Guest Post: Rats as Therapy Pets

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.

Cynthia and her supervisor
Cynthia and her supervisor

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).

Niblet and the World
Niblet and the World

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.

Suggested readings:
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


Guest Post: Why Do Rats Make Great Pets?

Photo taken by James H. Maglina. Used with permission.
Photo taken by James H. Maglina. Used with permission.

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. I appreciate her taking time to talk with me!

ALLISON: Did you come from a big or small family? A household of pets or none?

CYNTHIA: My family was small. Just mom, dad and me–and a variety of pets, of course. During the course of my childhood and adolescence, I shared my life with a cat, hamster, goldfish, and turtles. I’m sure I’m forgetting other pets! When I grew up, I indulged my special passion for rodents and have lived with rats, guinea pigs, gerbils, a degu, a variety of fish, and lizards. I’ll be surrounded by rodents for as long as I’m able to provide for their optimal care.

ALLISON: If you were to write a book about your childhood, how would you summarize it?

CYNTHIA: I was very much-loved and protected by my parents, but because of a combination of shyness and being overweight at the time, I was bullied, which had an enormous negative impact on my life. My respite from that was a pack of close friends, my animals, and my escape via continuous reading.

ALLISON: Most people seem to have experienced a wonderful or terrible adolescence? How would you categorize yours? Why?

CYNTHIA:I’d say my adolescence was less than ideal, given the aforementioned shyness, weight issue and bullying.  I wouldn’t want to go back–I feel I’m at the best point in my life than I’ve ever been right now. I’m retired from full-time work and the bit of work I do to keep stimulated is from home as an online English teacher. The bulk of my days are spent doing pretty much as I please…. writing, reading, and spending quality time with my current mischief of rodents and my significant other.

ALLISON: What period of your life most changed you?

CYNTHIA: Starting college at the ripe old age of 30. My experiences led to the practically overnight shedding of my shyness and developing the ability to stand up and assert myself when necessary. I also developed a hunger for knowledge and became somewhat addicted to higher education, to the point that I wound up with a PhD in my late 50’s.

ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?

CYNTHIA: Definitely my parents. They set the tone for how to live a virtuous life and encouraged me to keep up my addiction to reading – which has led to my writing later in life. Both my parents were ardent animal lovers as well, who were all for my adoption of non-human family members.

ALLISON: What is involved with being an environmental educator?

CYNTHIA:The job primarily entailed giving talks to visiting school and camp groups about wildlife and caring for the environment. I also taught the Environmental Center’s pre-school classes, as well as hosted environmentally themed birthday parties. All of these activities involved integrating the animals that we had living on the premises in a mini-zoo into our talks. Nature walks were also included in the roster of activities and, if we were lucky, we’d spot wild birds and animals who were seemingly unafraid to make an appearance in the midst of usually loud, boisterous groups of children.

ALLISON: Tell me more about the family of rats that were abandoned at the mini-zoo where you worked.

CYNTHIA:Unfortunately, the environmental center at which I worked had been often used as a dumping ground for people with exotic pets who didn’t want them anymore. Staff would arrive in the morning to find a box or glass aquarium with some poor rejected pet(s). Presumably the former owners figured we’d give them a home in the mini-zoo.

One of these “drop offs” was a family of rats – mom, dad, and a litter. The center never had rats before, so they were given a place in the zoo.  However, they were still kept in tanks and not separated. Being a rodent lover, I fell in love with them and took them out of their tank whenever I could to work with them with visiting groups, as well as try to socialize them individually. I tried to advocate for vastly improved conditions for them, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.

Not surprisingly, mom and dad started to reproduce again. Then, the population started to disappear.  At first, I thought maybe they were being adopted out to visitors (which sometimes happened). Not so lucky… I found out they were being fed to the resident snakes. By the time I found out, there was just one little rat left, and I adopted her and named her Nibbles.

She was wonderful and I loved her so much. It was Nibbles that started me on the path to Rat Chickdom back in 2003, and I haven’t looked back since.  By the way, shortly after adoption, I quit the environmental center because of the snake incidents,  and the way the rest of the animals were being maintained with little regard to their welfare.

ALLISON: Why do rats make great pets?

CYNTHIA: Rats have a bottomless capacity to demonstrate total love and affection to their human parents.  Unconditional love is their calling card. It is very rare for rats to bite their people. If they do, there is a valid reason (past abuse, for example). It is typical for rats to react very excitedly when their people come into their room–begging to come out and play or, in the case of senior rats like my boys, to spend quality cuddle time with their humans. Their desire for socializing is definitely not limited to their own kind. They take you into their hearts forever and they make it quite obvious how special you are to them.

ALLISON: Describe a special bonding moment between you and a rat.

CYNTHIA: I’d have to say this occurred with my present rats, Simon and Niblet (brothers who are a year and a half old).  They were part of a huge ooooooops litter and they were the last two left after their siblings were adopted.

I’ve never encountered such fearless, bold babies in my entire rat-life. In order to bring them home, they rode with me on two commuter trains that were an hour’s ride each, had a long transit time in New York City’s frantic Grand Central Terminal, followed by a long subway ride, and then a cab. When I finally got them home and opened the carrier door into their new cage –they didn’t want to go in. What they wanted to do was climb on and play with me! So, that first night, the three of us sat in the living room play wrestling, cuddling, exploring, and watching the Academy Awards together.

I couldn’t believe that after a horrendous commute and being with a total stranger, they would do this. They actually took the initiative to bond with me–I was prepared to leave them alone for a couple of days to settle in and become more comfortable. They remain clingy Mama’s boys to this day.

ALLISON: How can rats be therapy animals?

CYNTHIA: I’ve written articles about this topic for the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction group as well as “It’s a Rat’s World” magazine. To me, it’s extremely obvious how they can provide emotional support–especially to those persons challenged with depression and anxiety. To have animals who so forcefully display their adoration of an individual–regardless of how upset that person is–is not only comforting but healing.

Because rats are so forceful in their demands for love and attention, they help to integrate people with mood disorders into life outside of themselves. It’s very hard to ignore a rat or rats standing on their hind legs, nose and arms reaching through the cage bars, clamoring for love and a bit of play and cuddles! Like with all pets, they have needs that must be met on a regular schedule, thus providing a reason and obligation to get up out of bed and start one’s day in the morning.

Of course, there is the scientific evidence of the benefits of simply petting animals, and rats tend to be addicted to petting. While I go into greater detail in my articles, suffice it to summarize that since rats are so positively pushy about showing love, pet parents who may need some type of emotional support, unconditional acceptance, and love get that in abundance from their rats. I’ve definitely relied on their support during my own challenging moments!