Pet rat care is actually very similar to that of other small rodents, such as chinchillas, gerbils, hamsters, and rabbits.
Rats are social, intelligent, and will mostly be awake at night. So, they need company, mental stimulation, and a suitable home environment when they are sleeping in the day.
If properly tamed, your pet rat will be happy to wake up and play with you during the day. But, this takes patience and regular, gentle handling.
In this article, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about looking after a pet rat. Including caring for different types of domestic rats, a pet rat’s diet, the type of housing rats need, and everything in between.
|Key Facts About Pet Rats|
|1. Rats are primarily nocturnal animals. So, they are most active at night.|
|2. Pet rats are social, and should be housed with at least one other rat.|
|3. Due to their small size and thin skin, rats can’t tolerate cold very well.|
|4. Rats love to climb!|
|5. Rats are very intelligent, so they can get easily bored.|
|6. Their intelligence also means rats can be good at escaping their cages!|
Rats make relatively low-maintenance pets. But you will need to provide the following for your pet:
- A secure, rat proof house in a room which is neither very cold nor very hot
- An exercise wheel
- Bedding material designed for rats
- Litter for the floor of the cage
- A water bottle
- Rat food
- Something to chew and other toys
- A friend to keep them company
What Else is in this Article
- What do rats need
- Pet rat temperament
- Choosing suitable housing
- Setting up your rat cage
- Toys for pet rats
- Do rats need friends?
- Handling pet rats
- Feeding pet rats
- Pet rat health
- General care needs
- Baby rat care
- Senior rat care
- Where to buy a pet rat
- Similar pets
Are you considering purchasing a pet rat? If so, then perhaps you are wondering how you’ll care for your pet. Fear not, for you have come to the right place!
Let’s get started by learning what these little pets need to live happy lives with us.
What Do Rats Need?
Pet rats are an increasingly popular choice. They are intelligent, personable, and cute little pets that can live as long as 4 to 5 years.
These little rodents come in a huge range of colors, and are very social. They do best living in small groups, with plenty of mental stimulation.
But, in order for your pet rats to be happiest, potential owners need to know everything about how to take care of a rat.
Rats need a spacious cage, preferably with lots of levels and things for them to climb. They’re quite sensitive little animals, so it needs to be an appropriate heat, and quiet and dark enough for them to rest throughout the day.
They’ll also need lots of toys. Some to stimulate their brains, and others that they can grind their teeth down on.
Rats need company, so you should never own only one. Plus, they need a well balanced diet.
Let’s take a closer look at the complex needs of these lovable rodents.
Pet Rat Temperament
Rats are friendly, loving, and very clever little pets. They’re extremely social, and are happiest when they live with other rats.
They can also form very strong bonds with their owners.
Pet rats need plenty of toys to keep their minds active. They’re intelligent enough that owners can also teach them little tricks and to respond to their own name.
As long as you handle them gently every day, rats will enjoy being picked up by you.
But, they are nocturnal animals, so it’s best to wait until they’re awake to play with them. Waking them in the middle of the day when they’re trying to sleep can be quite disorienting and stressful for them.
Choosing a Pet Rat Cage
Rats are social animals that love to climb. So, a large cage with enough room for a pet rat and at least one friend (either desexed or of the same sex, to prevent breeding) to scurry about is ideal.
You should buy a cage that is at least 12 inches tall and at least twice as wide. Bigger is better because there will be more room for your rat to play and explore.
Like chinchillas and rabbits, rats do not like wire-bottom cages because wire hurts their feet. So, a cage with a solid floor and wire sides is best.
As with any other confined animal, you’ll need to remove droppings from your pet rat’s cage and refresh the floor litter regularly. Your rat will also need a cosy bed.
Their housing must have enough room for this, and plenty of toys to keep your rats entertained.
Where to Put Your Rat Cage
Like many small pets, rats are primarily nocturnal animals that enjoy burrowing and resting during the day and are most active at night.
So, you’ll need to put their cage somewhere that isn’t too noisy and bright throughout the day. And, where they won’t disturb you at night.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, rats thrive in temperatures of 64-79 degrees Fahrenheit. And they are quite susceptible to heat stroke or respiratory disease (indirectly) when exposed to high heat.
So you’ll need to locate your rat cage in a warm place, but out of direct sunlight and draughts. You’ll need to clean and refill food and water containers each day, and clean the whole cage thoroughly twice a week – replacing floor litter and bedding if necessary.
Since rats are both compulsive chewers and highly intelligent, they are quite good at escaping and getting into mischief.
