The Rat Fan Club

Book Reviews:  Non-Fiction

by Debbie “The Rat Lady”


Book Review: Animal Wise

            This book was written by Virginia Morell and published by Crown in 2013. Its subtitle is The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, and the premise is that animals have minds, personalities, moods and emotions and that they think and feel. I fully agree with this conclusion and I enjoyed this book very much. It is well written with some very engaging stories. It has chapters on ants, fish, birds, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, dogs, and…a whole chapter about rats! The rat chapter is called The Laughter of Rats, and although it’s not as long as I would have liked, it is good. It mostly stays on the topic of laughter and play, but it does mention that rats also do dream, can be altruistic, and that they like sex. The rats talked about in the chapter are laboratory rats, and brief mention is made of rats receiving electric shocks, and a few other disturbing moments. I was fascinated to learn that rats can choose to endure pain if, for instance, they smell a cat and feel that it’s better to freeze than to escape the pain. The book says that rats will run a complex maze to be tickled, but not to be petted, but I can only assume this is because they are lab rats, so not as socialized as pets, and therefore not that cuddly.

            There were a few errors in the book. She said the lab rats Dr. Panksepp uses in his laughter research were a strain called Long-Evans “which scientists had bred in 1915 from the wild Rattus norvegicus, or Norwegian rat…” Norway rats, not Norwegian rats, is the proper term. She said that “3-day-old rats” still play after their brains were surgically altered, but I think it should have said 3-week-old rats. She referred to the Animal Welfare Act of 2004 which excluded protection for rats, but the year this amendment to the Animal Welfare Act was added was 2002, not 2004.

            I have to warn potential readers that the chapter The Educated Dolphin has a tragic ending, and the chapter called The Wild Minds of Dolphins includes a very short bit of explicit sex. Although there is mention of a few painful experiments in this book (mostly on the rats unfortunately), overall it is a very positive view of how science is starting to respect the mental abilities of animals.


Book Review: The Lab Rat Chronicles

This book was written by Kelly Lambert, PhD and published by the Penguin Group in 2011. The first few chapters are written in academic-ese and is very difficult to read. You pretty much need a college degree to read it, and I had to read several sentences over and over again to understand what they meant. But as the book goes along, the writing becomes easier and easier to read. I can only imagine that the author began the book in the same mode she uses to write scientific papers, and gradually gained a more conversational style. Too bad she didn’t go back and edit the first part of the book to make it easier to read.

            Dr. Lambert is a behavioral neuroscientist who mostly does research on rats. In this book she compiles a wide range of research done on rats and other rodents to try to find information that we can apply to human behavior. The topics include improving health, increasing intelligence, boosting emotional resilience, economics, diplomacy, the influence of maternal and paternal care, sex, aggression and addiction. For instance, researchers found that rats who live alone in small bare cages are more likely to become addicted to drugs than rats who live in a large enriched environment with a group of other rats.

            Most of the facts about rats in the book are accurate. However, the author does have an erroneous idea of the life stages of rats, but then that’s not surprising considering that most lab rats are weaned at 3 weeks of age. She said that rats 4-5 months of age were in early adulthood, and rats 12 months old were middle-aged. I consider rats 4-5 months old to be equivalent to about 14 in human years, and 12-month-old rats the equivalent of 35 in human years. Do we consider 35 to be middle-aged these days? Another experiment gave rats experience with cocaine, then bred them and tested whether they would prefer baby rats or cocaine. Until the babies were about 16 days old, the moms preferred the babies, but after this they chose the cocaine instead. Dr. Lambert said, “The older pups weren’t quite adolescent age, but mothers of teens often express a maternal kinship of sort with the rats when I tell them about this study, as if they could imagine that a hit of cocaine would sometime be more appealing than dealing with the challenges of their teenage children!” No kidding that 16-day-old baby rats “aren’t quite adolescents.” Baby rats at this age have only opened their eyes 2 days earlier, so are more like toddlers. She told of one experiment that looked at aggression where large male rats were each housed with a female, and then the female was removed and a smaller male put in the cage. She said the large male rats weighed about 300 grams (under ¾ lb), which is actually a small rat. Adult male pet rats average one pound, and in my experience, lab rats tend to be as big or bigger, so a rat this size would not be an adult, but would probably be less than 6 months old. When talking about barbering, she said it has not been seen in rodents living in natural habitats, but is only found in labs. I guess she didn’t do any research about pet rats. I was also shocked to read that she says bedding in the lab is typically corncob or cedar shavings. I can’t imagine that any labs still use cedar shavings.

