How to Care for a Pet Rat

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

child holding a pet rat

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Rats are smart and friendly, and they like to cuddle. They make great companion animals, including for kids. They are playful animals that desire human companionship, as well as socialization with other rats. Rats require a moderate amount of care, but, once you get past the initial setup of the enclosure, it's fairly straightforward. Their formulated diet can be found in most pet stores. Plus, their housing doesn't take up much space and is pretty simple to maintain.

Species Overview

Common Name: Rat

Scientific Name: Rattus rattus

Adult Size: 14 to 18 inches (tail included)

Lifespan: 2 to 3 years

Rat Behavior and Temperament

Rats are social creatures, and most can learn to be comfortable with—and even enjoy—gentle handling by people. They recognize their owners and will even get excited to see their favorite humans. They tend to bond with whoever cares for them and socializes with them the most. So besides spending some time on their daily enclosure upkeep, daily interaction is a must.

Rats are largely nocturnal, but they can be active for periods during the day. A good time to interact with them is often in the evening hours.

To hand-tame a rat, start slowly by enticing it to explore your hands as you hold treats. Always make sure you’re supporting the rat’s weight when picking it up, and never squeeze it. Once a rat is comfortable with this kind of handling, it will likely want to climb on you to explore. Many rats like perching on their owners’ shoulders or cuddling in their laps. And they don’t typically bite unless they feel threatened.

Rats are overall quiet pets, though they do make some soft vocalizations. It’s best to keep them away from other household pets to prevent undue stress and potential injuries. But they do prefer to live in pairs or small groups. A female pair can often coexist peacefully. A pair of males will sometimes become territorial but can do well if they’re introduced at a young age. A female and male also can live together as long as they are spayed and/or neutered. Otherwise, you will quickly find yourself breeding lots of rats.

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8 Things to Know Before Adopting a Pet Rat

Size Information

Rats reach around 14 to 18 inches long on average, including the length of their tail. They weigh between roughly 0.5 and 1.5 pounds, with males generally being larger than females.

Housing

A powder-coated wire cage with a solid-floor base is ideal for pet rats. It will allow good air circulation but still be comfortable on the rats' feet. For two rats, the minimum cage size should be 2 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet, but bigger is always better. Because rats like to climb, a multilevel cage would be suitable to give them more exercise and enrichment.

Keep the enclosure in a relatively quiet spot. And make sure it is out of drafts and direct sunlight. Stable temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit are best.

Within the enclosure, provide rat toys—especially chew toys. And add a nest box. You can opt for a store-bought small animal nest, or use a small cardboard box or half of a clay flowerpot turned in its side.

Specific Substrate Needs

Place a few inches of bedding materials, such as aspen or paper pellet bedding, on the bottom of the enclosure. Avoid cedar and pine bedding, as their oils can be harmful to rats. You also can add some shredded paper towels or napkins for your rats to use to make a soft nest. Change the bedding weekly when you scrub down all surfaces in the cage with a mild soap and water.

rat cage setup

The Spruce / Lianne McLeod

What Do Rats Eat & Drink?

Always have fresh water available for rats. A water bottle that attaches to the side of the enclosure is ideal, as it’s easy to keep sanitary. But offer a water bowl as well until you’re sure the rats are using the bottle.

Use heavy ceramic food dishes, as they are difficult to gnaw and tip. Pelleted or block-type diets are typically fed as a rat's primary food. They are formulated to be nutritionally complete. Follow the feeding instructions on your chosen diet, and be sure to run it by your vet. It's common to offer a day's worth of pellets in a dish, disposing of uneaten food after 24 hours before adding the next day's portion. Rats tend to graze during their waking hours.

Fresh foods can be offered to supplement the diet and prevent boredom with the pellets. Try feeding your pet rats small amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grain pasta and bread, brown rice, and plain yogurt. Occasionally, you can offer low-fat cooked meat, mealworms, cheese, seeds, and nuts. It is important to keep rats on a high-fiber and low-fat diet.

Common Health Problems

Rats are typically hardy pets. But they are prone to some health problems, including:

  • Cancer: Rats are prone to both benign and malignant tumors.
  • Parasites: Rats can get intestinal parasites, such as worms, as well as skin parasites, such as lice.
  • Infections: Respiratory diseases and other infections can affect rats.
  • Kidney disease: Older rats are prone to kidney disease, as well as kidney and bladder stones.

