Rats carry a bad rap. However, it only takes one viewing of Pixar’s classic Ratatouille to tempt you to get one of those little furballs and sing in badly-accented French to it. Before you start stocking up on berets and baguettes, though, you need to learn how to look after pet rats. While these animals have a lot to offer and are relatively low-maintenance, they have specific needs that aspiring owners should take into account.
For a quick introduction to rat care 101, check out this video on rat care for beginners:
To keep your pet rats healthy and thriving, you should provide them with a living environment that caters to their specific needs.
Let’s start with the cage. It needs to be large. Rats require a lot of space to run around, socialize, and hide when they need some me-time.
Another thing to keep in mind is that rats, especially younger ones, can easily squeeze through gaps — so you want to get a cage with narrow openings between the bars. What’s more, rats can chew through wood, plastic, and some other materials. That means it’s best to have a metal cage (and check that it is still intact on a regular basis).
In addition, the cage should have a solid floor as wire-mesh can cause foot injuries.
You also want to ensure that your rats get exercise and attention outside of their cage for at least an hour each day.
Rats are naturally furtive animals and need to have access to a hiding place at all times. These safe havens are where rats can escape when they feel threatened or anxious or whenever they want to build a nest to sleep, rest, or simply get away from it all.
Rat shelters should be dark, quiet, and equipped with at least two exits. They should also be large enough to accommodate all rats if they want to sleep together. Cardboard and woven boxes make excellent shelters as rats are able to chew and gnaw on them — which they love.
It’s important to install multiple hiding places in your rats’ cage. This way, you will minimize competition between cage mates, and each animal will be able to choose a place to rest.
Toys and Physical Obstacles
Rats are playful, intelligent, curious, and full of energy. That’s why it’s essential to provide them with plenty of physical and mental stimulation.
Pet rats love toys — especially if they are chewable or come with hidden treats. Ideally, the toys should be made of different materials, such as wood, paper, or cloth.
Rodents also like to climb, so you want to equip the cage with vertical as well as horizontal obstacles at varying heights. Examples include hammocks, tunnels, rope nets, and ladders. The goal is to create a complex space with many different structures and places to explore, play, and hide in.
A word of caution: when setting up obstacles, watch out for any sharp protrusions that might harm your pets.
Bedding and Nesting Materials
Your pet rats will be spending a lot of their time sleeping or resting. What’s more, nests help them regulate their body temperature. Therefore, it’s vital to provide your rats with suitable bedding and nesting materials. Good examples include:
- Paper strips
- Paper tissues
- Shredded filter paper
- Non-aspen wood chips
- Cellulose-based chips
In contrast, you want to avoid:
- Dusty materials such as sawdust
- Any bedding with synthetic fragrances and/or coloring
- Aspen, as it can cause allergies and breathing problems
- Over-absorbent materials, as they can reduce humidity to suboptimal levels
- Cotton wool and any other fluffy materials that separate into thin strands — these pose a risk of ingestion, entanglement, loss of circulation, and even limb amputation
In any case, you want to provide your pets with various bedding materials, as rats enjoy playing with different textures and building their own nests. What’s more, having a choice over their bedding gives them a sense of agency with respect to their living environment.
Temperature, Ventilation, and Humidity
The perfect temperature for your pet rats is neither too hot nor too cold. Generally, you want to keep it in the 19–23°C or 66–73°F range. That means you shouldn’t position your rats’ cage in places such as conservatories, garages, or garden sheds. You should also consider moving the cage to another part of the house if it gets too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter.
In addition, the room where your pet rats live should be well-ventilated but not draughty.
And as far as humidity goes — you guessed it — it should be neither too damp nor too dry. So, you want to avoid bathrooms as well as air-conditioned rooms.
Cage Cleaning and Hygiene
Despite their reputation as sewer dwellers, rats are actually very clean animals. In fact, they can spend more time on grooming than cats! For the most part, they will keep their home in good order and can also learn to use a litter box, as they prefer to keep toilet areas separate from their resting and feeding places.
To help them out, you want to clean their cage on a weekly basis, removing any droppings and urine buildup. Do the cleaning in the mornings or evenings to avoid disturbing your pet rats in the middle of the day, when they are likely to be asleep or resting. However, don’t remove all the old nesting material from the cage. Leave a bit behind to keep some familiar smells — just make sure it is clean.
What to Avoid
In addition to all of the above, you want to place the cage away from dirty and dusty environments.
The cage also needs to be kept out of direct sunlight and bright artificial light, as that can damage the rats’ eyes. Red-eyed albino strains are particularly susceptible.
You also want to avoid strong smells such as air fresheners or smoke, as rats have highly sensitive noses.
Crucially, rat cages should be kept away from ultrasound as well as long-term, high-pitched, or unpredictable noises. Unlike humans, rats can hear ultrasound, and exposure to extreme noise can be so stressful that it could cause them to have seizures. Common household items to avoid include:
- Computer screens
- High-pressure hoses
- Kitchen sinks
- Vacuum cleaners
Last but not least, you want to avoid moving the cage at all costs unless absolutely necessary. Moving can be incredibly stressful for rats.
