Rat Terrier: Dog Breed Profile

Characteristics, History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

A rat terrier outdoors.

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Originally bred to work on farms and as hunting dogs, the Rat Terrier is a small, but muscular dog with high energy levels, high exercise needs, and a strong propensity to hunt and chase. Although Rat Terriers are born hunters—and make excellent, alert watchdogs—they can be loving, affectionate, and loyal to their family members. With the proper training and socialization, they can be friendly with strangers and other pets, too.

As previously mentioned, Rat Terriers were bred to be working dogs, so it should come as no surprise that they're highly energetic and require extensive, daily exercise. Rat Terriers are ideal for active families with a large, fenced-in space to run around and exercise excess energy. Like many smaller breeds, Rat Terriers can become destructive when they're bored. It's also important to note: Rat Terriers have extremely strong prey drives, so they shouldn't allowed to romp off-leash in open spaces; even the most "trained" Rat Terriers may forget their manners when they spot a squirrel.

Because Rat Terriers are highly intelligent, they can be extremely stubborn—and training may be a challenge for first-time terrier owners. Rat Terriers also have a propensity to dig, so it's important to provide your Rat with a designated digging spot in the backyard.

Although Rat Terriers can thrive in smaller spaces, like apartments or condos, those living in small spaces should remember: Rats were bred to run—so they need at least 40 minutes of exercise each day—and they have a strong instinct to bark.

Breed Overview

Group: Terrier Group

Height: Generally, 10 to 13 inches for miniature Rat Terriers and 13 to 18 inches for standard Rat Terriers

Weight: 10 to 25 pounds

Coat: Smooth, shiny, and short coat

Coat Color: Comes in pied (meaning one or more colors with large patches of white) patterns; common colors include black and white with rust, tan, lemon, blue, red, chocolate, or orange

Life Expectancy: 12 to 18 years

Characteristics of the Rat Terrier

Affection Level Moderate to High
Friendliness Moderate to High
Kid-Friendly Moderate to High
Pet-Friendly Moderate
Exercise Needs High
Playfulness High
Energy Level High
Trainability High
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark Low
Amount of Shedding Moderate to High

History of the Rat Terrier

An American breed that was developed by breeding the Fox Terrier, Bull Terrier, Manchester Terrier, and Old English White Terrier—among others—the Rat Terrier was originally bred to catch prey and hunt pests on farms.

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Rat Terrier breeders worked to propagate certain skills, resulting in several new lines in the breed. In the Midwest, Rat Terriers were bred with Whippets and Italian Greyhounds to produce quick dogs that could help control jackrabbit populations; in Central and Southwest America, they were bred with Beagles to improve upon their hunting skills, and to create more pack-oriented dogs. In the 1920s, Toy Fox Terriers that were too large for their breeding programs were bred with Rat Terriers, resulting in toy-sized, or miniature, Rat Terriers.

The Rat Terrier was common on American farms, but populations began to decline in the 1940s and 1950s when farmers began to use poison to control pests and vermin. A small number of breeders maintained the breed until they came back into popularity in the 1970s.

Two other types of Rat Terriers were developed during this time, as well: The Decker Rat Terrier and the Hairless Rat Terrier. The Decker Rat Terrier is a slightly larger dog that excels in hunting and will retrieve from water, while the Hairless Rat Terrier is a smaller dog (that comes in miniature and standard sizes) and, as the name implies, is hairless.

Rat Terrier Care

Because the Rat Terrier was bred as a working and hunting dog, he has very high energy levels and exercise needs. You can expect to exercise your Rat Terrier for at least 40 minutes each day—ideally, in a fenced-in space with room to run around. Rat Terriers have a strong prey drive, so allowing them to play off-leash in an open space isn't recommended. If you don't have a fenced-in area for your Rat Terrier to run, be sure to take several, vigorous walks each day.

Like many terriers, the Rat Terrier is highly intelligent and can be extremely stubborn. What's more, Rat Terriers can become destructive when they're bored or unstimulated. Training and obedience may be challenging for first-time dog owners, but it's vital for proper behavior and socialization. Keep training interesting—and keep your Rat engaged—by incorporating games and rewards. If your Rat Terrier becomes distracted or you feel your training methods aren't working, try another technique.

