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Remarkable rats

As PDSA gold medallist Magawa – a landmine detection HeroRAT – enjoys his retirement after his amazing life-saving work in Cambodia, find out why pet rats make fabulous companions. Plus, want some top tips on caring for your rats? We’ve six of the best...

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes – and species. An incredible Gambian pouched rat called Magawa has, during his five-year career, found 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance, helping to clear over 225,000 square metres of land, allowing local communities to live, work, play and be educated without fear of losing life or limb.

Now, after all his heroic hard work, Magawa is set to enjoy a well-earned, comfortable retirement – but he will be sorely missed by the humans he has worked with at the APOPO HeroRAT non-profit organisation in Cambodia.

Malen, Magawa’s handler, said: “Magawa’s performance has been unbeaten, and I have been proud to work side-by-side with him. He is small but he has helped save many lives allowing us to returns much-needed safe land back to our people as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. But he is slowing down, and we need to respect his needs. I will miss working with him!”

Last September, Magawa, who was born in Tanzania in November 2013, was formally presented with a suitably rat-sized PDSA Gold Medal – the animal equivalent of the George Cross, the highest gallantry medal that a civilian can be awarded – by the PDSA’s Director General Jan McLoughlin. He is the first rat in the charity’s 77-year history of honouring animals to receive a PDSA Medal – joining a line-up of brave dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat.


VE Day 75 – remembering animal heroes As well as remembering the amazing contribution of people during WW2, VE Day is also a time to reflect on the courage and bravery of the animals that played their part in the conflict >>


Why rats make great pets

While Magawa may be the only rat ever to be awarded a medal for courageous behaviour, any pet rat owner will testify that these super smart rodents make brilliant companions. Although dogs may be considered ‘man’s best friend’, rodent aficionados would say that pet rats are in the running for the title – they’re even known as ‘pocket dogs’.

Abby Chronister adopted her first pet rats Luci and Lena when she was a student after struggling with anxiety and depression. Telling her story in The Washington Post she says: “Those little critters are what made me get out of bed, knowing I had those little lives to care for. They bond with you like a dog does. You might not have the energy to walk a dog, but you can manage to fill a water bottle.” Veterinarian Cory Bassett, who specialises in exotic pet care adds: “If you are looking for a rodent pet that you are going to have a personal connection with, I would recommend a rat.”

Although their lives are quite short (around two to three years), these loyal and affectionate rodents quickly learn to recognise the sight and sound of their human and, once they’ve learnt to trust you, will love to spend time every day hanging out with you.


REMARKABLE RAT FACT

Along with chimpanzees, bottlenose dolphins, elephants, dogs, pigs, pigeons and octopuses, rats are considered by experts to be one of the smartest species on the planet. Scientists have discovered that, just like us, rats can make decisions based on what they do or do not know – something called metacognition.


Rats love to learn and are very trainable

Rats are inquisitive and love putting their intelligence to good use by learning new things, which makes them quite easy to train. By using food treats, patience and positive reinforcement (always go at your rats’ pace), you can teach your rats some simple tasks and tricks.

You could start by teaching your rats to come to you when you call them.

  • Begin by saying your rat’s name when he or she is in front of you and rewarding them with a treat when they reach out to take it from your hand.
  • Once they do that that a few times, start saying their name when they’re further away from you and come to get the treat from your hand. Eventually, when they hear their name, they’ll come to you anticipating the treat.
  • When your rats have mastered the concept of performing new behaviours in exchange for rewards, you can train them to perform tricks – such as shaking paws, jumping through a rat-size hoop or racing through a maze to find some tasty treasure. As with any kind of animal training, kindness and patience is key – never tell your rats off if they don’t get something right.

REMARKABLE RAT FACT

It was once thought that rats have poor vision but, according to findings of a PhD study, rats can actually see pretty well. Lead researcher Dr Ben Vermaercke reveals: “We know that their visual abilities are pretty advanced. We’ve done research showing they can tell the difference between a movie that features a rat and one that doesn’t.”


Rats love their human companions and show that they do

Once they’ve bonded with you, pet rats will happily sit in your lap or on your shoulder, grinding their teeth to show they are quite content – this is called ‘bruxing’ and is similar behaviour to a cat purring.