Rats are social animals and, as such, crave company. If left alone for a long time, rats can develop abnormal behaviors and could even get depressed and/or physically ill.
That’s why it’s crucial to provide your pet rats with frequent attention and regular physical contact. These animals are quite bright and are able to be trained and build close relationships with their handlers. You can pet them gently, reward them with treats, or play games with them — young rats play all the time and even take turns at who wins!
Human companions are not enough, though: your pet rats should live with other rats. Generally, same-sex households work best. Males can get along if introduced at an early age or if they come from the same litter.
However, keep in mind that unfamiliar rats are likely to be aggressive and even fight one another until they establish a dominance hierarchy. You can tell that your pet rats are fighting when you notice raised fur, injuries, or that one rat is hiding from the other. The good news is that this period usually does not last long, and fighting between old cage-mates is rare.
Rats are quick learners, naturally curious, and have excellent memory. What’s more, they require both mental and physical stimulation to thrive and stay healthy and can quickly become bored if under-stimulated. Therefore, you should consider training them, as that will keep them entertained, engaged, and can improve the bond between you and your pets.
Pet rats are generally quick to pick up new commands and tasks. They can learn to spin, overcome obstacles, and retrieve items. One skill you definitely want to consider teaching them is climbing up onto scales in exchange for a treat. That will make the regular weighing sessions easy as child’s play.
When training your rats, you should never punish or force them to do things. Instead, use kindness and positive reinforcement to teach them new tricks.
It’s especially crucial to never force them to swim or enter water. While some pet rats enjoy playing in water, forced swimming can be a highly stressful experience for these rodents. Instead, provide them with free access to water in a shallow container, and let them figure it out for themselves. Make sure to also supervise them, especially if they are young or inexperienced swimmers.
Diet and Feeding
What to Feed Your Pet Rats
Rats are omnivores, meaning they can eat both plant- and animal-based food. To keep healthy, they require a balanced diet of fresh, nutritious, and species-appropriate food.
For the most part, store-bought rat pellets should do just fine. They are low in fats and contain all essential nutrients, and they are sold at pet stores for about $10 per bag. It’s recommended to try different brands to find out what your rats’ favorite foods are.
You can also spice things up with the occasional fruit, vegetable, or cooked egg. However, these should be a part of your pets’ daily ration and not in addition to it. Otherwise, you risk having them become obese.
In any case, when changing diets, don’t do it overnight. Rats can be wary of new foods, so you want to introduce them gradually.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you should always introduce new foods to the whole rat group at the same time. If you give unfamiliar food to individual rats, their cage mates will quickly pick up on the strange smell and may become aggressive.
You should feed your pet rats twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening, removing any leftovers. If they leave uneaten food, consider reducing the amount.
The food should be placed in open and easily accessible bowls that allow the rats to carry, manipulate, and handle the food with their paws. That’s a part of their natural foraging behavior and should be encouraged. In addition, you want to opt for ceramic rather than metal food containers to avoid ultrasound.
And if you notice your pet rats eating fresh feces, don’t worry and don’t try to stop them. That’s a natural behavior that helps them absorb extra nutrients.
Food to Avoid
Foods to watch out for include:
- Food for hamsters, Guinea pigs, rabbits, or other herbivores. Unlike rats, these species do not need animal-based protein in their diets. That means their food will lack essential amino acids and other key nutrients that rats are unable to produce themselves.
- Food that can harm your pet rats, including citrus fruits, grapes, onion, walnuts, rhubarb, raisins, and chocolate.
- Dairy and other food high in fats and sugar. While rats love sweet and fatty food, it should only be used as the occasional treat or as a reward during training.
- Seed mixes. While rats will love them, they are high in fat and will predispose your pets to obesity if given often. So, you should give seeds as a treat once or twice a week only — and make sure your rats get plenty of exercise.
Last but definitely not least, pet rats should have constant access to clean and fresh drinking water. Make sure to monitor water levels at feeding times and refill as needed.
As far as the container type is concerned, water bottles are a better option than bowls as they help prevent contamination. Nevertheless, you should still wash them regularly to avoid bacteria buildup. You also want to check for blockages and leaks on a daily basis.
Ensuring that your rats have multiple drinkers is a must. This way, they will always have access to water even when one of the drinkers gets blocked. Multiple drinkers also help avoid competition between cage mates.
The average life expectancy of pet rats is around 18 to 36 months.
Perhaps the most common health issue in rats is respiratory disease.
It is usually caused by a type of bacteria called mycoplasma. Unfortunately, many rats get infected soon after they are born. While they don’t often show symptoms of the disease until later in life, stressful experiences can cause the pathogen to take over. Common triggers include other health conditions or changes in the rats’ living environment, such as new cage mates.
While respiratory disease can be addressed with a course of antibiotics, it can be challenging to treat, especially in older rats or animals with other health issues.
Female rats may develop hormone-triggered mammary tumors. The best way to treat them is prevention: the removal of the uterus and ovaries halts estrogen and progesterone production. That’s why it is important to spray your pet rats as early as possible.
Rats’ teeth grow continuously throughout their life and may cause pain, discomfort, and other health problems if left unchecked. To prevent that, you want to provide your pet rats with plenty of gnawing and chewing toys.
