Sadly, rats get a bad rap. They are considered dirty, diseased and dangerous (how’s that for alliteration?), and one of the main reasons for this misconception is the bubonic plague. When asked how the plague began, most people either point the finger at rats or admit to not knowing.
Many rat lovers will defend their pets to the end: “the rats didn’t do it!” Although it is true that the main culprit was the rat flea, it is important to note that rats carried the flea. Because the rats carrying the fleas boarded ships and vessels bound for different countries such as China, Turkey, Egypt, North America, Greece, Russia, South America, and southern Africa, the plague spread rapidly.
However, it is true that the Oriental Rat Flea was the main villain in the Black Plague saga. The bubonic plague bacteria killed rats and infected their fleas. In fleas, the bacteria multiplied and blocked the stomach, causing an insatiable hunger. Because the fleas were starving and their hosts were dead, they were forced to find new hosts. The disease spread to humans when the infected fleas began feeding on people. During the feeding process, the flea would regurgitate some of the bacteria into the open wound of the human, thus beginning the infection.
The bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” was one of the worse natural disasters in world history, killing more than twenty-five million people. This was approximately one-forth of Europe’s entire population during the 1300′s.
For more information on the bubonic plague, visit the links section under “More About the Rat.”
Rats in other Countries
Despite the negative Western view about rats, they are actually quite well-regarded in other countries. In Japan, rats are a sign of wealth, and at the new year, rice cakes are set out for the rats. A good harvest is fortold if a rat nibbles on the cakes. The rat is considered a sign of prosperity in China, as well. As you probably know, there are many different “years” in the Chinese Zodiac, and the first one is the rat. According to Chinese folklore, the rat comes first because of its intelligence and cunning. In Deshnoke, India, there is a temple dedicated to rats. They are often fed milk, and the people drink the same milk the people do. Inside the temple, the rats are protected and socialize with humans. They are only aggressive when cornered; in the temple, however, the rats are considered sacred and are protected. Also in India there is a park for rats (in Calcutta), where the wild rats are fed.
Throughout history, rats have been symbols in various cultures and religions. In Ancient Rome, they were considered a good luck symbol, and Egyptians worshipped them. In addition, the Hindu god “Ganesha” is often riding on the back of a rat.
For more information about the worship of rats in India, visit the links section under “More About the Rat.”
A Little Bit about the Wild Rat
Wild rats live in small colonies. Female rats usually live in burrows with up to six other females. Each has her own nest chamber, but they may raise their offspring together. When the young are weaned, the young males leave the nest.
When there are few males in a rat population, a male rat will monopolize an entire burrow full of females. He claims a certain amount of territory as his, and keeps other males from entering that territory. He mates only with the females in his burrow. If there are many males in a rat population, however, the male can no longer defend his territory adequately; there are too many invaders for one rat to handle. In these situations, males do not “claim” certain burrows. Rather, there is a social heirarchy among males: one male is dominant. When a female comes into heat she mates with many males, most dominant first.
The lifespan of wild rats is much lower than domesticated rats, with most rats living less than one year.
For more information about the wild rat, visit the links section under “More About the Rat.”
The Beginning of the Domesticated Rat
Rats first began to be bred in captivity in the 1800′s, for a sport called “ratting.” Dogs were put in pits filled with rats and trained to kill as many as possible. Thousands of wild rats were captured for the pits, until someone had the genius idea to breed them soley for the purpose of this “sport.”
A rat catcher called Jack Black was the first person thought to breed rats and sell them as pets. Much later the idea for rats as pets began to catch on; however, the rat was still only considered a suitable pet for children. They appeared in many children’s books and fairytales, such as “Cinderella”, “The Pied Piper”, many Beatrix Potter books, “The Rats of Nimh”, and more.
Rats became popular as pets in the 1990′s.