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Most pet rats are a domesticated form of the Norwegian rat, Rattus norvegicus. Occasionally, a few much more exotic species appear in the pet trade. Most of them aren’t closely related to the true rats (genus Rattus), although they are all rodents, and their care needs vary enormously.
Norway Rats (Rattus norvegicus)
Some Norway rats do look pretty exotic. There’s the dumbo rat, with large low-set ears, hairless rats and even a new variety called the “devil rat” because of its striking red eyes.
They are all, however, still Rattus norvegicus. There is no more difference between one of these rats and your standard white rat than between, for example, a spaniel and a terrier. Their needs don’t vary much, although you must be careful that hairless rats don’t become chilled. The major rat clubs try to ensure that new strains of fancy rat are not associated with serious genetic problems.
All these rats tend to be sweet-natured and friendly, don’t require any unusual care and overall can make lovely pets. If you are new to rat ownership, choose a well-socialized pair, of the same gender obviously, from an animal sanctuary or reputable breeder. Rats do best with companions.
Black Rats (Rattus rattus)
Some individuals of Rattus norvegicus have black coats, but the black rat is a different, although related, species. Also known as the ship rat and the roof rat, this is the other rat species that, in the wild, lives in close proximity with humans, although not as much as in the past.
Rattus rattus is rarely kept as a pet, but some hobbyists have given it a go. Black rats have not been domesticated and individuals tend to be shyer than the standard pet rat, requiring patience and some expertise. Although they need much the same housing and care as their relatives, they are not an animal for the inexperienced.
Kangaroo Rats (Dipodomys sp.)
Looking much more like oversized gerbils than rats, kangaroo rats are not closely related to either. Cute as they might look jumping around on their enlarged hind feet, the 20-plus species of kangaroo rat do not make especially good pets. They require a huge cage and specialized care. Because they are still essentially wild animals, they may not become particularly friendly to people.
Sometimes people do try to keep them as pets and for this reason, kangaroo rats occasionally end up in animal sanctuaries. If you have extensive experience of caring for wild or unusual rodents and decide to adopt these guys, ensure that you identify the exact species.
Don’t forget to check local regulations on keeping them in captivity as well as researching the specific species’s needs. Some species, for example the giant kangaroo rat, are endangered and might be far better off in a zoo breeding program than a private home.
African Pouched Rats (Cricetomys gambianus)
African pouched rats appear regularly in the pet trade and can become affectionate pets. They have even been used as service animals, specifically for mine detection. They are not closely related to true rats, although they look like much larger black rats. A few different species are called "pouched rat," but the one most commonly kept as a pet is Cricetomys gambianus, the Gambian pouched rat.
Pouched rats live much longer than normal rats, need a larger cage—they can weigh up to 4 pounds—and can be far more demanding. Most individuals do not enjoy being picked up and cuddled, according to the Rat and Mouse Club of America. This is one of several reasons that, while dedicated rodent enthusiasts might enjoy having these rats, they are certainly not a good pet for children.
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Rat Care
- World Associations of Zoos and Aquariums: Black Rat, House Rat, Roof Rat, Ship Rat
- Arkive: Giant Kangaroo Rat Fact File
- California Department of Fish and Game: Mammals: Species Account
- Rat and Mouse Club of America: African Giant Pouched Rats as Pets
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images