Rats as Pets? Why on earth….?
The most common reaction on rats is one of surprise. The first word out of most peoples’ mouths after the shocked silence is “Why? The thought of rats as pets is a very strange concept to many people. This is predictable because most people only know of rats from the media’s portrayal of wild rats living in dark dirty sewers and their connection with the Bubonic plague (it was actually fleas that carried that particular disease). So why on earth would someone want to have a rat as a pet? The truth is that domestic rats make wonderful pets and are very very different from wild rats.
Rats have been domesticated for over 200 years. Selective breeding of many many generations of Norway rats (Rattus Norvegicus) over all those years has produced the domestic rat of today which is an affectionate and gentle animal. A fair comparison is that wild rats are to domestic rats as wolves are to dogs. However, unlike dogs which vary greatly in size and shape from the wolf, the body shape of domestic rats has changed very little over time. This means the outward appearance of domestic rats is still very similar to their wild relatives, which often makes people unwilling to accept them as pets. The temperament of domestic rats is very very different from that of wild rats. The breeders and scientists of the past selected the most docile animals to produce their future generations. Domestic rats are far more gentle and relaxed. In keeping with the comparison, domestic rats are also similar to dogs in that both animals have descended from wild ancestors that lived in complex social groups. Their social nature means that rats have an enthusiastically interactive disposition (like dogs), something not found in small animals that are solitary by nature like hamsters. Rats do not merely tolerate being handled by their owners but rather enjoy interacting and spending time with humans.
Rats in Alberta
Despite the fact that domestic rats are vastly different from their wild ancestors, the province of Alberta has chosen not to differentiate between the two. Rattus norvegicus whether wild or domesticated, is illegal to own in this province. “The Agricultural Pests Act forbids, the importation, sale or captive breeding of Norway rats or any subspecies or derivation of the genus Rattus. Pet shop owners, herpetologists and other persons interested in keeping rats as pets are not allowed to do so in Alberta. Only hospitals, universities and other related institutes of education, authorized by the government are allowed to possess live rattus species of any kind.” According to a CBC Radio news report on September 21, 2004, anyone found keeping rats in Alberta can be subject to a $5000 fine. Pet rats are kept legally in all other provinces and territories in Canada although in the Fall of 2004 Saskatchewan announced that it was considering implementing a similar ban on rats.