Pet Rats are great for kids!
Our rat, Sandy Cheeks
A tale of the life of Sandy
I was struggling with deciding what type of pet would be good for my son that has high functioning autism when a friend mentioned that rats are a great pet for kids. I said, "I thought they bite." She said, "no way, mice and hamsters bite, but usually not rats." So I thought about it and for my son's seventh birthday a week later, I got him a baby rat. We named her Sandy Cheeks, after the squirrel character in the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon series. She has been the best pet. She loves to be held, and cuddled. She has never bitten anyone and she is as quiet as a mouse! No pun intended.
We are so happy that Sandy came to live with us. She outgrew her first cage within a few months and I bought a larger used one at a garage sale for only $8.oo. It came with a built in exercise wheel which she loves and some food and water dishes. I have a bottle waterer for her, but she prefers an open water dish. She is a picky eater and won't eat alfalfa pellets which most rat foods on the shelf are about 50% alfalfa pellets. So now I buy her food at a feed store on the edge of town that put more seeds and corn in the mix, plus the food is cheaper there. I used to buy special recycled paper stuff to put on the bottom of her cage, but now I don't bother with that. She really likes shredded paper to build nests with, and its much cheaper for me to get from my own paper shredder at home. We give her sicks or other rat treats to chew on. She grabs these and runs to her little paper home and chews and chews. It is fun to see how excited she gets. Sometimes we also give her a small piece of cheese or crackers, or fruit.
My son just thinks the world of Sandy. He puts her on his shoulder and takes her to meet his freinds in the neighborhood. He says good morning and goodnight to her, and since her cage is up high on a dresser, he tells me when she needs food and water, and I assist him doing that. She is a very clean animal. I routinely change the bedding in her cage and she seems to be a little annoyed at having to recreate her bed, but I think she appreciates the clean environment because she rarely goes to the bottom of the cage where all the feces falls. We love watching her wash her own face and hands. Her little hands are so petite and yet she has great dexterity in manipulating objects and pieces of food. My son pets her and lets her crawl all over his shoulders and run back and forth across our couch. One time he forgot he was playing with Sandy and left her on the couch unattended. Of course we couldn't find her for a few days and my son was so sad and upset. Eventually we discovered she was living behind the dishwasher and coaxed her out with some cheese!
Six months ago Sandy developed a tumor on her side in her mammary glands. We were all upset and I took her to the vet to see what could be done. Fortunately for me, my vet is a merciful person who only charged me $50 to remove the tumor. She warned us that another tumor could take its place, and that once this starts happening, rats usually die of complications from such tumors. I told her that I would prepare my son for the possibility of losing her in the future. The surgery went well, but Sandy hated the stitches and chewed them out immediately. That head cone was so hard to keep on her, and she got it off several times. We got lucky that she healed up so well.
Sometime after this my son decided that Sandy needed a friend and without thinking to much about it, we went to the pet store and picked out a new baby rat to put in with her. My only thought was "well, if one is a good pet then two will make great pets." That was the worst idea ever. Sandy promptly killed it with one swift bite and we were left with raw grief and a funeral service all in one evening. Needless to say it was a very hard lesson, but one I will not forget.
Recently Sandy has developed a new tumor under her arm. As sad as the decision is, I cannot keep putting this same rat who is now a year and a half old through surgeries. I am trying to prep my son for the idea that Sandy may not live with us much longer and might have to go to rat heaven instead. He doesn't like talking about it. Being that my son is autistic I don't think he can process this information too well. I will probably have to take her to be put to sleep and bring home a new rat on the same day. Otherwise knowing him, he will obsess and worry about what happened to Sandy till he makes himself sick. But the distraction of a new pet will make him forget to be sad. That's just the way he operates.
The cool thing is that when I do get him a new rat, I think we will get two this time to begin with. They tell me that raising rats together is the optimal way to have more than one. I bet this next round of rats will be just as fun as having Sandy has been. My friend was right about rats. They do make excellent pets for kids, and for mom's too!
December 2009 update
I am sad to report that we had to put Sandy to sleep just after Thanksgiving. Her tumors came back with a vengeance and I waited until I knew that her quality of life was being affected. She had a large one under her arm that I would've been willing to remove, but she also had a huge one behind her thigh and bottom that was interfering with her bodily functions. We were all sad to lose Sandy, but we were just as relieved that she wouldn't be in pain anymore. I was the one who had to take her in to the vet's office. I felt like a silly little teary-eyed girl when I handed over the shoebox, with Sandy in it, to the vet. They were very kind, and assured us that she was comfortable when it was all over. I am glad to have experienced such a neat pet, and we will definitely be having more rats as pets in the very near future.
Meanwhile, to distract my son from his obsessive sadness over his loss, my friend let us "borrow" her pet ferret for about a month. That was the best medicine! Ferrets are so hilarious to play with and so good-natured that we had a riot together. Our little visitor went back home just before Christmas, and we had such a good time that he might come back for another visit soon. We shall see what happens!