How To Care For Your Pet Rat

Thinking about adding a pet rat to your family? Find out how to care for these social creatures.

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Pet rats
Rats are social creatures and enjoy the company of other rats. George Dolgikh/Shutterstock
Sandy Chebat

When inviting a pet rat into the family, you are adding an intelligent, interactive and social critter.

“Rats are extremely social animals,” says Debbie Ducommun, known internationally as “The Rat Lady,” and founder of Rat Fan Club in Chico, California. “It is important to choose rats that have been handled from birth to ensure they are strongly bonded to humans.”

As such, these friendly pocket pets need about four hours of human attention each day, Ducommun and other experts agree. If that is unrealistic for your family, like it is mine, they recommend pairing pet rats in a group of two or three, with the easiest introductions happening with same-gender littermates.

Personality Plus

Once you’ve spend some time with pet rats, it’s obvious how much their individual personalities can vary. Some with very active and outgoing temperaments can be squirmy and apt to climb, flip, hang and swing. A more shy or laid-back rat can be more loving and docile.

Being well-socialized is key, according to Ducommuna.

“Well-socialized rats are usually very affectionate and cuddly, and [they] need to spend at least 30 to 60 minutes a day out with their humans, [in addition to their] interaction with other rats,” she says.

Males and females also can display unique attitudes. For example, females often sport more active tendencies while male rats are likely to relax in your lap for petting. At the same time, Ducommun finds that male rats, in particular, “like to play-wrestle with their owners hand and play chasing games,” adding that “they will chase a little object on a string like a cat.”

Lively Lifestyles

Early morning and evening are their favorite times to be active, however Ducommun assures that pet rats easily adapt to their humans’ schedule.

“Most rat owners let their rats out for playtime on the couch or bed,” Ducommun says. “They love to play games, be petted and they can even learn tricks.”

When it comes to choosing activities and toys for our pet rats, you have plenty of options: exercise wheels (10 to 12 inches), ramps, tunnels, tents, hammocks, treat toys, interactive games, tubes, swings, ladders and trick training. With training, in particular, experts recommend starting with having your rat come when called and using the litter box, and move on from there.

Tunnels and hiding places offer interesting options during cage-free play time and explorations, Ducommun says. And rat-proofing the area is important to keep our pets safe. For example:

  • Block access to doors, vents and other exits to the outside or areas perfect for rats to hide.
  • Hide cords and electrical wires.
  • Put away toxic chemicals, poisons and cleaning products.
  • Remove or reinforce breakable items that can be knocked over.

“Many rats do have the tendency to nibble on things, so furniture can be protected with throw covers,” Ducommun says.

Healthy Habitats

When not hanging out with their humans, pet rats spend a significant amount of time in their cages, so Ducommun recommends providing a large metal cage to house them. Benefits include ventilation to minimize ammonia fumes, room for rats to climb and space for ramps and accessories for exercise and stimulation. When considering wire cages, look for powder-coated varieties and a solid floor to protect your rats’ feet and legs.

Since some rats can be litter box trained, Ducommun recommends including a litter box to help with cage cleaning.

Glass aquariums — at least 40 to 60 gallons — are another housing option for pet rats. Some owners find these easier to clean, though they require more frequent cleaning, and they keep food and bedding contained. Rat experts advise incorporating a cover that locks to prevent your ingenious rats from escaping.

Other habits to keep your rats’ homes clean and sanitary — and your pets healthy and happy — is to wipe down surfaces, change bedding as needed and sterilize the cage weekly, according to professionals.

Whichever housing you choose, you’ll need a water bottle, proper bedding and a cozy place for your rats to sleep.

“Most rats love hammocks, but some prefer a little house,” Ducommun says.

She and other experts recommend rabbit food as an excellent bedding due to its absorbency and odor control capabilities. Other safe options include hardwood such as aspen, paper, corncob and walnut. Experts caution against using products with phenols or toxic chemicals, cedar or pine wood pellets, and cat litters made of clay, sand or corn cob.

Pet rats also “need a period of darkness every night” to prevent them from developing certain health problems, Ducommun says, adding that “their cage should be in a room that can be made as dark as possible at night.”

Daily Diet

In addition to a steady supply of clean water, our rats need a balanced, free-fed diet. The basic diet, according to Ducommun and others, is a commercial rat food, either nuggets or blocks. While they can eat seeds and grains, those should not be a significant part of their diet.

To prevent spills, heavy, low food dishes or those mounted to the side of the cage probably are best. Offering separate food dishes for dry and moist foods also is a common suggestion.

“For treats I recommend a wide variety of fruits and veggies, and occasionally nuts in the shell or a small dog biscuit,” Ducommun says. “Rats love cooked bones, which are completely safe as long as you give one bone per rat to avoid fighting.”

Good Grooming

Pet rat owners luck out in the grooming arena — rats self-groom and may even preen cage mates and humans! Typical exceptions are when the critter has a health problem and as they get older. In particular, Ducommun says older rats might need their toenails trimmed.

“A cinder block — the concrete block with the hole through it — in their cage makes a good climbing toy and helps to wear down sharp toenails,” she says. “Place the block next to a shelf to encourage them to jump up on it.”

Clean Bill Of Health

During the average pet rat’s life span of two to three years, the most common health problems they typically face are respiratory infections caused by a bacteria called mycoplasma pulmonis as well as other secondary infections.

“Most rats will need to be treated with antibiotics at some point in their life for these infections,” Ducommun says.

Signs you need to take your pet rat to the vet include lethargy, labored breathing, appetite loss and a dull coat, experts say.

“Also, female rats are very prone to getting benign mammary tumors and pituitary tumors,” Ducommun says, adding that “the best way to prevent them is to have them spayed at a young age.”

Rats take care of their own teeth by grinding them. You’ll catch them grinding their teeth while eating as well as when pleased or content, which keeps their teeth the appropriate length.

What’s Normal

Rats might act in ways we think are odd, but actually are normal for them. For example, if we notice our pet rat swaying its head back and forth a little while standing still, it’s actually are trying to see or focus on something, and it indicates poor eyesight. This especially happens with pink-eyed rats. To compensate, rats use their ears, noses and whiskers to help them “see.”

While known for being quiet pets, some rats will vocalize with squeaks or grunts to communicate to us and express emotions. Like dogs and cats, some rats can wag their tails when petted!

If you notice red secretions from our rat’s nose or eyes, no need to panic. It’s porphyrin, not blood.

During stress or when very happy, rats can chatter or grind their teeth, which is called bruxing. You also might notice their eyes slightly bulging as well. Weird, but totally normal.

When in doubt, though, ask your rat breeder, rescue group and critter veterinarian about any questions or concerns. A healthy, happy life is what we all want for our pets.

Article Categories:
Critters · Mice and Rats