One of my readers wrote me the other day and mentioned an intention to embark on the grand adventure of owning rats. I don't know if she's already got them or not, but if anyone else is interested in acquiring rodents, here are a few pieces of advice.
Assuming that you haven't inherited your rats by accident or necessity -- I know several people who have ended up with rescue rats -- there's an easy way to ensure you get friendly, sociable critters.
First, you find a pet shop that sells rats. Note that I do not say 'find a shop that sells pet rats'. Unless you specifically want a particular breed of fancy rat, like a dumbo or a rex, rats is rats is rats. The ones in the pet terrarium are exactly the same as the ones in the bin marked "snake food (small)". Snake food is often cheaper.
(We took some un-fancy rats to the veterinarian once. I had a hell of a time making the appointment. The receptionist kept asking me what kind of rats they were. I eventually told her, "They're rats. There is nothing at all special about them except that they're ours and they're making whiffling noises." We got their paperwork back afterwards, and in the header it said 'Species: RAT. Breed: RAT.' For reasons no one can quite articulate, this was hilarious.)
When you get someone to bring out a bin full of rats, regardless of what it's marked, stick your hand straight into the tub. Baby rats are tiny and terrified of most things, and most of them will cram themselves into a giant squirming wad of rodent on the other end of the terrarium. You want the ones who waddle up and inspect you for food. These are the ones who are inquisitive and friendly by nature, yet have some sort of tragic congenital defect that renders them unable to grasp the idea that you are a kajillion times bigger than they are and might want to eat them instead of cuddle them. Basically, the good pets are the ones who have the personality of a slightly retarded Labrador retriever.
It's generally recommended that you try to keep two or three rats at a time. The books very tactfully put this as, "Rats are very social." What they mean is that rats are narcissistic attention sponges. Rats are aware of the rest of the universe strictly in the sense that they consider themselves the most important thing in it. I'm convinced that the rat language has about nine words for "mine" and no words for "yours". Mine have never quite got a handle on the idea that sometimes, the food I'm cooking is for me. The reason you want more than one rat is that if you only have one rat, he has no one to demand adulation from except you, and you have to sleep sometime.
There's quite a difference between keeping male rats and female rats. (You pick one sex and stick with it, for the obvious reason that if you don't, you go to bed one night with two rats and wake up the next morning to find you have about nineteen of the little bastards.) They're both loving and very interactive, but they differ greatly in the activity level they'll maintain throughout their lives.
Female rats, in the wild, are responsible for building and maintaining the nest in which they will bear and raise their little rat children, and consequently they are industrious little things. Lady rats are always bustling about, trying to sniff out resources and safe corners to hide, to the point where they're damnably difficult to keep hold of when you have them out of the cage -- you basically have to be fast enough to get one hand out in front of the other like some sort of mad rodent treadmill in order to keep them from shooting off into space. Rat women will actually use exercise wheels. They're also adventurous. A friend of mine had a pair of does, and one of them once took about a four-foot blind leap off her shoulder onto someone else's beer glass. Female rats are lively and curious, and will keep you very busy handing over improvised toys and cleaning up their impromptu stashes of interesting objects.
Male rats, on the other hand, are responsible primarily for carting around a set of testicles roughly the size of their own heads. If you keep bucks, you will see a lot of rat testicles, believe me. They're squirmy and active when young, but as they mature they slowly morph into that one roommate you had back in college, who spent all his money on weed, beer, and video games, and lived largely off of waffle fries and Stouffer's frozen mini pizzas. I keep rat boys. If you broke down their day by activity, it would consist about 60% of sleeping; 20% negotiating the sleeping arrangements, by stepping on each other's faces and wiggling around until they are an undifferentiated mass of rat fur piled into a cardboard box; 10% fighting over the food bowl by putting a paw on their brother rat's face and shoving like an indignant toddler; and 10% boiling out of the front of their house because they've smelled someone making food and are convinced it's for them. They are so lazy that I have actually gone to give them treats and had to poke around the fur pile to locate the nomming end of each rat, so I could insert the food into it. I don't even close their cage. They don't go anywhere. They are the least escapingest pets I've ever had in my life, and I grew up with neurotic homebody dogs. They do climb up to sleep on top of their house; they don't believe in gravity but gravity very definitely believes in them, so occasionally one of them falls off. I have a mat where they'd land, so they don't hurt themselves, and the last time it happened it took me three hours to notice, because he didn't get into anything. I found him solidly asleep under the bed, and had to shove him out with a broom, because when I reached in to get him, he woke up just long enough to ignore me.
In short, if you want to teach your rats peppy tricks, get girls. If you want a small furry pillow who will lie motionless on your lap while you scratch it behind the ears, get boys.