When Jill Chapin tells people she has a pet rat, the response is pretty predictable.

First comes the “ewwww!” followed by questions about diseases, cleanliness and that “gross, wormy tail.”

“People associate them with the Black Plague, when rats carried plague-infested fleas on them,” she said. “They definitely think of them as dirty and filled with disease.”

But Chapin, a vet tech at Lums Pond Animal Hospital in Bear, characterizes them as clean, social, funny, playful, smart and affectionate.

“Once you meet one, it’s hard not to fall in love,” she said. “They’re one of the cleanest pets I’ve ever had. They want to be with you; they’re into everybody’s business.

“People do get freaked out by the tail, but it’s really soft and fuzzy.”

Domesticated rats have been bred to be pets and are not like the wild rats you see slinking around dumpsters and should never be approached.

Chapin is a big fan of getting rats from rescues, where many have been spared from becoming dinner for someone’s pet snake. You also can get rats from breeders, pet stores and shelters.

RELATED: Hamsters are not good pets for small children

Domesticated rats are inexpensive to buy, around $10 to $20. Unless you want them to breed, make sure you get a rat that’s been spayed or neutered. The average size is from 14 to 18 inches long, including a 7-inch tail. They come in a variety of coat types and colors, from curly and shiny to black, white and black-and-white.

You can get a basic wire cage for about $35, but because they like to climb, they really enjoy ferret-style cages with more than one level. Aquariums or other solid-sided habitats are not recommended since they don’t promote air circulation and can trap heat.

You’ll also need a water bottle that hangs on the crate – be sure to keep the water fresh and bottle clean. If you get your rat a running wheel, make sure it is solid to protect their tiny feet.

The ASPCA estimates the yearly cost for food runs about $50, plus $20 annually for toys and treats. Plan on another $220 annually for litter and bedding material.

The downside to owning a rat is that they only live about 2 ½ years, but if you keep their habitat clean, feed them properly and take them in for their well-pet visits, they should be happy and healthy years, said Dr. Michelle Crosier, an exotic animal specialist at Lums Pond.

“They do not require vaccinations, but they are prone to respiratory issues so keep the cage clean and out of a draft,” she said.

Clean their waste from their cage every day. They don’t like it lying around either and may create a special area as their “restroom,” making life easier for you. Completely clean the cage once a week.

When it comes to diet, stick to rat food with a few fresh additions.

RELATED: Guinea pigs just the right size for some

“They have specially made diets you can buy at the pet store, and you can give them fruits and vegetables and other healthy snacks. But be careful, they are prone to becoming overweight.”

So that means no chocolate, cookies or other human junk food.

As with any pet, keep an eye out for any new lumps or bumps. If you find one, plan a trip to the vet. Other signs your rat may be ill include not eating, sneezing, weight loss and being unsteady on their feet.

Rats are social animals and do very well in same-sex pairs or male and female pairs that have been spayed and neutered.

Rats like to shred things and hide, so toss in some tissues, empty tissue boxes or other cardboard boxes or ceramic pots. Keep their teeth healthy and satisfy their need to nibble by giving them untreated pieces of wood.

They also like to play, so provide them tubes and things to climb. Your pet store will have plastic tubes and other rodent-friendly play things. Visit the bird section and you can find ladders and ropes, or just drop small tree branches and some empty paper towel tubes in their cage.

Let your rat out to run around and play with you and your family in a supervised area for an hour or two every day, but be careful because they can squeeze into tight places.

RELATED: Feisty ferrets need plenty of playtime

Socialize your new rat slowly by holding it briefly and letting it learn to trust you, and teach your children how to be gentle, Crosier said.

If you go to YouTube, you might be surprised to see rats fetching balls, running around in circles on command and tackling obstacle courses. They are food-motivated, which makes them easy to train, Chapin said.

“All my rats have known the names and how to run along my arm to sit on my shoulder,” she said. “They are social and intelligent, that’s what makes them such great pets.”

How to keep your rat happy

• Cardboard boxes and paper towel or toilet paper tubes for hiding and climbing and branches, or wood sticks for chewing

• Cholla cactus, mineral and pumice stones, or cuttle­bones, which you can find in the bird section of the pet store, for gnawing

• Deep bedding of compacted peat with paper, hay, recycled paper, compressed cotton

• Favored treats hidden in bedding

• Nuts pushed into a piece of apple or a pine cone for foraging

• Perching platforms

• Plastic tubing and other tubing for climbing

• Plastic dump trucks or cars

• Rodent-safe wheels for running

• Untreated wood to chew on

Look for me at Tails around the Tower

The Delaware Humane Association’s 24th Annual Walk for the Animals, Tails Around the Tower is 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday. This is the third year the DHA’s largest annual fundraiser will be held at Rockford Park in Wilmington.

The cost is $35 per person, which includes an event T-shirt. Since fundraising is the goal of the walk, participants are requested, but not required, to collect $50 in pledges.

Look for me and my Westie, Annie Rue, and introduce yourself and share any ideas you have for a Delaware Pets column. delawarehumane .org/walk4animals. (302) 571-8171, ext. 301.

Delaware Pets is written by animal-lover Deb Lucas. Send her your events, news and column ideas to dlucas@delawareonline.com or call her at (302) 324-2852. Find her on Facebook at facebook.com/deblucas and on Twitter @DelPets.

PET-RELATED EVENTS

• The Canine Partners for Life Open House and 25th Birthday Party is noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at the facility in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. Watch companion dog trainers work, meet CPL graduates and their canine partners and hear their personal stories. There will be lots of entertainment and games for the family. No pets allowed. k94life.orgk94life.org, (610) 869-4902.

• Delaware SPCA will have its Fourth Annual Bark on the Boards Dog Walk from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, beginning at Lake Gerar Park, Rehoboth Beach. The walk coincides with the first weekend of the “off-season,” when dogs are welcome on the boards and beach. Bring your dog, or check out the dogs available for adoption.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $5 for ages 6-16. Children 5 and younger are admitted free. delspca.org/2014-bark-on-the-boards.