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CREATURE FEATURE

Posted: August 6, 2014 at 2:12 a.m.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration of pet rat.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration of pet rat.

I've never liked rats and even think they're a little creepy. Willard, that movie about the killer rats, kind of freaked me out. But now my kids want a pet rat. I hear they can be good pets so am thinking about letting them get one. So what do I need to know about pet rats?

Willard -- the 1971 original film and the 2003 remake -- certainly gave rats a bum rap. But take heart in knowing that the rats depicted in the film were wild rats adopted for nefarious purposes, while pet rats are domesticated rodents that have been bred for generations to be social and playful pets.

Rats are personable pets that will develop strong bonds with their owners, according to petrats.org. I've heard the same from rat owners. They say rats are intelligent and have distinct personalities, plus can be trained to play games and perform tricks.

The video "15 Incredible Rat Tricks" at tinyurl.com/cv684us provides an illuminating look at what rats can be trained to do. The video, created by Cheltenham, Pa., 10th-grader Abby Roeser, shows her two pet rats diving for peas in an aquarium, imitating a mountaineer hauling a stuffed bear to safety by rope, loading tissue-paper "laundry" into a tiny washing machine, rolling over, playing ball, and spinning and leaping on cue.

If you decide to get a rat, here are a few things that petrats.org, ratfanclub.org and the American Association of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (aspca.org) recommend keeping in mind:

• You can buy a rat from a pet store, but rats raised by reputable breeders are usually healthier and better socialized.

• When choosing a rat, pick it up and see how it responds to your touch. It will likely try to wiggle free, but still should be calm and not scared. A well-socialized rat also will be curious about you.

• Choose a healthy rat. Rats are meticulous groomers so a healthy rat will have a shiny, clean coat. Make sure the eyes are clear. If you see a red discharge oozing from the rat's eyes, that means the animal is stressed or sick, neither of which is good. The discharge looks like blood, but is really porphyrin, a substance secreted to protect the eyes from light.

• Rats are happier and healthier when they live in pairs.

• Rats are nocturnal, so they'll sleep during the day but be active in the morning and night. They can, however, change their routine to fit their owner's schedule.

• Their front teeth grow continuously so they're inveterate chewers. You'll need to provide pieces of unpainted wood, cardboard and rawhide chews for them to gnaw on.

• Because they enjoy climbing, they do well in wire cages. For two rats, get a cage that's at least 2 feet tall, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

• Make sure the rats have wheels for running and tubes to run through. They also like some privacy, so give them a small box or flower pot to hide in. You can even add hammocks and ramps to their habitats.

• They can eat commercially prepared "rat chow"; make sure the primary ingredient is soy. They may also be fed small amounts of fresh vegetables and fruits every day. They like peas, broccoli, carrots, apples and bananas. Don't feed them junk food, onions or sticky foods like taffy and peanut butter.

• Like all small animals, rats will nip when they're frightened, so use a gentle tone when talking to your rat and avoid grabbing it suddenly.

• When a rat is content, it may grind its teeth or bug out its eyes, a characteristic called "boggling."

Family on 08/06/2014

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