Small rodents are popular pets. Peruse your local pet store and you will find mice, gerbils, hamsters and rats among others. But which furry friends make good companions? Rats are just pests, right? Not according to the many people who keep them as pets. But if rats are pets, what does good pet rat care look like?

Rats have been domesticated for the past 200 years but were only widely accepted as pets in the past 100 years or so. They are smart, friendly, cute and great with children. They are generally strong and healthy and do not usually require expensive vet bills. They are also very clean. Demonized for carrying the Bubonic Plague from China to England, they actually only carried infected fleas. If you are considering a rat as a pet, we have the ultimate beginner's guide to rodent ownership including pet rat care.

Pet Rat Care: Bringing Home Your New Rat

Pet Rat Care A Beginner’s Guide to Rodent Ownership

When you first bring home your rat, she is probably stressed out by the change in environment. Ensure her comfort by having her shelter already set up, including bedding, nesting box and toys. Allow her to retreat to a safe space. Use the same​ type of bedding and food she is used to and introduce new products slowly. Give your rat a day or two to settle into her new home and discourage your household members from handling her until she has had time to adjust.

If your new rat is meant as a companion for rats already in your home, keep her quarantined for at least two weeks. This prevents the possible spread of disease. Keep her in a separate cage in a separate room in the house and do not allow her to interact with your residential rat or rats. Make sure she is eating and drinking normally and appears to be active and alert. After she has been checked out by a veterinarian, you can introduce her to the other rats in your family. Make the introductions slowly. If they get familiar with each others' scents, there is little risk of fighting and rejection. If possible, purchase your rat from a reputable breeder rather than a pet store to ensure proper upbringing and a clean bill of health.  


Shelter

Shelter

All animals, wild and domestic alike, need shelter. Rats do the best in large wire cages, particularly if it comes with horizontal bars allowing the rat to climb up and down the sides. Select a tall cage with platforms and ramps if you want to provide room for several rats. It is recommended that you house multiple rats as they are social creatures and prone to depression if forced into a life of isolation from their own kind. At a minimum, your cage should have 2 square feet of floor space. This is sufficient for two small rats if the cage is tall and has hammocks or shelves for extra space for more rats. When it comes to housing your rats, the bigger, the better. Large aquariums are a poor choice to house your rats. The poorly ventilated tank is difficult to clean and a bad example of pet rat care.

Bumblefoot is caused by spending too much time on wire flooring. If you purchase a cage with wire flooring, cover it with melamine, a thin sheet of wood or another easy to clean solid material. Fix this to the existing floor with wire ties. At the least, ensure the wire forms a fine grid of 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch maximum.

Bedding

Nest Box

Toys and Accessories

Location, Location, Location

Nutrition

Nutrition

Pellets or blocks are specially formulated for rats to be nutritionally complete. Your rats should eat 10 to 20% of their body weight per day in pellets. If choosing a rat block, look for one which is low in fat and calories, preferably made of soy meal rather than corn. As in humans, obesity leads to a wide array of negative health conditions. Supplement your rats' diets with small human treats once a week. Ideas include: 

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Brown rice
  • Yogurt
  • Whole grain pasta and bread
  • Low-fat cooked meat
  • Mealworms
  • Cheese
  • Seeds 
  • Nuts

It is important to not feed your rat chocolate. They are not allergic but the macronutrients are poor for them. Good pet rat care includes limiting higher fat foods including cheese, seeds and nuts—especially cheese as it provides no fiber. Dog biscuits are okay for rats as well. Try to not buy packaged loose mixes of food as your rats will probably pick out their favorite bits from the mix, leaving their diet imbalanced.

Portions

Dishes

Activity

Activity

A crucial part of your pet rat care is playtime outside the cage. Besides food, housing and the occasional checkup, rats only really need a little attention and time outside their cage. Make you sure you rat-proof the play area. There should be no exposed cables or wires for the rats to chew on. Certain plants and anything else toxic to rats should also be removed. The first few times you take them out, do so in an area like the bathroom where there is no low furniture for them to hide under. They will mark their territory leaving small drops of urine, but there is no offensive odor. Just cover any upholstered furniture. They may also scent mark you. This is normal, though, and will not happen every time.


