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Rats as Therapy Pets

Claire Miller is a student who battles with depression. She hopes to help end the stigma of mental illness by sharing her own experiences.

Me and my boy, Hotch

Me and my boy, Hotch

Emotional Support Rat

I first considered getting rats as therapy animals when I saw a particular video on YouTube that made me see rats in a whole new light. I never had a problem with rats, I just thought of them as larger hamsters with longer tails. But seeing how intelligent and affectionate they could be was enough to win me over.

In the video, there were three rats whose owner was able to get them to go to the cage on command and come when called. They could also complete a number of agility courses, fetch items, and pull ropes to open doors. She would even sneeze, and they would fetch her a tissue!

It was amazing to watch, and it was then that I thought that maybe rats were the therapy animals for me.

Several studies have shown that keeping a pet can support a person experiencing mental health difficulties. They offer companionship and give you the incentive to keep up a routine—for their sake instead of yours. The simple act of watching or stroking a pet is well known to lower blood pressure and reduce physical and emotional stress.

Cats and dogs are the usual go-to therapy companion, however, any animal can be suitable. Not everyone can afford the costs that come with a cat or a dog, and not everyone has the space for them. Small animals such as rodents or even fish can, therefore, be a more suitable match.

A friend of mine got herself a pet rabbit as a therapy animal a few years ago. Watching her improve and regain her identity made me consider that it may be a good idea for me. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression for a number of years, I thought perhaps rats could help me maintain some form of routine and allow me to feel some sense of achievement from training them and gaining their love and trust.

None of my family have really been keen on the idea of having pet rats. When I showed my mum and my brother the video, however, the response was unanimous:

"Let's get rats!"

Rats Aren't "Gross"

Rats have received an unfair reputation as being "dirty" creatures that carry diseases, when in fact the truth is quite contrary. They are very hygienic as they clean themselves several times throughout the day, and they can be trained to use a litter tray. They are also highly intelligent, which makes them suitable for training them to perform tricks and complete obstacle courses.

Essentially, the only limit to what you can train them to do is your imagination. The more time you invest in training and loving them, the more tricks they will be able to perform, and the more they will enjoy your company. Like dogs, rats love their owners unconditionally, and they will work hard to impress them.

My two late rats, Feynman (top) and Chadwick

My two late rats, Feynman (top) and Chadwick

My Rat as Therapy Pet

I learned very quickly that the love and time you invest into rats is returned 10 times over. Chadwick and Hotch very quickly became the light in my life. Each and every milestone, whether it be a trick or just an affectionate kiss, was enough to make my heart swell. The fact that these little creatures truly seemed to love me in such an unconditional way as you would expect from a dog was the greatest serotonin kick I could ask for. I was finally starting to experience a difference in how I was feeling, and I was not the only who noticed this change in me.

I still have periods where I feel extremely down, but they're far and few between now. I'm off my anti-depressants, and I'm finally writing again. Overall, my progress from where I was at the beginning of last year is exponential.

Maxwell enjoying some cuddles

Maxwell enjoying some cuddles

Rats Are Playful

Rats are intelligent, energetic, and mischievous, and they can be extremely entertaining! They love to play and enjoy to chase and wrestle with one another. It can be so fun to watch, and once they begin to trust you, you can even start to join in with your hands! I cannot recall how many times I have laughed as they bounced around one another and ended up in the most hilarious positions.

Even when I have been at my lowest, they have never failed to make me smile. Whether it be by acting silly, or just by offering me some small kisses, they always cheer me up.

What to Consider Before Getting Rats

Rats are social animals, and it's, therefore, recommended to adopt two or more. They can become bored easily and need the company of their own kind so that they can enjoy playing, grooming, and cuddling together. They also communicate through smells and high-pitched sounds that we can't hear. So no matter how much time you spend with them, you can't completely replace ratty companionship.

But trust me, two rats isn't double the work. It is double the fun watching them play!

Please note that it is your responsibility to reduce the chances of unwanted litters, either by separating males and females or by having them neutered.

