Rats as Pets

Sleeping rats
Rats are very social and need a friend to live with. Chris Scuffins / Getty Images

Rats are intelligent and social animals that can make wonderful pets. They are also easily tamed, making rats especially great for someone who likes to handle their pets.

Pet Rat Facts

  • Average lifespan of a pet rat is two to three years.
  • Most pet rats are actually a type of rat called a Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus). Other names for a Norway rat are common rat, brown rat, street rat, sewer rat, Hanover rat, Norwegian rat, or wharf rat.
  • A Norway rat body is typically nine to eleven inches long. Their tail is an additional seven to nine inches long.
  • Rats have a wide range of markings as well as breed varieties, including standard/smooth, rex, hairless, and tailless.
  • Rats are nocturnal so they will be most active at night.
  • Rats are social creatures so they do best if kept with another rat or a group of rats.
  • Male rats are called bucks, females are does, and babies are pups.
  • As a rule, males are larger, somewhat lazier than females, and have a coarser coat. Females are smaller and tend to be more active and playful than males.
  • Rats reach puberty very young at six to eight weeks of age. They shouldn't be bred this young though, so make sure males and females are separated before they reach this age.
  • Females go into heat for about 24 hours every four or five days once they reach puberty and may seem agitated or restless during this time. This is why it is so easy to breed rats.

Rats as Pets

Pet rats are relatively easy to care for but that doesn't mean they are low maintenance pets. They require a fair amount of attention and exercise time outside of their cages—at least an hour a day is ideal.

Since rats are very social they should never be kept alone. Same sex pairs or groups are ideal. Males usually get along fine with other males, especially if introduced at a young age or if they are litter mates.

Keeping rats in groups does not make them more difficult to tame if they are handled from a young age. You won't have to worry about creating a bond with your pet, even if you have several of them. Many rat owners love the curiosity of their pets and compare the companionship of a rat to that of a dog.

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8 Things to Know Before Adopting a Pet Rat

Where to Get a Pet Rat

A few options exist to you if you are searching for a new pet rat. While the obvious option, a pet store is only a good option for getting a pet rat if the staff is knowledgeable about caring for rats. Look to see if they keep them in appropriate and clean housing with a good diet and handle them regularly. Also, look for stores that house males and females separately to avoid a surprise litter.

Breeders (called ratteries) are the best option for finding a well socialized young rat. A good breeder will make sure the babies are socialized and handled from an early age. Also, a breeder is probably your only option if you are looking for a particular coat type or unique color of rat.

Animal shelters should always be considered if you'd like to rescue a rat in need of a home. Check with local shelters or look for rat specific rescue groups. Choose a rat with a good temperament but keep in mind that rescued rats may be a little skittish or shy at first. With patience, you can usually overcome this shyness.

No matter the source, avoid rats that are aggressive. This is harder to overcome and most rats are not naturally aggressive.

Choosing a Pet Rat

When choosing a pet rat, try to avoid ones that are panicky when handled, especially if they do not relax quickly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, also avoid those that are overly quiet and calm as they may be ill. Quite often, a good choice is a rat that is curious enough to approach you.

Rats should be alert and active when observed. You will also want to look for these traits:

  • Their body should be firm and well rounded but younger rats are likely to be on the lean side.
  • The nose, eyes, ears, and rear end should be clean and free from discharge.
  • The coat should be clean and well groomed (healthy rats spend a lot of time grooming).
  • The skin on the ears and tail should be clean and pink, not red or brown. It should also be free of sores, redness, and dandruff.
  • Lice is common in pet rats so also check for nits—small white eggs on the hair—behind the ears where there is less fur.
  • Watch the rat's breathing to make sure it is not labored and make sure the rat is not sneezing or having discharge from its nose or eyes. All of these things can be signs of respiratory disease which is fairly common in rats.
  • Watch for drooling or wetness around the mouth which can be a sign of dental problems.

If you are observant in your selection, you'll be quite happy with your new companion and have a couple of years of fun.

illustration of rats as pets
Illustration: Nusha Ashjaee. © The Spruce, 2018