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Rat Terrier

Nicole Cosgrove

June 18, 2021

Rat Terrier Smiling

The Rat Terrier can actually come in several sizes from toy, to small to medium and was bred in the US to be a companion, and be a vermin hunter below and above ground. In its time it was not really a single breed but more a type and they were common especially on farms in the 1920s and 30s. Now though it is more rare and is certainly an acquired taste since it does not care about pleasing anyone and can be quite a stubborn dog. It is meant to have gotten its name from President Roosevelt who dogs cleared out the rats from the White House!

The Rat Terrier at A Glance
Name Rat Terrier
Other names American Rat Terrier, Ratting Terrier, Decker Giant
Nicknames RT, Rat and Rattie
Origin United States, Britain
Average size Toy, small, medium
Average weight 5 to 40 pounds
Average height 9 to 19 inches
Life span 13 to 18 years
Coat type Short, smooth
Hypoallergenic No
Color Tan, black, brown, white, blue, tricolor
Popularity Not very popular – ranked 101st by the AKC
Intelligence Quite intelligent – top 30% of breeds
Tolerance to heat Very good – can handle hot climates just nothing extreme
Tolerance to cold Low – not good in cold weather at all and will need extra care when out in it
Shedding Average – some hair will be around the home
Drooling Low – not a breed prone to slobber or drool
Obesity Average – can gain weight if it overeats or under exercises
Grooming/brushing Brush once or twice a week – easy to groom
Barking Occasional – some barking but not constant
Exercise needs Very active – will need plenty of exercise
Trainability Moderately easy but it can have its stubborn moments
Friendliness Very good with socialization
Good first dog Good but best with experienced owner
Good family pet Very good with socialization
Good with children Excellent with socialization
Good with other dogs Good but needs socialization
Good with other pets Good with socialization
Good with strangers Very good with socialization
Good apartment dog Depends on size, smaller ones can be but they are best in homes with a yard
Handles alone time well Good – can be left alone for moderate amounts of time
Health issues Somewhat healthy but some issues include allergies, incorrect bite, patellar luxation and demodectic mange
Medical expenses $460 a year for basic care and pet insurance
Food expenses $145 a year for a good quality dry dog food and dog treats
Miscellaneous expenses $215 a year for license, miscellaneous items, toys and basic training
Average annual expenses $820 a year as a starting figure
Cost to purchase $400
Rescue organizations Several including the American Rat Terrier Rescue, the Ratbone Rescues and the Rat Terrier Club of America
Biting Statistics Attacks doing bodily harm: 2 Maimings: 1 Child victims: 0 Deaths: 0

The Rat Terrier’s Beginnings

The Rat Terrier’s beginnings were in Great Britain where it was developed in the early 19th century using the Manchester Terrier and the Smooth Fox Terrier to be a black and tan ratter, a dog that hunted vermin like rats which were prevalent in those times. It came over to the US in the 1890s with immigrants and President Roosevelt was pictured in Life Magazine with three black and tan Rat Terriers and it is said it was he who named them though there is some debate over this. Some say the dogs he owned were not the same as the Rat Terriers we have today and there are a Terrier now named after him that is more like his dogs.

In the US breeders there developed it further using breeds like the Whippet, Beagle and again the Smooth Fox Terrier. The Beagle made the dog bulkier and improved its hunting ability and added a red color. The Whippet of course added speed and brindle and blue colors. Using the Chihuahua and the Smooth Fox Terrier a toys sized rat terrier was also developed. As the breed spread around the country different regions used different breeds to develop the Rat Terrier which led to varying sizes.

Rat Terriers became popular on farms across America easily able to rid their barns of vermin. It has been reported that one Rat Terrier was able to kill over 2501 rats in just 7 hours. They were also used to hunt small game like hare and squirrel. Between 1920 and 1940 was when they were most common but with commercial farming and the use of chemical pesticides the need for Rat Terriers declined in the 1950s with just real fans of the breed maintaining them.

New Lease on Life

In the late 1970s there was new interest show in the Rat Terrier and there have been further developments with the breed. Because of its genetic diversity it has remained a healthy and sound breed. The Decker Rat Terrier is one newer emerging type of the breed developed by Milton Decker who wanted a large rat terrier able to retrieve from water and to help hunt larger game like bear, wild pig and deer. It was also bred to be a great companion still. A Decker Hunting Terrier Registry was even created. Also in 1972 the first hairless Rat Terrier was born and that led to this new strain of Rat Terriers being developed. It is now called the American Hairless Terrier and comes in two sizes itself, miniature and standard. Today the Rat Terrier is still used as a working dog in places but is also a great family pet. They were recognized by the AKC in 2010 and then accepted it into the terrier group in 2012.

