| Is it True? |
People misunderstand rats. It isn't really any individual's fault. There's just a lot of commonly held beliefs about them, much considered common knowledge. Many of these things are either completely or partially not true. Sadly, included among these are care tips given to new rat owners by pet store employees or other people who just are not informed otherwise. Many common misbeliefs stem from knowledge of other animals and are cleared up by knowing that pet rats are not mice, or people, or dogs, or wild rats, or anything else... Others are just passing on bad care practices that pet stores and irresponsible profit breeders use to keep costs down.
Belief: Rats are filthy.
Basis/Reality: I believe this stems from the fact that the wild urban rat lives in sewers and junkyards and slums. The reason rats do this is because they are crafty scavengers who've learned how to take advantage of human culture. Man-made sewers and trash piles provide shelter, darkness, and often food in the shape of not only discarded human things, but in the bugs too, which rats prey on. Rats themselves are far from filthy. Pet rats do everything they can to keep themselves and their environment clean. (This includes the habit of pushing soiled litter into a corner or through the bars of their cage. Your house may be dirty, but they're cleaning theirs.) Rats make it a point to wash themselves thoroughly and incessantly, more than a cat. In fact, my rats' white fur is almost always a shade whiter than my cat's.
Belief: Rats are diseased.
Basis/Reality: This stems mostly from the black plague (which was actually spread by many species of animals including cats, dogs, and mice, and the rat species completely unrealated to our pet rats). Today, people just think wild rats carry incredible ammounts of parasites and diseases and are rabid. Well, the truth is ALL wildlife carry parasites and bacteria. Rats carry no more than any other creature. And NO ONE has ever gotten rabies from a rat, wild or otherwise. In fact, rats have a dry bite due to the placement of their teeth, so a rat bite is less dangerous than a cat or dog bite, but still beware of infections in puncture wounds. Pet rats have virtually nothing people can catch. Pet rats don't usually have parasites either since they are inside a house for their whole lives. If they do, these parasites are species-specific and won't bite you or your cat or anything else.
Belief: Rats are vicious.
Basis/Reality: Yep, it's on the records that a wild rat or group of wild rats have killed cats & dogs, and rats hunt smaller mammals, insects, and birds. Is this vicious? No. Rats are not generally agressive creatures even to each other over mates and territory, but wild rats do have a healthy fear of potential predators. Usually they will flee from a potential danger, but if it comes to a confrontation or being cornered, a rat can handle a fight. They are strong animals with powerful bites. Pet rats fit the definition of domesticated in that they've basically had these wild fear instincts bred and raised out of them. If startled or under attack (or even at a human's approach if they've been neglected), a pet rat will still flee, and a braver and bigger rat may try to stand up to your cat if he needs too, but this is not the viciousness exhibited by badly treated dogs and other animals. Rats will cower from people if they've been abused, not attack them.
Belief: Rats are destructive.
Basis/Reality: It can't be doubted that rats are capable of an incredible amount of damage. I've observed mine destroy stuffed toys, blankets, and their hammocks. It's their instinct. Wild rats are destructive animals. They can chew through basically anything aside from durable metal, wood, and concrete, so I have no doubt this is a problem. BUT, the big issue here is why are rat's discriminated against? Other animals do their share of damage as well. Packs of feral dogs attack people, dig holes, kill livestock, and cats hunt native wildlife, sometimes to near extinction. As far as pet rats go, they are really not destructive. They have to chew, so you give them dog biscuits and cardboard boxes in their cages and supervise when they are outside them. The destruction our cats have done by scratching and spraying has amounted to thousands of dollars. The rats have done about $20 worth (two stuffed animals, a few books, and a blanket).
Belief: A cornered rat will leap for your throat.
Basis/Reality: A belief firmly held by exterminators and others. The truth is, a rat is not a vicious beast, even when cornered. (If you try to grab a scared rat, he will likely bite you, though.) Picture this scenario: A man has cornered a rat in his basement. He has a heavy object and is bent over to kill the vermin. It a fairly dark, but the man can see the rat's yellow teeth and shine from the dim light reflecting off the animals eyes. A rat has the reflexes to escape predators. He can jump a good three feet into the air. Rats also have very poor vision. This one, not an animal that wishes to be killed, immediately springs for the nearest escape it can see, the space of light over its attackers shoulder. Maybe at this point the man attacks, or maybe he dodges, in his mind, just in the nick of time. That man is certain the rat was after blood...
