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As a group, Terriers are a tough, tenacious bunch and none is feistier than the star of this edition of Animal Facts. It is an energetic, rodent-chasing, escape artist that, in many cases, is not much bigger than its prey. Buckle up for the ride as we take a closer look at the exterminator of the canine world—the Rat terrier.
The history of the Rat Terrier begins on the Mary Rose, the mothership of Henry VIII, which sank in 1545. At the time, Pope Innocent VIII proclaimed that cats were unholy companions to witches, and owning one was considered a sin. So, instead of getting a feline to rid the ship of rats, a ratting canine was used. When the ship was raised in 1982, the remains of a mutt that divers called “Hatch” were found.
The Rat Terrier is closely related to a small hunting dog known as a feist as well as the Fox, Bull and Manchester Terriers. In the late nineteenth century, as the breed started to become popular in the U.S. Whippets and Italian Greyhounds were added to the mix. These genetic tweaks gave the Rat Terrier the speed needed to chase vermin and small game, like rabbits and squirrels. In Central and South America, the Beagle was bred with the Rat to enhance its sense of smell.
From the early 1900s to the 1940s, the Rat Terrier was in high demand as a farm dog, but their numbers began to dwindle when farmers began to use pesticides that were ingested by the ratters. Luckily, a few breeders were able to sustain the breed until it rebounded in the 1970s.
Fun Fact – President Teddy Roosevelt is credited with naming the breed after his Terrier eliminated a rat infestation at the White House.
Size and Appearance
Rat Terriers come in several different strains. The Standard Rat Terrier weighs between 10 and 25 pounds, and its height is 15 to 18 inches at the withers. The Miniature Rat Terrier weighs 10 to 18 pounds and stands at 13 to 15 inches max, while the Toy weighs 5 to 10 pounds and is no more than 12 inches in height. The Decker is the largest strain, weighing in at 25 pounds or more and standing 16 to 19 inches at the withers.
The Teddy Roosevelt Terrier is another variation of the Rattie. It has shorter legs, is more muscular, and has a heavier bone density than the other varieties. A hairless mutation appeared in the 1970s and was developed into the American Hairless Terrier.
All Ratties and similar types have an alert appearance due in part to their narrow muzzle and ear carriage—which is either completely erect, tipped, or button.
They are short-haired, with smooth, dense coats. Coat colors vary from black tri-color (black tan point with piebald markings), to tan, chocolate, brindle, blue, merle, lemon, apricot, and isabella (a shade of pearl). These colors can come in bi or tri-color combinations, with varying amounts of white throughout.
Fun Fact: Ratties were developed using at least seven different dog breeds.
Temperament and Family Life
Rat Terriers love their human families, and are very intuitive when it comes to reading their moods, but they are generally wary of strangers. It is best to stick around when you introduce your furbaby to your best friend from college. They will gradually warm up to bestie, but seeing how the two of interact will help facilitate and could even accelerate the process. Ratties know no fear, so if not properly socialized, they can become aggressive with people and animals they don’t know.
You should expose your dog to many different people, places and experiences while he or she is a puppy. Early socialization is key to raising a well-adjusted canine.
Keep in mind that Rat Terriers have a high prey drive, so they probably not the best choice if you have small pets such as hamsters, rabbits, or guinea pigs.
Intelligence and Training
Smart, alert, and eager to please, the Rat Terrier is easy to train overall. That said, the greatest obstacle that you may have to contend with when training your buddy, is a stubborn streak.
It is important that you take the lead and be firm, but not stern, when giving commands and use positive reinforcement to reward good behavior instead of punishing your pup for bad behavior.
If you lack assertiveness and don’t have training experience, it may be best to hire a professional trainer.
Fun Fact: A Rat Terrier was used in the Shirley Temple movies.
It’s a given that Rat Terriers are a very active breed…heck, they’re Terriers, they need something to do. To prevent boredom, thwart destruction, and keep escape attempts to a minimum, make sure your little firecracker gets a sufficient amount of exercise.
A daily a regimen of two 20 to 30 minute walks, supplemented by games like fetch, tug of war, puzzle toys, or “hide and go seek the treats,” is a great way to keep your Rattie in excellent physical and mental condition. Be sure to switch up the routine with a jog, agility training, or a dig in the sandbox or designated patch in the yard.
Fun Fact: Rat Terriers were champions in rat baiting, a popular sport in the 19th century. It involved putting up to 100 rats in a ring or pit while spectators bet on which dog would kill the most rats in sixty seconds.
Health and Lifespan
At 16 to 19 years, the Rat Terrier has one of the longest average lifespans in the canine cosmos. This is likely a by-product of the “doggie gumbo” from which it evolved.
Like mutts, most Ratties suffer very few health problems, but every breed is prone to ailments. Malocclusion (incorrect bite), allergies, demodectic mange, patellar luxation, hip dysplasia, and Legg-Calve-Perthes syndrome (a hip disorder caused by a lack of blood flow to the head of the femur) are all conditions that the breed is susceptible to, but when managed, will not keep your from dog living a relatively normal life.