Rats are generally extremely clean, intelligent affectionate animals, which bond to their human companions making playful sensitive pets.
Though their physical needs are simple they are a relatively high maintenance pet requiring plenty of “playtime” outside their cage each day. The welfare of your pet rat depends on you providing the correct nutrition, housing and environmental stimulation. Please consider this before deciding to take on the responsibility of a pet rat.
Wire cages are by far the best housing for rats. In addition to good ventilation they are a ready – made rat climbing frame. Wire floors, however must be avoided as they can trap feet and cause injuries. A tall cage with a minimum floor space of 2ft long by 1ft wide is also an advantage, as rats love to climb. Cages can be made into “adventure playgrounds” with the use of shelves, ladder, ropes and hammocks.
Aquariums can be an option but are not recommended as they provide less climbing opportunities and fewer opportunities for interaction with your pet. Ventilation can also be a problem (ammonia build up from urine can cause respiratory problems in your pet rat) and so a wire top is essential, as is more frequent cleaning. However, they do have the advantage of better protection for your pet rat if there is also a cat in the household.
In addition to a cage your rat will need protection from drafts in the form of a nest box. This is also an area where they can hide and feel secure and sleep. These do not have to be fancy; an upturned shoebox with a small doorway is sufficient. Remember to give new boxes though as they become wet and unhygienic.
Unless they are desexed, rats should be kept in single-sex housing!
The most common bedding is wood shavings, which are better than sawdust, which is usually too dusty. Cat litter pellets made from recycled newspaper are also good but most other cat litter is not appropriate as it is too dusty. Shredded paper makes good nesting materials.
Rats are omnivores. Commercially available diets are available from pet shops; however it is important to feed your pet small amounts, topping up when the bowl is empty. Otherwise the rats will feast on those foods they like, leaving the rest behind – so their diet may become unbalanced.
Food mixtures are better to offer than pelleted food as it allows the rats the extra stimulation of sorting through looking for their favourite food. Table scraps can be used as treats but avoid fatty or sugary foods. Remember rats’ teeth continue to grow so it is essential they be given food to gnaw on such as a piece of raw rib or shank bone. Fresh water is essential and drinking bottles are better than bowls as they are more hygienic. However older and sick rats may find drinking from these difficult and should be provided with bowls as well which must then be changed regularly.
Companion rats rarely bite, unless frightened or in pain. They should be picked up by placing a hand around the shoulders and under the back legs. They need to be handled gently. It is important to hold the animal firmly but to avoid grasping it so tightly that it is prevented from breathing. One way to get your rat used to you is to allow it to climb over you and ride on your shoulder around the house. Be careful your rat doesn’t fall and injure itself and be careful of other inquisitive household pets like the family cat who may harm the rat. This should not be attempted if you have a particularly nervous rat until it is calmer in your presence.
Rats are highly intelligent, social animals that love the company of humans and their own species. Though easy to care for rats do require at least an hour of quality time per day and should only be considered as pets if all their needs, both physical and mental, can be met.
A. Swierzy & A. Horn Pet Rat Information Sheet 1998