Of all the small furry pets that can kept in the home, rats are arguably some of the very best.
Rats as pets are inquisitive, intelligent, friendly and surprisingly clean too.
If you’re currently considering buying a pet rat then here’s the low-down on what you need to know…
Caging Pet Rats
There’s no getting away from the fact that rats are much bigger than most other small rodents. In addition to this rats are very active animals and will climb about their cage readily exploring.
This lifestyle has a major impact on the most suitable cage for your rat. Firstly it’ll need to be as large as you can possibly manage; think of something more suitable for a parrot or a guinea pig than for a hamster. Ideally this should measure at least 2 feet in each direction, but larger is better.
As rats are adept climbers, taller cages tend to work well for them. This allows you to add platforms, ladders and hammocks which they can clamber over and sleep in. Indeed, it is perfectly normal to find your rats fast asleep in their hammock, rather than curling up on the floor of their cage.
It is also important to point out that rats are highly sociable animals, so should never be kept on their own. The RSPCA recommends keeping at least two rats together if they are to be happiest in captivity. However when keeping two or more rats together you should also be certain to sex them properly; a breeding pair will quickly start to produce babies, which creates additional problems. As a result it is generally wisest to keep rats in single-sex pairs or trios in the home.
There are a number of possible options for housing your rats. Most popular among rat keepers are strong wire cages of a suitable size, with a solid base. Here the bars should be far enough apart to prevent your rat getting a paw caught while climbing, but close enough together to prevent escape. As a result it is generally best to purchase a cage made especially for rats, rather than trying to re-purpose a cage built for other animals.
A second option for housing your rat is a decent-sized aquarium with a close-fitting mesh lid. Increasingly a number of such cages are being made by manufacturers, and may be found in larger pet shops.
Lining the Cage
To keep your rats clean and comfortable it is important to line the base of the cage with an absorbent material. For this reason the often-recommended use of newspaper is not really ideal. Instead consider using wood flakes or one of the paper-based cat litters available from most pet shops. This should be spot-cleaned as necessary to keep it clean and smelling fresh.
When keeping rats as pets it’s important to appreciate just how intelligent they are. For rats, therefore, there is little worse than a bare and boring cage. Instead some considerable thought should be put into environmental enrichment.
A range of rat toys and equipment are now available. These can include tubes and tunnels, nesting boxes, ladders, ropes and more. So have some fun and make your rats cage a truly exciting place to be. Also consider swapping around toys on a regular basis in order to keep your rat entertained.
Lastly in terms of cage furnishings don’t forget that you’ll need a food bowl and water bottle which should be kept clean and replenished on a daily basis.
Rats are naturally quite clean animals, but a rat cage that isn’t cleaned regularly can start to smell quite strongly. It is therefore your responsibility as their keeper to ensure the cage is cleaned on a regular basis.
Start by spot-cleaning any area that looks particularly bad; this should be considered part of your daily maintenance routine. In addition the whole cage should be cleaned thoroughly on a weekly basis. This means disposing of the cage lining, removing all the toys and fittings and scrubbing everything thoroughly with hot water or a pet-safe detergent. Leave the cage to dry before setting it up again and re-introducing your beloved rats.
Feeding Pet Rats
Rats are omnivores, which means they will eat a wide range of foods in captivity. The basic foundation on which your pet rat’s diet should be built is a complete dried food. These typically come in two forms; a muesli-style mixture with all sorts of grains and dried vegetables, and a kibble-style where each piece looks the same.
Generally speaking the second option is the better, as it significantly reduces the chances of “selective feeding”, whereby your rat carefully picks out their favourite items while leaving the others behind. In other words, kibble foods provide a more balanced diet with a greater range of vitamins and minerals.
However, such a food is really just the tip of the iceberg, and all manner of other items can be offered to add interest to your pet’s diet. For example rats can be partial to a range of different fruits and vegetables. Freshly-cooked sweet potato tends to be particularly popular, but almost anything you might eat can be used for rats. Think of chopped apple, water cress, carrot and so on.
The only fruits and vegetables you should be certain to avoid are onions and rhubarb, which can be poisonous for rats.
However even here we haven’t discussed all the possible options. Being omnivores rats will also enjoy some meat from time to time. The safest form of meat to feed your rats are live insects as sold to reptile keepers. For example many rats will enjoy the occasional mealworm or locusts as a treat, crunching away with obvious pleasure.
Having mentioned all the foods that pet rats will eat, it makes sense to discuss some of the things that should never be fed to rats. In general you should avoid feeding processed and/or junk food to your pet rats. This means no chocolate (apart from rodent-safe chocolate drops), no crisps and no fizzy drinks, for example.
Think fresh, healthy and natural and you won’t go far wrong.
One of the real benefits of keeping rats as pets is that they can become so tame. Whereas a hamster or a gerbil will tolerate being picked up, many rats seem to positively thrive on it. Indeed, it isn’t unusual to find pet rats climbing up the bars hoping to get out as soon as they see their owner.
Handling rats isn’t just a pleasure for you, therefore, it is also good for your rat. Handling rats also gives you an excellent opportunity to give them a regular “health check” and make sure that there are no issues such as scabs, cuts or bald patches in their fur.
The key is to introduce your pet rat to handling slowly, over a period of time, and to make it a regular occurrence. If you only handle your rat once every few weeks you can expect them to be considerably less tame than a rat which is handled daily.
Therefore if you are planning to buy a pet rat it is critical that you block off some time each day to let your pet out to run, explore and receive some much-needed attention.
Fortunately handling rats is quite simple. They’re very sure-footed and have excellent balance, so will happily clamber about in your hands, or will climb up to sit on your shoulder. Just be certain that there is no way your rat can fall or get otherwise injured while out of their cage.
As a final hint, rat’s tails can be surprisingly sensitive. While you might opt to pick up a rat by the base of their tail on occasion, you should never pick a rat up by the tip of its tail. Doing so can cause pain and damage, and doesn’t make for a good long-term relationship.