What to Watch Out For
To make sure that your pet rats are happy, healthy, and thriving, you want to check for symptoms of stress and illness on a daily basis. Keep in mind that rats could be in great pain and still may not show any outward signs. That’s why it is vital to get to know their personalities and normal behavior well. Tiny behavioral and body language changes may indicate that something is not quite right.
Things to watch out for include:
- Weight gain
- Bald patches, which may be a sign of skin problems, allergies, a mite infestation, or overgrooming due to stress
- Redness around the eyes and/or nose, as it often indicates stress
- Compulsive and repetitive behavior such as chewing cage bars
Last but not least, you must never pick up rats by their tails, as that could lead to serious injuries.
Other Things You Should Be Doing
You should ensure that your pet rats get regular vet checkups. While you are there, you should discuss issues such as worming, vaccinations, spraying, and neutering.
If you are going to be away from home for a while, you want to have your rats looked after by a responsible person. You should provide them with all the information they need to keep your rats healthy and safe.
Finally, make sure you read up on your rats’ breed. Different breeds may have specific health needs.
Female rats reach sexual maturity by eight to twelve weeks of age. Male rats become mature even earlier, at six to ten weeks old. Therefore, you want to spray or neuter them as soon as possible. That helps avoid overpopulation, male-on-male aggression, as well as certain health issues such as mammary tumors.
If your pet rats are not neutered or sprayed, you should never keep males and females together — unless you want to end up with a lot of pups. Once they hit puberty, females go into heat every four to five days, so getting pregnant is not an issue for them. You can often tell a female rat is in heat if she seems unusually restless or agitated.
Rats are generally quite good at keeping themselves clean and well-groomed. One thing you should never do is trim their whiskers. They are extremely delicate and sensitive, and rats rely on them to keep their balance and navigate their surroundings.
Rats and Other Pets
While pet rats can coexist peacefully with other species, you want to use caution when introducing them to other animals. You should be especially careful around cats and dogs, as they are natural predators and may perceive your rats as prey. Better be safe than sorry.
Where to Get a Rat
Your local pet store can be a good place to get a rat. However, you should ensure that the rats are kept in suitable and clean housing and seem well-fed and handled. It’s also vital that the store keeps males and females separately; you don’t want to end up with a surprise litter when you get home.
In addition to pet rats, which are usually sold at around $14 apiece, you can also buy feeder rats. These are bred as snake food and can cost as little as $2 each. Unfortunately, however, they are more likely to carry disease.
Rat breeders, also known as ratteries, are a great option if you are looking for healthy and well-socialized rats. What’s more, these are probably the only places where you can find a particular coat type or coloring.
If you are looking to adopt, you can always contact an animal shelter or rat rescue group. However, keep in mind that rescue rats can be older and with unpredictable temperaments. It’s okay to get a rat that is somewhat skittish or shy, but you definitely want to avoid aggressive rats. Rescue rats can also suffer from a host of unknown health conditions.
How to Choose a Pet Rat
When choosing pet rats, you want to avoid animals that get easily panicked when touched or approached by humans. Not only are they more difficult to handle, but they can also become aggressive further down the line.
You also don’t want to get a rat that is too calm and quiet, as this could be a symptom of an underlying health condition. A healthy and psychologically sound rat will be slightly alert and suspicious of unfamiliar humans but still curious enough to approach them if they seem calm.
Other traits you want to look for include:
- A shiny, smooth, and well-groomed coat.
- The nose, ears, eyes, and the rear end should be well-groomed and free from discharge.
- A firm and well-rounded body. However, younger rats should be on the slimmer side.
- The skin on the tail and the ears must be clean and pink. It should not be red, brown, and covered in sores or dandruff.
- A healthy rat’s feet should be free of sores or bumbles, and the animal should not be limping.
- There should be no drooling around the mouth, as it could be a sign of dental problems.
- The rats’ breathing should not be labored, and they should not be sneezing either. Both are common symptoms of respiratory disease.
And while you are at it, don’t forget to check for lice — pet rats often get them. The areas behind the ears, where there is less fur, is a good place to check for nits.
If you want to know what to expect when bringing a new rat home, make sure to check out this video:
Do Pet Rats Bite?
Like all animals, rats do not bite unless they feel scared or threatened. Well-socialized rats are not likely to be aggressive, but it ultimately depends on the person handling them. If you squeeze them or hold them too tight, they may nip at you. For this reason, rats may not be a good fit for very young children who may not be able to control their grip.
In the unlikely event that you or someone else gets bitten by a rat, you must get medical help right away. Rodents can carry a bacteria that causes rat-bite fever, a serious condition that can be fatal if left untreated.
In any case, you should always wash your hands thoroughly after handling rats or their cages.
Should You Get Pet Rats? Final Thoughts
If handled properly, rats can be wonderful pets. They have unique personalities and make for intelligent, affectionate, and low-maintenance companions that could bring a lot of joy in your household. Like any animal, however, these rodents have specific needs that you should be aware of before getting pet rats. To recap, you may want to check out this video on the 20 things you should know before owning rats: