One for the Angels

Catherine Graf
From the RMCA web site, March 2003

There aren't many places to get pet rats in this town. In fact, I know of only one, but they have done well by me. I've gotten babies through them from breeders, as well as adult rats that just get dumped by people who no longer want them or can't take care of them. This time, however, when I went looking, the only rats available were white laboratory rats in "the feeder tank."

I've always been discouraged from even looking at so-called feeder animals, but this time I said I wanted to look at them, because I had room for a rat and that I would take a male. The only male in the tank was then picked up by his tail and handed to me. He was only a few months old, and this had been his whole life, laying under a pile of other rats waiting for the day he would find himself face to face with a hungry snake. I've saved other rats from that fate, so I took him home.

I had considered a lot of names, but I'd never had a white lab rat before. I decided he would be Raphael, because having the name of an angel could only be good for him. Raphael needed all the help he could get. I had never seen a rat so traumatized. He also started biting almost right away. While some animals are born with an aggressive streak, and can't be changed, I wanted to explore other possibilities. After all, Raphael knew nothing about being a pet. There was no question that he was scared. Although I like to think I give my rats the best of all possible worlds, the transition was hard for him. He was also nervous, grabby with his food, but often unable to tell where the food was. I gradually came to the realization that Raphael, who has beautiful eyes like tiny red jewels, was completely blind.

Raphael bit for several reasons, but one was that he couldn't tell where the food ended and the hand began. When I gave him a lab block in the cage, I would pick out the extra-long ones for him, so that he could get a grip on it without taking off part of my finger. I noticed that while his eyes and his head never followed me, he did respond to sounds and words. I could put something in his cage and talk him over to it, especially by making a tapping noise near the object. He learned his name fairly quickly, and responded to very specific requests, such as "Go in the basket."

Raphael  in his play area. While my other rats would run and leap from one level to another in their cages, Raphael moved cautiously up and down and across using the cage bars. He would have nothing to do with ladders. I have now put plastic ramps up for him and he runs up and down like an expert. Because of his inability to see and his biting, I didn't want him running around the house by himself. When it was time for him to play outside the cage, I had him climb in a wicker basket and carried him out to a restricted play area I set up, with an assortment of tunnels, igloos, boxes, shopping bags and other toys. Although I keep the things in his cage in the same place, his play area is different every time. Inside the objects I hide food and treats. At first he didn't know what to make of it. Now he zips around breaking all speed records.

Raphael was having fun, but his biting remained a serious problem and so I took him to our veterinarians at Bulls Head Pet Hospital, where the surgeon neutered him. Fortunately this worked for Raphael to solve the biting problem. He still nipped, but not hard enough to hurt. When I came to pick him up, the veterinary technician, Kelly, said she loved Raphael and had been stroking his head and ears and had him totally relaxed. I saw this for myself and I knew he couldn't have an aggressive or mean streak. At home, though, I was still reluctant to pick him up, while he was anxious for teeth/hand contact. We sort of danced around each other and I still took him out in the basket most nights. Then I recalled the good advice I'd gotten from other people (including Mary Ann Isaksen) that a rat just has to get used to being picked up whether he likes it or not as part of the socialization process. One day I took the plunge and after four or five days the squeaking and shrieking and squirming was over. Now Raphael lets me pick him up, hold him, carry him around, and pet him. He has learned to ride on my shoulder and he snuggles with me in the armchair. He combs my hair with his front paws. He positions himself at the cage bars to get his food and takes it nicely. He loves to be talked to. Best of all is when he settles in his plastic igloo, closes his eyes and grinds his teeth. He's gone from the jaws of hell to rat heaven.Raphael

I wrote this because Raphael is the greatest success I've ever had with pet rats. He has come so far and achieved so much in a time frame of just three months.

Catherine Graf, Stamford, CT