“Humans and rats are pretty much a match made in heaven,” said David Swygart, hobby rat breeder and owner of Forest Park’s Best Brains Rodentry. He was holding Lacy, a brown rat with cute black eyes who’s currently being bred with a curly-haired male named Bilboa.
Swygart was talking about the relationship between humans and rats. He put Lacy back into the cage and gave her a piece of bread, which she took with her two front feet, using them like tiny hands. She ate the bread, then looked at him expectantly for more.
“Rats are so different from us but at the same time so similar,” said Swygart. “They’re intelligent. They have flexible diets. They seek out comfort. They exist at the same temperatures as we do. That’s why wherever humans go, rats follow.” Antarctica, he adds, might be the only place that humans exist where rats don’t.
“The Norway rat,” said Swygart, “is second only to humans among all animals in how widely distributed they are.”
Swygart and his wife Sarah breed rats in their home in Forest Park. Their business, which started in 2014, “has really taken off,” said Swygart. Currently, the waiting list to get a rat from them is seven to nine months, and the rats cost $40.
Right now, the Swygarts have nine rats: six females and three males, and two of the females will be used for breeding. The key aspects the Swygarts look for when choosing breeders are temperament and health.
“Pet rats should be friendly,” said Swygart, which is why they choose the most social rats to breed, although handling the rats to help acclimatize them to people is important too. “We hold the babies every day after they’re born to help socialize them,” said Swygart.
In terms of health, one of the biggest concerns is longevity. The Swygarts breed domesticated Norway rats, which, like rats in general, don’t have a terribly long lifespan. Swygart said they live about two to three years, and after the first year, many rats are plagued with health issues, including tumors and respiratory illnesses.
“They have a high metabolism,” said Swygart. “Because of that, they can heal from almost anything in their first year of life. But after that, their metabolism slows down and illnesses can set in. So if we see any tumors or respiratory issues within the first year, we know that particular rat won’t be a good candidate for breeding.”
The Swygarts breed one litter at a time to ensure they have enough time to properly care for and socialize each animal, despite the fact that rats “live fast and have lots of babies.” Each litter produces between 12 and 15 young, and female rats go into heat every three days, said Swygart, with a gestation of only 21 days.
In addition to temperament and health, Swygart says they also want the rats to look cute, so they’ll breed rats with different physical characteristics, such as curly hair, the result of one particular gene. The Swygarts maintain genetic diversity within their rats through acquiring rats from other breeders.
Swygart knows a lot about genetics. His undergraduate degree is in biology with a medical focus, including genetics. He’s currently working on his PhD from Northwestern University in neuroscience, where, in his focus on ophthalmology and the retina, he studies neuronal computation. “I look at how neurons talk to each other,” he said. “How do they form electrical circuits?”
In his work in neuroscience, he often uses lab mice, which, he said, was part of the reason he became interested in rats as pets. Additionally, his upbringing in rural Indiana, where he raised goats and always had pets, gave him exposure to different animals.
“I’ve always loved animals,” said Swygart. And he thinks that rats are possibly the best small mammal pet out there.
“They’re less nippy than hamsters and gerbils,” he said. “And they bond better. They’re intelligent and social.”
He added that rats can learn, improving their speed in mazes or their skills at rat basketball. (He suggested looking up videos online to see how cool it is. He’s right; it is cool.)
“Did you know that rats can learn the same or more verbal commands as dogs?” asked Swygart. They can also be litter trained easily if you put a small litter box in the corner of their cage, which would prevent them from “going” in the cage bedding.
If you’re interested in owning a rat, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you can’t own just one rat. According to Swygart, rats get really depressed if they’re alone, so having two same-sex rats is essential (same-sex because otherwise they’ll probably have babies, and that might not be what you’re looking for). Their cage should provide at least two cubic feet per rat with bedding on the bottom. Rats like cloth hammocks, and they’ll need a house or hideout within the cage. Females and younger rats like a wheel for running, though the older males are lazy, said Swygart.
He added that the males are, in general, lazier and more snuggly than the females. They’re more fun to hold. But the females are more active and exploratory and are more interesting to watch. “They’re funnier,” said Swygart.
What about the reputation rats have as disease-ridden rodents?
“There’s this stigma about rats,” said Swygart, who acknowledged the irony of he and his wife breeding and raising rats in a town that has a wild rat problem.
“But domesticated rats are very different from wild rats. It’s sort of like the difference between dogs and wolves,” said Swygart.
He said “fancy” rats, the ones sold as pets, have been bred to be social, intelligent and healthy. And because their life spans are so short and they mate so regularly, breeding for specific traits, which takes generations, happens relatively quickly in the rodent world.
Swygart took Arie out of her cage. She’s the oldest the Swygarts have right now at two years and 10.5 months old. Her coat is brownish red, and her ears are round; she’s a Dumbo-eared rat.
“Other than the babies, which we hold every single day, we pay most attention to the older rats,” said Swygart. “They’ve been with us longer. They’re special.” But he added that each rat is unique, with its own personality and traits.
“I think anyone considering getting a small animal should consider rats,” said Swygart. “They’re really great pets.”
Learn more about the Swygarts and their rats at bestbrains.mystrikingly.com.