Rats are fun and talented pets too!

Rats! For a lot of people that very word sends a shiver down their spine and brings up images of terrifying, shifty-eyed little pests that spread disease. Movies like Lady and the Tramp, The Princess Bride, and The Great Mouse Detective instill this perception from a young age with their antagonistic rat characters. Although media is starting to recognize the kinder, cuter side of rats with movies like Ratatouille, ask most New Yorkers how they feel about rats and they’ll probably respond with a look of disgust. When most people think of rats, they think of the little critters scuttling across dirty subway tracks or stealing slices of pizza. However, these little rodents aren’t actually so dirty and evil when you get to know them! Rats actually make excellent pets, because these little beings are incredibly social, intelligent, and friendly! While I’m sure any rat owner can tell you this, we have science to prove it too! (Pictured below is the nasty rat from Lady and the Tramp, 1955)

First of all, rats are friendly! The first study highlighting a rat’s sociable qualities is a 2011 study by first author Dr. Bartal. Here, rats were given the opportunity to free a cagemate from a small box, called a restrainer. The authors found that once the free rats learned how to open the restrainer, a vast majority of them would open it and free their cagemate quickly and intentionally. Even when the rats didn’t get to come into contact after, they still freed their cagemate. To test this kindness a little further, the scientists added another restrainer with chocolate instead for the rats to choose between. Even with such a delicious treat available, the freed rats opened the restrainer just as quickly as before, showing that the chocolate didn’t slow them down from freeing their friend! In fact, free rats often ate less chocolate when the cagemate was present than when they were alone, indicating they even saved some for their friend.  This study shows rats will help out another rat in need and a lot of times even share treats. If you’d like to learn more about this study you can check out the following youtube video!

Rats are also playful, and they enjoy spending time with their human companion too. At least, that’s what another study by authors LaFollette et al. found in their 2017 review of tickling rats. Yes, tickling! It turns out rats love being tickled and they really love when their human tickles them. When rats are tickled they even make very high pitched vocalizations, too high pitched for us to hear, but rats only make them when they’re feeling positive so it’s similar to human laughter in that way! That rats enjoy this contact at all shows that rats enjoy the companionship of humans. (Photo below of tickled rat by Megan R. LaFollette.)

The final study I would like to share in favor of the rats is a new study by Dr. Crawford et al. put out just this year. In this study, these scientists at the University of Richmond trained rats to carry out an impressive and complex task; they taught rats to drive a tiny car! The rats seemed to enjoy learning this complex task too, given the fact that not only did they voluntarily participate in the training (no rat was ever forced to practice!), but after driving the little car around, the researchers found that the rats’ metabolized stress hormones more efficiently after learning to drive. Essentially, this means that the rats were more emotionally resilient and, therefore, healthier and happier, afterwards! So not only are rats smart enough to learn such a tricky task, but they seem to enjoy it too. (Photo below of rat in vehicle by Kelly Lambert with the University of Richmond)

So overall, we’ve learned quite a bit about what rats can do! They’ve shown us that they are social because they are concerned about other rats and they enjoy playing with us, their human companions. They’ve shown us they’re intelligent because they can figure out tricky skills like how to open boxes and how to drive their tiny little rat-made vehicles. There are plenty of humans who can’t even drive a car! So now I’d like to turn your attention to a final part of their stereotype; the assumption that all rats are mangy little grey rodents. Again, this is not so! As a parting gift, here is a lovely graphic of some of the many interesting varieties rats can come in, courtesy of artist Rebecca Karlén.

Follow me at @mirandatrapani for more talk about science and animals!

Rebecca Karlén’s facebook for more of her work:

Works Cited:

Bartal, I. B. A., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2011). Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats. Science, 334(6061), 1427-1430.

Crawford, L. E., Knouse, L. E., Kent, M., Vavra, D., Harding, O., LeServe, D., … & Lambert, K. G. (2019). Enriched environment exposure accelerates rodent driving skills. Behavioural Brain Research, 112309.

 LaFollette, M. R., O’Haire, M. E., Cloutier, S., Blankenberger, W. B., & Gaskill, B. N. (2017). Rat tickling: A systematic review of applications, outcomes, and moderators. PloS one, 12(4), e0175320.

Reptiles as Companion Animals

“…keeping a pet is a lifestyle choice made by the owner…”—Frank Pasmans 

So, you have decided that you want a companion animal, but not the traditional cat or dog, something more exotic. Well, you are not alone; according to the National Pet Owners survey from 2017-2018, approximately 37 million households in America had a pet other than a dog or cat, and of that, 4.7 million or 3.26% had a pet reptile. Several recent studies have cited the keeping of reptiles as pets to be a continually increasing trend that might surpass keeping other small pets such as hamsters.

