Meet the Rat Terrier: A Lovable Companion for Your Family

Updated January 20, 2022
Rat Terrier

Meet the Rat Terrier, a lively and affectionate breed founded in the United States. Members of the breed have big personalities, showing off their playful nature and feisty disposition whenever they have the chance. Whether at work on the farm or at home snuggling with family, these dogs make exceptional companions.

Origin and History

The Rat Terrier is truly the "Heinz Fifty-Seven" of the dog world. That's because, for the last century, these dogs have been more of a "type" than an actual breed of dog.

These dogs are a compilation of many terrier breeds, with a few non-terriers thrown into the mix to bring in other desired qualities.

Their ancestry includes:

  • Old English White Terriers (extinct)
  • Smooth Fox Terriers
  • Toy Fox Terriers
  • Bull Terriers
  • Manchester Terriers
  • Miniature Pinschers
  • Italian Greyhounds
  • Whippets
  • Chihuahuas
  • Beagles

These terriers were bred to be agile farm dogs capable of killing all sorts of vermin. Although they are willing to occasionally track rodents underground, they are at their best above ground, where they have room to make high-speed maneuvers and catch prey with their strong jaws.

Currently, Rat Terriers are considered a rare breed by the American Kennel Club (AKC), but not everyone wants recognition.

The two main breed clubs disagree over how a closed breeding registry will affect the breed. The Rat Terrier Club of America (RTCA) is currently working with the AKC, while the American Rat Terrier Association (ARTA) believes closing the gene pool will eventually result in many of the same genetic disorders that have become so prevalent in other pure breeds.

It's possible we'll see the same kind of split in this breed that was experienced in the Jack Russell Terrier fancy when one branch accepted AKC recognition, while the other branch chose to carry on by itself.

Breed Characteristics

Rat Terrier with big ears in green grass

The Rat Terrier is an intelligent breed known for their intellectual spark and curious personality.

Appearance

Since Rat Terriers have so many breeds in their ancestry and did not have a common breed standard until 1995, their appearance varies slightly throughout the breed.

Members of this breed are muscular, but not muscle-bound, and appear slightly rectangular in profile. Their heads are wedge-shaped and the ears may be folded over button-style or pricked. Tails are moderate in length and may be docked if desired, but some individuals display the natural bobtail gene.

Coats are very smooth and shiny. Some dogs are all white, others have patches of color, but all must have some white coat on their bodies.

Other coat colors include:

  • Black
  • Tan
  • Mahogany
  • Red
  • Chocolate
  • Blue
  • Fawn
  • Apricot
  • Lemon

Currently, the breed is divided into three size categories:

Toy

  • Height: 8 inches at the shoulder
  • Weight: 4 to 6 pounds

Miniature

  • Height: 8 to 14 inches
  • Weight: 6 to 8 pounds

Standard

  • Height: 14 to 23 inches
  • Weight: 12 to 35 pounds

Temperament

young rat terrier dog looking off camera

Feisty and fearless is a fair description of this breed. Rat Terriers can be live wires and make fun and affectionate family companions. They are quite good around children, especially when they have been raised together.These Terriers also love the water and are intrepid swimmers, so be careful around swimming pools. Even the best swimmers may drown if there is no way for them to get back out of the pool once they've jumped in.

Because these dogs are so eager to please their people, training is usually an easy process. Obedience training is good for establishing that extra amount of control needed when your pet spots rabbits and squirrels outdoors. These cunning canines also excel at dog agility, a fun activity for pets and owners.

Of course, their forte is still fieldwork and they usually make a respectable showing at terrier trials.

Training

Rat Terriers need early socialization. Expose them to a wide range of people, sights, noises, and experiences under controlled conditions when they're young. Make sure these interactions are positive, and provide a lot of praise and positive reinforcement in these social situations when they display appropriate behavior. Your Rat Terrier puppy is more likely to grow up to be a well-rounded dog if they are properly socialized.

Exercise Requirements

Bred to work on the farm all day, Rat Terriers require a lot of exercise. If they don't get it, their clever little minds can become mischievous to entertain themselves. Their owners follow the belief that a tired dog is a good dog.

Health

A rat terrier dog running down a bike path

Few breeds enjoy the good health and long lives that these Terriers do. Because their breeding pool has remained open for so long, they have benefited from fresh genetic input. Although this has resulted in a less than uniform look throughout the breed, many breeders and owners feel their pets have gained far more than they have ever lost.

These dogs do not appear to be plagued with many genetic disorders at this time. That being said, there are still several health conditions to be aware of:

  • Allergies: These are common in quite a few breeds and the Rat Terrier is one of them. These could be environmental or diet-related.
  • Patellar luxation: This is a common problem in small dogs where the knee joint (usually in the rear leg) slides in and out of place, resulting in pain and discomfort.
  • Demodectic mange: The Demodex mite, which a mother dog passes on to her pups in their first few days of life, causes this condition, which is also known as demodicosis.

Lifespan

A generally healthy breed, Rat Terriers frequently live 15 to 18 years.

Grooming

The Rat Terrier is a low-maintenance breed who only requires weekly brushing with a soft brush or a rubber curry glove to remove stray hair. Shedding occurs more frequently in the spring and fall, as well as after whelping and heat cycles. Bathe them only when necessary.

Brush your Rat Terrier's teeth at least twice or three times a week to keep tartar accumulation and bacteria at bay. Brushing their teeth on a daily basis is preferable if you want to avoid gum disease and foul breath. Because members of the breed are so active, Rat Terriers typically wear down their claws naturally as they play outside. If their claws grow too long, however, trim them once or twice a month to avoid breaks and other health issues.

Fun Facts About the Breed

Rat Terriers are an interesting breed. In fact, there are many facts you may not know:

  • The Rat Terrier was one of America's most popular farm dogs in the 1910s and 1920s.
  • In a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1996, a New York City resident suggested that Rat Terriers were the greatest remedy to a swarm of rats engulfing a Brooklyn neighborhood.
  • Shirley Temple, in "The Little Colonel," tucks her Rat Terrier into bed.
  • Laurie Anderson, a musician, filmed a whole documentary about her rat terrier, Lolabelle.

Purchasing or Adopting a Rat Terrier

Young Rat Terrier running in house

If you're looking for a Rat Terrier puppy, a good place to start is with the Rat Terrier Club of America. The club has a breeder directory available as well as helpful tips on how to find responsible breeders with quality dogs. The AKC Marketplace page also has a breeder search. Expect to pay around $900 to $1,500, although higher-end show dogs from champion lines can cost as much as $4,000.

Rescue Organizations

If you would prefer a rescued dog, you can begin by searching the directories on PetFinder and Save-a-Rescue. You can also contact these breed-specific Rat Terrier rescues:

  • New Rattitude: A non-profit rescuing Rat Terriers throughout the nation with the support of volunteers and foster families.
  • Ratbone Rescue: A non-profit that places Rat Terriers in foster homes throughout the United States.
  • Rat Terrier Res Q: A rescue organization searching through shelters for unwanted Rat Terriers or those in need of medical care; adopting throughout the United States.

Is the Rat Terrier Right For You?

Are Rat Terriers the breed for you? They do seem to get along well with nearly everyone but need to be supervised around smaller pets. Their convenient size and affable nature make them well worth your consideration for a family companion.

Was this page useful?
Related & Popular
Meet the Rat Terrier: A Lovable Companion for Your Family