You should try and fill the cage with a range of different toys and enrichment activities. These do not have to be expensive, and you can make your own. Dried out fruit tree branches and ropes are great for balancing on, and scattering food over the floor of the cage gives them the chance to scavenge like they would in the wild. They love chewing and hiding in cardboard boxes!


Rat Care Tips

Rats are also prone to suffering from respiratory infections and mammary/testicular tumors, which can get quite pricey at the vet. In order to lower the chances of having rats that develop these, you can:

  • Have your rats neutered
  • Use dust-free bedding such as aubiose or cardboard
  • Litter-train your rats and clean the litter tray out daily
  • Thoroughly clean the cage once a week

Put a bit of money away every so often into a rat fund in case of future visits to the vets. Despite how small rats are, vet bills can be very expensive if your rats later require medication or surgeries, so it's best to be ready just in case.

It is also advisable that you adopt rats from a breeder. Pet shops usually get their animals from breeding mills who produce thousands of animals a year without any thought to the health, longevity, or welfare of the animals that they're breeding. It's merely a business that aims to make as much money as possible.

Because of the need to produce as many rats as possible as quickly as possible, female rats are constantly pregnant. They don't have any time to recover from a pregnancy before they're pregnant again. The stress of consecutive pregnancies can significantly affect the females' immune systems, which is then passed down to the babies. As a consequence, the babies are usually undersized, in poor health, and not used to being handled.

A rat's health is also dependent on the environment that they are kept in. The quality of life before purchase is the bare minimum that regulations state necessary. They are kept in small units with no stimulation or enrichment to keep them occupied, and are raised on a basic diet of lab blocks and water. They are not fed supplements or extras, regardless of their age. Generally, a single unit will contain several adults, or a mother and at least one litter. The stress of being kept in such small crowded spaces can severely affect their health.

Other Things to Consider

I hate to admit that I got my first four rats from a pet shop, and one of them, Feynman, was a prime example of some of the more extreme health consequences of pet shop rats. We got him in May last year. Within a week of us purchasing him, we had to rush him to the emergency vets due to what turned out to be a chronic respiratory infection. By December, he had succumbed to his illness and died in our arms. It hurt a lot, but it opened our eyes to the reality of pet shops.

I'm not saying that rats from breeders are guaranteed to never have health problems. The smaller genetic pool offered by breeders results in a higher chance of inheriting immune issues. However, responsible breeders will:

  • Plan each litter with care and consideration
  • Aim to improve the quality of the rats they breed (this can be through health, longevity, temperament and physical features)
  • Not breed more kittens (baby rats) than they can properly care for and socialize
  • Not breed more kittens than they can find good homes for
  • Not sell single kittens to live alone
  • Remain committed to the well-being of each rat they breed for the duration of the rat's life
  • Supply the new owner with full contact details

If you live in the UK, I would advise contacting an NFRS-registered breeder to ensure the best quality of rats. Otherwise, look for breeders registered with a rat society in your area. The breeder will not have kittens available straight away, so you will have to be put on a waiting list. The breeder will ask a lot of questions about you to ensure that you will provide a suitable home for the rats, and they will always be available to ask for advice throughout the life of the rats.

Another option is to adopt rats from a reputable shelter. Despite often having unknown backgrounds, rescue rats can make wonderful and rewarding pets. They offer the rats that they take in proper socialization and medical care. Some even have their rats neutered before adopting them out.

Thembo posing in his favourite spot

Thembo posing in his favourite spot

Closing Thoughts

I now have seven rats, and they are truly the best pets I could ask for. I could never have imagined how rewarding they could be and how much better I could feel for having them in my life.

Anxiety and depression are illnesses I'm probably always going to struggle with. But I know that my boys make the pain all the more bearable.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2017 Claire Miller


Hillary Marek from Houston on April 30, 2019:

Thanks for writing such a personal and heartfelt article! I suffer from anxiety and PTSD I have wondered often if they have rats as service animals or not. My little rattie Rivers is the best pet I have ever encountered in my lifetime. I just wish she didn't pee on everything lol. I'm glad that you have found such comfort in your pets and i just wanted to wish you well and hope that you keep having good days and better tomorrows.