In the past 20 years, rats have become popular pets. Unlike other rodents, rats are smart, empathetic and playful; they crave attention and companionship, making them excellent companions for families and children. Rats enjoy playtime, learning tricks and socializing. They are clean and have almost no odor. They are easy to take care of and have a relatively short life span of about two to three years.
Rats come in a variety of colors: albino, blue and multi-colored. Fancy types include the curly-haired Rex, tailless, hairless or shiny-coated satin rat. Before getting one, consider getting two or more, as they are friendly creatures that prefer companionship.
Rat Housing and Substrate
Wire cages can be the best choice, particularly ones with horizontal bars that allow climbing, but make sure bar spacing is 3/8” to ½” inch to prevent escape. Tall cages with ramps and platforms are perfect for providing extra room for multiple rats. At a minimum, the cage should be one foot by two feet; include shelves and hammocks for extra space.
Large aquariums can work, although they don’t offer proper ventilation, must be cleaned more often and require a water bottle holder and secure metal mesh screen top. Avoid wire flooring; it is linked to bumblefoot, a bacterial infection in the foot and leg that can cause painful swelling. You can cover wire ledges with a thin sheet of wood or plastic.
Place the cage in a relatively quiet area but still near active areas in the home. Rats are nocturnal, so keep their space reasonably quiet during the day. Avoid exposure to direct sunlight or drafts, and don’t give other pets, like dogs and cats, access to the cage. Don’t use cedarwood shavings; aspen and other hardwood shavings are better. Consider pet bedding and litter options that are dust-free, absorbent and safe. Rats will typically choose a bathroom area in the corner. Spot clean as needed and add litter if required. Clean the cage and replace the bedding once a week.
Give your rat a nesting box; wooden ones can be used as a chew toy to help keep the teeth trim. Plastic ones are easier to clean but can get chewed up quickly. Fabric hide options are also available.
Food and Water
Formulated rat foods are available; choose an option that is low in fat, calories and corn but high in fiber. Provide fresh food to supplement the diet and prevent boredom. Use ceramic dishes that are sturdy and won’t be tipped over easily. Keep a supply of fresh, clean water available at all times in a rodent water bottle.
You can introduce your rat to small amounts of fruits, vegetables, pasta, bread, brown rice, yogurt, mealworms, cheese, seeds and nuts. Dog biscuits can be used as treats. High-fat foods such as cheese, seeds and nuts should be limited. Though they enjoy sugary foods, avoid giving them fast food, soda and chocolate.
The most popular way to gain trust from your rat is by giving food and treats; try at least once a day. This lets the rat come to you on their terms. Simply hold a treat between your thumb and forefinger and offer it to them in the cage. Let them come to you; don’t force them or follow them around the cage.
Once they have accepted treats, you can start placing the treats in the palm of your hand. Do this until the rodent is comfortable accepting food from your hand.
Rat Health Problems and Temperament
Before buying a rat, you should know that they can develop many of the same problems as humans: obesity, heart problems, digestive conditions, neurological issues and more. Tumors and respiratory problems are the most common issues. It is possible to perform surgery on rats, but the high cost and risk can ward off owners. Preventative health care is the best option; try to locate an exotic animal vet that has prior rat experience.
Make sure it has a clean, well-groomed coat and is active and playful. Monitor its eating and drinking habits.
After buying a rat, let it settle in for a day or two before attempting to handle it. It is normal for your rat to sneeze during this time. However, if sneezing persists after a few days, your rat might have an allergy or small infection.
To make sure your rat is used to your scent, take a sock or another article of clothing and wear it for a few hours. Put the item in the cage and change it out every day or two. Soon, your rat will become familiar with your scent and therefore you.
Rats are full of energy and love to run, climb and explore. Provide plenty of new toys such as pet-safe blocks of wood for chewing, cardboard tubes and toys for ferrets or parrots. Toys made from rope, wood and leather are durable. Plastic toys are okay; they usually need to be replaced more frequently than others.
Also provide ladders, hammocks and tunnels; solid exercise wheels are also a great way to burn calories. Crumpled paper, paper bags and small cardboard boxes are also great inexpensive rat toys. Avoid anything with ink.
Make sure to rat-proof any area outside of the cage that the rat will have access to; be mindful of electrical wires, cables and cords. Keep your rat from anything toxic, including plants.
Training and Bonding
A large part of rat care is social time; abandoning a rat can make it unhappy. Training makes sure your rat trusts you and other people. It takes time and lots of practice and love, but it can be accomplished. Keep in mind that each one is different; some become comfortable with their owners faster than owners.
While you train with your rat outside the cage, note that rats scent mark as they travel, which means they leave drops of urine along their path. The odor is usually not detectable, but you may want me to be mindful of certain fabrics or delicate furniture.
To read more about bonding, read our blog on bonding with your pet rat.