            One of the studies she mentioned is very relevant to pet rats. They found that rats housed alone were 3 times more likely to get mammary tumors, with half of the isolated rats getting tumors, while only 15% of rats housed in groups got tumors. The book includes lots of interesting research, but reading about some of the experiments is unpleasant, for instance, when rats were given electric shocks. If you don’t mind reading about such things, then it is an interesting book.


Book Review: Two Pet Rats

            This small book written by Cicely Rude and published by CreateSpace in 2009, is a story of the author’s two rats, which includes some information about keeping rats as pets.  Most of the information in its 28 pages is accurate, although it implies that the scientific name of the domestic rat is Rattus domesticus, when it is actually Rattus novegicus, or possibly Rattus norvegicus domesticus. The design of the book is nice with cute photos, and the rats are particularly attractive. A few of the beginning pages, where she talks about their cage, bedding and food, are a little slow, but the stories of the rats’ antics are especially enjoyable and written with humor.  This book would be a nice addition to any rat lover’s library.


Book Review: OH, RATS! The story of rats and people

            This children’s book was written by Albert Marrin, illustrated by C. B. Mordan and published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2006.  I really liked the design, with the book printed in black, white and red, but I didn’t like the fact that most of the rats in the illustrations—even dark-colored wild rats—were given red eyes.  Most of the rats in the illustrations were done quite well, but the rat on the cover, while detailed in every other respect, is missing claws.

            Most of the information in the book is interesting and presented well, but I found a few problems.  It says a rat can squeeze through a pipe the width of a quarter. This is a common “fact” that often appears about rats. The truth is that a small baby rat could do this, but not an adult.  This book says a rat can perform this feat by collapsing its skeleton.  This just isn’t going to happen.

            It also says it is no problem for a rat to chew through a sheet of iron a half inch thick or a slab of concrete four inches thick.  Uh, wait a minute.  While it may be possible for a rat to chew through these substances, it would definitely be a mighty labor of many many days, and not the easy task the book implies.

            I assume because the book is for children, the author simplifies some facts, and in a few cases I feel he over simplifies it to the point of creating misunderstandings or even errors.  For instance, he says rats can communicate with each other at a distance of 40 to 50 feet using ultrasound (so far so good) but then goes on to say that elephants make similar sounds that carry for miles.  Elephants actually use infrasound (sound too low for us to hear), not ultrasound, so I think the way the author said this is very confusing. 

Another statement I found confusing said “Eventually the Norway rat pushed the black rat out of the cities.  Now it lives mostly in rural areas—in the ground, houses, barns, and silos.”  I think this must be a mistake. Norway rats are now much more common in cities than in rural areas. Perhaps he meant that black rats (roof rats) mostly live in rural areas, except roof rats don’t live in the ground.  He said the oldest rat in captivity lived 5 years 8 months.  He must mean a wild rat, although he doesn’t say it specifically, as the record for a domestic rat is 7 years 4 months.  In one of the sidebars he said the White House has often been plagued with wild rats, and he said Teddy Roosevelt led his sons on rat hunts in the dining room.  However, I know that Teddy Roosevelt’s kids also had pet rats, so I wonder if stories of wild rats and pet rats got mixed up.

He said “tame” rats (he should have used the term “domestic”) cost from $10 to $50—a $50 rat is one special rat!  He must have been talking about lab rats.  In a section about different cultures around the world that eat rats, in most cases he was not clear about which species of rats are eaten.  As far as I know, no culture eats Norway rats.  The rats eaten are mostly field rats, bamboo rats, or other species. 

There are also some statements that are just false.  After explaining that wild rats can catch fish, he says rats love water.  He’s obviously not met any of my rats!  He says that a rat is old after 9 months of age, but this is actually the rat’s peak physical age, and I don’t consider a rat to be middle aged until 1 ½ years.  When talking about wild rats that are immune to poisons, so-called “super-rats”, he said that these super-rats reproduce twice as fast as ordinary rats.  This is not true.  “Super-rats” produce more babies than rats killed by poison, obviously, but their reproductive rate is no more than that of “normal” rats.  In a sidebar that lists the most serious diseases that rats can transmit to humans, he includes rat-bite fever.  While it is true that someone infected with rat-bite can die, the disease is rare, can be treated with antibiotics, and very rarely causes death.