Interestingly, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA, released a report as to the motivations that people have when it comes to getting a pet reptile. They found that the motivations for having a pet reptile vary from media-based interest, wanting a reptile for a status symbol, wanting a pet, wanting a reptile since childhood, and interest in biology or natural history. Additionally, they found that age group and sex of responding individuals resulted in different motivations and owning different reptiles. For example, owners of reptiles in the age group 20-30 were more often males owning corn snakes or royal pythons, while females more commonly owned bearded dragons. To read more, check out RSPCA’s report. Keep in mind that the RSPCA works in the United Kingdom, and for more information for companion animals in America, check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.

Commonly kept pet reptiles include lizards, snakes, and turtles. In this post, you will find pros and cons of owning a pet reptile, information about the exotic pet trade, how to keep reptiles alive, healthy, and safe, and why enrichment is important for reptiles.

Pros and cons

If you are still deciding whether or not a pet reptile is for you, it is important to consider some pros and cons to keeping a reptile as a pet in your home and life. In a review by Frank Pasmans and colleagues from 2017, they list some of the cons of keeping a reptile as a pet as zoonoses (or diseases transmitted between the animal and the human caretaker), allergies, trauma from injury resulting from the pet such as a bite, and poisoning. Pros of keeping a reptile as a pet include benefits to human well-being, connecting with animals, public education, interest, and dispelling prejudice for reptiles and amphibians. For more information on selecting a pet reptile, check out this article from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Keep in mind that you CANNOT release a pet reptile into the wild for any reason. Not only is this illegal, but the animal can become an invasive species to the area. One example is that of Burmese pythons released in Florida, which are now second in predatory status in the state.

Before you buy:

  • Remember that a reptile is just as much of a commitment as other pets
  • ALL pet reptiles are considered exotic, which means they are non-domesticated species that are not as selectively adapted to the companion animal role as a dog or cat would be, which means any exotic pet has highly specialized and diverse needs.
  • Knowing how to care for a pet reptile isn’t necessarily common knowledge, so you will likely need to do some research in addition to what the pet store tells you.
  • Be aware of mislabeling and understand easy, moderate, difficult, and extreme level of experience before obtaining pet reptile. An example of this is pictured below of advertising a lizard as a beginner level pet when lizards require higher levels of experience.
  • Consider setting up the enclosure before you buy the animal, and at least a week before bringing it home.
  • Rules, regulations, and laws vary depending on the country or state you are in, so be sure to do the research prior to obtaining a pet reptile, specifically larger snakes. For more information, check out the US fish and wildlife state directory here.
Text Box: Above Photo Credit: Warwick et al., 2018
Above Photo Credit: Warwick et al., 2018

Think about where to obtain your pet reptile and the deeper issue of the pet trade

If you have decided or are in the process of obtaining a pet reptile, it might be easy to simply buy one from a pet shop, but there is a very critical step: be informed and buy responsibly. As a potential owner, you should ask where the animal was acquired. For example, you can ask “is this animal captive bred or wild caught?” One reason to seek out captive bred over wild caught is because it is likely that the reptile was illegally taken from the wild and traded. According to one study by Robinson and colleagues in 2017, mortality rates in captive bred animals may be lower than that of the exotic pet trade, and another study by Toland and colleagues in 2012 reports that 80% of exotic trade animals are sick, injured, or even dead, and so it is important if not crucial to consider where your new exotic pet is coming from.

Now that you have your pet reptile, what does it take to keep your pet alive, healthy, and safe?

What should the enclosure be like? In 2013, Warwick and colleagues proposed two common myths about reptiles and the amount of space they need. The first myth is that reptiles feel safer in small environments because they are sedentary and do not need space. A second common myth is that reptiles are not active and therefore do not need free space. While reptiles may seem slow moving, they still require adequate space, temperature, humidity, light, airflow, and furnishings. So, it is best not to assume that your pet reptile is sedentary and do provide a spacious and diverse shelter that allows for voluntary withdraw. In other words, provide enough space for the animal to move, crawl, or slither including areas to hide, which helps regulate body temperature, allows species specific behavior, and provides diversity and choice in the environment.

Should you handle your pet reptile?

Text Box: Above: photo of leopard gecko (left) courtesy of Allie Woodhouse, photo of ball python (middle and right) courtesy of Jordon Kenneally
Above: photo of leopard gecko (left) courtesy of Allie Woodhouse, photo of ball python (middle and right) courtesy of Jordon Kenneally

Handling can be an important method to assessing your reptile’s physical health, but some reptiles should be handled more than others. For example, slider turtles should not be petted whereas leopard geckos can be held (see images above). Sliders are fragile especially when they’re young, so improper handling has the potential to hurt this reptile. Additionally, if you are handling your slider turtle, RSPCA recommends picking the animal up from the sides of its shell to avoid being bitten. It is important to keep in mind how long the reptile is out of its enclosure, as the temperature may be different and harmful if too much time passes. RSPCA recommends 10-15 minute intervals for handling and to never surprise your reptile or force them into your hand. Howell & Bennett (2017) point out that, “even if daily handling is not recommended, daily behavioral observation of the lizard is desirable.”

