Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES - History and Hollywood cast them as vermin responsible for plagues, famine and famous movie lines like "You dirty rat!" But to a small group of fans, the rat is a charming pocket companion as loyal as a dog and cleaner than a cat.

Nearly 60 percent of American households have pets, according to an Associated poll. About 74 percent of pet owners polled in October said they had dogs, 47 percent said they had cats and 3 percent said they had a gerbil, hamster, mouse or rat.

"To own a rat is to know that forever your heart will walk outside your body on four little feet," said Dale Burkhart, 66, of Claremont. She's the vice president for the Riverside-based American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association.

Burkhart's nickname is Hattie McRattie and she runs the House Mouse Cafe at club events. Because of her arthritis, she no longer keeps rats but remains devoted, recalling how her fiance used to come over to visit her and her rats.

"They would groom his hair, groom his eyebrows and eyelashes. They are always grooming each other. That's how they show respect and affection," Burkhart said. "We become the alpha rat and they groom us."

The average life span of a rat is two to three years, said Debbie Ducommun of Chico. She's an author and international rat expert known as "The Rat Lady" and was a consultant on the movie "Ratatouille."

Short lives is the "down side of dear little ratties," said Cathleen Schneider-Russell, a member of the association from Chino Hills. "You have to enjoy every precious moment."

Most fans will keep a small colony of rats, said Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice president and science adviser for ASPCA national programs based in New York. That doesn't mean one rat can't be very special, said Jenna R. Lillibridge, director of Any Rat Rescue in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Her rat Aries is blind and the most affectionate rat she has ever had. "She loves people. She sleeps with me, sleeps on me. She will drape herself over my ankle or side or snuggle up to my neck," said Lillibridge, whose organization was founded in 2004 and has placed 700 rats since.

Karen Robbins of Winnetka, near Los Angeles, is rat fancier association's president, a job she's held off and on since 1983.

She got her first rat in 1974 because her sister had a snake and bought three baby rats to feed it. The snake ate two but Robbins saved the third. She took it back to its mother at the pet store and when it was ready, she adopted it and a sibling, both females. A kid down the street found out she had rats and gave her two he couldn't keep, a male and a female and she became a breeder.

Robbins has 43 rats she is now breeding separately for marking, color and coat - but all of them for personality.

Companion rats are more popular in California than any other state, Ducommun said. Weirdness is part of it, she said, but ferrets, gerbils, hedgehogs and other exotic pets are banned in California, so rats don't have as many options to compete with.

Rats have to be smart because they're a prey species as well as a predator species, Ducommun said. They also have one of the most robust digestive systems in the world - a reason they're so destructive and hard to destroy as pests.

The average pet rat is 6 inches long, has a 6-inch tail and weighs less than a pound. In the wild, females breed year round and can have 20 or more babies at a time. In the wild, rats naturally become aggressive and learn to bite as they compete with other rats for food.

Few people are going to head for a sewer to befriend a rat, but even rats who have rocky starts - lab rats, for instance - can be socialized and enjoy life with a rat fan, experts say. A rat will bathe itself head to toe, seven times a day.

Rat fans are as social as they say their pets, with clubs, shows and Web sites aplenty.

Fancier association members get together several times a year, though Zawistowski isn't sure rat shows are ready for prime time.

"I don't see a rat competition ending up on national television," she said. "I think it's going to remain a quirky little side thing."