There are many species of rat in the world but the most common pet species is a domesticated version of the 'brown rat' or Rattus Norvegicus. It is worth noting that this is not the species of rat (wrongly) implicated in the spread of the plague. This was the species Rattus rattus. Pet rats are no more likely to give you a disease than a pet cat or dog.
Rats are omnivorous - meaning they naturally eat a mixture of meat and plant matter. Although they are naturally nocturnal, pet rats are not generally as strictly nocturnal as hamsters for example and will adapt their behaviour in accordance with their owner's lifestyle. Rats have been kept as pets for over a hundred years. They make excellent pets and generally live for around two years on average.

Housing your rats

Rats should be housed in a barred cage - tanks are not suitable habitats for rats as they have limited ventilation which can be an issue for rats with their sensitive respiratory systems. The lack of bars also means the rats cannot climb (which they love to do) and it's difficult to make good use of all the space for them. This can lead to them becoming bored.

Traditional cages provide good ventilation and opportunities for the rats to climb and interact with you. However, many cages sold for rats are too small so it's worth exploring ferret and chinchilla cages too. Just check the width of the bar spacing especially if you have young or small female rats.

As a minimum you should provide two cubic feet per rat but we recommend nothing smaller than 8 cubic feet for a pair of rats - more is much better. If the cage has a wire base, be sure to at least partially cover it or provide solid shelves so that the rats don't have to spend too much time on the bare wire as this can cause foot problems. You’ll want to get a balance between height and floorspace as rats appreciate both. A very tall, thin cage or very low, wide cage will not be ideal. Younger, more active rats will want more height, whereas older, slower rats will probably appreciate more floor area.

Your rats will appreciate cage furnishings such as hammocks, tubes, ladders, ropes, wheels (solid, not barred) and igloos. But it's not necessary to buy expensive products designed for rats. Tea towels, pillow cases and the legs of old jeans make great hammocks and cardboard boxes and empty cardboard tubes can be a source of great entertainment. The cage should be placed away from direct sunlight or drafts. Never put the cage in a conservatory or sun lounge as rats can overheat quickly.

Substrate and bedding

It is very important to use the right type of substrate as the wrong material can have serious health implications. As a basic guide, paper and cardboard-based products are good (eg shredded paper, megazorb, finacard). Some paper based cat litters are ok but can be dusty or scented which isn’t ideal. Never use clay based litters, scented products or any product containing soft wood (eg wood based cat litters, sawdust and wood shavings). There is considerable evidence to suggest that these can cause liver and lung damage in small animals.

How often this bedding needs changing depends largely on the number of rats you have and how much space they have. As a general rule though, you will probably want to do a full clean once a week (including washing down the floor, shelves and bars of the cage) and a smaller clean in between in which you clean out toilet areas.

Rat diet

There are various pre packaged rat foods available but the quality is extremely variable. Avoid foods which are too high in peanuts, sunflower seeds or corn which should only be given in moderation.

Some owners prefer to create their own mixes in order to control the quality of the ingredients. A home made mix can be based on the shunamite diet, created by rat breeder and nutritionist Alison Campbell. You can find information about this approach at www.shunamiterats.co.uk/shunamite.shtml

In addition to dried food, your rats will enjoy fresh foods. These should be introduced slowly and in moderation as too much can cause diarrhoea. Good things to give them include cucumber, peas, banana, apple, broccoli and carrot. Although leafy greens like spinach and lettuce are not harmful in themselves, they are more likely to cause diarrhoea so should be given only in small amounts. Avoid giving them too much salt or sugar or foods too high in fat.

Rats also enjoy boiled eggs, tinned fish (not in brine) and cooked chicken and these foods are useful for providing extra protein to rats which are still growing.

Be cautious of commercially available rat treats which tend to be high in sugar. They won't be harmful in moderation but your rat will enjoy fruit, veg, egg or pasta just as much and these foods are much better for them.

Never give your rats carbonated drinks, alcohol, fruit and vegetable peelings (may contain pesticides) or citrus rinds.

Water should be provided in a bottle (not a bowl which will soon get messy) and should be changed daily.

Companionship

Rats are highly sociable animals so it is absolutely essential for their wellbeing that they have company of their own species. Female rats are very easy to keep together and unrelated adults can be introduced quite easily by allowing them to meet first on neutral territory. Male rats can be more difficult but introductions are certainly possible even between adults. Occassionally males can suffer from an excess of testosterone which can lead to aggressive behaviour towards other male rats (and occassionally towards people). Neutering usually resolves this issue but be sure to choose a vet who has experience with performing surgery on rats.

Sexing your rats

Sexing rats is quite straightforward. Like all pet rodents, the females have visible genitals/urinary openings which can be confused with a penis. The important thing to look for is the size of the gap between this and the anus. In females, the two openings are very close together with no furred skin between the two. In males you will see a noticeable gap. In males more than a few weeks old there are also very visible testicles.

If you are not confident in sexing rats, be sure to acquire your pets from someone who is. Pet shops often mis-sex rodents and they can breed quickly and prolifically. There are many ratslooking for homes in rescue centres so please do all you can not to add to the over population problem. If you find you have rats of both genders, please seek help from a specialist rodent rescue urgently. Bear in mind that pet shops, vets and rescues which do not specialise in rodents may not be able to determine the gender of rodents reliably.

Interacting with your rats

You may find that your rats are initially shy of being handled. This is natural and normal and all you need is gentle persistence and understanding to help them to get used to you. Begin by making friends with your rats while their feet are on the ground by offering them treats and talking softly to them. You can initially encourage them to walk into a tube and then from the tube on to your hand or lap if they are nervous about being picked up. Once they are out you can get them used to being handled by scooping them with both hands rather than “grabbing” them. Always handle your rat sitting down, ideally on a bed or sofa so the rat has a soft landing if he jumps! Never pick your rat up by his tail.

It’s important that rats get exercise and mental stimulation or they can display frustrated behaviour such as bar chewing or squabbling. Ideally your rats should be handled and given the chance to explore outside of their cage every day. This should be in a safe, secure area where things which may harm them such as heavy objects they might knock over, other pets, electrical wires, potential toxins and sharp objects are removed. Rats can find large open spaces intimidating so, at least initially, you might find it best to free range them in a smaller area. Sitting on the bed or sofa with them is ideal. Bear in mind that rats can get into smallgaps and will seek to do so if scared. So be sure to check for gaps under furniture for example before letting them loose.

You and your rats can also have hours of fun constructing a play area and obstacle course with things for them to climb on etc.

Rat health

Your rats should be handled daily and as part of this you should perform a health check. Check eyes and nose for any discharge (a reddy coloured discharge known as Porphyrin can be a sign of ill health), check for lumps, check the skin for any wounds, scabs or flakiness (could be mites) and listen to their breathing (noisy breathing could suggest a respiratory problem). Loss of co-ordination, weight loss and increased thirst are also possible signs of illness. Rats have very fast metabolic rates so can succumb to illness quickly. It is therefore essential that you see your vet promptly with any concerns.

Rats are classed as an exotic pet and your average vet may not have much experience of caring for them. So, before your rat gets ill, take some time to find a vet who is confident in their treatment.


This information is intended as a basic guide to caring for this type of animal. If you intend to get some rats please ensure you research their needs thoroughly and that you can offer them everything they need for the duration of their lifespan. If you have any questions which are not covered here you are very welcome to Email us.