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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Rats Are the Very Definition of Companion Animal

Recently, there has been some buzz about whether or not domesticated rats are considered companion animals. Felony charges in an animal abuse case were declined because the felony charge addresses abuse against companion animals and someone decided that rats are not companion animals. The matter is further complicated because the rats in question were likely largely intended to be fed to a snake.

All of us in the pet rat community know that rats are clearly companion animals and find it astonishing that we should even have to defend this. We also know that there is no difference between the rats that end up fed to snakes and the rats that we love and adore, and both deserve the same protections when it comes to abuse. However, those who have not walked in our shoes can have a hard time seeing through our eyes. Below is my attempt to provide others a glimpse into our world.

Domesticated rats are companion animals. They love and are loved by their owners in the same way as cats or dogs and deserve the same protections.

My youngest son watching TV with
one of our first rats, Weasel
Rats are one of the most popular pocket pets. Parents magazine describes them as “some of the best pets for small children”  ( They are sold as pets by pet stores and breeders and are adopted out by rescues. Pet supply stores, veterinarians, and online communities all cater to the pet rat. Rats make better pets than most small animals because they bond closely to their people and actively seek out human interaction. Rats are considered the small pet equivalent of a dog. Like dogs, they are loyal, highly intelligent, and can be trained to do tricks ( Rats are often chosen as emotional support animals, and their close bond with people makes them especially suited to this role.

Bela and Ruby were intended to be snake food at a reptile store when
Animal Control closed the store. They were adopted out to us by EARPS.

Domesticated rats are sometimes fed to snakes; however, there are no genetic, biological, or behavioral differences between rats fed to snakes and those kept as pets. In fact, many pet rats start out life destined for a snake. Some snake owners become attached to their rats and opt to keep some as pets alongside their snakes. Any living creature can be food for something else, but that does not define them. Rats are companion animals first and foremost. Just because it is legal for certain types of companion animals to be also used as food for other animals does not make it a lesser crime to abuse those animals. The abuse of any domesticated rat, regardless of what fate has been selected for him, should be prosecuted with the same severity as the abuse of any other companion animal.

My oldest son having some soup with Jo in his collar

Our family shares our home with two dogs and seven pet rats. We pay more in veterinary bills to care for our rats than we do for our dogs, because rats are vulnerable to many health issues that often require medication and/or surgery. We frequent two qualified veterinary practices to seek care for our rats, including treatment for injuries, illness, and tumors and elective procedures such as neuters (all of our girls get spayed and our boys get neutered when needed). This is how health concerns are addressed in companion animals.

Home to our family rats

We have large cages to house our rats, filled with toys, huts, tubes, litter boxes, and home-sewn hammocks. We provide a quality rat diet and cook fresh foods for them. We take them out of their cages for at least an hour every day. They have their own rat-safe room to explore during supervised out time. My children choose to spend quality time with them every day. They help nurse them when they are ill and encourage them to eat when their appetite is poor. When their time comes, we bring them to the vet to let them go peacefully without suffering. When they pass away, we all grieve. It is hard. Our vet sends us sympathy cards because they know every loss is difficult. This is how companion animals are cared for.

Our rats at the cage door ready to greet us,
like a dog at your front door when you
come home from work
When we enter the rat room, our rats run to the cage doors to greet us, eager for pets and for play. They climb up our arms and lick our fingers and nibble on our ears. They tug on our pant legs when they want to be picked up. They snuggle on our lap for a nap. They ride around the house on our shoulders. They share our food. They wrestle with our fingers. Rats rarely bite. Only if they have been neglected or abused will they bite, and even then, most do not. They are friendly, trusting animals that only want companionship, good food, some play, and a comfortable place to live. This is the behavior of a companion animal.

Our family is not unique. We are just one household of many in the pet rat community. But there is nothing ordinary about the rats who have touched our lives. Each has a unique personality and a special soul. Those who have never met a domesticated rat may be prejudiced against them, confusing them with their wild counterparts. They are not vermin, dirty, or disposable. They are clean, gentle, and loving. They have been selectively bred as such for over a hundred years. They are trusting of their people. They would not imagine that their people would ever hurt them, and they go along eagerly wherever their people take them. We need to protect them when their people abuse that trust as we would protect any other companion animal. They are not defined as food. They are defined as companion.

