Rats have only become pets in the past 100 years, but they are smart, friendly and like to cuddle! They are also hearty and healthy and thus make great companions for families and kids. Caring for a pet rat isn't too complicated, but you'll want to make sure you have the right cage, accessories, and toys for your pet.
Cages for Rats
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. As 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 space. However, larger is always better. Large aquariums are okay too, though they do not provide good ventilation and must be cleaned more often.
Avoid cages with wire flooring; spending time on wire flooring has been linked to bumblefoot. Many cages with wire balconies and shelves are not ideal. 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). If the cage does have wire, make sure it is a fine grid (1/2 inch by 1/2 inch maximum) wire.
When setting up the cage, provide some nesting material which the rats can shred and use to line their nest box. Inkless paper, tissues, or paper towels work well. Avoid cedar and pine wood shavings, but aspen or other hardwood shavings are fine. There are many other good pet bedding and litter options available that are very absorbent, not dusty, and safe for small pets. Some are pelleted which might not be comfortable for rats to play and sleep in, so consider using pelleted products (which are usually very absorbent) under a layer of softer loose bedding. Usually, the rats will choose a designated bathroom area in one area of the cage. Scoop out heavily soiled litter daily, and add more litter if needed. Clean the whole cage and provide new litter and bedding once a week or so.
Provide your pet rat a nest box, either store-bought or homemade. A cardboard box makes a perfectly acceptable nest box, although it may need to be replaced often. Other possibilities include a flowerpot or jar turned on its side, or a section of PVC drain pipe (perhaps cover one end). Store bought boxes are good too, but keep in mind that wooden ones can be hard to clean if they get urine on them and the plastic ones might get chewed up fairly quickly.
Toys and Accessories
Rats love to climb and will make good use of ladders, ropes, hammocks, tunnels, and platforms. Provide toys like blocks of wood for chewing, cardboard tubes, and toys designed for ferrets or parrots are good choices. Look for rope and wood toys since many plastic toys can't stand up to chewing by 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 as their feet or tail can get caught in the rungs or the supports on which the wheel is suspended. A solid surface wheel is preferable.
Ideally, the cage should be placed in a relatively quiet place but still near the social activity in the home. Rats are nocturnal so keep their space fairly quiet during the day. Placing the cage on a table or stand will help the rats feel more secure. Avoid direct sunlight or drafty spots. Limit access to the cage by other household pets; a rat will feel threatened by a hovering cat or dog.
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, which may mean they are not eating a balanced diet.
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.
Heavy ceramic food dishes are probably the easiest to use since they are sturdy, don't tip over too easily, and are easy to clean. A water bottle with a sipper tube can be used for water. Make sure a supply of fresh clean water is always available.
Playtime Outside the Cage
Beyond the basics of food and housing, rats do not require much else except your attention and time outside of the cage. Their play area outside the cage needs to be rat-proofed since rats will chew on just about anything they can get their teeth on. Most importantly, ensure that electrical wires are out or reach or encased in plastic tubing. Check that the rat cannot access anything that is toxic, including poisonous plants. Keep anything out of reach that you don't want your rats to chew. 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 do this to their owners, so be prepared!
Rats have sharp little nails; check them every one to two months. Nail trimming is not difficult, except that your rat will probably object and try to squirm away. You can use a pair of human nail clippers and trim a little off the tip if needed. Take a tiny bit off the tip and avoid the pink part (the quick) that may be visible inside the nail, since this is a blood vessel and nerve. If you do happen to nick the blood vessel, apply a little cornstarch applied 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, you check the nails, try to get a glimpse of the teeth to make sure they are not getting overgrown. Provide lots of opportunity (with wood blocks and toys) for your rats to chew and keep their teeth healthy.