Finally, he makes the ridiculous statement that rat breeding requires skill, and explains how mycoplasma-free lab rats were first created (delivered by C-section and hand raised) as if that is how all lab rats are currently produced.  All lab rats are now myco-free and are produced in the usual way.

All together, there is about one error per each 5 pages in this book.  Fortunately, my rat care book is listed in the back under Some More Books to Read.


Book Review: Rat

            This book was written by Jonathan Burt and published by Reaktion Books in 2006, and is pretty much the typical book about the historical relationship between rats and humans, mostly focusing on wild rats and the usual negative attitudes. It is written in a fairly academic style, but it’s pretty easy to read. The strangest thing I found about this book is how it manages to almost completely avoid talking about pet rats! In the introduction the author points out that wild rats are loathed by people, and all relationships with rats, except for the rat fancy, is marked by violence and death. Notice he used the term “rat fancy,” by which he means the breeding of rats for show. He states that the breeding of lab rats for research is mirrored by the breeding for “pet shows and the rat fancy. Thus is the rat in turn exploited.” The word “pet” is only used in three other places in the book. On page 130 the title of chapter 6 is “Pets, Vermin, Food,” although nothing is actually said about pets, and combining these topics is just sick. The first sentence is “The British rat fancy was institutionalized in 1901 when rats made their first appearances in pet shows.” On the next page, the caption for a photo of a little girl with a pet white rat says: “An Edwardian Christmas card reflects the popularity of rats as pets.” But no where else in the book does he discuss or make any more mention of rats as pets! On page 135 he mentions the establishment of World Rat Day in 2003, but associates it with fancy rats, not pet rats. He omits any mention of how rats were first domesticated.

            Impressively, most of the facts about rats that are included are actually correct. The exceptions are the age roof rats are weaned (3-4 weeks on page 30-31) and the heat cycle of the Norway rat (3-4 days on page 32). Roof rats nurse their babies for at least 5-6 weeks, and the heat cycle of the Norway rat is 4-5 days. On page 86 the caption of a photo from the 1993 movie Willard mistakenly says the rats were animatronic, when they were actually CGI, and the text says that the two main rats in the movie were played by Gambian pouched rats, when only the Ben character was. On page 133 a photo caption mislabels a silver fawn as a pink-eyed white. On page 134 the author repeats the myth that fancy rats derive mainly from lab rats, even though we know that rats were first bred as pets.

            The other chapter titles are Natural History, Natural Historians and the Rat, Rat Representations, The ‘Hero of Science,’ and Plague and Pollution. The Natural History chapter includes a fascinating illustration of the location of the muscles that work the jaw, showing just how those eye pops are produced!  There is also a frightening photo of teeth that are so overgrown they form a complete circle. Some of the other illustrations are interesting, including historical drawings, pictures from literature, a rat x-ray, sculptures, and a Hero Rat sniffing landmines, but there are also photos of piles and strings of dead rats, and torturous traps. The chapter on lab rats explains some of the awful things done to rats in the name of science, and the section on extermination describes some truly hideous methods of killing rats.

            While this book includes some interesting information, and would be a good addition to a collection of all things rat, it includes lots of stuff that would be extremely upsetting to many rat lovers.


Book Review:  Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed its Way to the Top  

by Jerry Langdon, St. Martin Press, 2006


Book Review: Animals and the Afterlife

Animals and the Afterlife: True Stories of Our Best Friends Journey Beyond Death was written by one of our very own, member Kim Sheridan of Rancho Santa Fe, CA, and published in 2006 by Hay House. The book is paperback and has 414 pages. 

 I was very happy to read this book, which is well organized and well written. It is filled with amazing stories of contacts between humans and not only animals who have passed on, but also animals who are still living. It is hard to maintain skepticism about life after death, animal communication and the intelligence and spirituality of animals in the face of so much evidence.

But the best part of this book is the many stories Kim tells about her relationships with her rats!  The book is a collection of stories from many different people, most about other kinds of animals, but woven throughout are Kim’s own stories, most of which are about rats. These stories are an absolute joy to read, and I feel that every pet lover who reads this book will have their eyes opened about rats. Whether Kim meant the book to be a testimonial about rats or not (and most likely she did!) it paints a most glowing picture of their nature. Time after time as I read the book I found tears running down my face. Thank you, Kim for a wonderful book!


