The history of rodents living with humans is long and convoluted, beginning with an involuntary relationship on the part of mankind. When we ceased to be primarily hunters and gatherers, shifting to a more agrarian existence, rats and mice happily moved into grain storage bins, helping themselves to our food.
This is, in fact, how cats came to be domesticated as companions to human beings. They earned their keep in the granaries exterminating the rodents, fulfilling their side of the equation in one of the oldest of all adversarial relationships in the animal kingdom.
Not all civilizations, however, viewed rodents as a scourge to be served up to the cats for the taking. In Asia, where mice are believed to have originated, the Chinese kept the tiny animals as pets as early as 1100 BC. The Egyptians accorded supernatural powers to mice, while the Greeks used them in rituals for divination and prophesy.
(Alas, dormice faced a different fate in the same period. The Romans considered them a succulent edible delicacy!)
The first mice and rats to be kept as pets by humans were undoubtedly wild specimens with the typical agouti or brown coloration. Both species, however, quickly adapted to domestication and were easily improved by selective breeding to enhance not only their temperament, but also their size and coat color, quality, and texture.
The mouse fancy can be traced to 18th century Japan with the publication of the booklet, “The Breeding of Curious Varieties of the Mouse.” The hobby was present in England by the late 19th century where the National Mouse Club was founded in 1895 thanks to the work of Walter Maxey, the “father” of the hobby.
In 1901 the National Mouse Club agreed to include rats at the request of Miss Mary Douglas, now considered to be the “mother of the rat fancy.” In 1912, the organization changed its name to the National Mouse and Rat Club. After her death, however, the interest in rats declined, and the club reverted to its original name in 1929.
In roughly this same period, mice and rats were increasingly used in scientific research, most notably the genetic work of Gregor Mendel. This led to the breeding of more unusual specimens, which in turn stimulated greater interest in “fancy” rats and mice as pets.
In January 1976, the National Fancy Rat Society was founded in Great Britain, and exists today in concert with the original National Mouse Club.
The proliferation of the rodent fancy in the United States does not enjoy the same precise documentation. It’s likely that the first companion rodents in the U.S. were either wild mice or laboratory animals. In the 1950s, The American Mouse Club was formed, but was quickly abandoned.
In 1978, the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association was created, and is still the flagship organization for the hobby in the United States.