Hygiene

Hygiene

Every month or two you may need to trim your rats' sharp little nails. This is only difficult if they try to squirm away while you are trying to do this. As you are checking out your rats' nails, check their teeth to make sure they are not becoming overgrown. Keep their teeth healthy by providing lots of opportunity for your rat to chew on things such as wood blocks and toys.


Are Rats Right for Me? 

Are Rats Right for Me

Rats make wonderful pets but make sure they are right for you at this time in your life. Here are some questions to help you decide. 

  • Are you willing to adopt? Small animals are frequently brought to animal shelters because people find they cannot care for them. Adoption saves lives. Purchasing a rat from a pet shelter just creates a demand for more breeding. 
  • Do you have time for a pet rat? Rats need to spend at least an hour per day outside of their cage. Whether they are getting exercise, exploring your home or snuggling with you in your lap, the interaction and attention are crucial for their well-being. You must thoroughly clean your rat's cage on a weekly basis and spot-clean every day or few days. You must have a schedule which will allow you to spend time with your rat in the late afternoon or evening and have a relatively quiet room in your house to keep her during the daytime hours when she needs rest.
  • Is your family ready to care for a rat? Make sure your pet rat care fits into your family's schedule. If the rat is for your child, will he or she be able to incorporate pet care with a busy schedule including school and extracurriculars? Can you shoulder the responsibility of care if your child drops the ball? Will your rat get enough attention if you have other pets in the household?
  • Are you prepared to adopt a pet with a short lifespan? The average lifespan of a rat is two-and-a-half to three years. If you have small children and are not prepared for them to experience the death of a pet, perhaps a rat is not right for you at this time.
  • Are you allergic to rats? Some people are allergic to rat dander, saliva or urine. Symptoms include skin reactions like rashes and respiratory problems. If you are not allergic to rats, you may be allergic to particular beddings such as hay or wood shaving. Spend time handling adoptable rats at your local humane society or a friend's house to test the waters. 
  • Are you willing to adopt two rats? Solitary rats will quickly become bored and depressed. They are social animals who need the companionship of other rats even if you spend plenty of time paying attention to your rat. 
  • Do you have young children? Small children often lack the self-restraint and fine motor control to handle a rat. They may drop it accidentally, squeeze it or scare it into biting. 
  • Can you afford to care for a pet rat? The adoption fee or purchase price of a rat is usually minimal or waivable but there are significant startup costs and ongoing needs. The initial purchase of equipment and supplies will likely include: 
  • Large cage or modular enclosure
  • Bedding material
  • Box to hide in
  • Food dish
  • Water bottle
  • High-quality commercial food
  • Toys

Other things to consider regarding the cost of your potential new furry friend are regular veterinary appointments, tumor removal, management of mites, and other pet rat care. Also consider who will care for your pet rat when you go on vacation.

Bottom Line

Rats are one of the best small rodents you can keep as pets. They are smart, clean, adorable cuddlers. Be careful before you commit to this furry pet though. You may have allergies and they require an upfront investment of between $35 and several hundred dollars. Like any other animal, they will require vet checkups. Be sure you have the time to commit to the pet as well. They are nocturnal so you will need to play with them in the late afternoon or evening.

If you have children, prepare for them to one day have to deal with their pet's death. Also, a rat is not a good idea if you can only afford to keep one. They are highly social creatures and can become bored, lonely and depressed if they are alone. Be sure there is a quiet place in your home away from other pets, direct sunlight and regular drafts of air.

Rats need at least an hour outside of their cage each day. Be sure you have someone to care for your rat if you go on vacation. Rats are highly active creatures so look into an exercise wheel with a solid surface. Their paws and tails can get caught in wire hamster wheels and they are usually too small anyway. Make sure your rat has a constant supply of clean fresh water and eats around 10 to 20% of her body weight each day.

Pet rat care includes keeping your rat intellectually stimulated. Allow them to climb around hammocks, cardboard tubes, stairs and more. Also, switch out toys to keep them interested and be sure there is plenty for them to chew on like wooden blocks and rope. Chewing keeps their teeth healthy. Check to make sure their teeth are not becoming overgrown every month or two when you clip their toenails. This is simple as long as they do not try to squirm away. Rats are very hardy, adaptable creatures so should not require a lot of medical attention besides regular checkups. 

 

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