Belief: Escaped domestic rats would wreak havok on the environment.
Basis/Reality: I really doubt it. Rats are domesticated animals that lack an essential fear of humans and human things and are used to recieving their food and water daily with no work. Many would not know how to scavenge or hunt. Many have lived with other animals and grown comfortable with cats and dogs. A domestic rat is naïve and vulnerable, and many are white or other non-camouflaged colors, so are easy targets for predators. They probably couldn't compete with their wild relatives either and may be quickly killed in a territory dispute. Varieties such as hairless and double-Rex were bred for looks and may not be able to handle exposure to a natural environment, especially in cold weather, and tailless ones or overweight rats are very susceptible to heat stroke.
Belief: A rat's tail is scaly, ugly, and pointless.
Basis/Reality: The only thing average people know about rats is from stories and pictures. A photograph, drawing, or even description may not accurately depict a rat's tail. Rats do not have "scales" in the same sense as fish or lizards. On close inspection, it can be seen that rats' tails are skin, soft with hair, and the "scale" is only a texture. Rat tails are easily injured and can tear from a bite. Rats' tails also have pigment in the skin and the fine hair, which leads to black rats having black tails, some have white tips, some are spotted. Only light-colored rats have pink tails. The tail serves two very important functions. 1) It helps these incredibly agile animals keep their balance, enabling them to climb and walk on very thin ropes and things. They can even climb brick walls. (I have read that tailless, or Manx, rats seem to get around fine, though.) 2) Unlike people, rats can't sweat except through the palms of their feet. Unlike dogs and cats, they can't pant. So rats have to regulate their heat in another manner. This is the most essential function of the tail. Even a slightly shorter tail or one that is missing the end from an injury can make a world of difference as to whether the animal can get through a heat spell or die from a heat stroke.
Belief: Rats are just for kids.
Basis/Reality: No way! While rats are excellent pets for children, they are most certainly not "just" children's pets. Many, maybe even most, rat owners are actually in their 20's and 30's. They are the perfect pets for apartments and "life on the go" because they are small, clean, affectionate, (and short-lived). Many moms just don't like rats, so as soon as the "kids" are out on their own, they get their rats--and they get hooked. Rats are much less expensive than cats and dogs, but they are just as loyal and bonded, and lower maintenence. I know quite a few mothers who have gotten rats for themselves--not the kids, and middle-aged women with no kids but a healthy family of rats. They aren't just ladies' pets either (though that is more common). A rat might not be a macho pet, but many college-aged guys keep them (and older guys' wives keep them ;) ). Rats are not "just" kids' pets. They are wonderful pets for many lifestyles. Unlike some critters, they aren't just a novelty kids like to look at and brag about; they are animals people get attached to and want to keep as part of their lives forever.
Take a look at some of your typical rat owners:
At the RMFE Show
At the Chicago Pet Expo
The Rat Fan Club
At UK Rat Shows
Belief: Rats love cheese.
Basis/Reality: I'm not sure why this is believed so firmly. Maybe it has to do with wild rats getting into kitchens. Perhaps the cheese was the easiest food to access. Truth be known, rats love all kinds of food. Cheese doesn't seem to be a particular favorite. Most rats prefer peanut butter, sunflower seeds, yogurt, or cereal.
Belief: Feeding meat will make rat vicious.
Basis/Reality: WRONG. Meat products are a necessary part of a rats diet. Rats are omnivores. That doesn't mean they CAN eat both meat and vegetable products, it means they MUST eat a varied diet that contains both in order to be healthy. There is absolutely no evidence that a diet rich with meat makes rats or any other animal vicious. There is evidence to the contrary! If rats are denied meat products such as a kibble, rodent block, or a little egg or chicken in their diet, they will and have had to turn elsewhere for the nutrients they need. This may involve preying on mice (or trying their best to!) nearby or catching bugs--whatever it takes. The rare instances where rats have eaten the flesh of other rats or killed other animals often take place when the rats have an incomplete diet. (Especially in pet stores where they are fed only grains and kept in close proximity to other rodents they can hunt.) BTW, I have among the most gentle rats I've ever known, and they regularly get leftovers including bones and meat--in addition to their dry diet which includes kibble. Only a despirate or starving animal is a "vicious" animal...
