The Dog Bred for Extermination: Rat Terrier

Pet Type


May 13, 2020

There are many, many different personality traits that dogs can have. There are many dogs out there that are stoic and quiet, simply enjoying your presence near them and not making much more noise than they need to. There are other dogs who thrive off attention and will destroy most furniture in your home if you do not pay attention to them at the very moment they demand it. There are dogs in between this spectrum, ranging from composed and obedient to cold and aloof.

Some dogs have immediately noticeable and loveable personalities, such as the rat terrier. These small, friendly dogs are more than happy to be your friend and they carry more personality than you might expect them to.

These dogs were originally bred to be the dog exterminators of the human world, although in today’s time, these people adopt the rat terrier more for the personality rather than for the work that the dog could put into your home. Rat terriers appear elegant at first, but they have a goofy attitude, intelligent mind, and a desire to be your friend that you cannot ignore. These loveable companions easily have the potential to be your new friend for the next couple of decades.

How Did the Rat Terrier Come to Be?

As the name may suggest, the rat terrier was a terrier-type dog that was bred specifically to hunt down rats. The name also shows how this dog’s ancestry took on many breeds of the terrier family, including fox terriers, bull terriers, Manchester terriers, old English white terriers, and so on.

Yet another dog in the terrier family, this dog was bred to hunt smaller animals in both homes and farms. It is believed that these dogs were first developed in the early decades of the 1900s in the United States. It is known for a fact that a rat terrier starred in a 1930 movie, meaning that the breed had made itself well established at this point. Different areas of the United States would utilize different breeds to create the rat terrier. For example, the southern United States bred the rat terrier with beagles to try and induce a more pack-like orientation. In the midwestern United States, these dogs were bred with both whippets and Italian greyhounds to create a leaner, faster breed of rat terrier. This just goes to show how mixed this breed’s heritage now is.

Former United States President, Theodore Roosevelt is rumored to have been the one to give the breed an official name, although there are some people out there who dispute this. This rumor comes from the fact that Roosevelt’s dog solved a rat problem within the White House, which meant that his dog must have been a rat terrier. People argue over whether or not the President’s dog actually was a rat terrier or not, though it is generally agreed that he owned a dog in the terrier family.

As rats began to decrease in the decades leading up until the 1940s, rat terriers were a fairly popular dog. They were used on both farmland and homes to ensure that rats were gone and were hunted down. Unfortunately, after the 1940s, rat poison rose in popularity, essentially putting the rat terrier out of business. In today’s time, the rat terrier has become a fun companion rather than a dog that hunts rats all day, every day.

What Does a Rat Terrier Look Like?

The rat terrier is a lean, small dog that has a somewhat tough appearance for its smaller size. They come in two main size groups, those being Standard and Miniature. Standard rat terriers will typically range from 13 to 18 inches in height and will be toward the higher end of the weight scale. Miniature rat terriers will be closer to 10 to 13 inches in height and will be toward the lighter end of the weight scale. Both groups will range from 10 to 25 pounds in weight.

Underneath the shorter fur of these dogs, you can easily see their muscles, giving them a surprisingly strong appearance despite their smaller size. They usually have shorter tails, pointed ears, long and small snouts, and wide eyes.

Their coats are usually short and rough, as this breed wasn’t built for petting. Their coats can come in a massive variety of colors and patterns. These can range from crème and light brown to ruddy and black. Dogs can have a number of different styles ranging from splotches to markings of their own. Some dogs may have a brown coloring around the snout and nose. Other dogs may have white “socks” on their feet. It depends heavily on the appearance of the parent dogs in this situation.

How Do Rat Terriers Behave?

These small little dogs have an endless well of energy that they draw from to get up to their mischievous antics. They love to have fun and will often be more than happy to go on an adventure alongside you. This adventure could be as simple as a walk around the block or it could be as exciting as taking your dog on a light mountain trail. These dogs do tend to be stubborn, easily bored, and easy to distract. This can make it incredibly difficult to try and train your dog, but with enough patience, you will be able to get the job done.

They don’t always get along well with other people, especially people who are complete strangers. However, for you and your family, they will be eager to try and please you, learning quickly when it is not busy being stubborn. These dogs do have the potential to get along well with other dogs, but they will respond to provocation with aggression and this can be problematic at dog parks and with poorly socialized dogs.

Introducing them to cats can be a gamble, so many people agree that it is best not to adopt a cat while you have a rat terrier. With proper introduction and socialization, dogs can get along with cats, if you already had a cat before adopting the dog.  

How Do You Care for Rat Terriers?

These dogs are not easy to care for in terms of energy, as it can be exhausting for you to try and get that energy out of the dog. Thankfully, they are very easy to care for when you are managing their coat. The grooming can often be done once a week or potentially less. Bathing should only be situational, as these dogs really do not need that much.

In terms of energy, it is crucial that you deplete as much of that energy as you can. You should spend about 40 minutes outside each day, actively playing with your dog or walking it. On top of this, you will want to try and make sure that you have a place for your dog to run around in freely, such as a well-fenced and sealed room.

These dogs will chase after smaller animals, as they were bred to do so, so you cannot let them off the leash at all when you are outside. They also need to be mentally stimulated, as these dogs are smart by nature. Getting interactive toys can usually help with this issue. A dog who hasn’t been stimulated mentally may become destructive out of boredom, so you need to make sure that you watch out for that. With this being said, rat terriers are not often recommended as beginner dogs, especially if you have no prior experience training animals, given this breed’s nasty stubborn streaks.

What Kind of Health Do Rat Terriers Have?

Rat terriers, as hunting dogs, were built to be naturally robust. That much can be seen when looking at the muscles underneath the fur. This also applies to the health of the dog. Typically, rat terriers are pretty healthy although there is always the risk of developing a hereditary condition.

If you want to learn more about your puppy’s risk, you can always talk to the breeder about it. The main problems that rat terriers are prone to involve the bones. With enough care and attention, these dogs can easily live between 12 and 18 years.