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Five Myths About Rats

I love animals, but rodents take the cake for me. Hamsters and gerbils have pretty good reputations, but rats and mice are practically hated in society. Why? Some people think they’re creepy, others think they’re violent, and they seem to be known for “spreading diseases.” I’m about to cover the five most popular myths about both domestic and wild rats.

MYTH: Rats are dirty animals.

Well, if you lived out in the wild, you’d be dirty too. Any wild animal is going to be “dirty.” However, this myth also refers to pet rats, and it couldn’t be more wrong. Domestic rats are one of the cleanest pets you can own, provided that you clean their cage once a week. The rats themselves are practically clean freaks. They spend most of their time grooming, and as a result, their fur is soft and shiny.

Also, when the rats get “smelly,” it’s not the rats themselves who smell, it is their cage, which means you obviously need to clean it. But if you smell the rat itself, they usually don’t have an odor, though I’ve noticed my rats’ fur sometimes smells of pleasant things like tortillas or grape soda. Why this is, I have no idea, but they definitely don’t smell bad. Their cage will get smelly toward the end of the week. Why? Well, next time you go to the bathroom, you try and tell yourself that your waste doesn’t stink.

MYTH: Rats carry and spread disease.

I love this one. First, let’s cover domestic rats. It is impossible for a pet rat to catch and spread some random disease, especially one that can affect a human. Yes, like any living thing, the rat might get sick, but a trip to the vet can help the little one get better. Of course, a human can’t catch a rat’s cold, and vise versa. Plus, if you could catch a rat’s cold, I’m sure you wouldn’t be in danger, you know, since we get colds all the time.

How does a creature get a disease? It has to come from somewhere, right? Tell me, do rat owners allow their pet rats to run around outside in filthy environments? Do they expose their rats to harmful bacteria, or feed them infected insects? If a pet rat gets a disease, then someone needs to fine the human taking care of their house, because it’s obviously too filthy to be considered legally safe. A rat cannot contract a disease from nowhere, and they are generally very healthy animals if you take care of them. Like hamsters, mice, and other rodents, they can be susceptible to cancerous tumors, but there’s nothing stopping cancer once it hits its target.

As for wild rats, again, you try living in the wild and not picking up something infectious. Nevertheless, wild rats actually do not play a role in spreading diseases among their colonies, to other animals, or to humans. One of the diseases people are most afraid of getting from a wild animal is rabies, but did you know that rats don’t actually play a part in spreading it? It is extremely rare to contract rabies from a rat or mouse bite, and you are much more likely to get it from bites of cats, dogs, foxes, raccoons, and other carnivorous animals.

Here’s the big one; the Black Death. It is known for killing up to half of Europe’s population in the 14th century, and a very popular misconception is that rats played a big part in spreading it. However, research shows that rats could not have spread the disease among humans for many reasons. People think that the bubonic plague was spread from the fleas on rats, to the rats themselves, and then to humans. Evidence shows that the plague reared its ugly head in November and reached its peak in April. What does this mean?

It means that all of the rats and their fleas were not nearly as active among humans as they would be during the summer. Another thing is, how many humans died compared to rats? Around 35,000 people were killed by the plague, but there is no record of rat deaths even reaching to the thousands. In fact, when excavating the city, there were hardly any rat skeletons to be found. Of course, this is not to say that the rats didn’t catch the disease, but they did not help spread it, and it certainly was not nearly as devastating to the rat population as it was to the humans.

In the 14th century, people were not as clean as they are in modern times. There was no plumbing, and people took baths much less frequently. Not only that, but households were not quite as protected from outside elements, and due to lack of resources, were much less clean. Factor this in with the fact that so many people were sick, and then when the body count started to rise, burying the dead meant they’d come in contact with infected corpses. The disease was spread from person to person, not flea to rat to person. Will this stop people from blaming rats? Nope, because we’d much rather blame an innocent animal than our fellow human being.

