Pet First
Rat Terrier
By Jacquelyn Valentine

(This article originally appeared in our Fall 2009 magazine. For more information regarding our magazine, click here.)

 

The Rat Terrier is thought to have descended from several different breeds, beginning in England in the 1820’s when a Smooth Fox Terrier was bred to a Manchester Terrier. This produced a remarkable dog that was both strong-willed and relentless in his hunt for rats and other vermin. They were feisty little dogs; hence the English first called them “Feists”.


History

The English Feists were considered beyond compare as “ratters”, dogs that were used to catch and kill the rats that plagued nineteenth century England and America. To have a dog that could help keep the rat population of the home or business down was certainly appreciated, and these little dogs grew in popularity. In fact, a sport grew up around the idea that men prided themselves in having the best ratter in the area. Bets were placed and rats were poured into a pit with a “ratter” to see how many it would kill. The betting wasn’t limited only to the “rat baiting” that went on in a pit; it also followed out to farmers’ homes and barns. The record is held by a Rat Terrier that took seven hours to kill 2,501 rats in an infested barn.

In the 1890’s miners went to the United States to make a living and carve out a better way of life, and these working class people took their dogs with them across the sea to their new homes. It was during this period that the “feist” was bred again to the Smooth Fox Terrier. When canines are bred for change, it’s usually because man has decided a slight shift in the canine’s personality, body type or senses will make one of man’s tasks easier to accomplish. In this case, these early frontiersmen were in hopes of developing a stronger hunting dog. Even though this cross didn’t really add anything to the hunting abilities of the dog, it did succeed in stabilizing the existing qualities and characteristics of the breed.

It was during his presidency (1901-1909) that President Theodore Roosevelt called his Feist a Rat Terrier, and the name stuck. He’s said to have loved these dogs and was fond of taking them with him on big game hunts. He owned at least three, with the most popular one being known as Skip.

Throughout the following years the Rat Terrier was bred to the Whippet and the Greyhound in order to improve the dog’s speed, and was also bred to the Beagle for its hunting abilities, scenting prowess, trailing skills as well as an increase in size and sturdiness. The Greyhound and the Whippet are thought to be the source of the brindle and blue colored dogs and the red color was probably a gift from the Beagle.

Today Rat Terriers are still used for hunting rats in some parts of the world, but are also used by their American owners while hunting coon, wild boar, squirrel and deer.


Temperament

The Rat Terrier is one of the liveliest and most playful dogs around, never wanting to miss out on any activity its owner enjoys. These dogs seek out human companionship and crave our attention. Their keen senses make them aware of everything going on around them, and because of this alert demeanor they’re extremely sensitive and intuitive. Intelligent and eager to please their owners, they are fast learners with both training and housebreaking.

Partly because of the diversity of breeds that were cross-bred into the Rat Terrier, this dog is hardy and strong, yet smart enough to know when to play carefully with a child or an elderly person. Actually, they make wonderful pets for the elderly, since this small dog doesn’t cost much to feed. Also, they’re obedient and loyal to their owners; they are clean and the ease of training is appreciated by older people. Of course, the question of whether or not the elderly person is able to walk this energetic little dog daily should be considered, as these dogs really do need an outlet for their boundless energy.

As previously stated, the fun-loving Rat Terrier is also great with children. Faithful to their family members, they will follow a child around and relish a romp down the street to visit the neighbors. They make remarkably affectionate and loving companions for the young, and unlike some other smaller breeds, aren’t in danger of “getting broken” if a small child happens to fall on them. They can, however, be overly protective of their family and home, showing a distant side toward unfamiliar people, including other children. The good news here is that this can easily be overcome by early socialization and training. As with all dogs, socialization and obedience training should begin early in order to let the dog know what is expected of him from his human friends, resulting in a dog that is not only well-behaved, but happy and secure.

The Rat Terrier loves a “chase” and anything low to the ground looks like fair game to this plucky little pursuer. The neighborhood cat, a squirrel, mice and rats will all pique his curiosity, and the instinct to chase will take him down the road behind his “prey”. Here’s where a great recall (when a dog is trained to come when called) is a priority, for his sake as well as yours. This simple training step will keep you from running around the neighborhood trying to catch your dog, not to mention the serious danger that can be averted by keeping him out of the path of an oncoming car.

This breed usually gets along well with other dogs and even cats if they have been around from an early age. Many Rat Terrier owners feel that these dogs fare best with other dogs around for company because of their pack instinct. Others contend that if you are going to have two Rat Terriers its best to get one at a time so that the dogs bond with you as their owner instead of bonding first with the other dog and possibly bypassing the close bond with its owner.

The Rat Terrier can be a little “yappy”, especially if he feels left out or ignored by his favorite people. Once again, the fact that he’s smart and can be trained to keep the barking to a minimum serves both dog and master well. However, many people realize the value of this dog as a watchdog and are pleased that this dog will certainly let you know when an intruder is on the premises.


Health

Extremely hardy and healthy, the Rat Terrier is free of common diseases. They have a long lifespan of from 15-18 years. Of course, as with any breed, the Rat Terrier can be subject to several health concerns.

