26 Sep 2020

Rodent Book Club - Rats by Susan Fox, 1988

This one was clearly written with passion and exceeded my low expectations, but is still pretty outdated and doesn’t read like a book written by someone exceptionally familiar with rats. 

A quick search of TFH publications finds a whole series of care guides written by either “Sue Fox” or “Susan Fox” depending on the year, encompassing hermit crabs, rabbits, gerbils, dwarf hamsters and more. The general impression after reading the book is that this was part of a greater collection of money spinning pet guides rather than a work of passion and expertise. This may seem like a harsh assessment, but some pictures labelled as rats are clearly mice, something anyone with enough knowledge to be writing a book on rats should be able to tell at a glance.

Fairly quickly the book gets into an overview of rats.
The tour of exotic rat species around the world was interesting enough, though several weren’t actually rats, before coming to Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus, the “most serious animal threat to man since they carry the disease organisms of bubonic plague, typhus and food poisoning”. If you’ve read our piece on Hans Zissner’s “Rats, lice and history” you already know that most typhus was transferred between humans by body lice, and the biologist in me wants to ask her to name one “food poisoning disease organism” that is transferred by rats more than human practice. 

Off to a smashing start, Susan immediately follows up with some more incorrect facts, such as:

  • Lab rats being descended from both R. norvegicus and R. rattus (They're R. norvegicus only, like all our domestics), 

  • Porphyrin excretion is described but labelled as “conjunctivitis” and scabs specifically around the head and shoulders which is classic for mites, is “ulcerative dermatitis”. Later, what she describes as “old rat behaviour” such as hunching, fluffed fur and squinting, is clearly pain signalling, something that’s been understood for a long time as a byproduct of rats’ use in science experiments.

  • When frightened, a rat can jump 24 feet.” (That’s 7.3 metres! Later on she claims a rat can jump two feet, and then in the next chapter, three feet.)

  • At several different points in the book, she warns not to let your rats near your face, ever, as they could bite it dangerously. (Hey Susan, it sounds like you had a bad experience and I'm sorry, and you should know rats don't usually attack faces.)

  • At one point she proposes that if rats were exterminated, insects would overpopulate, the vegetation of the whole earth would change, “and carnivores would suffer and would most likely attack man’s domestic animals for food in order to survive” which is just a really poor understanding of ecology.

  • The part about markings is incomprehensible, only self and hooded exist to her knowledge and mink is just a soft black, and her breeding advice betrays a lack of understanding about marking genetics. “One could try for a spotted rat by breeding rats with a banded back that has splotches in it. Once the color pattern has been established in the rat’s genes try to achieve it in all color phases of the rat.”

Care and welfare standards are subjective and shift over time, but I’m fairly comfortable roasting statements like this because no matter how you cut it, it’s just bad research.

What is more forgivable is advice on care. While this is the most damaging type of misinformation, it reflects information that has slowly grown over time. During the late 80’s when this book was written, things were just done differently. Definitely worse, but differently.

Fox recommends buying a rat from 4-8 weeks which is flat out not right, a 4 week old rat is barely weaned and still learning social skills. Breeding is encouraged, and “The decision to buy one rat or two is a matter of personal choice since rats do not need to be kept in pairs.” We now know that even a few months of isolation causes stress responses in rats so strongly that it changes the shape and structure of their brain and adrenal glands, and lone rats are now considered inhumane. Fox recommends that “A single rat is perhaps the luckiest [and will] be more devoted to you since you are the only one with whom it can play.” Yikes!

Food advice isn’t ideal but at least by now we’re starting to see recognition that rats need more protein than a seed mix provides, and she acknowledges that rats can safely eat pretty much anything we do, as a treat. Interestingly, she puts the average lifespan at about 2 and a half years but their max lifespan at over 5, which is tempting to take as validation of the idea that rats used to live longer before intense aesthetic selection, but without something more concrete, has to be dismissed as yet another poorly researched fact. There’s a whole chapter on breeding which I won’t even start on, but suffice to say encouraging any new rat owner to breed for fun and profit just sucks no matter what the species.

But there is also some good advice in there! Holding your rat close to your body with two hands to help them feel safe, talking about how they are loyal, affectionate and like to keep clean. Discussing the idea of covering different macro and micro nutrients in the diet (though not in those terms), and explaining how to hand rear or surrogate orphaned babies are certainly not topics I expected to see, let alone having done what I could consider a pretty good job for an 80’s care guide.

So overall, can we learn anything from this book? Look, it’s not the worst I’ve read, it just doesn’t match up with the current knowledge, and it’s not a huge labour of love in terms of research or old enough to be very interesting in itself. There’s power in being able to see just how much care and welfare has changed in the last few decades, and seeing that it’s a constant knowledge journey to this day. As an example of old care advice, it’s somewhat interesting.

One sentence summary: Old care guide from the 80’s that isn’t relevant any more because a lot of the info is outdated and the research isn’t a very high standard.
Worth a read if: Honestly there’s not much here for the modern rat owner, it’s too hard to pick the good from the bad and there’s nothing especially unique to glean.

By Rachel Greenfield

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