If the description I have provided does not define companion animal, nothing does. 510 ILCS 70/2.01a (Illinois law) defines a companion animal as “an animal that is commonly considered to be, or is considered by the owner to be, a pet." There can be no doubt that domesticated rats own that definition. Countless Facebook groups and rat communities like GooseMoose ( and the Rat Shack ( are a testament to this fact. Domesticated rats are companion animals and deserve the same protections as cats and dogs.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Burt Diagnosed with a Lymphoma

Photo of Burt taken this morning. He is in good spirits.

Not even a week after we lost Ruby, Burt has gotten a surprising and upsetting diagnosis. He developed a lump on his left hip area, that grew incredibly quickly in just a few days. My first thought was abscess, because Burt has been prone to abscesses, but this grew way too quickly and seemed to be much more mobile under the skin than an abscess. It also seemed to affect his gait, with him seeming to lean or wobble to one side (I believe the side of the lump).

Burt's lump on his left hip area
We brought him in to the vet and she aspirated the lump and did cytology testing to determine that it was lymphoma. Lymphoma is a malignant neoplasm that affects the lymph nodes. This particular instance is actually a potential candidate for surgery. However, that surgery would be very expensive and the vet warned that the lymphoma has likely already started to spread and if we did do surgery, he very well may develop more lymphomas right after this one was removed.

I consulted with the Rat Guide, which seemed to concur with what the vet has said - usually, once lymphoma has been diagnosed, it has already started to spread and other areas will soon be affected. The Rat Guide also mentioned lymphoma sometimes causes hind leg weakness, which could explain his irregular/wobbly gait. Because of the likely poor prognosis, we leaned toward not doing the surgery. Burt is in relatively good spirits and still active and happy (despite a day when he wouldn't come out of his cage - but this was the day after Ruby's death and he may have been grieving her loss). We didn't want to put him through surgery and the recovery period, only to become sicker right afterwards. We want him to enjoy his remaining time and be happy and well for as long as possible, and when his quality of life decreases, to let him go peacefully.

Still, not having dealt with a lymphoma like this before, I turned to the GooseMoose experts and asked for other's experience/advice regarding lymphomas and surgery. The response I got was unanimous - surgery was unlikely to result in a good outcome and Burt likely will be best served being spoiled and loved until his time comes.

So that is what we have decided to do. I want to emphasize that this is a completely different situation from a mammary tumor, which is a more common cause of lumps in rats. Mammary tumors are usually benign, and while, when a rat develops one mammary tumor, they do have a higher likelihood of developing more later on, mammary tumors do not spread the way lymphomas do. Mammary tumor removals have a much higher likelihood for success. Lymphomas, on the other hand, are malignant and they travel all through the body - anywhere there are lymph nodes. They spread fast and are merciless. They are a true cancer.

So now we are spoiling Burt (well, we always spoiled Burt, but he is being especially spoiled and loved on now). Burt is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 years old, but we don't have an exact age for him. He is on Prednisolone to try to buy him some time and maybe symptom relief, which he hates, but he gets spoiled afterwards with a yogi. Fortunately, I still had an almost full bottle of the steroid from when we were treating Ruby.

Burt is one of those rats that will be especially difficult to lose. Burt is a people rat. He seeks out the attention of his people more so than the others. He loves to be pet and he loves to beg for some of whatever we are eating at the time (and then stash it in his cage). He likes to hang out on the couch with us sometimes, rather than run around on the floor. He is such a sweet boy. I wish we had more time with him.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Rest in Peace, Sweet Ruby

Tonight, we had to say goodbye to our sweet pink-eyed white rattie, Ruby.  Ruby would have turned two sometime this month (April), but we are unsure of her exact birthdate. She had been suffering from lung tumors, like her sister Bela. Prednisolone helped for a while, but over the last two days, she had been declining rapidly, and tonight she passed away at home.

Ruby was the shyest of the three sisters (Bela and Jo having passed away at a young age in August of last year, both with internal tumors). She loved to snuggle with her boys in the hammocks (Pirate first, then Burt, Hammie, and Jeremy). She was an Olympic wheel runner and could really get the wheel going in her youth. She never gave it up. Even when she grew to be quite a chunky little thing, she could still be found giving that wheel a spin from time to time.

Ruby was a sweet and gentle soul and she will be missed. Play hard at the Bridge, Miss Ruby - Bela, Jo, and Pirate have been waiting for you.