Join the rat pack
Chico’s Rat Lady offers advice on your new pet
Where would you start if you wanted to bring a rat into your home? You would start with the Rat Lady, naturally.
As it turns out, one of the foremost authorities on rats as pets lives right here in Chico. For more than 30 years, Debbie Ducommun has been known the Rat Lady. She got her start in her niche while working with lab rats in the Psychology Department at Chico State. She went on to write the first definitive books on rat care and subsequently gain fame as an expert of choice, appearing as a guest on the likes of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and for programs on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. She even worked as a consultant for the 2007 blockbuster animated film Ratatouille.
The very jovial Ducommun is still a full-time rat expert who now spends her busy days answering rat care inquiries and running her popular Rat Fan Club website (www.ratfanclub.org), writing rat newsletters and caring for her rodents.
“Rats are very affectionate, curious and like spending time with their owners,” the Rat Lady explained during a recent interview at her home, where she lives with her husband, Larry Ducommun, and her 13 rats.
Entering the Ducommuns’ home is like entering a rat haven. The living room is filled with elaborate cages for the pets. She’s quick to point out that most of them were acquired as rescues from shelters or private owners. She says many of the rescues are less friendly since they received minimal human interaction as youngsters, which brings us to one of Ducommun’s most important tips about picking the right rat: “The key is to get a rat that’s been socialized as an infant. The earlier you start handling them, the more they bond,” she said.
She recommends getting a rat from a private breeder as opposed to a pet store.
“Many pet store rats are raised for snake food, so they are only socialized to be handled by store employees,” she said.
Private owners often list rats for sale on sites like Craigslist, and Ducommon also has a list of links for adopting and rescuing rats on her website, www.ratfanclub.org/adopt.html.
When shopping for a prospective rat, she advises placing your hand along the bottom of the cage to test the animal’s reaction to people.
“If the rat comes near you and is curious or starts to play with you, that’s a good sign that it has been socialized well,” she said. “If not, shop elsewhere.”
And she’s adamant that people get two rats instead of one.
“Rats are very social and need each other,” she said. “If you only have one rat it’s like solitary confinement. So it will be less secure, happy, active or healthy.”
Besides, she says two rats are more fun to watch as they groom, sleep and play together.
However, if you do get only one rat, she advises giving it the opportunity to interact with people at least four hours a day. And get the biggest cage possible, she says. “Rats are pretty active and need space to move around and play with toys like exercise wheels and tubes.”
But what’s it like having rats around the house? What can you do with them?
“You can carry them with you or have them sit on your shoulder as you walk,” she said. “They can be taught tricks, almost like dogs.”
They also can come when called, walk a tight rope, and some can even be litter-box trained, she says. Of course, you can also cuddle with them, and Ducommun says males are more cuddly and less hyper than females.
Rats are fairly low maintenance. They don’t require shots because they don’t get the diseases that dogs and cats get, she says. And you can share your leftover food with them.
Finally, if you already have a dog or cat, adding a rat will be no problem in most situations. Most dogs are just fine with them, though Ducommun cautions some dog breeds like Malamutes or Akitas might harm small animals. And despite their hunting skills, cats usually only go after smaller animals like mice, but won’t mess with big rats.
For more information, visit the Rat Lady’s website for tips and for info on her books—Rats: Practical Advice From the Expert, The Complete Guide to Rat Training and Rat Health Care.