Pet of the week: The domestic rat

Dirty, nasty creatures

Not at all. Blame the urban myth about never being more than three metres form a rat in a city centre, blame the often misquoted Jimmy Cagney ("Why, you dirty rat!"), blame Roland Rat's atrocious "Rat Rapping" single of the early Eighties – either way, rats have had a pretty hard time over the years. But they are really a misunderstood little animal.

Nonsense – they gave us the bubonic plague

Another myth. Being such hygienic animals and therefore the ideal habitat for a nasty, virulent plague looking for a host, they were merely the unwitting bearers. It is thought the species originated in northern China, and migrated along trade routes to Europe over the centuries, arriving in Britain in the 17th century.

But rats as pets?

Why on earth not? They are very clean, bright, lovable creatures, and they seem to enjoy human contact, which makes them ideal as a family or "starter" pet. Besides which, if your children can learn to love a creature as maligned as a rat, then they might overcome prejudices against other undesirables, such as broccoli, slugs or George Osborne.

Not a lot of people know this...

Rats are the second most successful mammal on earth, and have colonised every continent except Antarctica. But this success has come at a price, as they are used extensively as animal models for testing everything from cosmetics to dietary products.

What do you need to keep a rat happy?

A decent-sized wire cage, say 50cm by 80cm, with plenty of interesting features for them to enjoy and lark around with. I say "they" as rats do like company, and they should be kept in same-sex pairs (otherwise they breed like mice or even rabbits – you get the gist). Incidentally, males are called bucks and females are does. As I said, they are clean animals and their cage will only need mucking out once a week. Shredded newspaper or sawdust is the best for bedding; they will create their own little nests as they see fit.

What do they eat?

Most pet stores will carry a generic rodent mix, but this can be supplemented with bits of fresh fruit and veg, or even dry dog food – just beware not to overfeed your rats, as they need to burn off those calories if they are going to live a long, healthy life (about two to three years).

What about play time?

You should try and devote at least an hour a day to playing with your rodents, as they react well to human stimulation. Never, ever pick them up by the tail. It's just cruel and wrong.

Not to be confused with...

Pedigree Siberian hamsters, as Manuel referred to them in Fawlty Towers.

How do I get hold of one?

You should contact the National Fancy Rat Society ( nfrs.org) who can advise you on reputable breeders.

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