They’re vermin, pests, plague carriers, the stars of horror novels, not to mention many nightmares, and even a right royal pantomime villain.
So are the RSPCA squeaking up the wrong tree with the news we’re being encouraged to have rats in the home as pets?
Not according to the existing rat fans (thank you Roland), who already own 200,000 pet rats in the UK…
The rat breeder
Around 30 years ago, Marti Leimbach was in the pet section of London department store Harrods buying dog food when she saw two “beautiful” rats which she had to have.
Since clapping her eye on Chester and Archie, Marti estimates she has gone on to keep “hundreds” of the rodents. She currently has nine living in her Oxford home.
For the past four years, Marti, 58, has also been breeding rats as a hobby under the name Blue Apple Rattery.
Marti recommends that people interested in pet rats from her have three. “That way, if one dies the remaining two have each other,” she says.
“Rats don’t like being alone, they thrive in company. They are smart, active social pets that become very attached to their owners and to one another – they are very similar to dogs in that regard.
“I home out rats to people that can give them loving and thoughtful homes that will give these remarkable creatures the care they need.”
Marti’s rats have also won prizes at NFRS shows. “There’s different categories, just like there are at dog shows,” says Marti.
“For example, all the rats that have a single color coat will be in one group. People can be surprised when they find out rat shows exist.”
In 2021, two clever rodents, Frankie and Freddie, made it into that year’s Guinness World Record book for their remarkable tricks.
Frankie set the World Record for the most high fives by a rat in 30 seconds, an impressive 28. Meanwhile, Freddie secured himself the accolade for the most jumps through a hoop by a rat in the same time frame, completing the move eight times.
They were trained by Watford-based project manager Luke Roberts, who adopted the duo, who he affectionately refers to as ‘the boys’, when they were pups (baby rats). He started teaching them tricks when they were around three months old and had settled into their new home.
Luke said he was inspired to train his pets after watching a video of a basketball-playing rat online. He added: “It was like a bonding exercise with them. Training small animals which people think are gross can help change public perception of them.
“You can turn it into something funny and inspiring. I wish people would give rats more of a chance.”
Jem Quarry has bred rats at Kismet Stud with her partner Lewis since 2008. She has loved the rodents since getting her first two – Kasper and Cushty – at the age of 16.
Over the past 15 years, Jem, who is 33 and lives near Northampton, estimates she has spent £2,000 entering her rats into National Fancy Rat Society shows – a rodent version of Crufts.
Several of her rats including Apple Crumble, Clanger and Poundcake have netted Best in Show rosettes, cups and even a rodent-shaped trophy.
Jem says a few qualities that make a prize-winning rat stand out. “What you’re looking for is a rat who is very fit, has a nice, shiny sleek coat, has nice bold eyes and is a good colour.”
Jem, who also qualified as a NFRS show judge herself in 2013 says: “I travel all over the country entering my rats into a few a year. You have to feed them a good diet if you want them to do well, as part of the judging involves them having shiny, sleek coats and being fit.”
Jem and Lewis are currently looking after 30 rats including babies. “They all have different personalities,” she says.
“People are starting to warm up to rats as good pets. On social media there’s a lot of videos of them being interactive and very cute, which is changing perceptions of them.”
tv star rats
Animal trainer Grace Dickinson currently has 11 rats – nine brown ones and two ‘blue dumbos’ – which she’s trained to do tricks for film and TV.
“My group of nine boys are what I call my ‘stunt rats’,” says Grace, who is 38 and lives in Chelmsford. “They look like wild rats, so they’ve appeared on screen playing street rats and dungeon rats. Recently, they were in the second series of Netflix show The Witcher.”
Grace’s blue rats Stanley and Gus were also in recent ITV show The Secret Life of Our Pets, where they learned to squeeze through holes, run along ledges and go from A to B points.
“How long it takes to train them depends on their personalities,” says Grace. “The first part is gaining their trust and befriending them, such as by getting them to take food from you.
“They are so intelligent that you can teach them basic stuff in just a few short sessions. Once they’ve got the first thing in the bag, they realize it’s fun and learning everything else will come relatively quickly.
Like the RSPCA, Grace says she recommends rats as pets, especially over more traditional choices such as hamsters and rabbits.
“Rats are a lot bolder and happier around human company,” she adds. “They love coming out and being handled. Really, they are just like little people.”
Nicola Jackson is the proud owner of nine rats, and finds them very useful when dealing with cold doorstep callers.
“Keeping rats have stopped people trying to sell me things on my doorstep – not many people like it when I answer the door with one on my shoulder,” she says.
Two years ago charity worker Nicola had 39 rats living with her, in three large cages costing almost £200 each.
She says: “My rats really helped me in lockdown. I am in a long-distance relationship so I was alone. My rat Saturn, who died at the beginning of last year, would know if I had a bad day and would sit on me and cuddle. They’re very intelligent and caring pets.”
It wasn’t the first time her beloved rats helped her through a tough time. In November 2015, Nicola Jackson’s mother Karen had a seizure and tragically died in front of her daughter. Nicola, who is 34 and from Rosyth, Fife, was later diagnosed with PTSD, but says the two rescue rats she had at the time, Shredder and Splinter, helped her cope with her grief from her.
“Without them, I would have just stayed in bed and not interacted with anyone,” says Nicola. “But the bond I had with my rats helped me get through it, even spending an hour playing with them would help me feel a million times better.
Nicola says the only negative of keeping the animals is the fact their lifespans are so short – they usually live for just two to three years.
“I got a certificate for longevity for my girl Poppy, as she made it to four years,” says Nicola. “She was the longest I ever had.
“Every time you have to say goodbye to them it’s very tough.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.