American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association

This article is from the Winter 1998 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.

Beginners’ Corner

Why Tails?; Allergic to Tails

By Nichole Royer

Why Tails?

Maria Mascaro
Q My 4-year-old son loves mice. Nearly half of our Christmas ornaments have mice on them and now that he is old enough to participate in choosing holiday decorations, the percentage is increasing. He wants a rat or mouse as a pet and Chickadee Magazine listed your address recently as a source for information.

Now, I am an intrepid mom when it comes to pets, but I have to admit that my interest in rodents sort of palls at the tails, especially the big, long rat variety. If I can get over that, I am sure I will enjoy one because I find them very cute otherwise. It might help to know why they have tails. They don’t seem to use them as some animals do. Could you enlighten me on this topic? Also, would you know of a breed with a short tail? (Cost is a BIG factor, so if it’s some sort of a rare and expensive breed, please let me know so I won’t bother combing the pet stores for one until finances improve!) I would also like to know how long can one safely and comfortably leave a rat alone in the cage (weekend trips?). My greatest difficulty will be in finding vacation care for the critter since my entire family hates mice and rats. (I am sure I will be able to win over my sister and her children since they have hamsters and love animals in general).

I thank you in advance for your patience with my questions.

Mouse on rope

A Your aversion to rat tails is a common (and easily overcome) problem. For many people, their only major objection to rats is their tails.

A rat uses its tail primarily for balance. Though their tails are not prehensile (grasping). They are used as an aid in climbing and jumping. They also provide counter-balance, allowing rats to stand up high on their hind legs and lean out over open spaces. The tail is also an important heat regulating organ, preventing the rat from overheating.

Many people think that the rat’s tail is “slimy” or “icky” to the touch. This could not be further from the truth! Run your hand down your own arm; that’s what a rat’s tail feels like.

Tailless rats (born with no tails) do exist, the product of genetic mutation. They are very cute and make great pets, but, due to difficulties in breeding them, they are not very common. Many breeders of Tailless rats have long lists of prospective buyers.

Many people are initially “turned off” by rat’s tails. However, once they get to know a rat, the tail simply ceases to be a problem.

Allergic to Tails

Paul and Kari Rosenfeld
Q We saw “your” special on Animal Planet the other night and were delighted to see a Tailless rat. Our family loves rats, but my wife and I seem to have an allergy to the tails (whenever the tail brushes our arms, we get a rash). We would really like to find out how to locate and purchase a Black Tailless rat. Can you help?

A It is not at all uncommon for us to get questions from rat owners who are terribly concerned that they are allergic to their rat’s tails. Many are quite surprised to hear that obtaining a Tailless rat is not the answer.

Many people have skin reactions of one type or another when they hold a rat. Usually, these same people do not break out if they simply pet the rats, only if the rat is allowed to sit or climb on them. This often leads to the mistaken belief that the person is allergic to the tail.

In reality there are three likely reasons for a person to break out from holding a rat. The simplest and most common is the rat’s toenails. Rats use their nails to grasp when they are being held. The nails are needle sharp and can easily puncture the skin, causing irritation without immediate pain. Since rats are usually held on the inside of the arm, or are allowed to sit on the back of the neck, where the skin is very sensitive, this minor irritation can appear much worse than it actually is. The tiny “pin pricks” from the rat’s nails can cause small red welts on someone with particularly sensitive skin.

The second most common cause of skin irritation is not actually caused by the rat. The oil from cedar and pine shavings used as bedding for the animal has proven to be a major problem for many people. The oil contains phenols, an acidic, caustic chemical which can be found in cleaning products such as Lysol.

The third cause of this problem is directly related to the rat. Despite the fact that they are meticulously clean animals, it is not uncommon for their tails to become soiled. Often people will find that they have a reaction to urine that gets on the tail and hind legs of the rat, not the rat itself.

Of course, the problem may be a combination of all three things. Fortunately, all three are simple to solve.

If the rat’s toenails are too sharp, it is quite simple to trim the tips off. This won’t hurt the rat as long as you are careful not to cut the nail to the “quick.” If you are unsure about trimming the nails yourself, you can call a local pet store or vet to have them do it for you. You can also put a rough brick in the rat’s cage; the nails will wear down from the rat climbing on it.

The problem with cedar and pine shavings is also easily solved. Many fanciers have discovered that keeping rats (and mice) on cedar or pine shavings shortens their lifespan considerably and is a .leading contributor to many illnesses.

Simply changing to an alternative hardwood or paper bedding (i.e. Sani-Chips®, Shredded Aspen, or CareFRESH™) will help solve or prevent these problems.

If you trim your rat’s nails, don’t use cedar or pine shavings, and still have a reaction to the rat’s underside touching your skin, chances are that you may be allergic to urine residue on the rat’s feet and tail.

Fortunately this problem is also easily solved. Simply wipe your rat’s tail, feet, and underside each time you pick it up.

All of these problems are easily remedied. Occasionally people are truly allergic to rats and have a major allergic reaction to them. This may include such symptoms as hives, swollen eyes, coughing, sneezing, etc. This problem is not so easily solved.

On occasion, people will have an allergic reaction to a rat with a standard coat, but not to a Rex (curly coated), or Hairless rat. Sadly, there may be people who are allergic to all rats, and, in this case, it is suggested that they try to find a different pet. *

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Updated March 26, 2015