RSPCA highlights why rats hate social distancing

Sunday 4 April marked World Rat Day and the RSPCA is highlighting just how social and intelligent these rodents are and why they are commonly misunderstood pets.

There were more than 200 incidents reported to the RSPCA about domestic rats in 2020 (221), this includes rats that have been neglected, abused, injured and abandoned, and were in need of help.

In 2020, the charity’s nine national centres rehomed 60 rats however the overall figure is likely to be much higher as this does not include the RSPCA’s 150 branches which rehome lots of rats every year. Despite this, sadly there are still some common misconceptions about these intelligent and friendly pets.

Dr Jane Tyson, RSPCA rodent welfare expert, said: “Rats are incredibly intelligent animals who can be trained to count, fetch a ball and high-five a human! Some rats have even been trained to safely locate landmines in war zones so that they can be removed. They really are an extraordinary group of animals and much more intelligent than they are often given credit for.

“They are also very social animals who thrive off the company of other rats – they would absolutely hate social distancing! They use their incredible sense of smell to recognise other rats and this can help them find out information about each other, such as where they have been and what they have been doing. Being such social animals who rely on the companionship of other rats, keeping them on their own can cause stress and anxiety for them which I think we can all relate to after the last 13 months of lockdowns.”

Studies suggest that rats are empathetic towards each other and choose to release a fellow rat who is trapped in a tube rather than enjoy a treat themselves. This shows how they interact with one another and develop strong relationships with their friends.

Jane added: “Rats can make really great pets as they’re friendly and enjoy human company. Owners can teach them tricks to keep them stimulated and engaged and can also enjoy having some relaxing time with them on the sofa. I think many people would be surprised by how friendly pets rats can actually be!”

A rat owner highlights the bond she has with her pets

Charlotte Blyth from Norfolk never imagined she would have pet rats, not least of all because her mum Amy has a crippling fear of them. However, in April 2020 after 17 rats came into the RSPCA’s care from one household, Charlotte found herself fostering three of the female rats.

Charlotte, who works as an animal welfare officer at the RSPCA Mid-Norfolk and North Suffolk Branch, was fostering the three females when it soon became clear that one of the girls was pregnant. Within two days of the pregnancy being confirmed, she gave birth to ten babies! Charlotte fostered all 13 rats until they could be rehomed but four of the girls, Oslo, Sofia, Victoria and Lima stole her heart and she adopted them in May 2020.

She said: “I never thought I wanted pet rats. Now, I could never imagine my life without them!

“They are such clever little characters who enjoy a snuggle, enjoy exploring, and love spending time fishing for peas or digging in their digging box. They can be trained to do tricks and are super clean animals who can even use litter trays. Throughout the day, my four girls spend the majority of their time asleep in their hammocks curled up together and in the evening they come out and explore, run around and play with their toys.

“As they’ve been handled from a fairly young age, they are really used to people. I was able to gently handle them once they were more than a week old, with their mum’s permission of course!  I’ve been working from home during the lockdown and their cage is next to my desk so it’s been nice to have them as company. Every time I have food, you will just see four eager faces appear at the front of the cage!”

Charlotte said it saddens her now to know what a bad reputation rats have and she was determined that her mum would  overcome her phobia. Once the first lockdown ended and some restrictions were lifted, Charlotte could introduce her terrified mum to her four rats.

She said: “In the first lockdown when I said I was fostering them she didn’t mind too much because it wasn’t like she could come over anyway but then I told her I’d adopted them and she’d basically have to face her fear or never come round again. I encouraged her to touch their tails so she knew they weren’t slimy or dirty. She’s even had them on her lap! The problem was she had this horrible fear of rats but she’d never actually met a rat in real life, it was all based on what she’d seen on TV.

“I think they are kind of like marmite, some people either absolutely love them or absolutely hate them but they are just misunderstood. They are fantastic to watch and are friendly characters with individual personalities who bring so much love and joy to my home. I would encourage everyone to adopt pet rats – you will not be disappointed!”

Charlotte’s top tip is getting them out and handling them every single day for their own enrichment but also so they become sociable and friendly. Rats who have had little interaction can become shy and wary of people. Charlotte explains when it comes to being a rat owner, you get back what you put in.

For more information about caring for rats visit: https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/rodents/rats