Cynthia Stuart was a professor of psychology, medical law and ethics, and has written many articles on the interaction of rats as therapy animals. She writes, “Human – animal bonds can be utilized in a therapeutic context in work that is geared towards developing positive relationships with fellow humans.” Her love of rats began in 2003 as an environmental educator for a mini-zoo that featured a family of rats abandoned on its doorstep. She’s the co-author of The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief. Thanks to her allowing me to reprint her article about rats as therapy animals.
A child’s ability to make friends, grow and maintain friendships over time not only reflects his current psychological health but his future psychological adjustment and success as an adult. When children are not progressing socially, this is a strong cue that something serious is going on. In fact, lack of friendships is often indicative of an underlying behavioral, emotional, psychological, and/or neurological problem. A meticulous evaluation is essential to sorting out not only what is going on but what therapeutic interventions are warranted. However, often, after only a brief interview, a diagnosis is formulated and a prescription is written. This is usually where treatment stops. Although medication may alleviate some symptoms, it does not teach coping strategies or skills absolutely essential to learning about relationships.
So, how do children learn to make friends? Their brains provide an internal framework for social learning but interaction and modeling fine tune the process. Yet, some kids do not naturally learn the essentials, namely social judgment and social skills. For those of us in the pet rat community, these rodents are considered one of the best pets available in terms of social interaction.
The growing interest and study in the field of human and animal interaction has in recent years had an increasing presence in clinical applications and the popular press. Quite understandably, the species most focused upon in discussions of the human and animal bond have been dogs and cats, which are the most popular companion animals as pets and therapeutic agents. Occasionally other species such as rabbits and fish are utilized in pet assisted therapy and appear in the literature. It is a reasonable assumption that rodents – particularly rats – are largely absent from the human – animal bond discourse.
In actuality, domestic rats (also known as Fancy Rats) disprove the popular myths of rats as dirty, disease ridden, vicious creatures. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the species-specific characteristics that contribute to its desirable characteristics as a pet, for the purposes of this article I will be sharing with readers the unique personalities of Fancy Rats that are quite appealing for those of us who know and love Rattus norvegicus. I will also be discussing rats from a clinical aspect as well.
Rats are a highly social species. In the wild, they live together in large groups referred to as a mischief. As a strongly social creature, in a domestic setting a Fancy Rat socialized among humans usually transfers its socialization needs to its human “parents”. While it is recommended that pet rats be kept with others of their own kind, they still have a tendency to accept their human family as part of their mischief. Therefore, even when a number of rats are kept together, they maintain a strong need to physically and emotionally bond with their owners. Many rat owners enjoy playtime with their entire mischief. Pet rats greatly enjoy vigorous play and/or quietly “chilling out” with their humans, resting on shoulders and laps. In fact, it is considered cruel to keep rats strictly as cage pets. They require a significant amount of time with their owners, and express their affection to human family members by grooming (licking – similar to a dog), shoulder riding, snuggling inside shirts (which mimics nesting behavior), and curling up on laps. Rats also display affectionate behavior by bruxing (a chewing motion of the teeth that often makes a “clacking” sound) and boggling (eyes rapidly “popping” in and out) and, of course, squeaking excitedly. It is in the rat’s nature to seek physical contact. Wild rats engage in a behavior known as social sedation (commonly referred to as “rat piling” in the rat lovers’ community) in which the mischief rests itself in a heap. Some rat owners even take advantage of the high intelligence of their pets by teaching them tricks. This activity is not only fun for rat and human alike, but further contributes to the mutual socialization needs of both parties. Owners and their rat companions also compete in rat shows, organized much along the line of dog and cat shows. In terms of behavioral characteristics, rats are extremely interactive pets that display the affection and desire to interact with owners that people normally associate with dogs and cats.
For clinicians working with patients/clients and incorporating the human-animal bond into their work, pet rats offer an opportunity to explore issues with which such individuals are struggling. While I have not conducted empirical research on the topic, from an experiential perspective as a member of the pet rat community, I have noted that a significant number of pet rat owners are in treatment or, if not, are nevertheless struggling with psychopathology or emotional difficulties. In terms of the salience of life experiences with patients/ clients who are rat owners, possible avenues of further exploration may include themes of identification with a popularly maligned creature, perceived persecution (few animals experience the level of persecution placed on rats), and issues of loss (rat lovers experience loss on an all too frequent basis, as unfortunately these creatures have an average lifespan of 2 – 2 ½ years).
In addition, because of the aforementioned strong bonding that can occur between rats and humans, rats may be suggested as pets in a therapeutic context for animal loving individuals who are not rodent phobic. Rats can offer nonjudgmental acceptance and affection to patients/clients who have not had positive experiences with other people, and the dynamics of such rat – human bonds can be utilized in a therapeutic context in work that is geared towards developing positive relationships with fellow humans. A major caveat however, is the aforementioned short lifespan of rats, and the issues of loss that accompany such a strong, brief relationship. Although male and female rats are equally affectionate, a large percentage of females eventually develop tumors, thus cutting into their lifespan, something that should be considered if losses are difficult. Nevertheless, for those persons who are limited in their choices of pets due to such factors as apartment regulations, rats may be the ideal companions.
In sum, this animal loving psychologist strongly recommends pet rats for patient/client and clinician alike. There is a Fancy Rat for everyone, as they have been bred in a wide variety of coat colors, patterns and types. Fancy rats are highly intelligent, and most owners can enjoy watching them solve problems (Bulla, 1999). Most importantly, it is always a great experience to be welcomed after a long day in the consulting suite or classroom by a very excited group of animal companions hanging from the cage bars and begging for attention. Self-care par excellence!
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of the American Psychological Association’s (Section 13 of Division 17, Society of Counseling Psychology) Animal- Human Interaction: Research & Practice Newsletter, March 2009 issue.
Akhtar, S. & Volkan, V. (Eds.). (2005). Mental zoo: Animals in the human mind and its pathology. Madison, WI: International Universities Press, Inc.
Bulla, G. (1999). Fancy rats: A complete pet owner’s manual. Hauppague, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
It’s a Rats World magazine