Not your common or garden rat

2011-12-08 00:00

I AM not a rodent fan. I once spent several hours on the couch shrieking while a rat ran riot in my house.

Admittedly, the rat was one of the common garden varieties that sneak in to raid the kitchen, but I have been raised on horror stories of rat-borne diseases like the bubonic plague.

I once investigated a story of a rat plague in Johannesburg and was told by rat exterminators that rats ­outnumber people, and they live in the sewers in gigantic colonies. But those, of course, were the common brown rats — that feed on rubbish piles.

But I’ve been advised to reform my old-fashioned views on rodents by a friend who not only keeps rats as pets, but is also paid a lot of money for them because they have a pedigree.

Apparently pedigree rats — known as fancy rats — are not prone to the health ailments suffered by the ­common pet-store rats, and they are much more beautiful to look at.

Pet rats today, often referred to as fancy rats, come in a large variety of colours and markings, and have various body types.

Breeder Rebeccca Annett said: “Pet-shop rats often come from severely inbred feeder stock, and they often die at six months old or they start biting.

“Generally, rats make great pets for children as they very rarely bite, unlike hamsters, and their rib cages are hinged so they can take a bit of squeezing. They’re pretty much like little dogs.

“They are small so they are very ­popular with people who stay in flats. Rats don’t make much noise at all, they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to keep, and they don’t need to be walked.”

Breeding fancy rats is quite a ­precise process, and one has to have a reasonable knowledge of biology and genetics to plan ahead.

The first step is separating the males and females at three weeks, ­before they become sexually mature, says Annett who runs Runebound Rattery in Cape Town.

Mating pairs are chosen for their similar genetic characteristics. These characteristics are obviously the dominant features which will be inherited by the offspring.

A breeder will make sure that close relatives do not breed.

The variety of fancy rats available in South Africa is due to the growing number of imported varieties from the United States and Britain, where rats are a popular pet.

There is a growing local following among rat fans and they even have a rat-fan chat room –— www.rata nooga.com There is also a movement among rat fans to go and rescue rats that are not being well-treated at pet shops.

Fancy rats have different types of coats which can be smooth, fluffy and curly or thin and coarse. They also can have different ears which can be set high up or lower down — these are called “dumbo ears”.

They have different fur colours — like cats, these have exotic de­scriptions like mink, champagne, powder blue, Fawn, Topaz and ­Russian Silver, and you can even get a Siamese rat!

Rats are also classified by the way their coats are marked — If the colour is solid or an alternate colour is ­patterned throughout the coat or on specific areas.

Hooded, Essex, Berkshire and varigated describe the different ways the colour is distributed on the coat. A Dalmatian coat should have numerous splashes or spots covering the entire body.

Annett advises rat owners to always keep rats in pairs as they are sociable ­creatures and like having company.

She claims that rats are highly ­intelligent and can even be taught basic tricks and can even be toilet trained.

Pedigree rats may not be hugely ­expensive – they cost between R150 and R300 — but most of the fancy rat breeders are in Cape Town and the average shipping and handling fee is R550. Most breeders insist that the rats are sold in same-sex pairs.

Annett says that rats usually live up to four years. Good care and affection will make sure these little rodents live long, happy lives.

 

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

• Extra information was used from the South African Fancy Rat Club Manual.

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