MYTH: Rats are violent and will bite you.

Wild rats are sure to bite you. Why? Because they are terrified of humans. We are the predator, so the rat, being the prey, needs to do anything it can to survive. Because they are afraid of us, they will not go out of their way to come up to you and attack. Wild rats only bite if you are in their territory. That goes for any wild animal.

However, this myth applies to domestic rats too. The fact is, it is extremely rare for a pet rat to bite someone. If your rat is biting you, something is wrong. It might be trying to tell you it’s sick or in pain, and even then, it’s rare. From birth, domestic rats have become familiar with human touch, and being social creatures, they enjoy our company just as much as another rat. They will get excited when their owner walks passed their cage, no different than a dog greeting its master when they walk through the door. Rats also will not bite a finger that pokes through the bars of their cage as long as you remember one thing; NEVER feed your rat through the bars. If you give them food through the bars, they will expect whatever comes through there to be food. If they are used to being touched through the bars, they will not bite.

Rats are also extremely affectionate. Again, much like a dog, they will lick your face and hands. These kisses are a sign of affection, and not because you have something tasty on your skin. They will also give “love bites,” which are extremely gentle. Rats groom each other with their tongues and teeth, and they will do the same to you, but just as with their rat companion, they are extremely gentle when using their teeth. Even if they use their teeth to play fight with you, it’s nothing more than slight pressure, and it’s so soft, it takes you a minute to even realize the rat is using its teeth. Dogs of all ages use their mouths when playing, as do cats, but for the most part, they seem to know their own strength. Rats are no different, and you should never worry about a domestic rat biting you.

MYTH: Rats can’t love.

Well, the previous explanation already provides reason to why this is wrong. As I said before, rats will kiss you, groom you and their cage mate, will play, and be very excited to see you. Again, rats are social creatures, and need interaction both with at least one other rat and with their human. I have had four rats in the passed three years, my third and fourth still being young and healthy. All four of them got into the habit of giving kisses to, not just me, but any human that gave them attention, even my nine year old niece who stuck her fingers through the cage. She was good with them, and they were good with her, there were absolutely no problems.

Rem and Ezio were my first two boys, and Rem ended up dying from a urinary infection that we didn’t catch. It appeared so quickly, and killed him so suddenly, we weren’t even able to determine that’s what it was until after his death. Ezio became a different rat after Rem passed, and he knew what had happened because Rem died in the cage. Ezio was not sick like Rem had been, or at least, not physically. He became depressed, being lethargic, eating less, and becoming less excited when I took him out. It was incredibly heart breaking, and so I brought home Sammy and Tommy to try and give him some company. It didn’t work, because no rat could replace his dear Rem. He died three days later on Christmas day.

It’s not uncommon for social animals like rats and ferrets to mourn for a cage mate and die of loneliness. People will try and tell you that animals don’t have emotions, that they don’t think or feel. Rats fall victim to this statement, but they, just like all animals, are not mindless vessels that only care about food, sleep, and reproduction. Many rat owners have experienced their pet’s depression after their cage mate dies, and seeing it first hand, it’s idiotic to say that these creatures can’t love. A rat will love you just as much as any dog will.

MYTH: Rats are creepy.

This one is difficult because it’s mostly an opinion. We all have that one animal we don’t like. Mine are spiders, but that’s a common one. Some people don’t like snakes, dogs, birds, worms, and the list goes on. The problem with this one is, the main reason most people fear rats is because of their reputation. These myths play a big part, but their roles in movies exacerbate the problem. They are depicted as large, ugly, violent creatures that do nothing but attack and destroy, but even wild rats couldn’t be further from their movie counterparts.

Some people might not think rats are cute, and again, that’s an opinion. My opinion is that rats are freaking adorable. Some people don’t like their tails, and I personally cannot understand why. I love petting my rats’ tails. They don’t have fur, but do grow fine hair, and they are kind of scaly in texture. You need to pet from base to tip, because if you pet the other way, it’ll be uncomfortable for the rat, and maybe even painful.