Furthermore, rat teeth continuously grow. And if rats don't have enough materials in their environment to gnaw, their teeth can become overgrown and impact their ability to eat. A vet can help identify and correct overgrown teeth.

Tip

Not all veterinarians accept rats as patients. So before even acquiring one as a pet, make sure there is a vet near you who will treat it.

Training Your Rat

Litter Training

Because rats are very smart and naturally tend to pick one spot to use as their bathroom, it is possible to litter box train them. Get a litter box made for small animals that your rat can easily get in and out of, and fill it with a different kind of litter from the main cage bedding. Place the box in the spot where your rat normally relieves itself.

It can help to put some soiled bedding in the box to show your rat that this is the spot to go. However, if the box becomes too soiled, the rat might not want to use it anymore. If your rat starts relieving itself in a different spot, move the box there or add a second box if you have the space. It should catch on fairly quickly, though not all rats will become fully litter trained. Make sure to change the litter in the box daily.

Exercise


It is important that rats exercise every day not only to keep them physically fit but also to stimulate their minds. Rats love to climb and will make good use of ladders, ropes, hammocks, tunnels, and platforms in their enclosure. Some rats like to run on an exercise wheel. If you include one, make sure it has a solid surface, not wires, to prevent injury.

Besides rat toys, they also enjoy toys made for ferrets and parrots. But look for rope and wood toys, as most plastic can’t stand up to the gnawing of a determined rat. Moreover, simple items like large cardboard mailing tubes, crumpled paper, paper bags, and cardboard boxes can also make wonderful homemade rat toys. Because rats are very intelligent, it's best to rotate the toys on a regular basis to avoid boredom.

Take your rat outside of its enclosure on a daily basis as well for exercise. But be sure to rat-proof the area because rats will chew on just about anything they can reach. Keep electrical wires out of reach, and ensure that your rat cannot access anything that is toxic.

Rats also tend to scent mark as they roam, leaving little drops of urine. The odor is not offensive, but you might want to cover furniture with a throw while they are out of the cage. They will also scent mark on their owners, so be prepared.

Grooming

Rats are very clean animals that mostly self-groom. But they might require nail trims if they don’t naturally wear down their nails. Your vet can either take care of this for you or show you how to do it at home. Moreover, rats don’t need water for baths. But if they happen to get some dirt or debris stuck in their fur, you can help them get it out by gently rubbing the area with a damp cloth.

Upkeep Costs

On a monthly basis, expect to spend around $20 to $40 on average for a pet rat. Your primary costs will be its food and bedding. And you’ll periodically have to replace chew toys and other items in the enclosure. Also, make sure to budget for routine veterinary care, as well as emergencies.

Pros & Cons of Keeping a Rat as a Pet

Pet rats are quiet and don’t take up much space. Plus, they are quite friendly with their owners. However, they don’t have a very long lifespan. And you typically have to keep more than one to meet their social needs.

Similar Exotic Pets to the Rat

If you're interested in pet rats, check out:

Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your new pet!

Purchasing or Adopting Your Rat

Pet rats cost around $20 on average, though this can vary widely. For instance, if you’re looking for a specific coat appearance, you might have to pay more. On the flip side, you might find rats up for adoption for less than what a breeder would charge.

Because they’re a fairly popular pet, small animal rescue groups and even general animal shelters often have rats available for adoption. You can find them in pet shops too, though a reputable breeder is better. Good breeders and adoption organizations generally provide superior care for their animals and should be able to give you thorough information on their animals’ history and health.

Reproduction/Breeding

Exotic animal veterinarians might be able to recommend a good rat breeder or rescue organization in your area. You’ll often have a wider selection of younger animals at a breeder, though rescues can have a good variety as well. Regardless, the seller should show you where they keep their animals. Note whether the conditions appear clean and whether the animals all look to be in good health.

If you'll be taking home multiple rats, avoid accidentally becoming a breeder yourself by keeping them with members of the same sex or having them spayed and neutered.

FAQ
  • Do rats make a good pet for kids?

    Rats can make excellent pets for older children who understand how to handle them gently and safely.

  • Are rats hard to take care of?

    Rat care is fairly straightforward. Their habitat will require some cleaning every day, and they need daily feedings as well.

  • Do rats like to be held?

    Rats are social and curious creatures. Most rats can be hand-tamed and will even enjoy sitting on and cuddling with their owners.

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Article Sources
The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rat Care. ASPCA.

  2. Disorders and Diseases of Rats. Merck Veterinary Manual.