Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hooray research!

Okay, so I'm a bit of a rat freak. I love them. I used to own four of them and I know some people will never believe it, but of all the "pocket pets" rats are actually the most sociable and personable. They learn their names, they get excited to see you when you come home at the end of the day, and some of them can even be potty trained. They're like dogs that never get any bigger than a newborn puppy.

Just to prove to you how adorable rats can be, here are my bubs hunting for peas in a "digging box" enrichment I made for them:

Emma, Gracie, Lilah and Bart; four of the loves of my life.

Through owning rats I quickly found out how little quality vet care there exists for most exotic pets, but particularly the ones that are considered expendable such as rats, gerbils and guinea pigs. I went through two vets before finding Dr. Becker, who was beyond wonderful. But still, the nearest emergency clinic that treated exotic animals was over an hour away from me, so if an accident happened and one of my rats needed a vet in the middle of the night it is very likely that they would have died before treatment could be obtained. If that's not enough for a pet owner to handle, I frequently faced people saying things to me like, "You spent how much on vet bills for a rat? They cost like five bucks, just get a new one." Or, "Just give it to me, I'll feed it to my snake." Or, "Just step on it." I'm sure you can imagine how upsetting these types of comments were, and if you can't, just picture someone saying them to an owner sitting in a vet's office about to put their retriever to sleep.

Owning my rats was an eye-opening experience that led me down the path to wanting to become an exotic animal vet to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that other owners must also feel when trying to find quality vet care. After my experiences at Purdue and Harlan working with lab rats, the desire to improve quality of life for laboratory rodents became integrated into that motivation.

While at Purdue I had the opportunity to take a class from and work on an independent study under one of the leading mouse behavior researchers out there. I was thrilled that someone else seemed to actually give a damn about rodents and learned a lot of really interesting stuff about mice from him; such as that although rodents comprise over 90% of animal research done today they are not covered under the Animal Welfare Act for ethical care and use, and that no comprehensive species ethogram exists for the lab mouse. The experience really helped to jump start my interest in research and wanting to directly contribute to improved laboratory conditions for research rodents.

Once I got down to Ross, I approached our animal behavior professor here about the possibility of getting involved in some behavior research. I was pretty vague, I didn't really care what I did, I just missed being involved in research and wanted a project. She asked me what I wanted to do, which species interested me, and I said that I was primarily interested in laboratory rodents but that we probably couldn't get them onto the island. She said that we might and she would look into it, but if we could what would I want to do? Oh boy, oh boy! What don't I want to do? I told her about a low-stress handling study that I would like to do using a technique that I developed myself while I was a lab animal care technician at Purdue. She said she'd check into the possibility of getting rats down to St. Kitts and she would get back to me.

Which brings me to what I am so excited to share with you all! Today she emailed to tell me that we could indeed ship rats here and to start a literature review and inventory list and we would begin working on a grant proposal for next semester! I am so excited! Maybe this study will prove absolutely nothing, maybe the way we currently handle rats doesn't significantly stress them, but I'm still going to be the PI on a study of my own design and if it gets published I will be lead author! HOLY CRAP!


  1. That's awesome!!! Man, kittens, rats, AND neat research? You must be on cloud 9.

  2. Right? Add to that the fact that I get to see my husband in 3 weeks, and I'm practically giddy! Or I would be, if I didn't have finals coming up.

  3. Hurrah! I miss pet rats. Stupid allergies.

  4. I felt the need to tell you I envy you. That sounds like an amazingly interesting area of research.

  5. Behavior research, while incredibly interesting and fulfilling, is also just about one of the most frustrating fields possible to go into. No handy electrophoresis and plug and chug data technology here! Just good, old fashioned observation and stepping all over yourself trying to prevent bias and subjectivity from creeping in as much as possible. And the lit reviews are murder because behavior research didn't really kick off until the 70s and back then we had a completely different view of animal welfare than we do now, so the information we have is mostly outdated, doesn't exist or does exist but is extremely flawed. For instance, one source I used in my zoo animal behavior study was from 1964 and lumped wildebeest, addax, impala and hartebeest which have unique, species-specific behaviors into one category of "African ungulates."

    The professor advising me on this project warned me that it's very possible that no one has ever published anything on improving handling techniques in lab rodents from the animal's perspective rather than simply trying to maximize time efficiency and minimize injury to the technician.

  6. This is really neat! I found your blog through Blaghag a little while ago, and thought it was neat. Imagine the treat it was to come back and see you're a rat lover as well :)

    I had two boys for two years, about two years ago, and I'll be getting two girls later this summer. As I've been talking about it to my friends, one of them has shown a discomfort with the idea of rats as pets. I just don't understand people's disdain for such intelligent little creatures. When I get to college, I plan to become involved in or start a skeptic group, and one of the "pet projects" I have planned is trying to give rats a better public image.

  7. Honestly? In my experience the best way to improve rats' public image is just to have a really sweet, super handleable "ambassador." People's perception of them instantly changes the moment they get their hands on a warm, soft, licky animal.

    Just in case, as I'm sure you've done your research, spaying your girls would be a good idea. I didn't, as an attempt to save money, and wound up spaying Emma anyway due to pyometra and between the three girls removed about seven mammary tumors. It's best to just nip it in the bud and spay them early.

    Oh! And I can't forget to pimp my favorite rattie cage, Martin's:

    I kept my four in the R-695 after a truly scary incident where Gracie got her head caught between the bars of a ferret cage with inappropriate bar-spacing. Spring for the powder-coated version. It never rusts and makes scrubbing caked urine off so much easier.

  8. That was my experience, as well! I got into rats through a friend who got some boys, and I had never thought of rats as pets before- and then after that, when I got my boys, some of my other friends started to think of them as pets, too.

    I'm very fortunate to have a responsible vet in my area who will spay rats for an affordable price, because they're really dedicated to stopping pet over population. :)

    I actually just received the new cage for my girls in the mail- not a Martin's, but only a tad smaller than the R-695. Thank you for the information, though! I appreciate the way you care about rats :)