Even though the different opinions of people need to be respected, I do my part to educate people on rats if their dislike for them is solely based on their bad reputation. I have actually changed a lot of people’s opinions on rats just by posting videos of my boys, and showing how nice they really are. In most cases, people who think rats are creepy have only seen them portrayed that way in movies and Halloween decorations. I challenge you to do an image search of “cute rats,” and after, you tell me if you truly didn’t think they were cute. Just as a preview, here’s one of the pictures you might encounter.

There are more myths and misconceptions about rats, but these are the most popular ones. Maybe I can’t get you to like rats, but that was not my goal. It is important to be informed, because if you’re stuck believing myths about certain animals that don’t deserve their reputation, it doesn’t help anyone. Proper education about animals like rats is crucial, because you never know when you might come face to face with one, whether it be wild, or your friend’s pet. Just know that, if it’s a domestic rat, you’re in about the same amount of danger as you would be with a little bunny rabbit.

The information shared in this post comes from my own personal experiences with rats, as well as from the sources below:








Here are some fun facts about pet rats!

  • Rats wag their tails like dogs when they are playful.
  • Males are usually more calm than females, which means they will sit in your lap and let you pet them. Females tend to be more adventurous and energetic.
  • You can train rats to do tricks, like fetching, spinning on cue, going through obstacle courses, and more! You can even potty train them and teach them their names.
  • There are things rats can eat, but there’s a list of foods rats should NEVER eat. Funnily enough, chocolate is not one of the forbidden foods. Unlike dogs, chocolate does not make rats sick, and in fact, can help with respiratory problems. However, there is a lot of sugar and milk in chocolate, so it’s something to feed them in moderation. I usually give my rats a very small piece of 80% dark chocolate once a month at the most.
  • Rats do two things when they are happy; bruxxing and boggling. Bruxxing is when they grind their teeth, making crunching sounds that’s often mistaken for a sign of anger. On the contrary, this means they are content. After bruxxing comes boggling, which can be very alarming when you first see it. Their eyes jiggle in their sockets, but even if this looks like a problem, it’s not, it simply means they are VERY content. Both of these things are a good sign!
  • Male rats develop a “tail nail” at the end of their tail. We’re not exactly sure why!
  • Male rats also tend to get “stains” on their tail as they get older. This is because, in the wild, dragging their tail through their urine is a way to attract a mate. Domestic rats still do this, but for some reason, it doesn’t give off an odor. Probably because it’s not pee, but the urine they use to mark their territory, which doesn’t smell and has no color.
  • Rats laugh when they’re tickled, but we can’t hear it because it’s so high pitched, human ears can’t pick up the sound! There are a few vocals that humans can hear from rats, and those are usually squeaks when they are grooming each other or play fighting.
  • As a wrestling fan, I’ve noticed that rats actually wrestle when they play!
  • Rats will play tag with you, as well as chase a string like a cat would.
  • Despite popular belief, mice and rats do NOT like cheese all that much. It’s another moderation food because it has too much milk, and they also won’t get quite as excited about it as they would some fruit.

Comments on: "Five Myths About Rats" (5)

  1. Hello, I have had a hard time accepting a decision lately, and I was hoping to get your input on what you would have done. Just in case I am ever in this situation again.

    Last semester a wild rat came into my condo because I left my sliding glass door and screen door open all night to reduce the heat in my home. The female rat was not able to find her way out or chose not to leave when I repeated leaving the sliding glass door open.

    I was not fearful of the rat. And lethal removal was never an option. I love all animals. Actually, I always wanted a pet domesticated rat, but never had one. I tried for almost 6 months to catch her alive. The female rat was too smart for all the non-lethal traps. Meanwhile, I was not thinking ahead, as to what would actually happen if I caught the rat. I figured she was eating my cat’s food so I only feed my cat when I was there and no longer left anything out so the rat would consider eating the food in the non-lethal traps. She then found ways to extract the food from the non-lethal traps without getting caught.

