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
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.
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.
Provide nesting material when setting up the cage for the rats to shred and use to line their nest box. Ideas of items which work well include tissues, paper towels and inkless paper. Do not use cedar or pine wood shavings which can cause allergies. Instead, opt for aspen or other hardwood shavings. Make sure your pet bedding is extremely absorbent, not dusty, and safe for smaller pets. If the bedding is pelleted, consider the use of pelleted products, typically very absorbent, under a layer of softer loose bedding. This ensures something comfortable for the rats to sleep and play in.
Your rat will choose a corner of the cage to serve as its lavatory. Scoop out any heavily soiled litter on a daily basis and add more litter if needed. Clean the entire cage and provide new bedding and litter every week.
Good pet rat care includes a nest box which you can purchase in a store or make yourself at home. Remember, store-bought boxes are good but the wooden ones may be difficult to clean if they become urine-soaked and the plastic ones may get chewed up fairly quickly. Good homemade options include a jar or flowerpot turned on its side or a section of PVC drain pipe, possibly covered on one end. Cardboard boxes make very good nest boxes but may need to be replaced often.
Toys and Accessories
Rats are highly intelligent creatures who love physical activity and even performing tricks. Make sure your rats have a combination of ladders, ropes, hammocks, tunnels and platforms to climb up, over, under, down and through. Ensure they have plenty of toys like blocks of wood to chew on and keep their teeth healthy, including cardboard tubes and toys designed for parrots or ferrets. Good choices for pet rat care include rope and wood toys as plastic toys can be chewed through and destroyed frequently.
Great homemade rat toys include cardboard boxes, paper bags, crumpled paper and large cardboard mailing tubes. Rats need to be intellectually stimulated, so mix up the toys regularly to keep them from becoming bored. Look for a solid-surface exercise wheel to keep your rats entertained as well. The wire hamster wheels frequently found in pet stores are too small for rats and their feet or tail can get caught in the rungs or supports the wheel is suspended on.
Location, Location, Location
Try to keep your rats near the social activity in the home but in a relatively quiet place. As rats are nocturnal, try to keep their homes quiet during the day. Rats feel more secure when their cages are on a table or stand. Do not place them in direct sunlight or drafty areas of the house. Keep them away from other household pets as best as possible. They may feel threatened if a cat or dog is hovering over them.
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:
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.
Supplement the calories of pregnant and nursing rats with treats. Rats will only need one tablespoon of fresh fruits and vegetables per day. Give treats in small quantities to reduce the amount of time you waste looking for spoiled produce in your rat's cage. A strawberry or apple slice per rat will suffice. Once per week, offer your rat a hard treat such as a dog treat or branch from a fruit-bearing tree to keep the rats' teeth in a healthy state.
Heavy ceramic bowls are the easiest to use as they are sturdy, easy to clean and do not tip over very easily. You can use a water bottle with a sipper tube for water. Show your pet rat care by keeping a clean fresh water supply always available. Look for a small bowl as large bowls can take up valuable real estate and you may be inclined to overfeed your rats. Look out for stashes of food throughout the cage. This is a good indication you need to cut back on portion sizes. Make sure the food dish is far from your rats' restroom and feed at night when they are active, awake and alert.
Separate the fresh produce from the pellets so the food does not appear to be a soggy, unappetizing mess. Avoid plastic bowls as they are easily scratched and the scratches can be a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Wash the bowl with soapy water and rinse and dry thoroughly as part of your weekly pet rat care cleaning process.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.