HOME     |     home
Rat History

Rat History

Brown Rats as painted by John James Audubon 1852

The domestic Brown rat is most often called a "Fancy Rat".  The Rats raised for pets today descend from the "Brown Rat", Rattus norvegicus , that only colonized Europe in the 16th Century.  Being that the Brown Rats are larger and bolder they have pretty much taken over the position held for centuries by their cousins the Black Rats.  The latter are the "Black Rat" of legend that carried the fleas that in turn carried the Black Plague all over Europe, these were not the Brown Rats kept as pets today.   There are a very few fanciers now trying to domesticate the more timid Black Rat, rattus rattus  but they are not readily available to adopt any where in any number.  The Brown Rat was  used first for blood sport and latter in laboratories for experiments so they have been bred down thousands of generations to be docile and friendly towards humans.   

Rats were bred for blood Sports like rat baiting

Rat baiting involved placing a terrier dog in a pit with 100 or so rats. A keeper measured the time until the last rat was killed, and men would place bets on how long it took the terrier dog to kill all the rats. Hundreds of rats were captured prior to these contests.  Latter they were bred to insure a steady supply. The albinos were often removed and kept for show purposes and breeding. Rat baiting was finally ended by decree, but this sport flourished for nearly 70 years. This long history of domestication may be why rats make far better pets than Hedgehogs, Gerbils, Hamsters, or Chinchillas.  Only the Guinea Pig is as tame and sweet as the domestic rat and perhaps for the same reason.  They too were domesticated very early by the Ancient Incas .  Few pets bite less than rats and are more loving than a well handled Fancy Rat.  Human handling makes them even kinder as companions.  They are a very good choice for children. The fact that rats are a social animal and live in groups also makes them ideal as pets.  They are quick to except you as family!

19th Century Engraving of a Black Rat, rattus rattus

The pinto-like pattern seen so often in domestic rats of mainly two coat colors in a piebald pattern is called "hooded".  Both our adult rats are hooded rats.  Fancy Rats come in many colors; solid or self colored, agouti, and hooded.  Hooded rats have been used for many decades in labs as have white rats.  Captive rats bred for research have become almost dog like in their attitude towards humans. It is our hope that the day comes when the lives of even small creatures like rats are held with enough regard they need not be used in testing and cruelly killed for fruitless reasons.  The normal body length for an adult Fancy Rat is between nine and 11 inches, with an average body weight, which can range from 450-650 grams for males and 350-450 grams for females. The tail is smooth and its length is seven to nine inches in both males and females. The coat has up to 32 recognized color ranges, which include: amber, cinnamon, lilac, blue, champagne, siamese, mink and a multitude of others, all of which come in one of 10 recognized patterns. The three recognized coat types are: standard, which is straight; the rex, which is curly; and the satin, which is shiny. Some recognized breeds are those without tails, hairless, odd-eyed (one pink and one brown eye) and dumbo (a breed with large, round ears).

 Many people do not realize that Black and Brown Rats are not indigenous to North America or Europe.  They are introduced species. The Old World rats and mice belong to the family Muridae.  Both Black and Brown Rats are natives of Asia Minor and can be found in China, Japan and India in great numbers. First the Black and then the Brown Rat colonized Europe after finding their way onto ships that traded with the East and docked in the Western Countries.  This is also how the first Brown Rats came to North America as well in the 18th Century.  In the UK the Brown Rat has replaced the Black Rat almost everywhere while in North America both Black and Brown Rats still are common.  Another common name for the Brown Rat is "Norway Rat" which is a name that stuck because they rode in fair numbers to England on Norwegian sailing ships in the 1700s. Being that Brown Rats came from Asia Minor this is somewhat ironic don't you think?  North America does have its own rat species. These are of the family Cricetidae, that are mostly shy nocturnal woodrats and these have never been domesticated.  Most are so shy they prefer remote woodlands and seek out areas far away from human habitation.  It is illegal to keep these as pets as many of the native family Cricetidae are endangered species.   You will not find these timid rats in your attic or basement devouring everything in sight.  These rats are herbivores.

Black Rats are also sometimes called Ship Rats.
To see Rare Black Rats as pets see this link:



In India Karni Mata Temple, 30 miles south of Bikaner in Deshnoke, is one of the strangest holy spots in India.  The Rats there are held as sacred! It is a temple devoted to the ancient Hindu practice of rat worship. In Hindu mythology, the elephant-headed god Ganesh is accompanied by a rat wherever he travels. An offering to Ganesh and his small companion and vahana the rat is therefore an important part of Hindu worship. The Karni Mata Temple was built in the 17th century and dedicated to an incarnation of the goddess Durga. The rats are holy because they are considered to be reincarnations of people hiding from the wrath of Yama, the Hindu god of death.