Book Review: Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good

This book written by Rat Fan Club member Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D. of Germantown, MD was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2004.  The press release said, “Pleasurable Kingdom aims to show that animals, like humans, have richly positive experiences in their lives, and debunk the popular perception that life for most animals is a continuous, joyless struggle for survival. Combining rigourous science with amusing anecdotes, topics include why pleasure is neglected in science, and its manifestations in such realms as animal play, sex, touch, food, anticipation, comfort, and esthetics.”

I found this book extremely enjoyable and interesting.  I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in animal behavior.  Jonathan has done a great job of explaining the scientific evidence that animals experience pleasure in a way that is easy to understand.  The book also shows off Jonathan’s sense of humor.  For instance, in Chapter 3, Feeling Smart, The Intelligence of Pleasure, he says, “Ultimately, there can be no decisive proof of animal pleasure, any more than there can be absolute proof that smoking causes lung cancer, or that bacon is bad for you (it’s certainly bad for pigs.)”

Dr. Jonathan Balcombe is an animal behavior Research Scientist for the Washington, DC-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of The Use of Animals in Higher Education: Problems, Alternatives, and Recommendations.  In addition to published papers on the behavioral ecology of bats, birds, and turtles, he has written many scholarly and lay articles on animal use in education and research. A popular speaker, he has given invited presentations in the USA, UK, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Israel, and mainland Europe.

Of course, Jonathan talks about rats in his book!  In fact, rats are mentioned on more than 24 of the pages.  Most of the references are to the research that shows rats enjoy playing and wrestling, and they laugh when they do so.  But other topics are presented too.  Jonathan describes the different personalities and activity preferences of his 3 girl rats, and talks some about their food preferences.  He also talks about the research that shows rats dream.  Also mentioned is that rats do better in a maze after being exposed to music by Mozart rather than modern music by Philip Glass, and that rats will restrain their behavior if they see that it will cause harm to another rat.  Cool!

Here are a few excerpts that feature rats:

Rats at Play:  Rats mostly play when they are young, but grown-up rats are also motivated to play. In a laboratory study, both juvenile and adult male rats showed a significant preference for a box containing a free moving rat compared to either a box with a rat confined behind a Plexiglas barrier or a box with no rat. The confined rat was visible, but not available to play with.

When rats are anticipating opportunities to play, their brains release a “pleasure chemical” called dopamine. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp reports a close link between such chemicals and play, and that rats enjoy being playfully tickled. These findings complement ample behavioral evidence that play is enjoyable.  Studies at the University of Lethbridge using video footage of playing rats found that they assess and monitor one another and then fine-tune their own behavior to maintain the play mood. Rats also restrain themselves when they know their actions would cause pain to another individual.

Rats and Food:  Rats will enter a deadly cold room and navigate a maze to retrieve gourmet tidbits (e.g., shortbread, meat paté, and CocaCola®). If they happen to find their regular (and less tasty) commercial rat chow at the end, they quickly return to their cozy nests, where they stay for the remainder of the experiment. But if they find a tasty treat, they feed on it before returning home, then return repeatedly for more. This is a rodent version of shunning the fruit bowl and dashing out to the convenience store on a rainy night to get some donuts.

Live and Let Live:  One of my favorite anecdotes comes from naturalist-photographer Lewis Wayne Walker, who discovered a wild rat running in a rodent exercise wheel he had stored in his barn. By itself, it’s just an isolated, if compelling, observation. But what’s to keep people from setting out running wheels (instead of traps) in places where rats live and monitoring the results?

I do have to warn you that the chapter on sex is quite explicit, so be prepared.  The beginning of the chapter says: “Warning: making the case for sexual pleasure in animals requires venturing into territory that may be distasteful to some readers.  If you may be one such, I suggest you skip to the next chapter.”

The publisher is Macmillan and the book sells for $24.95.  For more on Jonathan and his book tour, visit his website at


Book Review: Rats, Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants

by Robert Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 2004


Book Review: Angel Animals, Divine Messengers of Wisdom and Compassion

This book was written by Allen & Linda Anderson and published in 2003 by New World Library. It includes many wonderful and touching stories of how animals have had an impact on peoples’ lives. The best story, however, is by Fleur Wiorkowski of Ft. Worth, TX, a long-time Rat Fan Club and RATS member! Fleur was grieving after euthanizing her rat Rat Rae, when she received a vision of Rat Rae on Jesus’ shoulder, playing with her next rat to be. She saw this vision while receiving communion in church. The next day at the pet shop she found the rat just as described in her vision, who she named Noah (comforter) as well as the rat’s brother, whom she named Asa.


