Pet Rats: How to Care for Pet Rats

Rats make excellent tiny pets that love to play, and they can even be trained to play fetch like a dog. Learn how to care for pet rats.

The Rat Pack: Not Just Snake Food
The Rat Pack.

Images of screaming children and housewives jumping on chairs at the sight of a rat or mouse are familiar, but pet rats are not only common but also endearing pets that have their own shows. They don’t live long but can be playful and loyal and fun to watch.

Rats live about 2-3 years on average and are intelligent; they can be trained to come on command and even do tricks. They are affectionate creatures that bond with their owners and are bred for looks and temperament. They do require at least an hour of playtime each day and are less aggressive than their ancestors or wild rats. Although rats have poor eyesight, they do have an excellent sense of smell and hearing.

Obtaining Your New Pet Rat

Pet stores large and small can buy their rats wholesale. You want to avoid getting your pet ret from these sources because they are usually bred in large quantities, not socialized with humans, stressed from transport, are more likely to have picked up diseases and are usually taken from their mothers too early.

Buying from a breeder is best, and there are some things to consider when evaluating the breeder. First, check the area the rats are housed in to ensure it is clean, safe, spacious and that rats are separated by sex (females can become pregnant at 5 weeks old). Make sure the rat you intend to adopt is older than 6 weeks; a breeder who does not know the date of birth should be a red flag.

Hold the rat to determine if it has been socialized with humans or exhibits fear by urinating when held. Ask about the mother and if she is allowed breaks in between litters. A good breeder will have answers to all of the above, provide a good environment and care about the welfare of the animals.

The Social Circle

Although rats bond with their owners and enjoy playtime, they also enjoy the company of other rats. Consider having a minimum of two rats to entertain each other when you are not around. Rats are most active in the middle of the night, and this ensures they are not bored while you are asleep. The pair will most likely groom each other, curl up together when sleeping and determine a natural pecking order of authority.

If you are introducing a new rat to your existing one(s), let them meet outside the cage in a neutral area to get acquainted. You can dab some perfume on them to hide their individual smells and lessen aggression toward each other. Arrange these meetings daily until you feel comfortable housing the rodents together. This usually takes one week but can vary.

Biting and Fighting

Males with elevated hormone levels are prone to aggression and can harm other pets (and you). Castration usually curbs this behavior. Females bite as a protective measure when pregnant or when they have babies. Once the babies are older or a male has been castrated, the biting and aggression should subside. If it does not, no animal should be kept if it is considered a danger.

Biting can also be passed as a temperamental quality onto offspring, so consistent biters should not be bred. If two rats are fighting, use a water bottle to spray them and then separate them for a few hours. Never use your hands — that’s a sure way to get bitten.

Coming Home

Prepare your home for your new pet rat by checking the floor boards, doors and windows for openings. Rats can fit through small spaces, and you should ensure that escape routes are closed during playtime. Spend as much time handling your new rats as possible to allow time for them to adjust to your scent and touch. Never pick them up by the tail; this can cause injury and it’s not pleasant for them. Cover any exposed wires that might be chewed on and check any plants for poison hazards.

Preparing the Habitat

Rats need room to play and explore, and cages should have a minimum of 2 square feet of floor space. Wire cages are recommended for ventilation and are easy to add toys and provide climbing areas. Cubes and Coroplast (C&C) cages can also be used, but the cage should have a solid bottom. Wired bottoms can cause injury to your pet and are messier to clean (think of the droppings stuck between the wires — yuck!). Use high-quality wood shavings or nontoxic shavings at the bottom of the cage for litter. Never use cat litter.

Add toys and other items such as old clothes, plastic tubing, ropes, containers, branches and items to hide inside to help keep your rat entertained. Avoid exercise wheels or any toys with wheels or spokes as these can be dangerous. Keep the cage out of sunlight (45-75 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal) and make sure it has a small box or container with an opening as their bed (sometimes referred to as a nestbox).

What to Feed Your Pet Rat

Commercial rat food is sold in the form of pellets, and some offer most or all of a rat’s dietary needs. Treats and supplements that can be given include fruits, vegetables, low-fat cooked meats, sunflower seeds and bread in moderation. Any food or treat high in sugar or fat content can be detrimental to your rat’s health and should not be offered in excess.

Water should be readily available at all times from a water bottle. You can also add a dish or bowl of shallow water for play and grooming. Clean the water daily and thoroughly clean all dishes and containers once per week. Rats are very clean animals and groom themselves constantly, so they don’t require bathing. If desired or needed, you can trim their nails just as you would trim a cat’s nails.

Illnesses in Pet Rats

Rats aren’t free from sickness, and there are some symptoms to watch for to know when it’s time to see the veterinarian:

  • Lethargy or decreased activity
  • Change in eating habits
  • Eyes remaining closed or partially closed
  • Red discharge from the eyes or nose
  • Heavy breathing or wheezing
  • Head held to one side permanently
  • Lumps under the skin
  • Scabs on the skin or excessive scratching
  • Bleeding in females (they do not have a menstrual cycle so this is cause for concern)

Rats are susceptible to respiratory issues; cleaning the cage regularly can help alleviate illness. They can also get tumors, infections, parasites and mites. Antibiotics can remove good bacteria from the animal, so discuss probiotics to use with antibiotics when prescribed by your vet.

A little effort can go a long way in having a healthy, happy pet rat that looks forward to spending time with you. Taking these preparations and precautions will ensure that your pet gets quality of life and proper care. Just remember when company is coming over that you put the rats back in their cage or warn your guests!

The following video shows how adorable and entertaining pet rats can be — and these perform tricks!

Additional Resources

Photo: adria.richards/Flickr

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, has been researching dog and cat breeds for nearly a decade and has observed the animals up close at dog shows in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She is the author of the book One Unforgettable Journey, which was nominated for a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. In addition, she was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. Kristine has researched and written about pet behaviors and care for many years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, another bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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