People are always asking me to recommend a good pet for a child, an affectionate animal that can be cared for with a minimum of adult assistance.
"A rabbit?" they ask. I shake my head. Rabbits, especially the bigger varieties, are hard for a child to hold. When they don't feel secure, rabbits will kick -- and in so doing will sometimes break their backs. The result? A dead rabbit and a heartbroken child. So ... no rabbits, at least not for young children.
Mice? "Too small, too fragile," I reply. Hamster? "Better, but too interested in sleeping during the day, plus they're natural escape artists and somewhat nippy," I say. "Well, what then?" the parent will finally demand.
To them I say: rats.
And after the air clears of expressions of revulsion and disgust, I explain why a rat is a great pet for a child -- and indeed for almost any animal lover.
Forget horror movies and the bubonic plague. We're not talking about wild rats, but domesticated ones. Let go of everything you've ever thought about rats and consider the benefits with an open mind.
-- Rats are social animals. Many small pets don't like being handled, but rats get used to careful socialization easily, and come to enjoy riding in pockets and on shoulders. They like people!
-- Rats are smart. Rats respond quickly to food-based training and seem to love to perform. A friend of mine trained a rat for her college-level psychology course, and came to like the little guy so much that he's now a doted-on pet in her home.
-- Rats are agile and sturdy. Try to get a guinea pig to run a maze or climb a ladder and you'll appreciate the fleet-footedness of a rat. Unlike mice, rats can stand up to the handling -- and occasionally, the unintentional mishandling -- of well-meaning children.
-- Rats are cute. Think sleek, shiny fur, dark, glossy eyes and cute little ears. You say it's the tail that gets to you? Give a rat a break. If he just had a fluffy tail he'd be a squirrel, and people would give him nuts in the park. Really, is that fair?
-- Rats are diverse. Did you know that rats come in many more colors and patterns than the gray-brown of a street rat and the white of a lab rat? Think colors like silver mink, platinum, blue and chocolate, and markings like hooded (the head a different color than the body) or masked. Gorgeous!
-- Rats are easy to keep. Get a cage sized for a slightly larger animal, such as a chinchilla or guinea pig, and your rat will be content. Add bedding, a place for the animal to hide and sleep, a food dish and a water bottle, some toys, and you're set. Your rat will happily eat the food manufactured for them, and will love you if you add fruit, nuts, vegetables and other "people food."
The downside of rats? They don't live all that long -- two to three years -- and they're prone to tumors. And like all rodents, they live and love to chew. Provide all the chew toys imaginable, and they'll still put a hole in a piece of apparel faster than you can say "rats!"
The only thing rats need to become more popular as pets is a good public-relations campaign, and maybe a new name. Short-tailed squirrels, maybe?
No matter. If you're looking for a bright, clean and entertaining pet, you need look no further than the rat. These animals are great for a first pet, or a lifelong interest.
PETS ON THE WEB
Debbie Ducommun loves rats, so much so that the Chico., Calif., woman runs a group to promote rats. The Rat Fan Club has a very nice home on the Internet (www.ratfanclub.org), with helpful information on finding and caring for rats, along with recommendations on books and other rat-related items. Don't forget to check out the "Rat of the Week."
Another useful rat-related Web site is Pet Rats Canada (www.geocities.com/pet_rats_canada/Home.htm), which also includes care information, along with instructions on how to build simple habitats and links to other rat sites. Finally, don't forget to visit the Rat and Mouse Club of America site (www.rmca.org).
Toys are important for any pet. Animals weren't designed to live sedentary lives, whether in cages like a bird or rodents, or on the couch like a cat or dog. Although sleeping takes up a lot of time, pets still need something to do to keep their minds and bodies engaged -- and that's where toys come in. People readily accept the idea that dogs and even cats need toys, but they tend to overlook these important items when it comes to caged pets.
Toys marketed for birds are usually great for rodents, too, but you don't always need to pay for your pet's play. Freebies small pets enjoy include the centers of toilet paper and paper towel rolls, old toothbrushes (run them through the dishwasher first), leather shoelaces and small branches, especially from fruit trees.
Q: Our 7-month-old cocker spaniel, Muffin, is just about perfect. She's sweet and well-mannered, good with our two boys and has even made friends with our cat. The only problem Muffin has is with urinating when she first meets someone. It's kind of embarrassing, since we tell everyone how great she is and then she breaks her training and squats in front of the guest. We've spanked her, but it doesn't help. Any ideas? -- S.W., via e-mail
A: Muffin's behavior is called "submissive urination," and it's relatively common in young, shy, sweet-natured dogs. Typically, the problem occurs when the dog is greeting a guest or returning family member, but it also can happen when a dog is being scolded.
Amongst themselves, dogs and wolves use submissive urination to reinforce pack order -- an animal will roll over and squirt urine to acknowledge the higher rank of a more dominant pack member. In a way, your dog is paying you a high compliment, saying, in effect, "You're the boss, and I'm acknowledging that."
To some extent, growing up will help with this problem, but you can't rely on the maturation process to do the job entirely. You'll need to build Muffin's confidence to the point where she doesn't feel like she needs such displays.
Start by making sure there's no medical reason for the problem. Have Muffin checked out by your veterinarian. Once she has a clean bill of health, work on the problem by keeping greetings quiet and low-key. Present a less-dominant posture by crouching down to pet her, by approaching with your side facing her, rather than coming straight on. Speak to her in a soft way when greeting her.
Because some dogs are frightened by a hand coming down on them from above, pet your dog under the chin instead of on top of the head, and don't make direct eye contact, which can also be intimidating to a shy dog.
Finally, use training both to teach your pet alternative behaviors and to bolster her confidence. Teach her to sit, and then ask for it on your arrival, gently rewarding her for her good behavior. This substitution approach lets your dog know that the way to greet "the boss" is by sitting, not urinating. Make sure all training is kept positive and reward-based. Punishment needn't be a part of any dog's training, but it surely shouldn't be part of the program with a submissive dog.
As Muffin's confidence increases, her submissive urination should decrease. Be patient, and if you don't see signs of gradual change, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist who can set out a program for Muffin and your family to follow.
Q: I know you are in favor of dog parks, but I wonder if you realize how dangerous it is for large and small dogs to mix. Our community has a dog park, and the other day a Yorkie was almost killed by an Akita. To some big dogs, a small dog isn't a playmate -- it's prey. Please warn people! -- P.E., via e-mail
A: I agree with you -- to a point. Since dog parks are generally policed by peer pressure (when they are policed at all), I would not count on the common sense of another to protect a small dog. That's why I don't recommend letting small dogs mix it up with the big ones.
But I also have no tolerance for canine aggression. Any dog who would attack another with lethal intent shouldn't be off-leash anywhere, not even in a dog park.
I've had one bad experience with someone who brought such an animal to an off-leash park where my dogs go to play. Despite repeated demands to leash and remove his aggressive dog, the animal's owner insisted that he had a "right" to be there. I later heard that the man found out on another day that he had a "right" to write some rather large checks when his animal finally injured another dog very seriously -- and bit a person trying to stop the attack.
I haven't seen man or dog since, and good riddance.
But even without such animals, it's best to keep large dogs and small ones apart. Some dog parks offer separate areas for dogs of different sizes, and this is a splendid idea.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600