Rats make great pets because they’re intelligent, sociable, and affectionate. They’re also quiet, clean, and fairly easy to care for. There are hundreds of different breeds of rats, but “domestic” or pet rats have been bred for many years and therefore, have different characteristics than wild rats.
Home Sweet Home
Your rat needs a cage that is at least 20 inches long by 14 inches wide by 24 inches high. Increase the floor area by one square foot for each additional rat. A wire cage with a raised mesh floor and removable tray provides the best air circulation and is the easiest to keep clean. Be sure to include a “house” for privacy, small wooden ladders for climbing, and a thin board so your rat can get off the wire mesh. Be sure to also keep the cage away from direct sunlight and out of drafts. Rats are very clean by nature and will appreciate a clean home. Many types of bedding are available. Recycled paper pellets are highly soluble and help to maintain a healthy home. Pine bedding also works well and is highly used. Cedar chips are NOT recommended, as they emit a substance call “phenol” which irritates a rat’s nasal passages, throat, and lungs and can lead to serious illness and organ failure. Corncob bedding is also not recommended, as it is very hard on your rat’s feet.
Rats have complex vitamin and mineral requirements. Commercial rat food is available at pet supply stores and will provide a nutritionally balanced diet for your rat. Use a sturdy crockery bowl that can’t be tipped over and is easy to clean. You can supplement your rat’s diet with small pieces of fruit, vegetable, and salad greens. Nuts, seeds (NO apple seeds), hard boiled eggs, unsalted/unbuttered popcorn, and unsweetened cereals make good occasional treats. Introduce new foods slowly and in small amounts to reduce the risk of diarrhea. A piece of dog biscuit should also be available as it contains protein and minerals and helps wear down your rat’s teeth. Keep fresh water available in a suspended “licker” water bottle at all times.
The average life span of a rat is two to three years. They’re sexually mature at about six to eight weeks. Because your rat’s teeth grow continuously, it’s essential that you provide it with hard things to gnaw on to prevent its teeth from growing too long. Untreated hard wood, dog biscuits, and hard bread crusts are some suggested items.
Handling with Care
Approach your rat slowly and be careful not to startle it. Speak softly and let it sniff your hand before you attempt to pick it up. Feeding it a little treat from your fingers will help it to trust you and associate good things with your presence. However, if you give them a treat every time you see them, they may start grabbing your fingers, even if you don’t have a treat. Pick up your rat gently, but firmly, enclosing your hand around its whole body, and supporting all four feet. You may also offer your hand and allow it to climb up your arm and on to your shoulders. Never pick your rat up by its tail, because it’s painful and could result in injury. The more you handle your rat, the friendlier and tamer it will be. If you have children, be sure to supervise them whenever they handle the rat. Never allow them to pick the rat up by its tail or let its body hang.
Rats are naturally social animals and don’t do very well when isolated. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend with your rat, you’ll want to consider getting it a companion. Littermates of the same sex tend to get along the best. A neutered male and a female will get along fine, as well. Rats love to play and are fun to watch. They’ll explore everything, so you must always be responsible for their safety. If you “rat-proof” an area in your home for your rat, then your rat can have free time running and playing with you on the floor. Look around for holes and block them securely to keep your rat from escaping. Rats like to chew and nibble, so protect anything valuable like important documents, electrical wiring, and houseplants. Rats can’t be housetrained, but they can learn to ride on your shoulder, understand basic commands, and do tricks through positive reinforcement training, like clicker training. Use very small treats to encourage your little friend to come when you call, to reach up and beg, and to navigate mazes. If introduced to an exercise wheel when young, your rat will continue to use it. Be sure to use a solid wheel, as your rat’s tail could get caught between metal bars and break.
American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association. 9230 64th Street. Riverside, CA 92509-5924; 626-966-0330 (Louise Stack); http://www.afrma.org/. National Fancy Rat Society. http://www.nfrs.org/. Cardinal, Ginger. The Rat: An Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. Fox, Susan. Rats. T.F.H. Publications. Himsel, Carol A. Rats: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual. Barron Book Series.