What are some unhealthy behaviors?

You can’t always see negative effects physiologically, but you can look at behavior. Specifically, you want to look for captive stress related behaviors such as interaction with transparent boundary (i.e. persistent climbing of glass walls), hyperactivity, hypoactivity, co-occupant aggression, habit related consumption such as pica (see images), which is consumption of non-food materials such as bedding. Pica can be a sign that your pet is under stimulated. You want to ask and answer questions such as, is my reptile basking (a species-specific behavior), or is my turtle acting unusual, such as extension of its neck, which can be a possible indicator or anxiety, according to Benn and colleagues. The full list of behaviors to measure welfare can be found here.

A picture containing indoor, wall

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Above Photo Credit: Emma Nicholas (left) and Clifford Warwick (right)

How to keep your pet snake healthy and safe

You might have a corn snake, royal python, or garter snake and as mentioned above, you will want to look at behavior to get a better understanding of your snake’s well-being. If the animal is stressed, you may see clutching behavior, for instance clinging to something tightly, or the snake might demonstrate escape behavior by interacting with a transparent boundary. Especially if these behaviors are repetitive, they can be signs of stress. You can also look at physical signs that the environment isn’t safe for your snake. This can be lamp burns (see right image below) from artificial lights—are the lights too close to the snake or is there self-mutilation behavior? According to RSPCA’s “Handle with Care,” snakes need access to a range of temperatures, which can be provided through a diverse enclosure giving the snake choices (i.e. provide areas in enclosure for snake to hide in hot or cooler area). However, it is important not to raise the temperature for a sick or injured reptile as you might do more harm than help. Most importantly, your snake needs AT LEAST a large enough enclosure to be able to be stretched out in a straight line. This is for comfort and proper digestion. The image on the left shows an extreme example of improper space for a snake.

A close up of a reptile

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Above Photo Credit: Animal Protection Agency (left) and Warwick et al., 2013 (right)

What about lizards?

Text Box: Above: photos of veiled chameleon courtesy of Kristin Dudra
Above: photos of veiled chameleon courtesy of Kristin Dudra

Whether you have a bearded dragon, leopard gecko, chameleon, or blue-tongue skink, all pet lizards have some environmental needs in common, such as space, light, humidity, substrate, etc. Reptiles are ectothermic, which means they use their environment for temperature regulation, so the enclosure should include a heat source in one area, and another area such as a rock that is cooler. The temperature, size of the enclosure, and diet varies among the different species, so it is important to look up the specific requirements for your reptile. For individual species care sheets in more detail, check out RSPCA’s website.

Tricky Turtles

Text Box: Above: photo of Russian tortoise courtesy of Allie Woodhouse
Above: photo of Russian tortoise courtesy of Allie Woodhouse

If you’re keeping a turtle, keep in mind that zoonotic transmission of salmonella can occur easily without proper cleaning and care, which puts especially the younger population at risk. Turtle diet can have specific, even difficult, requirements, and again how and where you obtain your turtle can be problematic. To read more, check out this article about whether or not you should keep a turtle from the wild.

How to provide enrichment for your pet reptile

Most people might not think to buy toys for their pet reptile as you would for a cat or dog, however, reptiles benefit from enrichment that increases behavioral opportunities. A study by Gordon Burghardt in 1996 showed that providing a captive turtle with objects such as balls, sticks, and hoses lead to a decrease in self-mutilation behavior. In other captive settings such as a zoo, Komodo dragons showed increased activity levels as well as nearly triple the amount of behaviors they exhibited. This was done by Veasley and Guerra at the Woodland Park Zoo by providing Komodo dragons with various forms of enrichment. This shows that providing different enrichments will result in different responses and aid in keeping your pet active. Importantly, you should provide enrichment items based on motivation and interest and not just novel items. For your reptile, you can provide balls, natural items such as sticks, hide food in the enclosure, and create scent trails in hopes that these items will promote digging, climbing, and other natural or species-specific behavior. It is very easy to observe exploratory behavior in reptiles, and even just small changes to the enclosure, such as moving the heat source or rearranging furnishings, can encourage exploratory behavior.

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Above: photo of corn snake courtesy of Lyndsay Hage

Snakes, and Lizards, and Turtles, oh my!

Keeping reptiles as pets is becoming more common in households. To help decide if a pet reptile is for you keep in mind to be aware of mislabeling, buy informed and responsibly, and understand how to provide a safe and enriching enclosure for your reptile. Regardless of which species you choose to keep as a companion animal, it is a commitment. When considering all of the above information, it is understandable to take some time to think about making the commitment to keeping a companion reptile. After all, “…keeping a pet is a lifestyle choice made by the owner…”—Frank Pasmans


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