Rats as pets
Rats can make great pets! Rats are clean, intelligent, affectionate animals which bond to their owners in much the same way that dogs do, and with the right care can provide a similar level of companionship. Rats become very attached to their owners, make playful, sensitive pets, and can be taught to come by name and learn tricks. Unlike many other rodents, however, rats are a fairly high maintenance pet. They need at least an hour's playtime outside their cage every day. Because they are much more intelligent than many other small animals, rats can suffer if not given enough attention and environmental stimulation. For this reason, while rats are extremely rewarding pets, they may not be suitable for everyone. Consider your lifestyle and whether you can commit enough time to a rat before making the decision to give a rat a home. Rats generally live for between 2 and 3 years.
Rats are highly intelligent, social animals, and although they enjoy the companionship of humans, they need the company of other rats. Rats should never live alone, and ideally should be kept in groups of two or more of the same sex. Rats enjoy grooming each other, curling up to sleep together, and sometimes even fighting. It is usual for rats to fight occasionally, especially when they are 'teenagers' (3 and 6 months old); do not worry about this unless you see serious injuries, as the rats are just establishing a hierarchy.
Rats kept in pairs or groups are happier, more confident, and easy to tame. We are not aware of any good argument for keeping rats alone, but there are many good reasons to let them live in single-sex pairs or groups: two rats are as easy to look after as one, a cage that is big enough for one rat is big enough for a pair, two rats are much happier and live longer than single rats --and they're many times more interesting to watch!
The more attention you give your new rats when you first get them home, the sooner they will get used to you and make friends with you. Handle your rats as much as possible and they will soon learn to enjoy your company. Unless a rat is very nervous or unwell, you cannot give it too much attention or handling. Rats should not be picked up by the tail because it can cause injury. It is best to lift a rat by placing one or both hands under the chest, behind the front legs, being careful not to squeeze too hard.
Housing for rats:
Rats must live indoors in a cage. Rats do not cope well in extreme temperatures, and therefore the temperature should not fall below around 7 C or rise above 24 C. The cage should be placed in a non-draughty part of the house, preferably where lots of activity takes place, because rats enjoy watching what’s going on.
Because rats spend most of their lives in their cage, and because they are such intelligent animals, the cage needs to be large. A cage could never be too large for a rat, the larger it is, the more interesting it will be for your rats. As a guide, the minimum cage floor space should be 60cm x 30cm. Speak to pet store staff for advice and guidance on choosing the right size cage.
As with other rodents, wood shavings make the best litter for the bottom of the cage to absorb urine and faeces. Straw and hay can cause injury so should ideally not be used. Shredded paper makes ideal bedding, and can be placed in a corner of the cage or in a nestbox. This is a place to hide or sleep in which allows the rats to feel secure, and to build a warm nest. A nest box can be made from many objects, for example, a small empty cardboard box, a large clean empty jar, or a small bucket laid on its side.
Wire cages are best because they provide maximum ventilation. Rat faeces and urine releases ammonia. This irritates the respiratory tract, making rats vulnerable to breathing problems. Good ventilation allows ammonia to escape into the surrounding air, thus reducing the amount that rats are exposed to in the cage. Ventilation is therefore a very important factor in keeping rats healthy.
Providing toys for rats helps to stimulate them and keep them from boredom. Many household items can be used, some ideas are lengths of plastic drainpipe, large glass jars, cardboard boxes, and old clothes. Small toys for hamsters or gerbils are good for baby rats. Most adult rats, however, prefer to use humans as their toys!
Rats can eat a varied diet, but to ensure their diet is balanced, it is advisable to feed a complete pelleted rat diet. These are available in pet stores.
The following foods can be used as treats or supplements to the regular diet: fruit, vegetables, cooked liver, kidney, or other low-fat meat, live yoghurt, sunflower seeds (a good source of B vitamins), wholemeal pasta and bread, brown rice, unsweetened breakfast cereals, and very occasionally a capsule of cod-liver oil. Keep fatty foods like peanuts and sunflower seeds as treats, because there is a link between fat in the diet and some cancers. Seed sticks make great treats, and it is important to use food for play, by hiding treats in the rats’ cage.
Food should be always fresh and there should be a clean, fresh supply of drinking water always available.
To keep your rats healthy, it is a good idea to clean out your rats’ house every week, and use a pet-safe disinfectant to clean the enclosure. It may be necessary to clean out the toilet area more frequently, even daily, since this helps to reduce ammonia levels. Using small litter trays with rat litter can help with this.
Common health problems:
Here is a list of the most common health problems to look out for
Red discharge around the nose and or eyes- although not an illness itself, this can be a symptom of distress. Rats' mucus is stained red with a pigment called porphyrin. This discharge may be present if your rat is ill or stressed. Watch your rat carefully, and if it appears unwell or if the discharge continues for more than a few days, always get your rat checked by a Vet.
Respiratory disease- Almost all pet rats are infected with an organism called mycoplasma which lives in their lungs. Many rats carry mycoplasma without appearing to suffer any illness, while others show signs of infection. These rats will usually start to sneeze as young adults and then start to wheeze. Some go on to develop emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia and lung abscesses. Any rat that sneezes for an extended period or starts to wheeze should be checked by a Vet as soon as possible.
Skin problems- Scabs on the skin of your rat can indicate a diet problem or allergy. Removing any food from the diet which contains additives, colourings or nuts can help resolve this problem.
Tumours- These are very common in rats as they age, particularly females and rats which are overweight. Fatty tumours are very common. Most tumours are benign, and usually only need to be removed if they grow so large that they start to affect a rat’s mobility.
Obesity- Rats which each too much fatty or sugary food are at risk of obesity. Obesity shortens a rat’s life expectancy, therefore it is every owner’s responsibility to ensure their rats eat a healthy diet.
Dental problems- overgrown teeth are a common problem in rats. If your rat stops eating or you think the front teeth look too long, always take your rat to your Vet for advice and a check up. A Vet can safely trim your rat’s teeth and advise on prevention.
Keeping your rats’ cage clean, feeding a good diet, grooming your rat regularly and providing wood or toys for gnawing can help keep your rats healthy throughout their life. Always wash your hands before and after handling your rats too!
What you need when keeping pet rats:
Ceramic food bowl
Water bowl or bottle
Time to play with your rats!