The Dog You See Today

The Rat Terrier is a breed that can really vary in its appearance because of the variety of breeds used in its development and the differences in regions. It can be toys sized up to medium sized so its weight can range from 4 to 40 pounds and its height from 8 inches up to 23 inches tall. Officially the 3 sizes are classed as Toy, mid-sized and standard. The Decker Rat Terrier is a little larger than the standard sized Rat Terrier.

It should be sturdy and compact in appearance and also look athletic. The chest is deep, the shoulders are strong and it has powerful legs and a strong neck. The single coat is short, smooth, and can come in a variety of colors such as tan, black, red, apricot, chocolate, blue, lemon and fawn. Its tail can be full length or it can be born with a shorter one. In places where it is still allowed it can be docked. Its ears are erect and its head is refined.

The Inner Rat Terrier


Rat Terriers are very good watchdogs as they are alert and will bark to let you know of any intruder, or anyone approaching. It can live fine with a new dog owner but is best with experienced owners as it can be quite stubborn. It is an affectionate and loving dog with its family and is lively and intelligent too. It does bark occasional to frequent so that may need some training to stop on command. It has a very curious nature and loves to investigate and explore. It can be quite social but it is also a sensitive dog so does not do well with homes where there are a lot of arguments, and it will not respond well to very harsh scoldings.

Being an energetic dog it is best in a home with active owners. It likes to play too and has a feisty and fearless nature that can get it into trouble. It loves to spend time with you and is happy to travel with you too. They do make great farm dogs still but can also be kept as pets as long as they are given enough to do, mentally and physically, otherwise they get bored and destructive. It does need firm guiding otherwise it can develop small dog syndrome.

Rat Terriers tend to be less snappy and aggressive than some other terrier breeds, while they are still terrier like they can also just chill. As long as it is getting enough exercise it will be happy to have lap time with you and it is more aware of your moods than say a Jack Russell. It needs lots of companionship though, it will not be happy being left alone all the time, and it will even wrap its paws around you to get your attention! It tends to be wary with strangers but will warm up if you are clear it is okay.

Living with a Rat Terrier

What will training look like?

Compared to many other terriers the Rat Terrier is easy to train especially if you have experience or if you use a training school. In fact with the right approach its training can be quicker than some breeds as it will need less repetition. It does have a stubborn side though and that can slow up the process for people who are new to it and are not able to stay firm and be consistent. Most Rat Terriers are eager to please their owners and along with setting clear rules that you stick with, and being positive with your approach, you will see success. Within the training you should include a command to stop its barking, some bark more frequently than others and the barking is described as shrill which may be a bother to your neighbors.

Early socialization is very important here, best started in its first 3 months. Expose it to different places, people, sounds, situations and animals and teach it what is an appropriate response to each and let it get used to things.

How active is the Rat Terrier?

Rat Terriers are very active dogs, they need a minimum of 40 minutes a day (most would be happy to do more), two 20 minutes brisk walks, along with some play time and some time off leash somewhere safe like a dog park. It can adapt to living in an apartment but does best when it has access to even just a small yard. It needs owners who can commit to at least that much activity each day, along with ensuring it also gets some mental stimulation and play. It is important to make sure the yard is properly fenced in as it is an explorer so will get out of the yard if it can to see what is on the outside. Be warned it does love to dog so it is a good idea to give it a place in the yard where that is okay. It is also a dog that swims very well and enjoys the water. A Rat Terrier not well exercised or stimulated will become bored and destructive and even aggressive.

Caring for the Rat Terrier

Grooming needs

This is not a breed with a lot of needs in terms of maintenance and grooming. Brush it once or twice a week using rubber curry mitt or a soft brush to clear its coat of debris and loose hair. It does shed an average amount so expect some loose hair around and regular vacuuming. Only bathe it when it really needs one – too often and you will just damage its natural oils and cause dry skin problems. The shedding does get heavier twice a year during seasonal shedding times.

It will also need to have its teeth brushed two to three times a week or even daily if possible. Start grooming actions early when the dog is young and you will find it gets used to it and is more willing for things to be done. Its ears should be checked weekly for infection and then wiped clean using an ear cleanser and cotton ball. The nails too will need to be clipped if they are not worn down naturally with its activity. That should be done using proper nail clippers for dog nails and if you do not know how have someone show you or have a professional do it, as cutting too low can cause bleeding and pain.

Feeding Time

How much a Rat Terrier needs to eat will depend partly on the size of it, if you have a toy it will be around ¼ to ½ cup a day, split into two meals. For a Miniature around ½ to 1 cup split into two meals. For a standard ¾ to 1 1/2 cups in two meals and then for a Decker about 1 1/2 to 2 cups a day in at least two sittings. Get a food of good quality that is better for your dog and fills them with the right stuff. Other factors in amounts are its level of activity, metabolism, age and general health.

