rat sitting on fabric looking at camera
New information reveals that rats likely were not the main spreaders of the Black Death. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Aw, the wild or domesticated Norway rat is one of the most maligned creatures in the world. Our poor pet rats are misunderstood and feared thanks to long-standing rat myths and some unsightly behavior of their wild cousins. And these rat myths cause fear not just among the general public. Some persistent falsehoods create confusion among some rat lovers.

Let’s dispel some of these untruths and explore the facts. Starting with the biggest rat myth of them all: the Black Death.

Revealing The Truth About Rats And The Black Death

Myth: Rats spread the Black Death that killed millions of people in Europe and Asia in the 14th century.

Then later…

Myth: Rat fleas or lice spread the Black Death.

Truth: Researchers have suggested several possible causes for the spread of the Black Death, and a publication from 2018 points to human ectoparasites, namely fleas and lice, being a primary cause.

For hundreds of years, wild rats were blamed for causing the death of approximately 25 million people in Europe and Asia during the mid-1300s. This was the Black Death. In recent decades, the fleas or lice on rats were blamed. This provided little vindication for rats, however.

But in 2018, simulated models showed that a more likely cause was actually from the parasites that humans carry. All it takes is one bite from an infected louse or flea to spread a deadly disease. Add in a serious lack of hygiene during the Middle Ages, and spread it did! Head and body lice were a regular part of life back then and absolutely no one, rich or poor, was immune to them. They were so prevalent, that it was common to have ornate de-lousing combs.

Keeping Clean

rat turned to groom its haunches
Dirty? No way. Rats are fastidious groomers. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Myth: Rats are dirty.

Truth: With centuries of plague blame and habits of scurrying around sewers and in trash cans, it’s not a surprise that people think rats are dirty. Pet rats, however, are as clean or cleaner than dogs and cats. They are fastidious groomers that preen continuously throughout the day. They rarely require a bath and are quick to clean themselves after being touched or held. Meaning, they think you are the yucky one who sullied their fur!

Counting Rats

Myth: There is one rat for every human.

Truth: This was an urban legend attributed to W.R. Boelter, whose 1909 book, “The Rat Problem,” suggested/guessed that there was probably one rat for every acre in England. The amount of cultivated acres back then and the population at the time, not to mention poor research, somehow morphed into a presumption of the quantity of rats living in urban cities. Thus began a tall tale of mythic proportion. Had Mr. Boelter’s calculations been correct, it would mean that almost 8.3 million rats (equal to the human population) are currently living in New York City alone!

It’s impossible to know just how many rats there really are, but in 2014 Jonathan Auerbach, who at the time was a PhD student in statistics at Columbia University, authored an award-winning study on the amount of rats in New York City. His final estimation back then was less than 2 million.

Understanding The Bite Factor

child holding rat in hand
Pet rats are usually very sweet-natured. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Myth: All rats bite.

Truth: Rats, wild or domestic, are generally not biters. Bites from wild rats aren’t unheard of, but they occur. Rats are omnivorous, prey animals. As with any wild animal, rats go out of their way to avoid direct contact with humans. If cornered and feeling threatened, however, chances of aggression could grow. Unprovoked bites are most likely caused by bits of food left on a person’s skin.

As for pet rats, I believe they are often confused with hamsters. Hamsters are more temperamental loners, while rats are more easygoing and social. Pet rats are sweet, affectionate creatures that thrive in groups and truly enjoy human companionship. In this author’s opinion, they are the least likely to bite of all pocket pets.

On the rare occasion that a pet rat does bite, possible causes include illness, fear, hormones, or the smell of food on fingers. But it’s also my experience through rat rescue that many rats accused of biting are not, in fact, biters. I believe that people inexperienced with rats misunderstand a situation out of an unconscious perceived fear of them.

Defining Rat Terms

Myth: Fancy rats are different than feeder rats or rats have different breeds.

Truth: The term “fancy” rat just means that the rat is a domesticated Rattus norvegicus, or Norway rat. When pet stores sell a group of rats as “feeders” and another as “fancy,” it’s a gimmick to charge more for the “fancy” rats. In reality, they are exactly the same species, both domesticated, and might even come from the same breeder. Quality of care, breeding, and socialization may differ, but both have the potential to be fantastic pets.

Like dogs and cats, pet rats can range in color, markings, fur type, ear placement, and size; some even lack tails. Plus, eye color varies. Rats can have black, pink, or ruby-colored eyes. Some rats even have two different-colored eyes (odd-eyed). Yet unlike dogs and cats, none of that changes their breed, it only determines their variety.

Tackling Tooth Care

Myth: Rats need hard food or wood to keep their teeth from overgrowing.

Truth: It is true that a rat’s incisors never stop growing, but they do not require anything special to keep them worn down. Rats instinctively do this on their own by bruxing, which is a repetitive movement of their teeth softly grinding together. This also helps keep their teeth sharpened. If an injury or health problem prevents them from grinding their teeth properly, medical intervention is a must.

Know What Foods And Treats Rats Can Eat

Myth: Rats can’t eat grapes or chocolate.

Truth: Yes they can! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone “yell” at me online about chocolate or grapes being toxic for rats, but this is because they are confusing rats with dogs. Rats, for the most part, eat what humans eat, so they can safely eat grapes, raisins, or chocolate in moderation. In fact, dark chocolate is actually a helpful aid for rats with respiratory infections. It works as a bronchodilator, helping to open up their airways. My vet has even “prescribed” dark chocolate chips for many of my rats.

Poisoning isn’t the only concern with food and treats. For example, milk chocolate contains both sugar and cream, which can lead to weight gain. While it won’t hurt rats, it’s not the healthiest treat.

Please note that any food or treats in excess might cause a problem. Also, individual rats differ, so always discuss your rat’s food, including treats, with your rat-savvy veterinarian.

Choose A Veterinarian Experienced In Rat Care

rat standing on hind legs and holding syringe to mouth
Although amoxicillin can be dangerous to other pocket pets, it can safely be used for rats. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Myth: Amoxicillin is toxic to rats.

Truth: Amoxicillin is safe for rats. While it’s not always the first antibiotic prescribed, it’s commonly used in rats for various reasons and can be very helpful.

Years ago, my long-time, and still current vet had just moved away. I was left seeing a different vet at the same clinic. Things soured when he refused to prescribe amoxicillin for one of my rats with a respiratory infection, claiming that it was toxic for them. Having had rats for years and having been prescribed amoxicillin more times than I can even count, I tried explaining that he was mistaken. After being belittled and repeatedly told he was the one who went to veterinary school, I left and drove 90 minutes to where my preferred vet had moved. Guess what she prescribed? Amoxicillin!

It turns out that amoxicillin is not safe for guinea pigs, rabbits, or hamsters. And rats tend to be incorrectly lumped into the group.

Don’t Let The Price Tag Fool You

Myth: Rats are cheap pets.

Truth: Because rats are fairly inexpensive to buy, it’s often thought that they require little care and make for low-cost pets. I have never personally compared the cost of my rats against our dogs or cat, but I can assure you that I have spent more time taking the rats to the vet than any of our other pets.

Cages and accessories can really add up when you’re first starting out with rats. Plus, rats tend to be delicate creatures and are susceptible to a variety of different health issues. Some of which require immediate attention to prevent their death. And as many owners will attest, their small size does not gain them discounts at a vet clinic. Don’t let that stop you from getting some though, because they are well worth the cost!

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