Care Sheet for Pet Rats
by Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun
Pet rats are domesticated animals and as different from wild rats as dogs are from wolves. They are very clean and rarely bite. Like other rodents, rats are easy to care for, but they offer so much more. Rats are smart enough to learn their names and come when you call them. They are social, affectionate animals who form strong bonds with their owners. They beg to come out of their cage to play or be petted. They are smart enough to play interactive games with people like tug-o-war, hide-n-seek, and wrestling, and they can learn tricks. Many rats show affection by licking their owner like a dog. A well-socialized baby rat will climb eagerly on your hand and maybe perch on your shoulder. Both females and males make good pets. Female rats tend to be smaller and more active than males, running around and stealing paper to build nests. Males tend to make better lap pets.
Rats are more than just cage pets. They need time out of their cage every day to explore, play, and interact with their owners. And because rats are so social, it’s best to get at least two of the same sex to live together. A single rat will be an unhappy, lonely, insecure rat unless she gets several hours of human attention every day. Rats of the same sex (or altered) will live together fine if they grow up together or are properly introduced. However, a small percentage of males develop too much testosterone and become aggressive. Having them neutered will reduce the aggression within 8 weeks of the surgery.
A rat cage should be at least 12" X 24" X 12" and even bigger is better to allow room for scampering and toys. Wire floors are not recommended because they can give rats sores on their heels, and rats can get their feet caught in some wire and break a leg, especially in 1" X ½" mesh. Rats must be kept at room temperatures below 90° F and they require complete darkness at night.
It’s important to keep the cage clean since the ammonia formed from urine aggravates respiratory disease, the leading cause of death in rats. Avoid pine and cedar shavings as they contain acids that damage the respiratory tract and toxins that damage the liver. There are many good alternatives including aspen shavings, recycled newspaper pellets, and even rabbit food (alfalfa pellets) can be used as bedding.
Food & Water
A bulk grain mix does not meet the nutritional needs of rats. Food blocks or nuggets made specifically for rats are best. If a fortified grain mix is fed, you must make sure your rats eat the vitamin/mineral nuggets in the mix. About 20% of their diet should be a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cooked sweet potato, and cooked beans. Fluoride is toxic to rats so if your water is fluoridated, you must give your rats bottle water. Chlorinated water also is not good.
Rats need a water bottle, a food dish for fresh foods, and we recommend a hanging dispenser for dry foods. Many rats will use a litter box if it is placed in the corner they choose for a toilet. A concrete block, bird pedicure perch or similar toys in the cage will help keep their toenails short. Rats also need sleeping quarters and enjoy boxes, igloos, the Super Pet Giant Roll-a-nest and hammocks. While most rats will chew on a hammock and eventually destroy it, this rarely causes them any harm.
Because rats are intelligent active animals, toys are not optional, they are necessities! Rats enjoy exercise wheels, tubes, ladders, branches, and other climbing toys. Wheels must be at least 10" across and made of solid plastic or metal or ¼" wire mesh, not wire bars. We recommend the Wodent Wheel from www.transoniq.com. Rats also enjoy food toys, and many bird toys work well for rats.
Never pick a rat up by the tail. A rat’s tail is delicate and the skin on the end can actually come off. The best way to pick up a rat is to scoop him up with both hands. Or you can grasp him around the shoulders and middle. Then put your other hand beneath the rat’s hindquarters and bring him close to your body so he’ll feel more secure and less likely to squirm or try to jump out of your hands. Many rats will enjoy riding on your shoulder. Clothing—such as the snuggle scarf sold by The Rat Fan Club—will protect your skin from the rat’s sharp toenails.
Rats are smart enough to learn simple commands and perform many tricks. You teach a rat the same way you teach a dog, by showing the rat what you want him to do and then giving him a treat. You’ll find instructions for teaching some tricks to rats in the care book Rats written by Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun and sold by The Rat Fan Club.
Being rodents, rats have a tendency to chew. The solution is to “rat-proof” the area where they’re allowed to play, removing valuables and electrical wires. Some rats also have a tendency to urine mark, leaving small drops of urine as they walk. Males are more prone to this, although neutering will reduce the behavior. Furnishings can be protected with a throw cover.
Rats can breed as early as 5 weeks of age, and any female rat older than this who has been living with a male will probably be pregnant. A rat can also get pregnant again immediately after giving birth, so when breeding, the father should be removed before the birth.
Common Health Problems
Rats live only two to three years on average, although proper nutrition, exercise, and veterinary care can maximize their life span. The most common health problems in rats are respiratory and heart disease. Avoid choosing a rat who sneezes or makes noise when breathing. If your rat has these symptoms, consult a rat expert for advice. The Rat Fan Club sells a booklet called Rat Health Care that can help you identify and treat health problems. The Rat Fan Club website features a referral list of veterinarians who treat rats.
Mammary and pituitary tumors are the next most common health problems in female rats. Having females spayed helps to prevent these tumors. Benign mammary tumors can be removed with minor surgery, and cancerous mammary tumors can be treated in unspayed females with tamoxifen. Tumors are less common in male rats. Spaying generally costs $65-120 and neutering $45-100. Veterinary Pet Insurance (www.petinsurance.com) now offers health insurance policies for rats! Sign your rat up before she gets sick because the policy does not cover pre-existing conditions. (It also does not cover routine spaying and neutering.) The cost is $9/month or $84/year. The yearly plan saves $24.
bedding and/or litter
bed and/or house
dry food dispenser
treats for training
litter box (optional)
For more information about rats, contact: The Rat Fan Club
Rat Fan Club