When you tell someone that you, as a supposedly mature, sane adult, have two rats as pets, you'll generally get one of two responses: revulsion, followed by a questioning of said supposed sanity, or delight, from those who once had rats as pets (usually when they were young) and still remember how much fun they are.
Since I adopted a pair of domestic rats (Ava and Zoe) from a rescue group last fall, I've experienced both responses countless times, the former far more than the latter.
The reaction of disgust is unfortunate, for rats can be entertaining, affectionate and clever pets. They're excellent first pets for children, great sole pets for adults who might prefer a dog but are in "no pets" housing, and easy-care pets for those who aren't home much or don't have the desire to clean up after a dog, cat or bird.
Still not convinced? 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!
The older, larger and (it must be said) homelier of my two rats is Zoe, who makes up for her mud-fence appearance with an outgoing personality. She loves to be petted and likes to sleep in the hood of my sweatshirt when I'm writing.
Because rats are so social, if you're going to get one, you ought to get two so they can keep each other company.
-- Rats are smart. Rats respond quickly to food-based training and seem to love to perform. With little effort, I've trained Zoe to perform a couple of simple tricks, and she has picked up on the cues that let her know mealtime is here faster than any dog I've ever known.
-- 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. Really. 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.
Did you know that rats come in oodles of colors and coat patterns? Think colors like silver mink, platinum, blue and chocolate, and markings like hooded (the head a different color than the body) or masked or patched.
-- Rats are easy to keep. Get a cage sized for a larger pet, such as a chinchilla or guinea pig, and your rat will be content. (Mine live in a three-story ferret cage.) Add bedding, a place for the animal to hide and sleep, a food dish, water bottle and some toys. (These can be freebies, such as the leftover core of a paper-towel roll, or small untreated blocks of wood.)
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. As with all small pets, cage changes must be frequent, otherwise the smell will become unpleasant, to you and your pets both.
Oh, and there's also those skinny, hairless tails. Even I had a problem with them at first. But these days, I'm finding Ava and Zoe so personable I hardly notice their tails at all.
Your dog shouldn't be given unsupervised access to tennis balls, no matter how nuts he is for them. Tennis balls aren't designed to stand up to chewing, and the pieces can easily be swallowed. Even worse, some dogs have managed to compress the balls and then get them lodged in the back of their throats, cutting off the air supply.
Tennis balls are wonderful for retrieving games, however, especially when used with a "flinger." These nifty devices allow you to avoid touching a slimed tennis ball and help you to throw farther so your dog will get more exercise. Look for them in pet-supply stores, catalogs and on Web sites.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Kanab, Utah-based Greyhound Gang's well-designed Web site (www.greyhoundgang.com) offers layer upon layer of solid information about adopting and living with these wonderful dogs. The site also offers links to other "greyt" sites, information on the annual Greyhound Gathering every spring in Kanab, and even a place to buy low-priced glucosamine (which eases canine arthritis), handsome T-shirts and other gear, with proceeds going to the Greyhound Gang's rescue-and-placement program.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My husband and I have been considering getting a family dog, a German shepherd. We have two boys, ages 3 and 1. What is the appropriate age for kids to help handle the responsibility of a dog? We want our older son to be able to help with and appreciate the dog. -- R.S., via e-mail
A: Often when a child is asked or initially volunteers to take sole responsibility for a pet, good intentions don't pan out. The parent starts nagging or forcing the child to take care of the pet, or the parent assumes responsibility along with a hearty dose of resentment toward the animal, or the pet will be neglected or given away. None of these is a good result, for the pet, parent or child.
That's why "help" is such an important word to remember, and I'm so glad to see it in your note. While children should help with the care of any family pet, the final responsibility for the welfare of the animal must be accepted by the adults from the very beginning. Pets always lose, one way or the other, when they're in the middle of a parent-child tug of war.
I have always thought responsibility is among the least important of the lessons a pet can teach a child. Most important, in my book, is the idea that love can be unconditional and that confidences can be kept. How many secrets I told my cat and dog while growing up I cannot imagine, but it felt as good to tell them as it did to know that no matter what mistakes I made, my pets would always love me. (Heck, that still feels good!)
Although the "right" age depends very much on the child, my experience is that children really start to appreciate (and often demand) a dog when they're in the age range of 8 to 10. They're capable of contributing to the care of the animals at that age, too.
Instead of getting a puppy, which is too much work for many busy families, please consider an adult dog. If you look carefully, you should be able to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue group, a calm, well-mannered animal companion who will be a wonderful addition to your family with many special lessons to teach your boys.
Q: Our cat won't drink water from a bowl, but rather insists by meowing loudly that we open the tap for her. We realize she has trained us, and we don't mind "serving" her. But we wonder if other cats share her fetish for fresh water. -- W.L., via e-mail
A: Drinking running water is a good survival strategy for wild cats, since running water is likely to be healthier than standing water. This sensible and ancestral preference is probably why some pampered pet cats still prefer their water moving.
And it is a relatively common preference. When I was growing up, one of my cats would use his paw to tap the handle in the laundry room, just enough to get a trickle to drink.
Since you can't be at hand to turn on the tap every time your cat is thirsty, you might think about investing in a continuous-flow feline drinking fountain. The fountains, which can be found in pet-supply catalogs, on Web sites and in the back of cat magazines, keep available a steady supply of water for your cat, recycling and filtering the liquid to make it seem fresh.
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. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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