You don’t want your pet rat munching through the TV cables, so you’ll need to be sure to house him in a thoroughly chew proof, and escape proof cage.
How to Set Up Your Rat Cage
When it comes to bedding, rats are somewhat particular. They like bedding composed of larger particles, such as strips of paper or sawdust flakes.
They also like to nest in bedding that has more than one texture to it, so a combination of bedding types if preferred.
You might also consider building a nesting box for your pet rat. This can be as simple as a small cardboard box filled with bedding material. You can purchase specially made rat bedding in bags from pet stores
Your new friend will also need opportunities for exercise and play, so that he doesn’t get bored or miserable.
Let’s take a closer look at the best toys for pet rats.
Pet Rat Toys and Exercise
Choosing the best toys and exercise opportunities is an important part of pet rat care.
Rats need opportunities to exercise and play while in their cages, and will also enjoy the chance to explore outside the cage with your help and supervision.
If your cage doesn’t come with an exercise wheel you’ll need to buy one, and your rat will also need some toys.
Rats love climbing, and ladders or platforms inside the cage will be appreciated. Just remember that wire ladders and platforms can hurt their feet.
They also like hammocks and pipe systems to clamber around in, and will thrive even better when their toys are switched out every so often.
Do Rats Need Friends?
Rats are social animals and are happiest living in small groups. They tend to get along best with rats that they have grown up with. So buying two baby rats together can be a good idea.
Just make sure that they are the same sex or rat babies will soon appear!
If you decide to buy a single rat and then get another one later, check out our guide to introducing rats. It needs to be done carefully.
If you can only keep one pet rat, you’ll need to be prepared to spend plenty of time with him each day to ensure that he doesn’t get stressed from being alone. This is difficult to achieve, so it’s best to just get two rats.
Handling Your Pet Rat
You’ll need to spend a little time each day handling and playing with your rat so that he is tame and unafraid of you.
Try to spend an equal amount handling each of your pet rats, so that none of them are scared when you come to play.
Be very gentle when holding your rats and playing with them.
If you’re worried about dropping them, you can instead create a safe, rat-proof area for your rats to run around whilst you sit with them.
This way, you can play games with them and climb on you without the fear or them falling from a high height.
Feeding Your Pet Rat
It is simplest to feed your pet rat on commercially produced rat food bought from your local pet store or ordered online.
Commercial rat food comes in the form of protein-based pellets. The quality tends to degrade once the box/sack has been opened to either buy a small box to begin with, or store the contents in a resealable container.
Rats enjoy a wide range of foods and you can also supplement their diet with fiber-rich grains and fresh vegetables, with the occasional piece of fruit.
Since they do not have to forage for food like their wild counterparts, pet rats are prone to obesity if they’re fed too much. So, pellets and treats should be fed at a minimum to avoid your pet getting fat.
Rats drink a lot of water and hate being thirsty, so you must ensure that a pet rat has a constant supply of fresh water, especially when the weather is warm.
Water bowls quickly get filled with bits of bedding and droppings. It’s better to buy a drinking bottle to clip to the outside or inside of the rat’s cage.
Pet Rat Health
As long as you provide the right environment, a balanced diet, and great general care to your pet rat, they should be quite healthy.
But, there’s always a risk of health problems developing.
Here are some of the health issues that can be common in pet rats:
- Mammary tumors
- Dental problems
- Parasitic infections
- Respiratory problems
- Pituitary tumors
To read more about the health problems that pet rats can suffer from, take a closer look at our detailed guide to pet rats.
General Pet Rat Care
Rats’ nails grow just like your fingernails and toenails do. You may need to clip your pet rats nails from time to time if they get too long or too sharp.
When trimming your rat’s nails, be sure not to cut them too short, as doing so could cause them to bleed. Try to simply trim the sharp tips off.
As naturally curious animals, they may entertain themselves by chewing on anything and everything if you don’t provide them with something to satisfy their curiosity.
Rat teeth grow constantly. So, chewing isn’t just fun for rats – it’s essential in order to keep their teeth the right length. You will need to provide pieces of wood or rodent-specific chewing toys to help your rat keep his teeth in shape
If your rat breaks a tooth, or his teeth become too long and sharp, then a trip to your vet will be in order.
Make sure you keep your pet rat’s cage clean, including fresh food and water each day.
The specific care your rat will need depends on the type of pet rat you have. So, let’s look at some different types.
Fancy Rat Care
Fancy rats are varieties of rat that are recognized by the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association.
