I’m Kate Moore, and I love rats.

Still with me? Good. That sentence carries a bit of a stigma. When I tell people about my beloved pet rats, reactions range from the disgusted (“Ugh! Why would you bring a rat into your house?!?”) to the politely baffled (“Rats? You mean…like actual rats?”) to the downright mean. Only very occasionally will I get a positive response, and I cling to those people like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth.

The thing is, most of these people haven’t ever met a pet rat. Fancy rats, as they’re called (meaning “bred by rat fanciers,” not “swanky,” though they are pretty glamorous) are not the same as their sewer-dwelling counterparts. They’re smaller, softer, with sweet faces and very fastidious grooming habits. Seriously, whenever they’re not sleeping or eating they’re bathing, and mine are litter-box trained. Honestly! Are you ready to meet them?

Helvetica is the intrepid adventurer of the two. She doesn’t look it in the photo, but she is a lot of rat–she weighs almost a pound, and when she sleeps in her hammock her chin and neck disappear into her adorable chubby belly. Arial is the shyer, sweeter one, who loves to snuggle–pictured here in her favorite spot, the back of Jimmy’s shirt. She’s been dubbed “Miracle Rat” by her vet, because she survived kidney cancer at only 6 months old (she just has the one kidney now!).

I honestly can’t believe the amount of space these tiny critters take up in my heart. They’re my first rats, and I didn’t expect them to be so full of personality, so friendly, so affectionate. They run to the cage bars when I come home, and when I’m feeling bad, I just put a finger through the bars and Arial will lick it like a little dog. They don’t bite, even when they’re startled, and they love to perch on my shoulder when I’m working. In short: I’m smitten.

In the proud tradition of animal dorks everywhere, I spoil the bejeezus out of them, and that’s the subject of today’s post. They turned one a few weeks ago (which is slightly bittersweet–the one downside to keeping rats is their very short lifespan, only about 3 years) and I decided to do something nice for them in honor of their big day. No, I’m not talking about their rat-shaped birthday cake, though they had one and it was adorable:

No, while they (obviously) loved the cake, the main event is their new cage! Their current cage (a Coast Cages Rat Mansion, for all you rat people) is a great one, but it’s a little tough to clean and it’s never really gone with our stuff. A silly complaint, but you’re reading a design blog, so chances are you understand. I wanted something that would be nice for the rats, easy to clean, and that would look like a piece of furniture in our living room. I looked at a lot of existing cages, but couldn’t find anything I liked well enough, so obviously it was the DIY route for me.

I was inspired by this DIY hamster cage, which someone (I wish I knew who–if you see this, creator, let me know and I’ll credit you!) made from an IKEA Expedit unit:

What a lucky hamster, right? Now, some things would have to be different. For one, I needed a vertical version, not a horizontal one, because of our space. Plexiglas doors wouldn’t work, because rats need more ventilation and because I like to put my fingers and small treats through the bars. And I wanted their environment to be a little more “designed,” a little less natural. They’re very pampered; they don’t need a desert landscape, more like a rad mid-century modern apartment. So obviously, I started a Pinterest board.

I wanted the bones of the piece to be white, with orange as the secondary color. Initially I’d planned to use orange, gray, and black, à la the Ikea fabric in the second row, but eventually decided I wanted something more colorful. I found a mug at Target in a color scheme I liked, and thought I’d look for something in that direction:

But when I went to our local Jo-Ann to look around, they’d had a water main burst inside the store and closed! Apparently they won’t be reopening until next year. Eek. Hobby Lobby works for fleece, but they were lacking in cool modern prints. I had hit a little wall. Until Fabric.com put one of my favorite designers on sale, Joel Dewberry.

This is where I drove Jimmy insane asking his opinion a hundred times on fabrics meant for rats to sleep on. But he was a good sport and gave me his honest opinions, and we decided on the four fabrics above. For those of you who are unfamiliar with how a rat cage is set up, I use fleece pads on the levels, like little carpets, to keep their feet from being irritated by wire or the occasional puddle. They’re made with a layer of fleece on top, cotton batting in the middle, and cotton on the bottom. I typically make 3 sets and rotate them, washing them in hot water whenever I clean the cage. Their hammocks and cuddly things are made the same way. The liners that go on the cage shelves will have a plain cotton backing, but the hammocks/beds/fabric toys will use the pretty fabrics above.

I’ve also been going nuts over cage furniture, because I want it to have sort of a mid-century feel. Not an easy task when we’re talking rats. There are scale versions of a lot of designers’ furniture, but they’re made by the original designers and can easily cost upwards of $300. Rats do tend to be a little destructive, so I wasn’t about to shell out money for something they’d probably chew to shreds. I decided it would be a lot of fun to give them something akin to an egg chair:

And so I channeled my inner third grader and got my papier-mâché on. I didn’t buy anything, just wrapped a balloon in phone book strips dipped in Mod Podge, then added a little base. It’s drying now, but you’ll see it in the final reveal post (hopefully coming this weekend!). I’m sure they’ll destroy it, but all it cost me was some time and I can easily make another.

Fortunately the water bottle and wheel I have already coordinate with the color scheme. They needed some new food dishes–they have a large one I made with my wonderful ceramic artist friend Emily, but ideally I wanted two smaller ones for treats and fresh food. Pier One came through for me on this–they had these cute twisted square bowls, about 3″ wide each, for just $2 a pop.

Cute, right? That takes care of the purchases for the mo. Their fabric came in today, so I’ll be settling in over the weekend for a liner-sewing marathon. Usually I watch whole seasons of TV on Netflix while I do this–anybody have suggestions for a new show? I just finished all of Sherlock and I’m dying from the wait till the next season. I need a distraction!

So stay tuned for the big reveal, readers, and in the meantime, anybody out there have some oft-maligned pets of their own?