In Hindu mythology, the elephant-headed god Ganesh is accompanied by a rat wherever he travels. An offering to Ganesh and his small companion and vahana the rat is therefore an important part of Hindu worship. Ganesh is the jolly elephant headed god whose origins are in the Hindu tradition, though he has been adopted into the pantheon of some Buddhist schools as well. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and can bestow good fortune. In India, traditionally no important undertaking is begun without first invoking Ganesh to insure success.  Ganesh as the god of Music and great catagorizer of all that can be counted or comprehended. If the gods created us in their image, then creation must be a holy act itself. It is believed in Hindu tradition that it is good to hold this remover of obstacles in mind when beginning to create that loveliest art form, music. Much good is thought to flow from this benevolent deity once he knows what his subject has in mind.

Ancient Rome

The Romans sometimes saw rats as omens as well.  A white rat was considered by the Romans as auspicious. But a black rat has unfortunate significance. If you were Roman and found rats had gnawed your personal effects you should postpone any business you may have been considering.

Duncan's  bronze rat oil lamp from Rome.
China and Eastern Cultures

Though in Western culture the rat is reviled by many as a nasty disease carrier, this animal is viewed much differently in the East. Chinese mythology states that the rat brought the gift of rice to humankind. The rat is one of the creatures in the Chinese Zodiac.  He is revered for his quick wits and his ability to accrue and hold on to items of value; rats are considered a symbol of good luck and wealth in both China and Japan. Clever and quick-witted, the Rat of the Chinese Zodiac is utterly disarming to boot. Possessed of excellent taste, this Sign flaunts its style at every turn. Its natural charm and sharp, funny demeanor make it an appealing friend for almost anyone. The Rat likes to know who is on its side and will treat its most loyal friends with an extra measure of protection and generosity like the western Zodiac, the Chinese Zodiac is also split into 12 animals, the first of which is the rat.


According to Chinese legend, the twelve animals quarreled  one day as to who was to head the cycle of years. The gods were asked to decide and they held a contest: whoever was to reach the opposite bank of the river would be first, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish.

All the twelve animals gathered at the river bank and jumped in. Unknown to the ox, the rat had jumped upon his back. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat jumped off the ox's back, and won the race. The pig, who was very lazy, ended up last. That is why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, the ox second, and the pig last.

If you were born in either 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984 or 1996 then you were born in the year of the rat

In old Japan, rats had it good because a white rat was a messenger of one of the seven gods of luck, Daikoku. Because of this connection, they were not killed. The story goes that a rat couple wanted the strongest husband in the world for their daughter. They asked the sun who declined saying that clouds had more power because they could cover him up. When they asked a cloud, he responded, "The wind is stronger than I because it can blow me away." The wind could not make the grade either. "The wall stops me cold," he said. And the wall, though honored by the offer wailed, "The rat is stronger. He can bore a hole right through me." So the couple wisely gave their daughter in marriage to another rat  who was indeed the strongest creature of them all.  


Polynesian Carving with rats

(Polynesian rat, Rattus exulans, of Australia and Oceania)
Rats were a valuable and transportable food source for the Polynesians!

  Rats, man's other best friend.

The Now Rare Allegheny Woodrat

Allegheny Woodrat
Neotoma magister

New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Not Listed

Although the name woodrat is branded with negative connotations, this species is indeed an interesting and handsome animal, looking more like an oversized version of its close cousin the white-footed mouse than the European animal that haunts our cities and refuse areas. It is the second largest member of the native North American rats and mice (subfamily Sigmodontinae) and weighs up to a pound, roughly the size of a grey squirrel. Allegheny woodrats measure approximately 16 inches long, half of which is tail. The majority of its body is brownish-grey in color, while the undersides and feet are white. Woodrats have large eyes, naked ears and long vibrissie (whiskers) which when pulled back will reach the shoulder. The most visible characteristic which sets the Allegheny woodrat apart from Old World rats is its tail. The tails of European rats are naked or slightly hairy with the skin clearly visible beneath. The tail of the Allegheny woodrat is completely covered with hairs approximately one-third of an inch long and is prominently bicolored; nearly black above and white below.

Confusion over the identity of the animal can be resolved on closer inspection. The molars of the woodrat are shaped in prismatic folds while those of the norway rat are tuberculate. Norway rats also have 12 mammae that extend from between the hind legs to the forelegs. Woodrats have just four mammae, which are located between the hind legs.

Allegheny woodrats have an agreeable disposition around people and are generally docile when handled, and easily captured in live traps. When captured they are usually calm, and often thump their hind feet in response to perceived threats. Woodrats are remarkably unafraid when free ranging and are often in no hurry to head for cover once released. We once watched a woodrat take bait containers from our trapping pack, and have heard of animals trying to remove buttons from a person's shirt and drag away the blanket of a sleeping camper.