Belief: Rats eat their young.
Basis/Reality: Almost never. Rats are probably the best parents of all rodents. Males and females alike work at rasing baby rats, even if they are not their own. In fact, domestic rats do not usually kill sickly babies either, but they may simply abandon a pup with something seriously wrong (as almost all animals do). Rats do occasionally eat stillborn or dead babies. It is a natural instinct and necessity, since rats are part of nature's cleanup crew. (In the wild, it would remove the smell of death, which may draw predators to the nest.) Rats do not do this as often as mice, gerbils, or other rodents. (The picture below is a father with his babies. Adult males and females alike are usually wonderful with babies, even if they aren't their own!)
Belief: Pine and/or cedar bedding is recommended for rats.
Basis/Reality: Ugh, this one is even printed on bags of bedding. Pine and cedar beddings are very bad for rats' health, and likely the cause of many of the ailments (sometimes blamed on just "bad breeding") plaguing pet store animals. The oils that give them their distinct aromas cause not only respiratory problems, but also lead to kidney or liver failure, which may have no other symptoms than simply killing your rat at a younger age than he could've lived.
Belief: Rats can grow as big as cats.
Basis/Reality: Absolutely no way. At least not pet rats or their wild relatives, the Norway rat. The biggest a domesticated rat could get is about two pounds, and pet rats grow larger than wild ones. Other species such as the cane rat or Gambian Giant Pouched Rat can grow to over twice this, but chances are, if you think you see a cat-sized rat, it is probably something else.
Belief: Rats should be weaned at three weeks old.
Basis/Reality: No, at three weeks, pups are still nursing and being carried around by their moms. They are eating some solid foods, running around, and drinking water, but this is just the first stage of their natural weaning. Pet stores and some breeders pull babies away from their moms at this age, and the babies will survive, BUT they may be more susceptible to illness and more poorly socialized than animals allowed to nurse for another week or two. The reasons this is done is because rats at this age are "cute" and more likely to be bought, particularly on an impulse. Also, people seeking a profit figure the faster they "wean," the sooner the mom can have another litter. On their own, rats wean at four and a half to five weeks.
Belief: Rats are just big mice.
Basis/Reality: This is not true. There are many species of both rats and mice. Pet rats are Rattus norvegicus, and pet mice are Mus musculus. They are both in the order Rodentia and the family Muridae. Now that we've done the taxonomy, let's get to the practical stuff. Rats and mice are similar in some respects but are also very distinctly different. Both are social animals that enjoy and need to be with other members of their species. Although mice tend to have larger litters (and therefore are more likely to lose or kill some young), they both make fairly good moms and dads and have similar heat cycles and gestations. They eat similar diets, though mice can eat more vegetarian, and rats need more animal protein. Both will hunt insects, but rats will also hunt mice and small birds. Males of both species have a stronger odor than females, but more people dislike male mouse odor. Mice, in general, are more active than rats, and not likely to play with an owner so much as on them. Mice are much less needy of money, space, and time than rats are. Rats need daily attention from their owner. Neither species are likely to bite, but mice are more easily spooked. Both are escape artists. Mice, especially male mice, are more likely to injure each other by fighting and are more fragile than rats. They can catch many of the same ailments. Mice have shorter lifespans.
Belief: Rats can live with mice (or some other animal).
Basis/Reality: Rats can live with mice like cats can live with mice. Maybe for a few minutes... Maybe for a few days... But chances are, the mice will get killed and eaten. It is a rat's natural instinct. Rats are hunters. They hunt insects, fish, small birds, and small mammals. There are cases of mice fostering rats and rats fostering mice, but virtually ANY mammal will nurse a different species when she has a litter. And nine out of ten times, after the baby is weaned, the mouse or mice involved will be killed or injured. Even if a rat and mouse are raised together, it is folly to not expect the rat's instincts to kick in at some point. If the rat doesn't feel like hunting, he may become suddenly territorial and kill his mouse "buddy." Interspecies relationships involving rodents almost always end in tragedy--regardless of the exceptions you see, hear, or know about. And such tragedy can be blamed only on the owner.
Belief: Male rats are more laid back.