Book Review:  The Story of Rats

by S. Anthony Barnett, published in Australia, 2001


Book Review:  Animal Miracles

This book, Animal Miracles: Inspirational and Heroic True Stories, by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger, is a treasure. A paperback, it was published by Adams Media Corporation in 1999. There is only one story about a rat in the book, and it is about a wild rat, not a pet rat, but it is a good story.  A wild rat becomes friends with a miner.  The miner shares his food with the rat and the rat keeps the miner company.  One day, the rat became very agitated and ran up to the miner and then ran away several times.  The miner finally realized the rat was trying to tell him something and followed the rat.  Immediately after that, the roof of the mine where the miner was working collapsed.  The rat had saved the miner’s life! 

The book contains 50 amazing, touching, and truly miraculous stories of animals helping humans.  Most of the stories feature dogs and cats, but there are also stories about birds, horses, pigs, cows, dolphins, sea lions, a whale, a monkey, an elk, and even a sea turtle, a stingray, and a shark.  The stories were collected by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger and published in 1999 by Adams Media Corporation.  This book would be a wonderful addition to any animal lover’s library. 


Book Review: The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany

by Barbara Hodgson, Ten Speed Press, 1997


Book Review:  Tatti Wattles, A Love Story

This book written by performance artist Rachel Rosenthal is a delight.  Published in 1996 by Smart Art Press, it is hardback and has 61 pages.  Rachel tells how she rescued a young rat who she later named Tatti Wattles from another performance artist’s display and fell in love.  Tatti Wattles became her constant companion, going everywhere with her and even participating in some of her performances.  Tatti had great stage presence,” wrote Rachel.  “He loved posing for photographers and videos.  He loved being in the limelight and never hid or presented his backside.  All the photos show him, handsome, looking directly into the camera.  In performance, he always knew where his light was.”

Through his public appearances Tatti Wattles became a rat ambassador, making many converts.  Rachel describes so well the various attitudes all we rat lovers have experienced when sharing our rats with others, from loving acceptance, to squeamishness, to outright revulsion.  Rachel’s eloquent words describing her loving relationship with Tatti contrasts sharply with the words she uses to descibe the more usual societal opinion of rats--words we’ve all heard before!

Rachel fills her book with her personal philosophy about how we should see and interact with animals as individuals with their own rights, not slaves.  She explains how Tatti Wattles became her closest friend and gave her emotional support during bad times.  She was devastated when Tatti died of heart disease.  After his death, she went to a workshop on shamanism and underwent a shamanistic “journey” where she was reunited with Tatti and learned that rats were her Power Animal.  Some of these journeys, which she said taught her a great deal about herself, are illustrated in color throughout the book.  Other charming black and white drawings show Tatti Wattles in life.  At the end of the book is a philosophical discussion of the book and Rosenthal’s performance art by Jacki Apple.

Rachel has unfortunately included a couple of factual errors in the book.  She wrote, “These rodents have no bones, only cartilage, which explains how they squeeze into the tiniest apertures.”  This is incorrect.  Rats have bones just like all other mammals.  They are just very flexible!  Tatti had overgrown teeth which required periodic trimming.  Rachel wrote, “Rodents afflicted with this abnormality in the wild would grind their teeth down on hard surfaces.  But Tatti was civilized and had lost all such instincts.  He only liked soft food.”  Tatti had a medical problem, either malocclusion or some other problem of the teeth or jaw that prevented him from eating hard food.  Wild and domestic rats normally grind their teeth together to keep them the right length, but they can’t do this a medical problem.

Other than these two mistakes, I have enjoyed this book very much, more so the more I read it.  Rachel’s writing is bold and frank.  For example, here’s how she described the young Tatti.  “His baby coat was sleek and black, and he had a white belly, white socks, and balls almost as big as his body.”   Her story is filled with observations and feelings that only another true rat lover will recognize and understand.  This book is truly a poem of love for a rat, and for all rats, and worth having in any rat lover’s library.


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