BAD PR ASIDE, RATS CAN BE WONDERFUL PETS FOR KIDS -- OR ADULTS
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 by doing so 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 healthy rat from a reputable source 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 performing. 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, to the unintentional mishandling of well-meaning children.
-- Rats are cute. Think sleek, shiny fur with 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 such as silver mink, platinum, blue and chocolate, and markings including 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 him, and he will love you if you add fruit, nuts, vegetables and other "people food."
It is essential to get your pet from a reputable source. And as with all pets, teaching children safe handling skills -- especially with regard to hand-washing after playing with pets -- is a must. You should also prepare to teach your child lessons in life's losses, since rats typically live about three years.
Even with those caveats, the only thing rats need to become more popular as pets is a good public relations campaign, and maybe a new name. Skinny-tailed squirrels, perhaps?
Two cats can't be
expected to share
Q: We already had an adult cat. We adopted a kitten, and now that she's half-grown, we have litter box issues, specifically wars over the box. What should we do to make them "share the bathroom"? -- via email
A: One box is not enough. You should have one box for each cat, plus one. If you have one cat, you need two litter boxes. Two cats, three litter boxes. Put them in different locations. For instance, keep one upstairs and one downstairs. That way, one is always convenient. And with more than one cat, it prevents fights over who gets to use which box when it's needed.
Some cats like to ambush others when they use the litter box, so place litter boxes in locations with easy escape routes. Privacy is important, too. Cats don't want to pee or poop next to each other any more than you'd want to do so with somebody right next to you. Another good reason to have multiple litter boxes: Each cat may prefer a different type of litter.
What about what goes inside the box? There are all kinds of different cat litter, and they all have pros and cons. Most cats prefer clumping litter because of its soft, sandy feel. It's easy on the paws and easy to scoop. Other cats might like a fine-grained clay litter. Look for one that comes in a dust-free formula. Some cat litter is easier on the Earth, made from recycled paper or natural substances like corncobs or wheat. But if your cat doesn't like it, you'll be throwing a lot of it out, which is not that environmentally friendly, so you may be back to regular clumping litter. Let the cats pick their preferences by offering a "litter box buffet."
Avoid scented litter. It might smell good to you, but that perfumed odor can be sensory overload for a cat. Using scented litter can be one of the quickest ways to encourage your cat to go outside the litter box. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Purebred dogs help
with human health
-- Efforts to identify genetic markers for diseases are getting a boost from purebred dogs. While people (aside from, possibly, royal families) breed more or less randomly, purebred dogs have traceable lineage, and typically trace from a small population of dogs. Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute noted that this means canine genes may hold the answers to conditions such as epilepsy and those that cause blindness and kidney cancer.
-- The trend toward ever-fatter dogs and cats continues, according to DVM360.com. Citing data gathered by Banfield Pet Hospitals, the industry news website noted that veterinary visits by more than 2 million dogs and 430,000 cats revealed weight gains in both populations. The incidence of excessive weight in dogs is up 37 percent since 2007. The incidence in cats is worse, with the prevalence of overweight cats increasing 90 percent since 2007.
-- Many cats in chronic renal failure are maintained for months and even years with regular at-home administration of subcutaneous fluids. (A wonderful tutorial is on the DVM360.com website at http://tinyurl.com/PetConSubQ.) While at-home treatment is relatively easy and inexpensive, the future of kitty kidney care may be stem cells. Colorado State University researchers are conducting a study of cats who have chronic renal failure but no other health problems to determine how stem cells affect kidney disease. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and also the authors of many best-selling pet care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.