Basis/Reality: This is true--to a point. Rats vary a lot individually, but males do tend to be more laid back and females more active/curious. Industrious, exploratory rats are usually females, while a rat that will nap on your lap or bed is usually a male. However, some males are quite active, onery, and accomplished theives (especially younger males), and some females are sedate lap pets (especially older females).
Belief: Dumbo rats are more laid back. (Or a variety/color/type/"breed" makes a better pet than another.)
Basis/Reality: No! I am very tired of being asked what "breed" makes the best pet. Rats are NOT breeds. Purebred cats and dogs have been bred exclusively separate from other breeds for a LONG time. This has produced specific breeds that act significantly different from each other and have different health issues. Rats have no breeds. Dumbo is not a breed, it is a single trait caused by a single gene pair; they are constantly outcrossed with standard eared rats from entirely different lines, and two standard rats can have dumbo babies. The same goes for all coat types, colors, and varieties.
I believe the dumbo rumor started partly because the rats tend to have a more "innocent look" to them and partly because they were originally bred by responsible fancy breeders who were trying to breed friendly animals. However, the standard-eared rats from responsible breeders are exactly as friendly--no more and no less, and dumbo rats from pet store/feeder lines are just as nervous and poorly socialized as their standard-eared counterparts. The appearence of a rat is just that--appearence. Their family history and their raising is what makes the difference. The same goes for mice, hamsters, and gerbils. Don't get fooled by pet store labels/prices. Those "feeder rats" probably came from the same litters as the "fancy rats", "dumbo rats", "Rex rats", etc., and have just as good a chance of being great (or bad) pets. The "breed" that makes the best pet is any rat from a responsible breeder. So, let's knock off the "rodent racism"...
Belief: Hairless rats (or dumbo or Rex) cannot be kept with standard rats.
Basis/Reality: Wrong! More rodent racism! Rats are rats. They recognize each other as rats even if they look different. They have the same "language," the same social needs, and the more unusual varieties are often born in litters with standard rats. That's like saying blondes and brunettes cannot live together! (The two rats pictured below are brother and sister. The standard rat was being sold as a feeder, while the hairless dumbo was being sold for three times the price because of her variety. She now lives with nine standard rats and a Rex rat, and the boy lives with three standard rats and another hairless dumbo.)
Belief: Feeder rats make horrible pets.
Basis/Reality: Not true. "Feeder" is just a meaningless label given to some pet store rats to desensitize people, that these animals are somehow less important and destined to be food. Sometimes, this causes "feeders" to be cast aside and be given poor treatment, which may lead to a lot of troubles such as respiratory problems or parasites. (Reptile keepers often spend the extra money to get a "fancy" rat to feed their snake just because they are healthier...) However, this is not always the case. The truth is that if a pet store takes proper care of its animals, labeling them as "fancy" or "feeder" is just totally meaningless. Sometimes it just refers to their color. Even rats in the same litter may be separated with the blacks or albinos being sold as "feeders" and the blues, siamese, etc. sold as "fancy." Otherwise, they have the same heath and temperments. Don't be fooled by labels or color. Only the care makes a difference. Don't buy rats that have inadequate care, such as no water, gerbil food, pine or dirty bedding, or not enough space.
Belief: Male rats must be kept alone.
Basis/Reality: The opposite of the truth! All rats are best kept in pairs or groups. This myth is probably related to the rat/mouse confusion discussed above. Unlike mice, rats (yes, even males) rarely hurt each other when fighting. There are exceptions in the case of some agressive individuals (often corrected by neutering), but even problem rats suffer from a solitairy existance. (Solitairy mice get lonely too, but many are just too mean for their own good.) Even though they will determine dominance by posturing, mounting, forced cleaning, and fur pulling, male rats still live in harmony.
Belief: Rats' teeth will overgrow if they don't have hard things to chew on.
Basis/Reality: Nope. While rats' incisors are always growing, they wear down on their own through normal eating (not just hard things) and bruxing, as long as they line up. People become worried because adult rats' teeth naturally look very long compared to what we are used to, and their teeth are flexible and can be bent and have a gap near the ends (which makes even vets who are unaccustomed to rats think their teeth are "too long" and "need trimmed"). Unless your rat was born with a deformity, has become too sick for normal activity, or has damaged or lost his teeth in some sort of accident, you do not need to get them trimmed. (Even vets are often wrong...) Yes, they look long. That's the way they are supposed to look.
