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.

Rats Will Love You!

Because rats are naturally curious and intelligent, rat owners say they develop an emotional connection to their little rodents which seems to elevate rats from other small pets.

This is especially true with young rat owners. In an online survey conducted by my website RightPet, children and teens say they get more satisfaction owning fancy rats than any other pets.

The RightPet survey looked at reviews from 2,867 members from 74 countries who owned their pets when they were 17 years old or younger. Pet owners between the ages of 10 - 17 expressed the greatest satisfaction with rats, as compared with any other animal. Cats, dogs and horses were the next most satisfying pets for this age group. At age 18, rats start to lose their appeal, though they are still the 4th most satisfying pet until age 30.

Rats are (sex and death) educational!

For kids, owning rats also provides some important, even eye-opening, educational lessons.

Because rats can breed faster than you can sneeze, it's important to select same-sex animals. Sexing isn't a science, and pet stores mistakes are legendary. What starts off as a cage containing two lovely same-sex rats can quickly morph into a dozen pink, squeaking babies.

Male rats tend to be lazy, happy-go-lucky little fellows, except that is when a pair squabble and bully over who's the alpha male. And of course male rats have testicles....massive, sex-education-poster-sized-testicles.

"I was a pre-teen girl who didn't expect his balls to get so... seriously sized. Hilarious!!! It was the forever joke of a shy girl to have such a friendly pet dragging pink balls close to the size of his very large belly around behind him." says RightPet member Dreamstone.

And then there's the rat's tragically short natural lifespan. The wild Rattus norvegicus lives for only about 2 years (which explains why they become sexually mature at 3 months). The fancy rat pet typically lives for 2 - 3 years, and sometimes even reaches age 4. This is one of the shortest lifespans of any animal that's kept as a pet.

A pet rat's death is often a child's first experience with mortality. Rats are such wonderful, sweet, loving creatures that you will grow attached to them. And then, seemingly as quickly as you fall in love with them, they're gone. The loss of a rat feels like the loss of a family member - if you want to be a rat owner, you must be prepared to have your heart ripped to shreds when they die.

But having a pet that only lives 2 - 3 years may also have its benefits - if only for parents. Short-lived rats are a great compromise between youthful-pet-desire and parent-realization-that-parent-will-be-taking-care-of-new-pet once the kid leaves home.

Rats don’t cost a lot to keep!

Why are rats such wonderful pets for young people? Well, to start, there's the obvious practical reason - rats are relatively inexpensive to buy and keep.

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.

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.

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.

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

Rats are clean and won’t give you the plague!

Rats seem to occupy a part of our brain that's a repository for ancient and culturally-specific fears. For those of us in the West these include vague qualms about invading Mongol hordes, and blights like leprosy and the bubonic plague.

Sure, rats have physical and behavioral traits which humans seem to innately find distasteful - their naked, worm-like tails and protective habit of furtive hiding and quickly darting between shadows. But it's probably the portrait of rats as nasty, horrible, disease carriers which makes them a particularly hard sell as modern household pets.

In 14th century Europe, the "Black Death" wiped out up to one-third of the population, decimating entire towns to the point that sometimes there were not enough survivors to bury the dead. Now understood to be caused by an infection of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the rapid spread of the bubonic plague has traditionally been attributed to fleas carried on backs of the brown rat.

However, a 2018 Norwegian study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has exonerated rats for one of the greatest misfortunes in human history. The study authors argue that human parasites - body lice and human fleas - were the actual vectors for the deadly bacteria. This finding was based on a mathematical analysis of the rapidity of the spread of plague, a speed that could not be explained by rat flea to human transmission; the high rate of household infections; a scarcity of rats in the archaeological record; and no descriptions of massive rat deaths preceding the plague.

Rats will freak your parents out!

Perhaps the most intriguing explanation for the popularity of pet rats for pre-teens and teens has to do with developmental psychology.

Beginning at ages 10 - 12, children enter adolescence and begin a healthy and natural pushing away from dependence on their parents. Pet ownership provides a perfect outlet for this "do-it-myself" urge, though large pets often aren’t the best match. It's great when a child volunteers to take on the care of the family cat or dog, but chances are the loving, exercising, and poop-scooping are going to be shared amongst multiple family members. Large pets simply require too much care and expense to be typical kids-only animals.

Small pets, like rats, work better. They take up little space and can easily live in a single room their entire lives. Small pets are often the first living creatures (not counting goldfish) a young person considers to be their very own, and successfully meeting the challenge of raising a pet can do wonders for self-esteem.

And there's another age-appropriate psychological component which seems to make rats a particularly suitable pet for young people.

Parents, teachers, and toy makers have long known that there are several years in a child's emotional development when they're infatuated with things that adults consider "gross". Evacuatory bodily functions like farts and boogers; icky / cool toys like slime and troll dolls - you know what kids find enthralling because at one time, you too were enamored with them. Admit it - you too are guilty of flagrantly wriggling a loose tooth just to freak your parents out!

Kids seem to get great satisfaction making their parents squirm. And when it comes to parentally-upsetting pets, rats fit the bill.

“For preteens and teens, pet rats have an aura of "creepy cute”, and it can be appealing to have a pet that others find scary or strange. Adults (including many parents) probably associate fancy rats with the stereotyped dirty and disease-spreading wild rat. The association is unwarranted, but if I were a teen, I might enjoy having a pet that freaks out my parents.” Gail F. Melson, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Purdue University