Rats can make great pets, but you might be wondering are rats nocturnal?
Will you miss out on having fun together because you’re up at different times?
You may also be worried about being disturbed by your new furry friend scurrying around his cage and playing games all night.
So, are pet rats truly nocturnal? Let’s find out!
Introducing the pet rat!
Although derived from the same species, pet or “fancy” rats are totally different from their wild cousins.
Unlike wild rats, which are usually brown or very dark grey in color, ‘fancy’ rats can be white, grey, black and white, golden, and every variation in between.
Pet rats are intelligent, curious, affectionate, and friendly creatures who love human company and interaction.
Your pet rat will enjoy being petted and will readily return your attention.
My pet rat, Guinness, loved to ride around the house on my shoulder, gently nibbling on my ear!
He even learned his name and would come to me when I called him. How cool was that!
Living with a pet rat
A common misconception about rats is that they smell and they carry disease.
Whilst this may be true of their wild relatives, pet rats generate very little odor.
They groom themselves constantly to keep their fur in good condition.
And according to AFRMA, pet rats do not require annual vaccinations and carry no diseases.
A smelly cage is usually caused by the owner’s failure to clean it frequently enough!
However, rats do have a tendency to dribble urine as they move around.
If you are intending to allow your pet to explore your home, you may want to put a protective cover over your couch and carpets to catch any drips.
There’s actually a very good reason why rats do this, which we’ll discuss later.
Although pet rats enjoy human company, they are highly social animals and are happiest when kept with one companion or in a “mischief” – the collective noun for a group of rats.
Rats can breed from just five weeks of age, and they are capable of producing a litter of a dozen kittens every four weeks!
Therefore, when choosing cage mates, bear in mind that both should be of the same sex, or one should be neutered.
Pet rats generally live for an average of just two to three years, although with good care and correct feeding, four to five years is achievable.
Are rats nocturnal?
Most people think of wild rats as shadowy creatures, sneaking around after dark, raiding garbage cans or gnawing through the wiring in your attic space.
But are rats nocturnal or are they diurnal?
What makes them so active at night?
And how can you be sure that your pet rats won’t disturb you during the night?
Let’s look at what “nocturnal” and “diurnal” mean first.
What does “nocturnal” mean?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nocturnal” as:
‘Done, occurring, or active at night.’
What does “diurnal” mean?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “diurnal” when referring to animals as:
‘Of or during the day’ or ‘active in the daytime.’
Are pet rats nocturnal or diurnal?
All rats are naturally primarily nocturnal, although they can also demonstrate “crepuscular” behavior (being active early in the morning and during the evening too).
So, pet rats are indeed mostly nocturnal!
But that’s not necessarily the whole story.
Why are rats nocturnal?
There are several reasons why rats are primarily nocturnal.
Pet rats are directly descended from wild brown rats.
In the wild, rats are a prey animal, making a tasty meal for many predators, including large birds of prey, foxes, weasels, coyotes, and snakes.
Little wonder then that rats are very cautious and choose to forage for food under cover of darkness.
In the case of pet rats, your home is quieter at night, so the instinctual rat becomes more active, because he feels safer.
Rat sleep and eyesight
According to John Hopkins University, rats have very poor eyesight in comparison to many of their predators.
Rats are classed as “”dichromats”.
This means that their perception of color is very similar to a human with color blindness.
Colors appear faint and images are quite blurry, around 20/600 for a pigmented rat and even less for an albino.
Surely this places the nocturnal rat at something of a disadvantage if he can’t see danger approaching?
Rats are far more reliant on their exceptional sense of smell and hearing than their vision, and they navigate by using their whiskers to feel their way around.
Take a look at your pet rat and you will see that his whiskers never stop twitching, especially if you present him with a new toy or den for his cage.
Why are rats more active at twilight and dawn?
Rats can “see” ultraviolet light, which is outside of the visible light spectrum for us humans.
And rat urine is just one of the things which becomes clearly visible when viewed under ultraviolet light.
This explains why rats leave a trail of urine drops as they travel through their local environment!
In addition to their sense of smell, rats’ ultraviolet perception allows them to follow their own and other rats’ trails, aiding navigation, helping to locate food sources, and find mates.
During the early morning and at twilight, the ratio of ultraviolet to visible light increases significantly, which is why rats become most active at these times.
So, when do rats sleep?
Do rats sleep in the day?
After his dawn activity feeding and foraging, your pet rat may sleep for a few hours, wake up to groom himself, and then go back to napping for another few hours, and so forth.
One 1978 study in Detroit found that rats spend three quarters of the day in some kind of sleep state!
Rats living in a “mischief” tend to sleep less during the daytime than those living alone.
Companionship provides the rats with stimulation to play or forage, whereas a lone rat will sleep more out of boredom.
You may also find that your pet will become active when you are around during the daytime.
Naturally gregarious and friendly, rats will seek the company of their owner and are always keen to play!
Wild rats seek out shelter, warmth, and darkness when choosing a nesting area; this keeps them safe from predators.
Your pet rat will instinctively look for the same in his cage, so offer him tubes, and rodent hammock, together with suitable bedding and shredded paper for nest building.
Do rats sleep at night?
So, pet rats can be active to some extent during the early morning and daytime.
However, they are primarily nocturnal.
But what does your pet rat get up to while you’re asleep in bed?
Wild rats will spend much of the night searching for food, often covering considerable distances, depending on what resources are available in their home range.
Providing opportunities for your pet rat to carry out these natural behaviors too is very important for his well being.
Scatter food around his cage, and use “food balls” or other rat-friendly toys to encourage foraging.
What else do rats do at night?
Your pet rat will also spend much of the night exercising or exploring the tubes and other toys in his cage.
Rats also devote time during the night to social interaction with their cage mates.
Although this social activity does involve a large amount of vocalization, rats communicate primarily through ultrasound.
Ultrasound is a frequency that is too high for the human ear to hear, so you won’t be disturbed by a cacophony of squeaking during the night.
In fact, any audible squeaks that a rat makes are usually an indication of pain or aggression; a happy, healthy rat is usually seen and not heard!
Will your pet rat keep you awake all night?
Even though pet rats are active during the hours of darkness, they are not noisy creatures.
If the sounds of rustling bedding, a squeaky toy, or the patter of tiny feet during foraging forays disturbs you, simply put your pet’s cage in another room overnight.
Are rats nocturnal, and how can you be sure your pet won’t disturb you at night?
Just like their wild cousins, pet rats are primarily nocturnal.
They sleep mainly during the day and are most active at night.
Pet rats are also crepuscular, being active at dawn and at dusk, somewhat in tune with their human owners’ domestic routine.
Are rats nocturnal? How to live in harmony with your rat!
If you are concerned that your nocturnal rat will keep you awake at night, there are a few simple steps that you can take to keep both humans and rodents happy.
Provide your rat with company so that he plays with his cage mates, rather than demanding your attention.
And make sure that your pets have plenty of enrichment in their cage in the form of toys and hidden treats.
Finally consider moving the cage to a different room overnight so that your pets’ activities don’t keep you awake.
When do your rats sleep?
Do you know your pet rats’ sleep cycle?
When are they most likely to be playing, and when can you only ever find them napping?
Tell us about them in the comments section below!
RSCPA, “Rat Behaviour”
John Hopkins University, “The Rat”
Clancy et al, 1978, “Sleep-Wake Cycle in the Rat”, Physiology & Behavior