How To Care for Your Pet Rat
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Rats are typically gentle, intelligent, and fun pets. While they are generally low maintenance, they do have certain requirements to keep them happy and healthy. There are many breeds and 40 recognized colors and markings of rats. The most common types of pet rats include:
Rats are social creature that enjoy the company of other rats. They can be housed with other same-sex rats or, if spayed or neutered, rats of the opposite sex. They are mostly active at night, but often enjoy time out during the day for play and enrichment. Pet rats typically live 2-4 years, but the longest living pet rat reached 7 years old!
Enclosures are the first important component to keeping pet rats healthy. Rats can be escape artists, so housing should be solidly constructed to prevent runaways. The appropriate size for the cage is dependent on how many rats are living together. The minimum size enclosure for a single adult rat is 2 ft x 2 ft x 1 ft. The floor should be solid metal or plastic (never wire) with enough room to allow normal rat behaviors, such as burrowing, nesting, exploring, and exercising.
Carefresh bedding, fleece fabric, recycled newspaper, and shredded paper are appropriate substrates for pet rats and should be kept 0.5-1 inch deep. Never use pine or cedar, which can cause health issues due to toxicity. The bedding should be spot cleaned daily and completely changed 1-2 times a week.
Mesh tops should be firmly affixed to prevent escape, and aquariums should be avoided due to increased odors that can accumulate.
Rats are very intelligent and enjoy multiple toys, hideaways, and things to climb. Hideaways are important for rats to feel safe and to nest, while toys can double as ways to wear down their constantly-growing teeth. Rotate a variety of these items for increased enrichment and to decrease boredom. They may enjoy an exercise wheel, as long as it has a solid floor to prevent injury. Toys can include:
Paper towel and toilet paper rolls and other tubes
Commercially available pet rat wood chews to help wear teeth appropriately
Some rats can be trained to urinate and defecate in one area, but this is not always the case. If your pet rat typically goes to the bathroom in a certain area of the cage, make sure to keep the water bottle and food bowl on the opposite side of the enclosure.
While pet rats are mostly tolerant of temperature and humidity changes, they should ideally be kept between 65- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit and between 40-70% humidity.
Foods for Rats
Pet rats are omnivores and generally thrive on high-quality pellets with some fresh vegetables, fruits, and small amounts of lean animal meat like chicken. Pet rats may enjoy apples, pears, banana, citrus, broccoli, endive, bok choy, celery, berries, and peas. High-quality, veterinarian-recommended pellet diets include Oxbow and Mazuri Mouse & Rat Food.
Diets with seeds should be avoided, as they are high in fat, which can cause obesity, while being devoid of important nutrients.
Make sure fresh water is available and refreshed daily. Glass water bottles are preferred over plastic because they are easier to clean and less likely to harbor bacteria.
Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for food, especially if your rat is under- or overweight. Typically, 5-10 g of pellets per 100 g of body weight is a good estimate for rats.
Rat Medical Needs
Just like all pets, rats do require examinations by a veterinarian, at least once a year. Typically, the first signs of a sick rat are weight loss and decreased appetite, but owners may also see changes in stool quality, lethargy, and physical abnormalities like overgrown teeth, lumps over the skin, and hair loss. Rats are also susceptible to respiratory illness, so sneezing and increased respiration are reasons to take a pet rat to the vet.
Because they are prone to obesity, checking your pet rat’s weight weekly is important. Work with your veterinarian to determine the appropriate weight for your rat. In addition to obesity, common rat diseases include:
Dental issues, including overgrown teeth
A healthy rat should be alert and active, with clear and bright eyes. They are naturally inquisitive–sniffing and exploring their environment. They should not sneeze, have any nasal or ocular discharge, and should breathe comfortably. The hair coat should be smooth and free of any lesions or lumps. The teeth should be properly worn down with no signs of overgrowth or asymmetry.
Most veterinarians recommend exams every 6-12 months, including bloodwork and fecal parasite testing, to keep pet rats as healthy as possible.
Rat Cleaning Needs
Rats keep themselves very clean all on their own! They do not require any bathing unless they are sick and unable to clean themselves. In this case, work with your veterinarian to determine the best method to keep your pet rat clean and sanitary. If your pet is having fecal buildup or urine scalding in the rear end, talk to your veterinarian to determine the next best steps.
Rats typically have very little odor as long as their enclosure is properly cleaned. Bedding should be replaced daily as needed, with a thorough cage cleaning every 3-7 days. Make sure your rat is not inside the enclosure during cleaning and allow the enclosure to properly dry, as noxious chemicals and fumes can be irritating to a rat’s respiratory system.
Water bottles and food bowls should be cleaned daily and provided fresh.
Most rats are very amenable to handling, especially over time and with training. Use one hand to support under the rib cage and back, while using the other hand to scoop and support the rear end.
Rats do not typically bite, but young or new pet rats may do so when frightened. You may start less socialized animals with short, frequent interactions. Positive reinforcement with treats may help associate handling with good feelings and pleasant experiences.
Pet rats require at least 30 minutes out of their cage to exercise each day. They easily fit into small places, so care must be used to keep them safe when they are out of their enclosure. They are also prey species for other common pets, like dogs and cats, so keep them separate from rats during this time. Exercise balls should not be used as a rat’s toes and feet can easily become caught and cause injury.
Rats can carry some zoonotic, or spreadable-to-humans, diseases, such as:
Rat bite fever
Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus
If your pet rat is sick, make sure to talk to your veterinarian sooner rather than later. As a prey species, they may hide their illness until it is progressed. Always talk to your human medical provider with any concerns regarding zoonotic diseases.
Leck DVM ABVP, Susan. Veterinary Information Network, Inc. A Quick Reference Guide to Unique Pet Species Rat Pet Care. January 2011.
Pollock DVM, DABVP, Christal. LafeberVet. Basic Information Sheet: Rat. February 2010.
O’Connell CVT, Jessi. Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital. Rat Care. 2022.
Guinness World Records. Oldest rat ever. 2022.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Liudmila Chernetska
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