You don’t have to worry about special care for these rats, they do not require anything beyond the pet rat care requirements that we have discussed thus far.
Dumbo Rat Care
Dumbo rats are a variation of the fancy rat.
As you may have guessed by their name, the primary difference between dumbo rats and fancy rats is in the size, shape, and placement of their ears.
Dumbo rats have round ears that protrude from the side of the rat’s head, while fancy rats have slightly smaller ears that protrude from the top of their head.
Basic rat care applies to dumbo rats, since they essentially the same animal as a fancy pet rat. They do not require any special care.
Hairless Rat Care
Hairless rats are also a variation of the fancy rat.
True to their name, hairless rats are simply fancy rats without any body fur, although they may have a small amount of fur around their nose and tail.
Hairless rats, however, do need a bit of extra care and attention.
Since they don’t have a natural “coat” like other fancy rats, you’ll need to keep an eye on the temperature in the area where the hairless rat is housed, as they feel the cold more easily.
A hairless rat would benefit from being caged with a non-hairless rat, but you can also provide bits of fabric or blanket for the rat to burrow in, should they get chilled. Just make sure that he or she doesn’t try to eat the fabric instead!
Although any pet rat can be prone to skin problems, thanks to their thin skin, hairless rats are especially prone to skin irritation, as they do not have fur protecting their thin skin.
This means that you must bed a hairless rat’s cage with very soft, preferably non-textured bedding.
Baby Pet Rat Care
If you find yourself caring for a litter of baby rats or perhaps an orphaned litter, you’ll need to take special care to ensure that they’re fed and warmed properly.
If a nursing mom rat is not available to “adopt” unweaned babies, then you’ll need to bottle feed them with milk replacement formula until they’re of weaning age, or about three weeks old.
Alternatively, if the babies are weaned, you’ll need to have food and water bowls that are low enough for them to access until they’re bigger.
The babies may have each other to snuggle up against for warmth, but you’ll also want to provide extra bedding and/or blanketing material for them to burrow into.
Be very gentle when handling baby rats. Rats are fragile and should not be squeezed too tightly even when fully grown, so you must be extra careful not to handle babies too roughly.
Senior Pet Rat Care
One thing that you may find surprising is that pet rats have a pretty short life span – they generally live for a mere two to three years.
Some can live as long as five years, but this is less common.
Thus, you may notice your pet rat’s health deteriorating after the first two years or so.
One sign of aging in rats is decreased mobility and activity. To make things easier for your senior pet rat, you may find it helps to switch out their water bottle for a low-sided water bowl and low-sided food bowl.
Where to Buy a Pet Rat
Pet rats can be found in some pet stores, and you may even be able to find them available for rescue.
However, it’s best to get a pet rat through a specialized breeder.
The best breeders will focus on breeding the healthiest rats possible. Rats in pet stores won’t necessarily be bred for health, usually just for profit.
You can look online to find breeders, but it’s also a great idea to speak to your vet, or local pet rescues. They will often be able to recommend reputable breeders.
Choosing a Good Breeder
When you’ve found a breeder, make sure you ask lots of questions. The best breeders will only breed from healthy rats, so there’s the smallest risk of hereditary problems being passed down.
They will also give their own pet rats great care. Make sure their rats are well looked after, healthy, and happy.
A good breeder will be happy to answer any questions you have, and will likely have a lot of their own to make sure you’re prepared to look after pet rats properly.
Once you’ve found a good, reputable breeder, you may need to wait on a list for their next litter.
Pet rat care isn’t too complex, but it doesn’t suit all people and homes. If you’re not sure that rats are going to be the right pet for you, there are plenty of other small, similar pets that you can consider.
These may be a better fit for your home.
Pet Rat Care Summary
Learning how to care for a pet rat isn’t too complicated. In fact, as long as you have the space and time to dedicate, these little pets can be really rewarding.
You can keep one or more rats in a large cage with a few types of bedding (changed often), a nesting box, and access to water and fibrous food sources.
Sound manageable? Now you know how to care for pet rats, if your answer is yes, then you’re probably ready to embark on a journey with your new friend!
References and Resources
- Donnelly, T. ‘Mice and Rats as Pets’, Veterinary Manual (2015)
- Clancy, J. (et al), ‘Daytime Sleep Wake Cycle in the Rat’, Physiology & Behavior (1978)
- Rao, G. (et al), ‘Growth, Body Weight, Survival, and Tumor Trends in F344/N Rats During an Eleven Year Period’, Toxicologic Pathology (1990)