Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rattus norvegicus

"Ewww!" "Gross!" "Eeeeek!" "Kill it!"
These are the most common exclamatory remarks spoken when someone sees or speaks about rats.
It is not often that rats are met with comments such as "Aww!" "How cute!" or "Can I pet him?"
Rats have a bad reputation because of history books, New York City tunnels, and the fact that they are in the rodent class... etc. However, they are one of the smartest and most useful little mammals around. They have contributed a lot to our human way of life from being used in labs for technical training and research, to being loving pets.

It is suspected that all rats first came from a strand in Norway or northern China. The "brown rat" can now be found on every continent except Antarctica. There are many different species of rats, all belonging to the order Rodentia. They are mammals which means they give birth to altricial young (alive, but the ears, eyes, and fur have yet to be developed). They have four short legs, long bodies, hairless tails, whiskers, and a keen sense of smell for adventure. They can grow to be about 15 inches in length from nose to tail and weigh anywhere from a couple of kilograms to a couple of pounds. They live from 2-4 years depending on whether they are in captivity or in the wild.

Rats are nocturnal, so they prefer to engage in activity at dusk. They love to dig, forage for food, and make nests. Their usual habitat lies in forests or bushy areas. They need somewhere that they can burrow to live and find food. However, many species and generations have adapted to suburban or city living, thanks to human modernization. Rodents' teeth are continually growing, so they need to feed on food that can wear them down. They are hindgut fermenters which means they have one simple stomach and thus are primarily herbivores. Their diet does need protein, so they do eat meat in the wild and protein needs to be a part of their pet diet as well. The best food to feed them in captivity is "blocks", which is a concoction of all the nutrition they need. It is compressed together in a block form so the rat has to eat it all and cannot choose what it likes better. Another fun fact about their digestive system is that rodents have no vomit reflex.

Wild rats live in colonies and are very territorial. Small colonies consist of about six females with one male, or large colonies can have many males and females. They enjoy social interaction with each other and show fear to almost all other species. This is for good reason because they are low on the food chain! Wild rats can be aggressive and show displays of fighting, chasing, and biting. Their main way of communication is body language and smell, but they do have vocal noises which can sound like anything from screaming to clicking.

Rats are social animals. They love the company of others. They enjoy chasing, wrestling, tug-of-war, cuddling, and grooming. They seek attention and desire to explore. In captivity they live a more enriched life if they live with another rat. Since they have been domesticated, and kept as pets, they have learned to enjoy humans' company. If a rat is well socialized from a young age it will enjoy the company of it's owner. Playing, getting to explore a new environment, receiving treats, and being petted is enjoyable for them. Rats can feel a human's emotions, like most animals can. If someone is scared or nervous around them, they will also become nervous and defensive. It is important to handle them with confidence and respect. Talking to them softly and giving them treats will bring a peace between the handler and the pet.

I grew up owning a lot of hamsters. I loved them because they were small and low maintenance, but they could still play and didn't have tails! Three years ago I began my lab animal course in which students learned to gavage, draw blood, and give injections to mice, rats, and rabbits. Students are given the opportunity to adopt their lab animals after their test, or the animals are euthanized and given as food to other species. I adopted my rat. It was my first time working with this species. A few weeks later I adopted a second one because I heard that they do well in pairs.

I named them Eugene and Max. 

At first, they had to get used to each other on common ground. They would fight a lot, but after a couple of days they became best friends. And they still love to wrestle!

They love to explore! 
 
And hide when they are scared. 

They have never tried to run away. They feel the most safe when they are near me. Their favorite place to be is in my hoodie!

They love treats and kisses!

My knowledge of rats has expanded thanks to this research opportunity. I am thankful to now know their history, and their desire for social activity. I have known the love of my rats for years, but now I know that almost all rats can be well socialized no matter their age or temperament. The rat species has helped advance our science department, and has opened our hearts to love these little creatures. They may fit in our hands, have weird long tails, and not live very long, but they give you all that they have. Next time you see these little creatures, remember how important they are. I know that out of all the rodents I have loved, these two boys have changed my life forever.

In Loving Memory of Max. January 2012 - February 10, 2014


Sources:
http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Rattus_norvegicus/#physical_description
http://www.ratbehavior.org/rats.html
http://www.nfrs.org/company.html

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