Q. I'm considering getting a small pet and I was thinking about a rat, but I'm worried about hygiene issues. Do they make good pets and are they safe to keep indoors? Hugo, via e-mail
A. The first thing you think about when people say "rat" is the whiskery creature you see rooting around near the bins. However, domesticated rats have been bred from wild rats since the 19th century, with rat catchers curbing the overwhelming number on the streets of Britain, keeping any unusual colours for breeding. As they became popular as pets they were also selectively bred for their temperament. Wild rats are indeed dirty and can carry diseases, but domesticated ones are totally free from diseases and very clean. Just like cats and dogs, they will need to be taken to the vet regularly and it is vital that they are handled from an early age so they get used to being touched.
They are social animals and like to be kept in groups. You can have male rats neutered to reduce any unwanted odours and to make sure there are no litters. Bear in mind that they are not the type of pets that you can keep in a cage all day and talk to them for five minutes. This will have a detrimental effect on them and it would be cruel to keep a rat this way. They need at least one hour out of their cage, but the more time you can let them rootle around freely, the better for their well-being. This is time you can spend bonding and playing with them, and over time you can teach them to perform a variety of tricks. They can be taught to come when they are called and they love sitting on shoulders. They also need to be able to exhibit their natural traits, such as climbing and chewing, so make sure you rat-proof your house to minimise damage – neither you nor Ratty would want to start chewing through electricity wires. For further information have a look at fancy-rats.co.uk.
Remember that if an animal shows signs of distress or discomfort an early visit to the vet is always recommended