What’s more, rats laugh when you tickle them – although it’s not a sound that can be heard by the human ear unless you have a bat detector to hand. In the late 1990s, neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp discovered that rats emitted a unique ultrasonic vocalisation while playing or anticipating the opportunity to play with other rats, indicating a positive emotional state. Further study revealed that the rats laughed the most when being tickled by the human scientists involved in the experiment.


REMARKABLE RAT FACT

You might think that rats can survive by eating almost anything, but the truth is that they require a very specific diet – as well as the opportunity to forage, handle and manipulate their food. Rats need a range of essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals from their diet that they cannot produce themselves. That’s why you should never feed them food designed for rabbits, guinea pigs or hamsters as these formulas simply won’t meet rats' nutritional needs.


Rats love to groom themselves and are very clean

Contrary to popular belief, rats are fastidiously clean and like to groom themselves regularly. Just like cats, their tongues are rough, which helps them keep their coat dirt free. They can also be trained to use a litter tray.


REMARKABLE RAT FACT

There are 12 Chinese zodiac signs in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each sign is named after an animal, each with its own unique characteristics. Ranking first on the list is the rat – due to its spirit, wit, alertness, delicacy, flexibility and vitality.


Rats have empathy for others

Rats really are pets that love you back, Erin Stromberg, a keeper at Think Tank, an exhibit that highlights animal cognition at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, points to some research that demonstrates rats' amazing capacity for empathy and compassion – qualities that are not often attributed to animals other than humans. He reveals: "When given the choice, rats chose to free other caged animals rather than take a food reward."


CARING FOR YOUR PET RATS – OUR TOP SIX TIPS

  1. Rats are social animals and need the company of their own kind – same sex bonded pairs or small groups, or a female and a neutered male will create an ideal rat pack.
  2. Rats need plenty of things to do to keep their curious minds and sprightly bodies busy. Their accommodation should be large and multi-level, with lots of space for them to run about, along with hammocks to perch in, tubes to scamper through, ropes (made of natural fibres such as cotton) to climb and toys to investigate. Also invest in a large, sturdy rat wheel, which should be solid, so they don’t catch their paws or tail in it. Natural explorers, rats love the opportunity to check out the world outside their cage. Once they’re well-handled and relaxed, let them out in an area where they can’t hurt themselves or escape where you can closely supervise their activities.
  3. Rats like to forage – it’s a natural behaviour that helps to keep those smart little ratty brains active. A good way to do this is to make feeding time a bit of an adventure. So, try scattering rat nuggets around their accommodation and among fresh bedding for them to forage for. Hide some in an old rolled up sock, paper bag or cardboard tube for them to investigate, or push some into a pinecone for them to extract. Rats will happily dig in trays of chinchilla sand to find hidden favourite food items.
  4. Rats are omnivores – which means they’ll eat almost anything they can get their tiny paws on. However, as a responsible rat owner, it’s essential that you don’t let them. Rats are renowned for being selective feeders – for example, with muesli-style food, they’re likely to just pick out the bits they fancy and leave the rest. This puts them at risk of not getting all the nutrients they need. The way to overcome this is to feed them an all-in-one food – Burgess Rat Nuggets are ideal. These contain all of the nutrients your rats need in every tasty mouthful.
  5. Rats love to chew stuff, so providing some untreated softwood twigs will provide hours of gnawing fun. Safe woods include apple, hazelnut, pear, poplar, quince and hawthorn. Give them a good wash to make sure they are safe for your pets to nibble on and bake them on a low heat for an hour. They also like variety and will enjoy a small cube of fruit and vegetables such as carrot, broccoli, cucumber, apple, pear and peach, along with a few sunflower seeds that they can manipulate in their paws while they eat. Also try the occasional cooled, hard-boiled egg – they’ll enjoy working out how to get it out of the shell.
  6. Rats are nocturnal and are most active at night and at dawn and dusk, so don’t house them in an area of your home that has lots of activity going on during the day. Also, schedule things such as cage cleaning, food provision and interactions with the times your rats are awake and active. After a busy time exploring, digging and playing, these little rodents need to recharge in peace and require a quiet, cosy area in their accommodation to be able to sleep undisturbed.

Want to join the rat pack? Why not consider getting rescue pets? Charities such as Blue CrossRSPCA and Wood Green have all sorts of small animals, including rats, looking for happy new homes. They’ll also match you with the most suitable pets for your situation and lifestyle and provide you with lots of helpful advice.

CARE MORE: Find out more about looking after your rats from the pet experts >>


Are your rats Burgess rats? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.


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