Some Rat Terriers deal with allergies and dry skin. The allergies can be contact allergies, inhalant allergies, food allergies or flea allergies. The dry skin can be treated with ointment from a veterinarian and care can be taken not to dry out the skin by bathing the dog too often.

Luxating Patellae is a condition in which the knee cap becomes displaced, making it painful for the dog to walk. In many instances, confining the dog to a small space so that running is kept to a minimum along with administering non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) will be sufficient to relieve the pain. If the condition is severe enough, surgery may have to be performed to alleviate the pain and keep the dog ambulatory.

Hip Dysplasia is a condition of the ball and socket hip joint in which the joint didn’t develop correctly from birth. As time progresses, the malformation of this joint causes pain in the joint which can lead to degenerative joint disease, especially if the dog is overweight or extremely active. NSAIDS can be prescribed for this condition, or if the condition is severe enough, the dog may need surgery.

Von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD) is an inherited bleeding disorder characterized by the blood’s inability to clot. Some Rat Terriers are affected by this, although this isn’t common, simply a possibility with this breed. There isn’t a cure for vWD, but it can be managed by transfusions with blood collected from healthy dogs. There are tests to determine which dogs carry this trait.

Rat Terriers are prone to chemical sensitivities, and the owner should therefore use extremely mild unscented dog shampoos and conditioners. Flea and tick treatments, flea collars and dips should be approved by a veterinarian before use to avoid any reaction to the chemicals in those products. Fortunately, veterinarians can recommend products that are chemical free or non-toxic to the canine. Some Rat Terriers carry a certain defective gene that makes them susceptible to the parasite that causes mange, but this is another condition that can easily be handled by a veterinarian.


Grooming

In addition to an animated and venturesome personality, another attractive feature of owning a Rat Terrier is the fact that they don’t require much grooming. Baths are only necessary about every six months, even though they do shed a bit, mostly in the spring and fall months. Brushing with a fine bristle brush or a rubber tipped brush occasionally is sufficient to get rid of any loose hairs and dead skin. In fact, if the Rat Terrier is bathed too often the natural oils will be removed from the skin and coat, making the skin too dry and setting the dog up for irritations and even infections. It’s best to put a coat or sweater on the Rat Terrier in winter because its naturally short coat of fur just isn’t thick enough for cold weather.


The Hunt

A genetic predisposition to hunting- that’s exactly what the Rat Terrier has, and they’re really proud to let you know it, too. Looking back into its heritage, it’s easy to see why. In its background the Rat Terrier has the Manchester Terrier, the Smooth Fox Terrier, the English White Terrier, the Whippet, the Greyhound and the Beagle, all hunters.

We can all bring to mind a picture of the English fox hunt, with the Fox Terrier being sent in to chase out the quarry, getting the fox running again in order to keep the hunt going. Those beautiful white and liver spotted dogs running and barking at the top of their lungs were the Rat Terrier’s nearest relatives. They were healthy and hardy, just like Rat Terriers, and their owners prided themselves in having “good dogs”.

Today some hunters still use the aggressive Rat Terrier when hunting squirrels, wild boar, raccoons, rabbits, and even occasionally upland game, not to mention the occasional mouse or rat that may happen by. They will happily tree a squirrel and jump so high up the tree trunk that the onlooker would swear the dog is planning to go all the way to the top. Their muscular little bodies are almost rigid, as they bark excitedly, letting the hunter know what’s going on and where to look next.

No rabbit is safe from this compact little dynamo that will go to ground (as terriers were bred to do) in hot pursuit of their prey, driving the rabbit from its hole, and if the hunting owner is around, this helps him to get a better shot at the rabbit. No matter, though, the Rat Terrier loves the game for the sake of the game. It’s in his blood!


American Hairless Terrier

American Hairless Terriers descended from the Rat Terrier, and Josephine was the name of Edwin and Willie Scott’s first American Hairless Terrier, a terrier that was born to a mid-sized Rat Terrier. This dog, born in Louisiana, was bred several times throughout her life, her first litter contained one hairless female. She didn’t produce another hairless pup until she was nine years old, at which point she had a litter with one female and one male. These dogs were the beginning of the Scott’s breeding program, led by a geneticist as well as their veterinarian.

These dogs have much the same sweet and spunky temperaments as their furry counterparts, but it isn’t recommended that they hunt, as their hairlessness might lead them to have skin problems, etc. They need to wear sunscreen most all of the time, and of course, must be protected from the cold. Their skin sweats when they’re upset or hot, unlike most dogs that pant to cool their bodies down and only sweat through their paws.

The best thing about this interesting breed? The fact that they’re hairless makes them much easier for the allergy prone person to tolerate than the furry kind. Indeed, most people who cannot be around any other dogs are pleasantly surprised to find that this dog doesn’t cause them to have an allergic reaction! A great guard dog that doesn’t make you sneeze or break out in hives! Now that’s quite a “claim to fame’!

A small, sturdy and compact dog that’s devoted to its owner, who thrives on praise and is more than willing to learn whatever his people want to teach. A tenacious hunter and loving, watchful companion who adores its family, with a touch of spunk thrown in for good measure- if you’ve never known a Rat Terrier you’re missing out on something special!