    Six months passed. She pooped in one spot, which made clean up easy. I would sometimes see her walking at night and she would just jog away when she saw me. She did not chew or destroy things.

    So finally on unexpected night I notice my cat would not leave or take her eyes off the back area of the bedroom tv. I instantly knew she had the rat cornered. I closed the door and my cat and I cornered her. I caught her with a simple plastic box. After spending all that money on traps.

    I had not considered what I would do if I caught her.

    As I googled, every website made it seem like keeping her was very dangerous. Because of a long list of diseases that could be caught from a bit or her scat and urine.

    I called a vet about getting her shots so I could keep her and the vet told me he did not want to chance getting bit or scratch. He also said any “wild “ animal deserves its freedom and could not be truly happy living the rest of its life in a cage.

    So after a day of feeding her love of fresh veggies and assorted nuts. I took her to a water basin away from all the people in my condo complex. At the time I thought this would be better for her, so she does not end up in a lethal trap, and released her there.

    Since then i think of her often. I when I stopped by the pet store they said I did the right think. And That there rats are bread there have no diseases.

    However, one website says I was not supposed to release more than 100 yards away, which I did. More than 100 yards and they can’t find their group and die.

    While I had her, she seemed very friendly and inquisitive. What made me eventually not keep her is the long list of diseases that she might give me or my pets.

    But i find myself thinking about her and just wanted to ask you what you would have done? I think SPCA would have put her down? Where there another option I did not see?

    • sorry for the delayed reply, I know you spoke to me on youtube. yes, setting her free was absolutely the best thing to do since you had a cat, and the rat definitely needed to be out in the wild. I’m not sure what kind of place you live in, is it the city? or is there a lot of wildlife around? if it’s the latter, letting her go just a few yards away from her home would’ve been fine. if you’re in the city, there’s no telling what could’ve happened to her if you just set her out and let her go. there is a very good chance that, since she’s female, she can find a new pack and be accepted into it, but even if she doesn’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean she won’t be able to live as long. it’s true that she could’ve carried something into your home that’d make you or your cat sick if you were bitten, and it’s also true that she would never be as happy. I believe she was friendly with you because she was able to tell that you had no intention to harm her. I’m happy to hear how you handled having her in your house, I wish more humans were like that. SPCA probably WOULD have put her down. you did what you could, and you had her in your heart. now it’s up to her to carry on in a world where the newest species has decided she is a pest. who knows, she may even come back some day. I think the ONLY thing you could have done differently is get advice from a rat rescue forum on how to set her free and where. other than that, I’d say you handled the situation very well, and I’m surprised your cat didn’t eat her.

  2. Fantastic article. Disagree about rats not loving cheese – they will do anything for a blob of cream cheese! Great way to fatten up a sick rat. Hope to see more articles.

    • milk products are not good for rats. just because they are ABLE to eat something, doesn’t mean they SHOULD. both rats and mice are not nearly as crazy about cheese as we portray in the media, but in fact, have a sweet tooth, which is why one should give them plenty of fruit, and I give my boys chocolate every so often to help keep their respiratory system healthy. milk products can cause buildup of mucus in the sinuses and throat, making them susceptible to respiratory illnesses and difficulty swallowing. rats WILL eat almost anything, but just because they would totally eat a piece of orange, doesn’t mean they should have it. citrus fruits can cause kidney failure in male rats, but I’m sure my males would love it. of course, I love THEM, so I consider their health more important. the best way to help a rat gain weight is to feed them avocado, but not the skin or pit. bananas also help, but not the peel. I strongly suggest you look up the list of foods rats should not eat, and please, for the safety of the animals, don’t continue feeding your rats cheese.

  3. Very Interesting Rei, & I’m very sorry for your lost pets

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