Belief: Rats are incredibly prone to cancer.
Basis/Reality: The statistics say one in three rats will develop cancer. I'm not sure about that since I've had literally dozens of rats but only one or two cases of cancer. I do hear many heartbreaking stories about enormous tumors, though. However, I would argue that rats are NOT particularly prone to tumors. My reasoning is this: The tumors rats get are almost always mammary tumors (even on the neck). Cats and dogs that are not spayed will often/usually develop a mammary tumor. However, cats and dogs are routinely spayed, so tumors of this sort are rare. Rats, on the other hand, are virtually never spayed due to the expense, risk, and the fact that they can be kept away from males and don't have weird heat side effects. Also, rats are consistently exposed to cancer-causing chemicals. (Pine and cedar contain suspected carcinogens, many commercial pet foods contain preservatives proven to cause cancer, orange peels/juice causes cancer in male rats, excess vitamin C can cause cancer...) I think I'd be surprised if rats didn't develop tumors so often!
Belief: Rats have so many health problems because they are descended from lab rats.
Basis/Reality: Nice excuse but NOT TRUE. First of all, our pets are not descended from lab rats. The keeping of pet rats developed fairly independently of their domestication as research animals. And laboratory lines are kept as closed as possible to make sure their rats are essentially genetic copies of each other and the lab is kept sterile.
Another point to consider is that lab rats tend to be MUCH healthier than rats from pet stores and will live longer on average if they are not used for a debillatating test or are euthanized (or resulted from lines bred to develop diabetes or something). Lab rats used in cancer research are not bred to develop cancer but rather are given chemicals to encourage the growth of cancer. Many lab rats are used in behavioral studies or taste testing or product testing, and those rats have to be as healthy as possible so they can be useful for the length of the study.
Rats from pet stores, on the other hand, tend to be sickly and short lived. Those from individual breeders usually have a pedigree that extends to several generations. Their lines have developed independently of both laboratories and pet stores/feeder lines.
Belief: Rats should never have corn.
Basis/Reality: Rats enjoy some corn, and there's really no need to obsess by buying only products with no corn or picking every piece out of mixed foods Corn is harder to digest than other grains such as wheat or rice, but really no big deal for a healthy rat. This corn phobia is based on a study that proved corn can increase the likelihood of cancer (it breaks into a carcinogen when digested); however enormous ammounts would have to be eaten to make any kind of difference. Some rats are allergic to corn, but not many. (Many rat owners will not feed processed food with corn meal as a first ingredient. This is because it is filler, and a rice filler may be easier to digest.) In general, don't sweat the corn, but don't feed an awful lot.
Belief: Carbonated drinks can kill rats.
Basis/Reality: I like to find out who came up with this one. I figure it was just jumping to conclusions because rats cannot burp or vomit. I have never heard of even one case where a rat got remotely sick from a little soda, and if one has, it probably was the caffeine that was the problem. Rats do pass gass (from my experience), and as long as they don't "chug," a rat will not be at risk of bloating. As far as I've seen, rats cannot chug. They will lap or lick. If anyone has any real, first account evidence of carbonation causing rat bloat, let me know.
Belief: Chocolate is toxic to rats.
Basis/Reality: Here's an assumption based on other animals' problems. There is a chemical in chocolate that is toxic to dogs and cats. This, however, is not true of rats. The caffeine could potentially be dangerous, and the fat and sugar could cause obesity, but chocolate is not a deadly poison as far as rats are concerned. (More information in this article.)
Belief: Rats won't run in a wheel.
Basis/Reality: Eight of my ten females run in their excercise wheel EVERY DAY. Rats are not mice or hamsters; they will not run in their wheel as soon as it is put into their cage. They cannot be coaxed into running with treats or by putting them in the wheel. Rats are naturally suspecious of new things, and it usually takes a few weeks for them to get used to a wheel's presence. Then one will become brave and get in... soon they are addicted to wheel running. Young females are braver and more active than older rats and males, so they are the most likely to use a wheel. Also, some wheels are more inviting than others. A solid running surface, solid back, and a "closed in" feel are much more inviting to a rat than an open wheel. (Rats are natural "wall-huggers" that like tight, dark spaces.)
Belief: Rats are inexpensive.
