Caitlin Riffee explains how to care for a pet rat in this clear and easy to follow guide
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!
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.
How to take care of rats
Pet rat care is actually very similar to that of other small rodents, such as chinchillas, gerbils, hamsters, and rabbits.
Like many small pets, rats are primarily nocturnal animals that enjoy burrowing and resting during the day and are most active at night.
However, if properly tamed, your pet rat will be happy to wake up and play with you during the day
Rats are also social animals and are happiest living in small groups. They also 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
Let’s begin with a lesson on “Rat care 101”.
Rat care for beginners
Due to their small size and relatively thin skin, rats cannot tolerate cold very well.
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.
Choose a rat cage
Rats are social animals that love to climb. Therefore, 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.
(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.)
You should purchase 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 form your pet rat’s cage regularly and refresh the floor litter regularly. Your rat will also need a cosy bed
Choose rat bedding
When it comes to bedding, rats are somewhat particular.
They like bedding comprised 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, especially if you must purchase a wire-bottomed cage. 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.
Choose rat toys
Rats need opportunities to exercise and play while in their cages, and will also enjoy opportunities 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.
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.
Choose your rat food
It is simplest to feed your pet rat on commercially produced rat food purchased 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.
Baby 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.
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.
Fancy rat care
Fancy rats are those 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 if you’re only going to keep one rat, then you’ll want to 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.
Rat nail 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.
Rat teeth care
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’s teeth grow constantly and 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.
Elderly 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.
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.
How to care for a pet rat – a summary
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
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.
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. And to keep his home, water bottle, and food bowls clean and sweet smelling
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!