Approximately 5% of American households keep small animals. While rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs are the most common small pets, for many, fancy rats put these other types of "pocket pets" to shame.

The modern Fancy Rat is as far removed from its wild cousins as dogs are from wolves – they’ve been bred for gentleness and docility over hundreds of generations. Fancy rats are the domesticated, pet version of the ubiquitous and much maligned Brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), and have been kept as pets since the early 19th century. The legend is that fancy rats were created when urban rat catchers like Jack Black, the self-proclaimed official rat-catcher for Queen Victoria, started to selectively breed rats he'd captured which had interesting coat patterns and colors. When ladies of the court and high society started to keep these fancifully colored rats in little gilded cages, the novelty of owning pet rats began.

Though rats have been much maligned throughout history, they make excellent pets. They’re intelligent and fun-loving, low-maintenance, don’t require a lot of room, and have dynamic personalities. Rat enthusiasts often describe their rats as dog-like in their desire for human interaction and affection.

Where to Find Your Pet Rats
Rats can be found at many pet stores, and in North America, typically cost less than $10. Rats can also be adopted at low cost from local humane societies / shelters, and through rodent-specific rescue organizations.

A draw-back of pet store and shelter / rescue rats however, is that they've most likely been bred as feeders for reptiles, which means they've been bred for size rather than temperament. Rat owners say a better choice is to seek out an accredited fancy rat breeder (yes, they exist) through organizations like the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association or the UK's National Fancy Rat Society, both of which list quality breeders.

Professional rat breeders abide by a code of ethics, and are committed to breeding attractive, healthy animals which have excellent, pet-suitable temperaments. Rat breeding is taken so seriously, that like pedigree dogs and horses, some ratteries have "stud" lines which are earned from successful show competitions.

Baby rats are called "kittens", and can be acquired as young as 6 weeks of age. An advantage of acquiring a baby rat, is that they can be hand-raised and acclimated to the owner from an early age. Older, pet store / rescue rats may not be socialized, and can be skittish and take longer to establish a human bond.

Keeping Your Rats Happy and Healthy
While rats make fantastic pets, people often underestimate the amount of interaction and stimulation they need to be truly happy. If you want a pet that will stay in its cage and keep to itself, a rat isn’t for you. Rats enjoy interacting, whether that’s riding on your shoulder or getting rubbed behind the ears. You should aim to spend at least ½ to an hour with your rats every day, and provide plenty of toys and activities for your rats to entertain themselves with in your absence.

And because rats are intensely social animals, it's recommended that owners keep at least two rats, so they can keep each other company when their human isn't able to be with them.

Rat housing doesn't need to be elaborate, or expensive, though many rat owners rave about larger, multi-storied cages which contain wheels, tunnels, and hammocks that their rats can play with and hide in.

Rat owners say that female rats tend to be more outgoing, playful and hygienic, and male rats more loving and cuddly.