'Ratatouille' inspires a run on rats at British pet shops

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The Independent Online

What a difference starring in a major Hollywood blockbuster can make. After this summer's floods, rats were enemy number one. Newspapers said Britain faced a rodent population explosion; the wet weather meant we would be inundated by the creatures.

That was before Ratatouille. Thanks to the latest Disney/Pixar's digital animation studio box office hit, featuring a lovable French rodent, the reputation of the rat is undergoing a PR renaissance. Children are now desperate to get their hands on a pet rat.

A pet store chain says it has been inundated with requests for the animals. Pets at Home said sales of rats in the half- term holiday were up 50 per cent because of the popularity of Ratatouille.

"It seems Ratatouille has done wonders for the image of rats and finally helped to portray the image we have long been keen to promote – which is that contrary to popular opinion, rats are one of the cleanest and least smelly pets you can own," said Steve Fairburn, a rodent expert with Pets at Home. "They are incredibly responsive to learning and can be taught to do amazing tricks, much in the way that dogs can." Currently at No 1 in the UK box office charts, Ratatouille tells the sewer to soufflé story of Rémy, a Parisian sewer rat with a penchant for fine cooking and dreams of making it into the culinary big league. Rémy ends up working secretly in the kitchen of a five- star restaurant by secretly guiding a talentless (human) sous-chef who, until his chance encounter with the gastro-rat, was struggling to impress his boss.

The endorsement of Hollywood celebrities has also boosted the image of rats. Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Pink and Angelina Jolie have all admitted to owning rodents as pets over the past year.

"They're fantastic pets, they surprise you everyday and are so intelligent," said Julie Parker, who breeds rats in Gloucestershire and says she has had many inquiries, particularly over Russian Blue rats which look most like the star of Rataouille. "I've got 16 at the moment and my partner has nine. They're pretty addictive animals to be honest. Once you buy a couple you always want more."

Rat owners recommend owning more than one rat as rodents are sociable animals that live in tight knit communities. But many breeders are concerned that impulse buying of rats could lead to a lot of abandoned pets shortly after Christmas.

Heather Tomlinson runs a rat re-homing service at ratplanet.co.uk. She said: "The timing of the film is particularly worrying because parents will be looking for Christmas presents for their kids but we will be expecting to see a lot of homeless rats to look after around February as the kids get bored."

Pets at Home warned people to think hard before buying a rat. "We certainly don't want rats to become the next animal victims of a movie craze," said Mr Fairburn. "Everyone saw what happened in the case of the Ninja Turtles and the subsequent demand and mistreatment of terrapins and other aquatic reptiles that followed and we don't want the same thing to start happening with rats".

How to care for your rodent

* A rat costs anything from £6 to £15, depending on breed. Specialist and rare breeds cost up to £70.

nAverage life expectancy is two to three years. (In the wild it is six months).

* Rats are highly sociable animals and tend to do better with a cage-mate. Owners should also socialise with their pets.

* Unless you want frequent litters, choose rats of the same sex.

* Rats are prone to respiratory disorders so do not use wood chip or sawdust as bedding. Use clean recycled paper or cat litter.

* Mature male rats may mark their territory, which can be quite pungent. Neutering can stop this.

* Rats should be allowed out of their cage as often as possible.

* Don't release unwanted pet rats into the wild. Take them to a rescue centre.