Rat Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on May 22, 2023
Rat in basket of flowers

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Known for their loyalty and intelligence, rats are small rodents that make excellent companions for beginner pet parents. Rats are available in an array of unique breeds and colors, including white, cinnamon, Sphynx (hairless), Rex (with short, curled fur), Dumbo (with large ears on the side of their head), Siamese, and many more! 

As intelligent and social animals, rats need daily handling, playtime, and exercise outside their enclosed habitat. Rats must always be closely supervised when outside of their habitats. Pet parents should only allow their rats to access pet-proofed spaces that are free from wires, cables, and other objects that they can chew.

Rats must always live in pairs (at the minimum) as they are social animals that thrive in groups. Experienced rat parents frequently have 3–4 rats or more. Rats should be housed in same-sex groups as they breed quickly and can produce large litters. Mixed-sex enclosures should only be used if the rats are spayed and/or neutered.

Handling Your Pet Rat

Rats tend to be nocturnal or crepuscular (active around dawn and dusk), but they can adjust to their pet parent’s schedule over time. 

Rats can be skittish until they’re properly acclimated to their environment. However, with proper socialization, rats are interactive, friendly pets that enjoy daily interaction with human companions. Pet parents should allow newly homed rats a few days to acclimate to their surroundings before trying to handle them. Never grab a rat by its tail or squeeze its body when handling them. Children of any age should be supervised by an adult while handling a rat.

Rats use their long, hairless tails to regulate their body temperature, keep their balance, and communicate with other rats. They are excellent at jumping and should be handled over a soft surface to prevent injury if they fall.  

All small animals are potential carriers of infectious diseases such as rat bite fever and Salmonella bacteria, which are zoonotic (transmittable to humans). Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their rat or touching its habitat’s contents.  

Characteristics of Rats

Difficulty of Care 


Average Life Span 

Up to 3 years with proper care 

Average Adult Size 

14–18 inches long, including tail 



Minimum Habitat Size 

24” L x 24” W x 24” H 

Supply Checklist for Rats

To keep a rat happy and healthy, pet parents should have these basic supplies on hand: 

  • Appropriately sized habitat  

  • High-quality pelleted rat food  

  • Treats  

  • Bedding  

  • Food bowl 

  • Water bottle 

  • Exercise wheel 

  • Hammock 

  • Hideaway place  

  • Toys  

  • Wood chews  

  • Chew tubes 

Habitat for Rats

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

A single rat should be housed in an enclosure that’s at least 24” L x 24” W x 24” H. Ideally, habitats should be constructed with powder-coated wires and have a smooth, solid base to keep the rat’s legs and feet from getting trapped or injured. The spaces between the cage’s bars should be around ½-inch apart or smaller to prevent the rat from escaping or getting stuck. Enclosures should be well-ventilated and secured with a screened, escape-proof lid. Always provide the largest habitat possible. 

Glass and plastic habitats are not recommended, as their solid walls block air circulation. Habitats made from these materials also trap ammonia fumes from droppings more quickly, which can build up and irritate rats’ respiratory tracts, putting them at greater risk for infection.  

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Setting Up Your Habitat 

Rats are comfortable in average household temperatures between 65–80 F. Rats are sensitive to extreme temperature changes, so habitats should be kept in a draft-free area that’s not close to an air conditioner or in direct sunlight. Rats are social animals that enjoy company, so it’s best to keep their habitat in an area of the home that gets a lot of traffic. Make sure the habitat is kept off the floor and is not accessible to other animals, like curious cats and dogs. 

Rats can be kept in same-sex pairs or small groups if they were raised together. Rats kept in the same habitat should be watched for aggressive behavior. If two rats fight, separate them. Never keep different species of animals in the same habitat. 

Bedding for Rats

One to 2 inches of high-quality, paper-based bedding or crumpled paper should be added to the bottom of the habitat. 

Paper-based bedding should be used instead of wood shavings or chips of any kind. Unlike wood, paper is low-dust and digestible, meaning it won’t obstruct a rat’s gastrointestinal tract if ingested. 

Avoid cedar-based and pine bedding products. These products have aromatic oils that can irritate rats’ skin and sensitive respiratory tracts. 

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Décor & Accessories for Rat Enclosures

Hideaway box: Pet parents should provide each rat in a habitat with at least one hideout box for privacy. Ideally, hideout boxes made from chewable materials like hay or wood. 

Plastic hideouts are durable and easier to disinfect, but they should be removed from the rat’s enclosure if the rat begins to chew on it. The broken plastic pieces can obstruct a rat’s gastrointestinal tract if ingested and cause serious injuries. 

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Running wheel: Since rats tend to gain weight easily, daily exercise is vital to their overall health. Adding an appropriately sized running wheel is a convenient way to satisfy a rat’s instinctual need to run. 

Ensure that the wheel’s running surface is smooth and won’t entrap the rat’s feet or toes, causing injury. 

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Toys: For rats, playtime is a necessity! Aside from keeping rats mentally stimulated and physically fit, chew toys help rats keep their front (incisor) teeth trim and healthy. 

Adding climbing ladders, cardboard or PVC tubes, and branches to a rat’s habitat will allow them to exercise while in their enclosure. Many rats also enjoy lounging and sleeping in hammock toys. 

Make sure that all wooden toys and chews are made from untreated, pet-safe wood. 

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Cleaning & Maintenance for Rats

Pet parents should spot-clean their rat’s bedding daily, removing any soiled material and uneaten food. The entire habitat and its contents should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week (or more often if multiple rats are housed in the same enclosure). 

