Rat: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Young girl holding a rat in pet shop, close-up
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Rats have only become pets in the past 100 years, but they are smart, friendly, and like to cuddle, making them great companions for families and kids. They are playful animals that desire human companionship. Caring for a pet rat is somewhat complicated; you'll need the right accessories, toys, and cage for your pet. Even though they are naturally short-lived pets, they can develop a variety of health issues.

Species Overview

Common Name: Rat

Scientific Name: Rattus rattus

Adult Size: Body reaches 9 to 11 inches, with an additional 8 inches of tail on average

Life Expectancy: Up to 3 years

Rat Behavior and Temperament

Rats, unlike some other rodents, are smart and playful animals that crave human companionship. They're also (contrary to myth) very clean, and have almost no smell. They enjoy play and can even learn tricks. Scientists have even demonstrated that rats are somewhat empathic; they are uncomfortable when other rats are in distress and will try to help relieve their trouble.


8 Things to Know Before Adopting a Pet Rat

Housing the Rat

A large wire cage is best, especially one with horizontal bars that allow the rat to climb on the sides. A tall cage with ramps and platforms is ideal for providing room for multiple rats. At a minimum, a cage with 12 by 24 inches (2 square feet) of floor space is okay for two smaller rats as long as the cage is tall and you provide shelves and/or hammocks for extra living space. However, larger cages are always better. Large aquariums are insufficient as they do not provide good ventilation.

Avoid cages with wire flooring; spending time on wire flooring has been linked to small cuts that can lead to bumblefoot in rats. If needed, you can modify wire balconies by covering them with a thin sheet of wood, melamine, or other easy-to-clean solid material (fixed to the cage with wire ties).

Ideally, the cage should be placed in a relatively quiet place but still near the social activity in the home. Avoid direct sunlight or drafty zones. Rats are nocturnal so keep their space fairly quiet during the day. Limit access to the cage by other household pets; a rat will feel threatened by a hovering cat or dog. Placing the cage on a table or stand will help pet rats feel more secure.

Provide some nesting material such as inkless paper, tissues, or paper towels, which the rats can use as bedding. Avoid the toxic cedar and pine wood shavings, but aspen or other hardwood shavings are fine. There are many good pet bedding and litter options available that are very absorbent, not dusty, and safe for small pets; consider using pelleted products (typically very absorbent) under a layer of softer loose bedding. Usually, rats will choose a designated bathroom area in one part of the cage. Scoop out heavily soiled litter daily, and add more litter when needed. Clean the whole cage and provide all new litter and bedding once a week.

Provide your pet rat with a nest box. A cardboard box will need to be replaced often. Other possibilities include a flowerpot or jar turned on its side. Store-bought boxes are fine, but wooden ones can be hard to clean when they get urine-stained, and plastic boxes get chewed up fairly quickly.

Homemade Rat Cage - Final Edition
Lianne McLeod

Food and Water

A water bottle with a sipper tube can be used for water. Make sure a supply of fresh clean water is always available. Heavy ceramic food dishes work best for rats as they are sturdy, won't tip over, and are easy to clean.

Pelleted or block type diets are available for rats and are formulated to be nutritionally complete. Choose a rat block that is low in fat and calories and has soy meal high on the ingredient list rather than corn. While rat blocks should comprise the basic diet, a variety of fresh foods can be used as a supplement to aid in keeping rats healthy and prevent boredom with the pelleted diet. Packaged loose mixes are also available, but rats tend to pick out their favorite bits from the mix and not eat a balanced diet; rotate all food options provided.

Try feeding your pet rats small amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grain pasta and bread, brown rice, yogurt, and occasionally low-fat cooked meat, mealworms, cheese, seeds, and nuts. In addition, treats such as dog biscuits can be given to your pet rat. It is important to keep rats on a high fiber and low-fat diet, so limit higher fat foods such as cheese, seeds, and nuts. Rats have a bit of a sweet tooth but resist the temptation to feed sugary foods or junk food, including chocolate.

Common Health Problems

Rats can develop many of the same problems as cats, dogs, and even humans. Possible issues range from tumors to respiratory or digestive conditions to neurological problems. While it is physically possible to perform surgery on a rat, few owners are willing to pay for it, so disease prevention is the best option. If possible, identify an exotics veterinarian in your area (a vet with experience in treating unusual pets), and make an initial appointment to collect baseline health data. A check-up every six months is the best step toward preventing or managing disease.

Bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis) is a painful condition in rats that causes ulcers on the bottoms of the animals' feet. It can be fatal if left untreated. This condition usually develops when a small wound on the foot becomes infected with Staphylococcus aureus or E. coli.

Playtime for Your Rat

Rats love to climb and will make good use of ladders, ropes, hammocks, tunnels, and platforms. Provide enrichment items like blocks of wood for chewing, cardboard tubes, and toys designed for ferrets or parrots. Look for rope and wood toys since most plastic toys can't stand up to the gnawing of a determined rat. Simple items like large cardboard mailing tubes, crumpled paper, paper bags, and cardboard boxes can also make wonderful homemade rat toys.

Rats are very intelligent and need to be challenged, so rotate the toys on a regular basis to avoid boredom. Some rats like to run on exercise wheels (and some will never try!), but the wire type commonly found in pet stores isn't very safe for rats who can get feet, toes, and tail caught; a solid surface wheel is preferable.

The play area outside the cage needs to be rat-proofed since rats will chew on just about anything they can get their teeth into. Most importantly, ensure that electrical wires are out of reach or encased in rigid plastic tubing. Ensure that your rat cannot access anything that is toxic, including poisonous plants. Rats also tend to scent mark as they roam, leaving little drops of urine. The odor is not offensive, but you may 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!

Best Grooming Practices

Rats have sharp toenails; trim them every one to two months. Nail trimming is not difficult, however, your rat will probably object and try to squirm away. Use a pair of human nail clippers to trim a little off the tip if needed. Avoid the pink portion (the quick) that may be visible inside the nail; this is where there are blood vessels and nerves.

If you do happen to nick the blood vessel, apply a little cornstarch to the nail tip to stop any bleeding. (You can also buy a product at the pet store called Kwik Stop that is used the same way.) At the same time that you check the nails, try to get a glimpse of the teeth to make sure they have not become overgrown. Provide lots of opportunities (with woodblocks and toys) for your rats to chew; this will keep their teeth short and healthy.

Purchasing Your Rat

Rats, like cats, come in a wide range of colors and color combinations including white with pink eyes (albino), cinnamon, blue-gray, and multi-colored. Except for the albinos, rats all have dark eyes. You can also choose a "fancy" rat; these are available only from breeders. Fancy varieties include the curly-haired Rex, the tailless and hairless rats, and the satin rat with its shiny coat. Dumbo rats have larger ears while bristle coat rats have stiff coats.

If you're not looking for a fancy rat, you can easily adopt babies from a rescue center, or purchase one (ideally, two) at a local pet shop. Look carefully at your prospective pets to be sure they are active and healthy with a clean, well-groomed coat of fur. Take the time to observe that any rat is eating and drinking properly. Finally, check to see that the other rats with which it is living are also healthy, active, and clean.

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