How a Somewhat Sane Mom Ended Up with Pet Rats: A Cautionary Tale



“I want a pet of my own,” 9-year-old Charlie stated one morning over his frozen waffle. I raised an eyebrow and tipped my chin toward the giant designer puppy sitting in the corner of the room, remnants of someone’s Boba Fett figure still stuck in the hair on his chin. “No, I want something that is just mine,” Charlie clarified, shaking his head. “Like a gerbil, or a hamster.”

I groaned. Over the years, as we added one small human being after another to our family until we had a grand total of four to feed, bathe, and parent, we had attempted a variety of pets: parakeets that bit hard and shed seed and feathers everywhere; aquatic African frogs we forgot to feed; hermit crabs we rarely laid eyes on (because they ate each other, OMG); and countless fish. So very many fish. Please note: only parents hoping to teach their children about death should ever try to keep fish as pets.

A quick learner, I finally declared that we never again would have pets that required tanks or cages. I have a hard enough time keeping the children alive and bathed to add cages to the household responsibilities.

Now, there are many “rules” of parenting, but perhaps one of the most important is that one must never make “rules.” Inevitably, you will break your own rule, every single time. Because when your 9-year-old middle son is the most empathetic child you know and wears his big heart on his sleeve, worries too much, and is painfully sensitive to the world in a way that makes him capable of both great sadness and deep love and joy on a daily basis, and that same son asks you for a pet of his own that will love him back?

You become a rat owner.

Actually, a two-rat owner.

I begrudgingly did my research on small animals, knowing that a pet of his own would be valuable to Charlie. We were looking for a pet that would be social, that could love a certain emotional middle child back, maybe, and would want to be held. We needed an animal that wouldn’t be incredibly hard to care for and one that would not aggravate my allergies. After a period of denial, I finally acknowledged that — gulp — rats are widely renowned to be remarkable, social, intelligent pets. Of all the options, they seemed to be, crazy as it sounded, my best bet. So I did what any mom would do (right?): I found a rat breeder on Craigslist. Yes, these actually exist. A few months later, Charlie and I drove two hours to pick up the already-beloved babies from the breeder, who had been meticulous and thorough in her notes and recommendations for cages (size matters!) and bedding (aspen shavings only!) and toys (avoid painted wood!).

I’m not sure what I expected a Craigslist rat breeder to look like. I did not expect to find her to be a 19-year-old community college student with a nose ring living with her parents, a sweet younger brother, and about a bajillion rats. When we arrived to pick up Charlie’s new pets, the breeder’s mother had dinner on the stove, and her father was reading the paper in a nearby recliner. I looked down at the enormous cage in the den full of rats and rat babies, and all I could think was that I am not, in reality, the biggest pushover of a parent in the world after all.

Charlie promptly named his new pets Ginger and Luna, and he held them on his lap for the two hour car trip home. Ginger and Luna love lavender-scented cage liner, multi-grain Cheerios, and cardboard tubes. Charlie just loves Ginger and Luna.

When I posted the picture of Charlie with the rats on Facebook that evening, I received a million comments from my friends that expressed everything from disgust to shock to genuine admiration for me as a mother. “You are a nicer mom than I am,” several of them intoned. But I don’t think I am. The funny thing about being a mother, I have found, is that it enables you to do things you never knew you could. Being a mom means finding strength and fortitude beyond a normal person’s resources. For me, it has meant that I can show affection to large rodents with red eyes and very long tails just because it makes my baby happy. The twentysomething me that lived in Manhattan apartments still can’t believe I willingly and purposely brought rats into my home, but the thirtysomething mom me totally gets it.

I am not thrilled to be a pet rat owner. I still don’t adore cleaning a cage, even with my son’s help, and I’ll never be a fangirl of rodents. I’m just as twitchy about having rats in my house as the next person would be. But the rats thrill Charlie, and Charlie is a child who feels the full weight of the world every day — much more so than my other children do. Charlie needed these rats. It was as simple as that. This is what love is, folks: pet rat ownership.

Thankfully, rats only live about three years. So I have that going for me.


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  1. 1

    Lauren says

    I completely admire your courage to bring an animal into your house which you see as undesirable. But believe me, once you get to see the true nature of these creatures you’ll wonder why you ever thought it. Rats are incredibly loving and attuned to our emotions. I started keeping rats again as a way of coping on my own at university, I could not have done it without them. Now I’m the proud mother to 7 boys who really enrich my life. I don’t think people would understand without witnessing it first hand but rats have a way of wriggling into our hearts and making everything better.

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  2. 3

    kat says

    Allison, I really admire your courage and willingness to get your son a pet rat and bring it into your home. I know it can’t have been an easy thing for you to do, much less end up with two. Thank you for posting this beautiful story in light of recent events. Rats are wonderful little animals to have. They can be litter tained like a cat,trained to do tricks like dogs, and do not bite like hamsers and gerbils do (it is very rare for a rat to bite at all). They are very loveable and sweet. I hope someday you come to appreciate them and love them as much as your son does. :)

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  3. 4

    Love says

    This happened at our house too. Only our pet du jour ended up being snakes LOL I researched for months and months, and finally brought home one, and we loved her so much, we ended up with three before the year was out. That was the year I achieved ‘Coolest Mom Ever’ status, and it’s been downhill ever since. That was a little over 6 years ago, and beyond the idea that pets give kids a sense of responsibility and compassion, this particular experience with ours helped shaped my son’s career plans, as well. He’s spoken of nothing else in life he wants to do since the day I first took her to the vet, and came home with a herpetology book. He’s still utterly fascinated with it, even after all this time! (And all I can say on a sidenote, is thank sweet baby Jesus that it wasn’t spiders.)

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  4. 15


    Just like cats or dogs, there is a whole world of rats, domestic, exotic, curly haired, silky haired, big ones small ones. I had a friend in my later teen years who owned a huge fat black rat named Jeff and that rat was amazing. I went from fearful to loving that rat..he was affectionate, engaging, Intelligent, social, and…he had run of the house. That rat Left an impression on me I’ll never forget…. So call me crazy ..

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