To clean a rat’s habitat, take these steps: 

  1. Move the rat to a pet-safe temporary enclosure and remove any old bedding or litter from the habitat. 

  1. Use a small animal habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution to wash the habitat and any accessories. The bleach solution should stay on the habitat for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are properly disinfected. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, such as the Kaytee Clean Cage Small Animal Habitat Deodorizer Spray, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

  1. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove any trace amounts or residual smells of the cleaning agent or bleach solution. 

  1. Allow the habitat and its contents to dry completely before placing new bedding and clean accessories into the enclosure. 

  1. Return the rat to the clean habitat. 

Other Accessories for Rats

A small animal playpen can provide a safe, spacious area for rats to play and exercise outside of their enclosed habitat. Rats are fast, nimble animals that can escape easily, so pet parents should always supervise their rat while it’s outside its usual habitat. 

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Diet & Nutrition for Rats

Rats enjoy a diet of high-quality rodent lab blocks or pelleted food, as well as limited amounts of grains, vegetables, fruits, hay, and treats. Rats should always have access to fresh, clean water. 

A nutritious and well-balanced rat diet consists of high-quality rodent lab blocks or pelleted food that’s formulated especially for rats. Ideally, rats should be offered food twice a day—in the morning and in the evening. 

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Grains, vegetables, fruits, hay, and treats can be offered in limited quantities (no more than 10% of the rat’s daily diet). Most fruits are safe for rats, but rats should not eat fruit seeds or pits, citrus fruits, or rhubarb. While rats can enjoy most vegetables, do not offer them garlic, onions, unripe tomatoes, raw beans, or potatoes. Fruits and vegetables should be cut into small, bite-sized pieces before serving.  

Rats are prone to obesity. Since fruits are naturally high in carbohydrates, they should be fed in more limited quantities than vegetables to prevent unhealthy weight gain. 

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​​​​​​​Water should be changed daily and offered in a chew-resistant water bottle. Pet parents should regularly clean and disinfect their rat’s water bottle to prevent bacteria from forming.  

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Do not allow rats to consume chocolate, caffeine, or alcohol, as these ingredients are toxic and can cause death or serious illness. Sugar and high-fat treats should also be avoided because they can cause digestive upset. 

Pet parents should discard any uneaten fruits and vegetables after 10 hours, as they may spoil and cause infection if eaten. 

Grooming & Care of Rats

Rats are naturally hygienic and rarely need baths, but pet parents can spot-clean their little ones using a damp, soft washcloth or unscented baby wipes as needed. 

Older and ailing rats may need help keeping food and dirt out of their coats. A soft, small brush can be used to remove debris from a rat’s fur. 

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Nail Care: Healthy, active rats typically should not need to have their nails trimmed, since nails are worn down with daily use. If a rat's nails begin to curl, or if they start leaving scratches on themselves during self-grooming, they should be taken to a veterinarian for trimming.  

Dental Care: Rats’ front (incisor) teeth grow continuously, so pet parents should provide them with safe wooden toys, mineral blocks, or other chewable items to encourage gnawing and help keep their teeth at a manageable length.  

The enamel of a rat's incisor teeth darkens and turns orange-yellow as they age. This is not a sign of poor hygiene—it's normal! 

Consult a veterinarian if a rat’s teeth seem too long, if they are drooling excessively, or if they are dropping food when they eat. 

Veterinary Care for Rats

Annual Care

Rats should be examined by a veterinarian once annually.

When transporting rats in a travel carrier, ensure that the gaps between bars are small enough that your rats cannot escape and that the material is resistant to being chewed. Never transport rats in cardboard carriers. Food and water should be offered in the carrier. Bring pictures of their enclosure and all supplies if you have any questions for your veterinarian about the care of your rats.

Signs of a Healthy Rat

  • Clear eyes

  • Clean nose

  • Clean ears

  • Shiny hair coat

  • Clean feet

  • Nails and teeth that are not overgrown

  • Inquisitive nature

When to Call a Vet?

  • Weight loss

  • Wounds or trauma

  • Excessive scratching

  • Lumps

  • Coughing, wheezing, sneezing, nasal discharge, or other respiratory difficulties

  • Diarrhea

  • Anorexia

  • Drooling

  • Overgrown teeth

Common Illnesses in Rats

  • Weight loss

  • Obesity

  • Stress related conditions

  • Mycoplasmosis

  • Respiratory infections

  • Mammary tumors

  • Pituitary tumors

  • Dental disease/malocclusion

  • Ectoparasites (lice, fleas, mites etc)

  • Heart failure

  • Bumblefoot

Pet Rat FAQs

Are rats a good pet?

Yes! Rats are lovely, smart, curious, gentle pets and adding them to your family can be very rewarding.

Do pet rats like to be held?

While just like people, rats will have different personalities. In most cases rats love to be held and would be happy in their owner’s arms all day if possible. Male rats are more likely to enjoy being held for longer periods while female rats are more likely to be hyper and may not stay still enough to stay in your hands.

Do pet rats like to cuddle?

Most rats absolutely love to cuddle. Rats must live together in pairs at minimum and you will find them cuddling together when sleeping every day. With proper socialization most rats will also love to cuddle with people. Male rats are more likely to have a cuddly temperament and cuddling in general is more common as rats age and are less active.

Are pet rats easy to take care of?

Rats are simple pets to care for. Once you set up their enclosure, the most “difficult” part of their care is maintaining stimulating activities for them each day since they are so smart. All rats need time outside of their cage daily and to be provided new toys and new arrangements for their cage.

What is the difference between a fancy rat and a rat?

Fancy rats are the domesticated pet rats that people keep while other rat species are wild. Fancy rats are smaller and come in a wide variety of coat types and colors and may be bred to have specific features like larger ears.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Svetlana Pazhiltseva

Maria Zayas, DVM


Maria Zayas, DVM


Dr. Zayas has practiced small animal and exotic medicine all over the United States and currently lives in Colorado with her 3 dogs, 1 cat,...

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