Basis/Reality: This is often true but sometimes very false. A pet store rat is typically priced at $5 or so, or you can buy from a breeder for $10 to $20. Generally food and bedding can be cheap, but a really quality cage is expensive, and can be over $100, and if your rat gets hold of an expensive blanket or wire for an electronic device, chances are it will be ruined. The real costs come in should your rat ever get sick or develop a tumor. (My $7 rat became a $700 rat when he developed pneumonia and had to receive emergency treatment at a vet's office.) Even with proper quarantine and the best care, unexpected things can happen. You cannot prevent a tumor or watch your rat to avoid accidents 24 hours a day. Sometimes decisions have to be made, tough decisions. True, it is "just a $5 rat," but his well-being and comfort are in your hands. Will you be able to afford a heavy bill if something unfortunate happens? Will you be able to handle not treating an illness or having to have an animal euthanized because of finances? Such large bills are not the norm, but they can happen and need to be considered a possibility when dealing with ANY pet...
Belief: Female rats' hips fuse if they aren't bred before a certain age.
Basis/Reality: False. This is another case of creature confusion. Guinea Pigs' hips fuse if they are not bred by a certain age. Rats are better off if you wait until they are at least six months to breed them, because until that age they are still growing, and a litter would be a major energy drain. For smaller girls, good breeders often wait until they are eight or nine months old. Breeding a female for the first time at over a year isn't a good idea because she can have problems giving birth--not because of fused hips but rather because hormone levels are lower.
Belief: If a female has a litter, it reduces her risk of cancer.
Basis/Reality: This isn't true. There are just as many occurences of cancer in rats that are bred as those that aren't. Breeding has no health benefits and carries many risks, so it should not be entered into lightly. (This belief stems from humans, who are at lower risk for breast cancer if they breast feed.)
Belief: Spaying reduces the risk of cancer.
Basis/Reality: True! It can also increase average lifespan. Read about it in this article. However, spaying, like any major surgery, can be risky for a small animal (and is expensive). If you are thinking of spaying, discuss these issues with your vet: anesthesia (gas is much safer than injection), loss of body heat in surgery, and risk of infection after surgery.
Belief: Females go through menopause at 18 months, and can then be kept with a male.
Basis/Reality: Yes, many females stop going into heat and being fertile arouns 18 months of age. however, they should not be kept with a male under the ussumption that they are infertile. Rats over 3 years old have been documented getting pregnant and having litters. This is a very dangerous situation because rats at this age have low hormone levels and weak immune systems. They have a high risk of complications giving birth and of not physically being able to handle the stress of pregancy or nursing. Unless the female is spayed or the male is neutered, different genders should never be housed together.
Belief: Rats can be kept outside in a hutch.
Basis/Reality: No! Pet rats are very sensitive to heat and cold. A single chilly night outside can send your rat into a serious case of pneumonia or freeze him to death. Rats are particularly susceptible to heat stroke. They can even get stroke from being in an unairconditioned house during particularly hot summer days. Pet rats are a far cry from their wild anscesters and are far more vulnerable to diseases and exposure. (Even wild rats would die if they didn't have sewers, holes, and people's garages to move into when it is particularly hot or cold.) Rats can also get seriously stressed by the smells and sounds of neighbors, cats, dogs, and everything else. For small animals, stress alone can be fatal.
Belief: Rats develop bumblefoot from living on mesh floors.
Basis/Reality: Evidence suggests bublefoot is related more to heredity and obesity than anything else, although the condition is usually triggered by cuts on the feet and unsanitary conditions. Bare wire may irritate and cut feet or become rusty and cause a lot of problems, but coated wire (with vinyl, PVC, baked on powder, etc.) doesn't cause any problems as long as the floor/shelf mesh is 1/2" x 1/2" (smaller with tear toenails and larger can trap/break feet and legs). Mesh shelves tend to be a good thing, because it prevents rats from walking or sleeping in urine puddles, which can make them sick. However, mesh floors are still not recommended--not because of bumblefoot, but because ammonia levels in cages with wire floors are much higher than those in cages with solid floors (or in aquariums).
Belief: Rats can be happy alone.
Basis/Reality: Depends on your definition of happy... If a rat has never had a companion, he won't know what he is missing; however, he will not have a fulfilling life, no matter how many toys and how much attention you give him. A rat can live a happy live without those toys, without practically anything except a rat companion and a human companion.