What is a "ratvocate?" When most people think of pets, they probably think of cats and dogs… maybe the occasional bunny or fish. But there's a world full of people who have rats as pets and love them like any other companion.
Friends Ivy Ellis (IE) of Berkeley, CA and Kerry Castillo (KC) and Melinda Elmer (ME) of Long Beach, CA have had nearly 40 rats as pets over the years. They love them and advocate on their behalf. I sat down with these women, who call themselves "ratvocates," to learn more about the secret lives of rats.
What is a "ratvocate?"
KC: Someone who speaks for, loves, appreciates, and teaches about rats as pets. I think it's important to teach that rat owners are not "fringe" or weird… we didn't get rats to shock others. We LOVE our babies and if more people would get over their ridiculous fear of rats' tails (not even kidding), rats might become a more mainstream pet.
IE: Honestly, sometimes I wish I could go back to the time before I knew how great these creatures are. Rats are intelligent, compassionate, and have critical thinking skills, yet they are treated like disposable vermin. A pet rat is a domesticated animal. Tossing a pet rat out into the wilderness, or into the sewer, is like leaving a Miniature Poodle in the forest to live with a wolf pack.
When did you start having rats as pets?
ME: I got my first rat in high school.
KC: I got my first in college. She was easy to hide in a dorm that didn't allow pets.
Who's in your current rat pack?
ME and KC: Only Chynna. She was part of a bonded trio we rescued from Wee Companions in San Diego. Her sisters, Wendy and Carnie, have already passed on.
IE: Just Milo and Sugar. Our pack recently suffered a sudden loss of a great rat named Pip.
What has been the most surprising thing you've learned about rats?
ME: Rats are very smart and trainable. And they like to have cage mates.
KC: Their capacity of returning affection. They kiss and snuggle!
IE: When socialized with humans and each other, they form really close bonds. When we lose a rat, the remaining rats have their own grieving process. These sweet, smart, little creatures feel sadness and compassion.
What's the most awesome thing your rat can do?
ME: My rat, Brat, used to ride around on my shoulder for hours, hiding under my hair and poke his head out and surprise people.
IE: Milo is my superstar circus rat. She will pretty much attempt any obstacle I set up for her. Within a few days of adopting her, she'd jump into my hands when called from the edge of the couch.
How do your guests/friends like your rats?
ME: Some people are completely grossed out and some love them. Most are surprised at how smart and nice (and clean) the rats are. People think rats are dirty, but my dogs are much dirtier most of the time!
IE: My friends and neighbors love these rats, so they are always in someone's lap or on a shoulder. Pip had a very special relationship with my neighbor, Leann. When we moved in a year ago, Leann had never met a rat before. Almost instantly, she fell in love with Pip, and they became best friends. When Leann would walk by the cage, Pip would run to the side and do everything possible to get her attention. My rats also like entertaining guests with tricks.
What's the funniest story about your rats?
ME: One night, two of our rats got out. They found a motorcycle helmet next to their rat mansion. They curled up inside and we found them the next morning, fast asleep.
IE: One morning, I put my robe on and went out to the living room. Rattus met me at the door of her cage, like always, and I put her in my front pocket. When it was time for me to take a shower, I hung my robe on the back of my door. An hour later, I saw my robe wiggling, and a silly, little mouth and pink nose poked out from the pocket. I felt horrible for forgetting her, but she was totally fine.
What's the bigger rat community like?
IE: Just like in the dog and cat world, there are a wide variety of rat people. The big difference is, there is a lot of information out there about adopting a dog or cat, but there is no mainstream source for reliable information about pet rats. I had to do some digging to find my favorite site, which is "Rattit," a sub-group of Reddit.
ME and KC: We all share rat information. There are Facebook pages and websites devoted to their care and feeding. Also, there are tons of rats needing great homes, there are rat rescues in almost every major city, and people out there who bond over their love for the little creatures. The rat rescue we visited in San Diego was amazing!
What's the coolest rat story you've ever heard?
ME: I have seen a rat be taught to play basketball.
IE: I once read about a woman who had a pet rat as a service animal. She had horrible muscle spasms. Because rats are so sensitive to energy, her pet rat would sit on her shoulder and alert her to an oncoming episode by licking the side of her neck. Also, most recently, I learned about Gambian Pouched Rats that are trained to sniff out land mines and tuberculosis.
Why do you think rats aren't more popular as pets?
IE: There is a lot of false info and stigma surrounding rats. The only time you see rats on TV is usually on a show like Hoarders or My Strange Addiction. These TV shows make it look like the only people who have rats are unsound and totally outrageous. This, combined with the historical stigma of rats spreading the plague, does not leave them with a great reputation.
ME: I think people think that rats are not cuddly and that they are dirty. My rats spend hours sitting in my hood or the pocket of my sweatshirt. And they are very cuddly. They have tons of personality and they are as clean as you keep their cage.
What should people know before getting a pet rat?
ME: They should eat healthy, organic food, and good quality dry food. And NEVER use pine shavings. Also, keep chemicals and sprays away from the cage. Their lungs are VERY sensitive.
KC: Sadly, they don't live long and losing a friend every couple of years is difficult. It's also important to know that rats are susceptible to tumors that can cause disability and disfigurement.
IE: The number one thing is you need to at least have two because they are such social creatures. A solo rat will get depressed and stressed.
There are many people that get a pet rat and then end up giving it away because it's miserable and anti-social. Every time I look on Craigslist, there is someone trying to re-home a solo rat that is just not working out. The best place to start when looking for a new rat is a rat rescue because you get help with getting started. Also, their rats have been socialized and handled, so you'll be able to bond with them quickly.