How is the Rat Terrier with children and other animals?

This breed is good with children though it is best with older ones especially the smaller sizes that can be accidentally hurt because small children can be too rough. With socialization and when raised with them it is playful, affectionate and energetic. Children need to be taught how to touch carefully and kindly and how to be careful. Rat Terriers do not respond well to being teased and some can be very possessive of their food and toys.

When it comes to other animals and other dogs if they are part of the family, and it has been raised with them, everything should be fine. But this dog has a high prey drive and will go after squirrels or strange cats in the yard. A leash is important when out walking as it it could see something and chase after it. Some terriers are a bit easier going around other strange dogs and some have dominance issues, especially if the other dog is the same sex. However even the easy going ones will not back down from a fight if another aggressive dog starts one. Early socialization is very important.

What Might Go Wrong?

Health Concerns

A Rat Terrier, thanks to its multiple outcrossings, is a hardy dog that has a long life span of 13 to 18 years. There are health issues that can be common to the breed, though that does not mean they will get any of them. They include patellar luxation, heart problems, Legg-Calve-Perthes Syndrome, hip dysplasia, hypothyroidism, von Willebrand’s and eye problems. They can also have incorrect bites from deformed jaws, allergies and demodectic mange.

Biting Statistics

When looking at reports of attacks against people in the US and Canada over the last three and a half decades, the Rat Terrier can be found to have been involved in 2 incidents that did bodily harm. 1 of those was a maiming, meaning the victim was left with a permanent scar, loss of limb or disfigurement. Neither of the victims were children and there were no deaths. This is not a dog to be concerned about when it comes to attacks. Even the friendliest dogs the Golden and Labrador retriever have more attacks to their names. The fact is any dog can have a bad day, any dog can react to certain situations or overreact or be startled. Responsible owners can do some things to lessen the odds. Making sure you raise it and give it what it needs. Get a dog that suits your lifestyle i.e don’t get a Rat Terrier if you cannot get out of the home, it needs some exercise. Then make sure it is socialized and trained well too.

Your Pup’s Price Tag

A Rat Terrier will cost about $400 for a puppy of good pet quality from a decent breeder. For a show quality dog from a top breeder that could go into a $1500 or more. From a shelter or rescue you can get one for $50 to $200 and there some of its medical needs like neutering will have been taken care of. Rescue dogs though are more likely to be adults rather than young puppies. Avoid places like pet stores, backyard breeder ads, puppy mills and places where you are not sure of your puppy’s line or health.

Once you have a puppy you should take it to a vet for some tests and some procedures. It will have blood tests done, have a physical, be dewormed, have its shots, be micro chipped and spayed or neutered. These will cost around $270. You will also need some other things like a collar and leash, bowls, bedding, crate and carrier. That will be another cost of $220.

Annual costs for a good quality dry dog food and some dog treats will come to about $145 a year, though that would be a bit less for the toy and miniature sized dogs. For medical needs (just the basics) like flea and tick prevention, check ups, shots and pet insurance the annual cost of $460 a year. Miscellaneous costs like toys, license, basic training and miscellaneous items will come to about $215 a year. This gives an annual cost of $825 as a starting figure.


Rat Terriers are very intelligent and very smart but it can also be very stubborn! It comes from a working background so if you are not keeping it in that role, be sure it gets alternative means of physical and mental activity, training, play, toys, walks, runs and so on. It does also like to dig, chase and bark so have things prepared for these aspects. Early socialization is important as is at least some basic training. With the right care and when raised well it can be a very affectionate, entertaining, lively and happy dog.

Popular Rat Terrier Mixes

Jack Rat Terrier
Jack Rat Terrier
Jack Russell Terrier, Rat Terrier Mix
General Information
Size Medium
Height 13 to 18 inches
Weight 20 to 26 pounds
Life span 12 to 16 years
Touchiness Fairly high
Barking Occasional
Activity Very active
Breed Traits

Loving and affectionate
Clever dog
Very active dog
Hunting instinct



Beagle and Rat Terrier Mix
General Information
Size Small
Weight 5 to 20 pounds
Height 8 to 12 inches
Life span 12 to 15 years
Touchiness Moderate
Barking Rare to occasional
Activity Quite active
Breed Traits




Rattle Dog
Rattle Dog
Rat Terrier and Poodle Mix
General Information
Size Medium
Height 10 and 23 inches
Weight 25 to 50 pounds
Life span 12 to 18 years
Touchiness Quite sensitive
Barking Frequent
Activity Somewhat active
Breed Traits



Can be

Featured Image Credit: Emily Ranquist, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.

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