Book Review:
Rats! A Fun & Care Book Written by Debbie Ducommun

Review by J. Tihoti Maha'a
From the July/August 1999 Rat & Mouse Gazette

Rats! The past five years have seen an amazing surge of interest in pet rats. While still far from mainstream, domestic rats have found enough favor to warrant the publication of several new books about their care and role as companion animals. One of the newest titles to find its way from press and into the libraries of rat fanciers is Rats!, published by BowTie™ Press which is a division of Fancy Publications Inc., publishers of Critters USA, Reptiles, Bird Talk, and many other pet-oriented magazines. The author, Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun, is well-known to rat owners across the United States. Founder of the Rat Fan Club and editor of that group’s newsletter The Rat Report, Mrs. Ducommun has garnered a reputation as a devoted champion of rat-kind.

The book is divided into nine chapters which cover natural history, pre-purchase consideration, selection, housing, socializing, medical concerns, enrichment activities, exhibition, and breeding. Each chapter receives at least adequate attention to present its information in a form acceptable to the average pet owner. However, the chapters dealing with consideration, selection, and husbandry are quite thorough in their coverage.

Like most works in this genre, Rats! starts out with a look at the rat as an animal. Chapter one discusses the historical relationship between rats and man, the natural history of rats, rat behavior, and the rat in domestication. Readers interested in these topics will find little in this chapter to hold their interest as much of it constitutes rehashed information that is better served by its original form. However, this book is not gauged for the rat scholar. Rather, it is produced with the beginning pet owner in mind, a group that should be more than satisfied with these offerings.

Chapter two is entitled “Are Rats for You?” and offers some of the best pre-purchase guidance this reviewer has seen. Naturally, the chapter outlines those qualities that make rats appealing as pets. Ducommun’s goal, however, is not purely to convince the reader that rats indeed make good pets. She is equally committed to ensuring that the prospective owner is willing and able to devote the required time and expense involved in keeping rats as pets. Knowledgeable of rat social structures, Ducommun expresses the importance of companionship to pet rats and advises that no less than two rats be kept. The cost of keeping pet rats is outlined, an addition that proved a surprise for this reviewer. This very important consideration is usually (if not always) absent in other works. The unfortunate reality of this chapter is that most readers will not be prospective rat owners. Rather, they are likely to have already purchased a rat. Their choice is made. Hopefully, this chapter will match their preconceptions of rat ownership. Breeders who sell pet rats, however, can benefit by taking the information in this chapter and applying it when they receive inquiries into their animals.

The third chapter discusses selection. Again, this information is geared towards those looking to purchase a rat for the first time. The pros and cons of varying sources are weighed and suggestions offered. Also covered are tips for selecting healthy well-tempered pets.

Chapter four presents a fairly complete review of housing and bedding options, and other important husbandry products and considerations. In her discussion of wire cages, Ducommun points out the dangers of 1" x 1/2" wire mesh. She explains that rats can get their hind feet caught in this size mesh and suffer a painful injury. Ducommun follows this warning with a perplexing and potentially dangerous suggestion that 1" x 1" and 1" x 2" mesh is acceptable for use with adult rats. In the informed opinion of this reviewer, 1" x 1" and 1" x 2" mesh is highly unsuitable for use with rats. Rats are prone to putting their noses where they don’t belong and could possibly get their head caught in mesh of this size — a problem equally dangerous as that incurred with 1" x 1/2" mesh. Ducommun would have been well advised to recommend 1/2" x 1/2" mesh.

The author does a much better job in her discussion of the all-important issue of safe bedding. This is one of the few books that adequately divulges the dangers of pine shavings and cedar chips. The toxic oils found in these kinds of woods can cause irritation to the respiratory tract, which can greatly encourage respiratory disease, an already too-common disease in pet rats. A handy table of safe bedding products with their manufacturers’ address is also available in this chapter.

In chapter five we find instruction on how to integrate a new rat into the human family. The chapter’s important recommendations on rats with children will, if followed, ensure safety for the rat and success for the children. Also offered is guidance on introducing new rats to other rats and rats and other household pets.

The next chapter deals with the all-important issue of health care. Rather than jumping straight to an outline of diseases and symptoms, Ducommun guides the reader through all phases of veterinary care starting with finding an experienced and qualified vet, to first aid and nursing care. Ducommun is a well-known advocate of spaying female rats, a topic at the center of much controversy in rat-keeping circles. Nonetheless, Ducommun does not shy away from the spaying issue, although her presentation of it in this book strikes this reviewer as being somewhat toned down and more diplomatic when compared to her other work in this area.

Chapter seven, “Fun Activities to Do with Your Rats,” is a refreshing review of games to play with rats, and tricks that not only please humans, but also provide enrichment for the rats. Rats are very intelligent animals and scientific studies have shown that increased participation in challenging games, especially when combined with social interaction, can stimulate brain activity and speed of learning. The various games and tricks are outlined with very specific instructions allowing the reader to immediately apply them with their pets.

Chapter eight introduces the reader to the world of rat show and competitive exhibition. Basic show procedure and instruction on how to prepare animals for exhibition are outlined. A very brief review of rat varieties and colors is included, but is only of moderate interest. Its presentation will not be of interests to serious rat fanciers.

Like the preceding chapter, chapter nine, “Breeding Rats,” is just a basic coverage of rat breeding biology and is not intended for or of interest to serious breeders or fanciers. It does, however, encourage prospective buyers to seek out responsible breeders and enables them to recognize these breeders when they meet them. The chapter is also useful to those new owners who find themselves with a pregnant rat and at a loss for what to do with her.

The book concludes with two appendices containing recipes for homemade rat food and treats, and a list of rat fancy organizations and publications. Also included is a glossary and index.

In general, this book is well written and attractive. It is filled with color photos that range in quality from acceptable to professional. Of particular note for quality are the photos by Jerry Boucher. The designer of this book would have been better advised to use one of the Boucher photos on the front cover. One annoyance involved in the book’s photo presentation is the designer’s choice to use the same photo more than once. The photos at the beginning of each chapter are repeated in that chapter. Also, some of the photos are obviously taken in a series, however, some of the photos are flipped. Flipping photos is an oft-used technique in publishing, however, this reviewer believes that the flips should not be obvious. This problem is glaringly obvious on pages 66 and 67 where the same vet is illustrated examining a rat in two photos. In the first photo the vet’s name badge is on his right breast pocket, and in the second photo it is on the left! Overall, Rats! comes out on top, a quality publication of great importance to those interested in owning pet rats. Even advanced rat owners and fanciers can find favor in Ducommun’s work. If the reader intends to learn about breeding fancy rats and is looking for a discussion of rat genetics and breeding schemes, this book is not for him. It is, however, of singular importance to both owners of pet rats and the rats themselves. This book can be highly recommended, and important addition to the library of any ratter!