Woodrats can be very fierce around their own kind. Many sport battle scars from unwelcome encounters and can be killed if escape is not possible.
Life History

Woodrats are generally nocturnal. They scurry about in sparsely vegetated areas of boulders and crevices making use of bare travel ways and labyrinths to travel silently and securely throughout their domain. They are predominantly vegetarians feeding on a wide variety of fruits, nuts, berries, and green plant material. They lay in stores of dried green vegetation under protective cover of ledges, folding or cutting long stemmed herbaceous growth into convenient lengths for carrying. Allegheny woodrats accumulate substantial amounts of hard mast within the rocks for winter use both in piles and scattered about the nest site. The acorns of red oak seem particularly desirable when they are available. In the course of normal activity woodrats rarely travel more than a few hundred feet from the center of their territory, although dispersing animals can travel miles before finding a new home. They appear to patrol the borders of their territories regularly and are well aware of the activities of their neighbors. Compared to other rodents, woodrats are not prolific breeders averaging one to three young per litter. Under ideal conditions they can produce three litters annually. The young are born after a gestation period of 30 to 37 days and are weaned within a month. Woodrats have been known to survive for nearly three years in the wild and considerably longer in captivity.

The nests of Allegheny woodrats are made of finely shredded bark and similar materials. They are roughly 10 inches in diameter and generally open topped. Quick retreat appears to be the preferred defensive strategy as they tend to build nests in well protected sites with multiple avenues of escape. In some instances researchers have found dried leaves placed around the nest on likely approach routes that appear to act as alarms to warn the residents of approaching danger. Nest are usually associated with an accumulation of sticks. We have seen active sites containing so few sticks that they could nearly be discounted as debris that filtered down through the boulders. Some sites in more exposed locations have accumulations of a bushel or more.

Like their western counterparts, which are often called pack rats, the Allegheny woodrat often collects environmental oddities of all descriptions to decorate their nest site and middens. It is not unusual to find bits of bones, human rubbish, or even animal feces within and around the nest site.

Distribution and Habitat

Although it is the northern limit of the species range the Allegheny woodrat has a long history in New York. Researchers have found woodrat bones over 20,000 years old as far north in the Hudson river valley as Albany. In historical times records of woodrats have been restricted to accumulations of large talus boulders throughout the Hudson Highlands and Shawangunk mountains of southeastern New York, east to the Hudson River and south to the New Jersey border.

As recently as the mid 1960's the woodrat could be found wherever these large boulders accumulated in layers deep enough to form complex systems of passageways. By the mid 1970's naturalist Dan Smiley of Mohonk, New York was the first to notice that the Allegheny woodrat was in decline in the state. By 1980 biologist knew of only 5 extant sites, the last of which became extirpated in 1987.

Efforts to understand the cause of the decline began in 1990 when DEC biologists captured thirty woodrats that had been captured in West Virginia, radio collared and released each near Mohonk, New York at two formerly occupied sites. Within six months all of the animals at one site had perished; within a year the remaining animals were gone. Including offspring, biologists monitored 52 animals of which just twelve carcasses were recovered in good condition for examination. In 11 of 12 cases the animal had been killed by a parasite of the raccoon called the raccoon roundworm (Balyisascaris procyonis). The eggs of the parasite are contained within raccoon feces and contaminate the soil when the feces decompose. Woodrats walking across raccoon latrines are probably infected when they groom or when they carry intact feces to their nest sites. Because raccoons are often attracted to the same rocky sites preferred by woodrats an increase in raccoon numbers puts woodrats at great risk of infection. When coupled with the woodrat's "pack rat" behavior of collecting feces, the increase in raccoon numbers that we have experienced in recent decades has spelled doom for the woodrat in New York.

The existence of woodrats is easily confirmed by the presence of latrines. Latrines are comprised of woodrat feces each of which is roughly .5 inches or slightly less in length and .2 inches in diameter. There may be as few as a handful or enough to fill several quart containers at a single site. When looking for latrines it is most productive to search the largest boulders in a talus field for the most spacious, room-like settings that are protected from the elements. Look on flat, level, surfaces. Latrines in protected sites can exist long after the woodrats are gone. Some we have examined still contain many feces nearly 20 years after the animals have disappeared.
Management and Research Needs

For perhaps the first time in thousands of years the Allegheny woodrat no longer haunts the cliffs of southeastern New York. Their chance of returning appears bleak at this time as it would seem to require a substantial and long term decline in raccoon numbers.

Given the ability of raccoons to thrive near human development, our endless inroads into rural landscapes and trends away from raccoon hunting and trapping, we have unintentionally stacked the deck against this harmless resident of the rocks. Research in areas where the animals still exist, or perhaps further experimental research in New York, might shed additional light on the woodrat's problems but we do not now see solutions on the horizon.
Additional References

Whitker, J. O., Jr. and Hamilton, W. J. 1998. Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London. 583pp.

Wiley, R. 1980. Neotoma floridana. Mammalian Species. The American Society of Mammalogists. No. 137, pp. 1-7.

For additional information contact:

Endangered Species Unit
625 Broadway
Albany, NY 12233-4754


copyright 2002 , Jim & Beth Boyle, All Rights ReservedNo part of this website may be used for any purpose ( including using images ) without written consent from The Rams Horn

opyright 2002 , Jim & Beth Boyle, All Rights ReservedNo part of this website may be used for any purpose ( including using images ) without written consent from The Rams Horn