Although Rat Terriers have high exercise needs, they're relatively low-maintenance dogs when it comes to grooming. You can expect to brush your Rat Terrier only once per week with a rubber mitt or soft brush to remove loose hair and debris. Because they have very short, dense, smooth coats, you can bathe your Rat Terrier on an as-needed basis. It's important to note that Rat Terriers experience heavier shedding during the fall and spring, and during heat cycles.

Like any breed, it's important to check your Rat Terrier's ears for debris or signs of infection weekly. If your dog's ears are red, inflamed, or smell funny, schedule a visit with your vet ASAP—these may be signs of injury or infection. If you notice a waxy build-up in your dog's ears, gently clean it with a cotton cloth. Avoid using cotton swabs, as they can damage the delicate inner-ear structures.

Dental hygiene is also extremely important when it comes to caring for your dog. Daily brushing is ideal, but brushing at least once per week can help protect your dog against dental and oral disease. Dental treats are fine in moderation, but shouldn't be the only method of dental care.

Common Health Problems

Rat Terriers are generally healthy dogs, but like all breeds, may be susceptible to certain health conditions. There's no guarantee your Rat Terrier will—or won't—develop these conditions, but it's important to know the signs and symptoms should they arise in your dog.

Some health problems that are commonly seen in Rat Terriers include:

  • Incorrect bites: A slightly deformed jaw bone can result in an incorrect, or misaligned, bite. There are three types of incorrect bites, which are all seen in Rat Terriers: an overshot bite; an undershot bite; and wry mouth, or a twisting of the mouth. If your Rat Terrier doesn't grow out of her misaligned bite after 10 months, it's unlikely she ever will. Surgery may be performed to correct serious misaligned bites that interfere with chewing or swallowing.
  • Demodectic mange: A condition caused by demodex mites, this condition can affect Rat Terriers with suppressed or weakened immune systems. Look for signs like redness, patchiness, or balding on the head, neck, or front legs.
  • Allergies: A condition that can be found in all breeds, your dog can develop food, contact, or airborne allergies. Treatment depends on your dog's specific allergy and reaction.

If you're worried about your Rat Terrier's health, talk to your vet about simple ways you can help him live a long, happy, healthy life.

Diet and Nutrition

Your Rat Terrier's diet will depend largely on her size, age, and activity levels, but you can expect to feed her between 1/4-cups (for dogs weighing 10 pounds or less) and 2 cups per day (for dogs weighing between 30 and 40 pounds) of high-protein, high-quality dog food each day.

Remember to give treats in moderation. Overeating can lead to dangerous health conditions, like canine heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Pros

  • Loving, loyal, and affectionate to family members

  • Excellent playmates for older kids

  • Low-maintenance grooming and bathing

Cons

  • High energy levels and exercise needs, which may be difficult for busy families

  • High drives for chasing and digging

  • May be difficult to train, due to their intelligence

Where to Adopt or Buy a Rat Terrier

Check your local animal shelter for Rat Terriers, or Rat Terrier mixes. Websites like Petfinder.com make it easy to search shelters in your area by breed, size, sex, and more. If you have a hard time finding a Rat in a shelter, look for rescue organizations in your area.

If you choose to buy a Rat Terrier from a breeder, be sure to do your research to ensure you're working with an ethical, responsible breeder. Ask lots of questions, like "Where are the puppies kept?" and "How many litters do you produce per year?" If possible, ask to visit the breeding site and to meet the litters' parents. Be on the lookout for signs of backyard breeding, like unsanitary conditions or unhealthy dogs.

More Breeds and Further Research

The Rat Terrier can make an excellent pick for active families with large, fenced-in outdoor spaces. Because they're highly intelligent, they have minds of their own—and may be difficult to train if you're a first-time dog owner. Although Rat Terriers are low-maintenance in terms of grooming, they have high exercise needs. You can expect to exercise your Rat Terrier for at least 40 minutes per day.

As always, be sure to do your research and ensure a Rat Terrier is right for your family's lifestyle before bringing a dog home.

If you're interested in breeds similar to the Rat Terrier, check out: