Looking after pet rats
Our top tips on looking after pet rats.
Pet rats are extremely clean, very intelligent, they enjoy human company and make very good pets.
Although pet rats belong to the same species as the wild rat, they should not be viewed in the same way at all.
Provided that pet rats have been handled and socialised well from an early age, you can share your home with them free from worry that they will be aggressive and that they will not spread harmful diseases.
There are many varieties of rat with and they can have different coat and eye colours. These will include white, cinnamon, blue and parti- coloured coats with dark or pink eyes. Male rats are called bucks whilst females are does and babies are known as kittens. On average, they can live for around two and a half years.
Rats need company of their own kind, so it is not fair to keep one on its own. To avoid unwanted babies, the best option is usually a pair or group of the same sex. Rats will breed frequently from as early as five weeks old, producing a litter of eight or more young each time. Females can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth. As you can see if they are sexed incorrectly you can soon end up with a lot more pet rats than you bargained for!
The best place to buy a rat is from a reputable breeder or pet store and a baby should be at least six weeks old at the time of purchase. Make sure they have been properly sexed and separated from the opposite sex by the time the males are five weeks old. If you buy from a pet shop, the staff should be able to handle the rats confidently and show you how to tell what sex they are.
Make sure all animals in the shop are in clean, good sized cages with fresh food and water. Some pet shops occasionally take in pet rats for re homing and it may be possible to find pet rats which have been rescued by organisations like the RSPCA.
Before buying your new pet rats, be sure you can give them enough time. Rats need at least an hour’s exercise outside the cage every day and, while they make great family pets, they should not be looked after or handled by unsupervised children.
What type of cage does a pet rat need?
The best home for your rats is a wire cage – the larger and taller the better, as rats are active and love to climb. Hamster cages are not big enough although a larger hamster cage may be suitable as a holiday cage or as an area to care for a sick pet rat. A rat cage should be at least 50cm x 80cm floor space, by 50cm tall. The floor should be solid rather than wire, with a solid tray underneath, this will avoid a rat trapping and injuring its feet or limbs. Aquarium-style glass cages ideally should not be used because the ventilation isn’t good enough.
Litter should be put on the floor to absorb ammonia from droppings. Litter training your rats will help to keep their cage clean. Use dust-extracted bedding to avoid respiratory problems (see Health matters). Cat litter is unsuitable as bedding but can be used in your rat’s litter tray.
Rats also need a nest box where they can sleep and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. A cardboard box with shredded paper bedding is ideal. They also enjoy a hammock hanging in their cage – this can easily be made from an old towel or similar material. Rats are susceptible to extreme cold and heat dehydration and both of these can be fatal, so make sure the cage is in a suitable environment away from direct sunlight and draughts.
What should I feed my pet rat?
Rats are omnivores and love a varied diet that includes grains, vegetables and a protein source such as dry dog food. Commercial mixes are available from reputable pet shops. While rats are fond of titbits and household scraps, do not let them get too fat. They enjoy occasional pieces of fruit, vegetables, peanuts and sunflower seeds, but these can cause skin problems, so they should be kept as a rare treat.
Fresh, clean water must always be available. If a water bottle is used it should be cleaned, refilled and checked daily to ensure it is not blocked or leaking.
Health issues in pet rats
Check your rat daily for any general signs of ill health, such as loss of appetite or lethargy. One of the most common problems in rats is infectious respiratory disease but this can only be passed from one rat to another. It can not affect other species or humans. Be extremely wary of buying a rat from somewhere with many other rats, particularly if any of them have rapid or noisy breathing. Other respiratory problems are also common in rats.
Red discharge around the eyes or nose is a sign of illness and stress, although the redness is not blood but a natural pigment in the mucus. Some rats develop tumours as they get older and these are more common in females.
While rats can be easily castrated, it is generally not necessary and only carried out to prevent unwanted breeding or to stop the occasional aggression towards other rats or humans.
Rats are naturally very clean and spend a lot of time grooming themselves, although some may need their tails cleaned occasionally. This should be done gently with a mild animal shampoo. If you are worried about any change in your rat’s health, please consult your vet.
Exercise and entertainment for your pet rat
Rats need at least an hour’s playtime outside of their cage every day, but you must first make the room safe and rat proof. Keep doors and windows closed and block cracks in floorboards, as rats can get through seemingly impossibly small gaps. Keep house plants out of the way because some can be poisonous to rats. Electric cables should be passed through piping so they cannot be chewed. Rats may enjoy toys such as pieces of plastic drainpipe or cardboard boxes, but avoid wheels with spokes as they can cause a serious injury. If you also have pet cats it is important to make sure they are kept separated.
Company for your pet rat
Rats naturally live in social groups so it is very unfair to keep one on its own. A same sex pair or group will be much happier and two rats don’t cost much more to keep than one as well as being much happier.
Handling your pet rat
Rats that are handled correctly soon after they are born will enjoy it. To help them get used to you, try carrying them around the house inside your jumper! Never pick up a rat by its tail as this can injure them. Instead, put one hand underneath its chest behind its forelegs, and support the hind legs with your other hand, holding but not squeezing. Children will enjoy handling rats, but must be supervised to make sure they do not hold them too tightly.
Rats as children’s pets
Rats make good companions for children and adults. However, they will need daily social interaction and time out of their cage, so it is important that everyone in the family is keen on the idea of keeping rats as pets. Rats need larger cages than the smaller rodents but, as they are larger, they are easier to handle than small rodents. They are generally also not quite as speedy as hamsters, gerbils or mice. As with all children’s pets, it is important that an adult is responsible for making sure the rats receive the attention and care that they need.
Please don’t forget…
- Keep your rats in same sex pairs or groups
- Spend at least an hour a day handling your rats and letting them exercise outside their cage, in safe surroundings
- It is important not to overfeed – a fit rat is healthier and should live longer than a fat rat
- Rats are one of the cleanest pets you can own and do not pose health threats to people or other animals
For information on looking after pet gerbils, please click here.
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