smelly indeed. Ms Handley goes to the kitchen to fetch their afternoon treat, chocolate drops. She places them one at a time between her teeth while the excited rats clamber up to take them from her. They are not too keen on the whirring of my camera. One very big rat stops eating and stares at me accusingly. Maybe it is time to go. Why doesn't the house have a ratty name? I ask as I leave.

'Well, we thought of calling it 'The Rathouse' - after a German town hall - but then if we ever wanted to sell, people might think we were infested.'

(Photograph omitted)