Pet Rats
Small Pets

Pet Rats

Pet Rat information

Rats are hardy pets that will keep themselves clean and they can become very affectionate towards their human keeper. Since they only live for 2-3 years, it is important to get a fairly young animal if you want to keep it for more than just a year or so. Rats are usually sold at an age of 4-8 weeks, since rats can be weaned when they’re a month old.

Generally speaking, male rats are more cuddly while female rats are more active. Do not keep males and females together unless you wish to become a rat breeder.

Rats are the type of animal that likes to live with us humans regardless of whether we think it’s a good idea or not. This is why some rats become beloved pets, while other specimens are seen as horrible pests. The wild Black rat (Rattus rattus) is in a way responsible for numerous outbreaks of plague, especially in Asia, Europe and northern Africa, since this species likes to live very close to people, which makes it easy for plague infested flees to spread from Black rats to humans. Wild Brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) tend to stay at a distance from humans, e.g. in sewers and grains storages, and are therefore less likely to transmit fleas to us. Despite this, the Brown rat is much more commonly kept as a pet than the Black rat. All information in this article pertains to the Brown rat, unless otherwise specified.

The names Black rat and Brown rat do not really tell you anything about the color of these animals; you can find black Brown rats and vice versa. Within the pet trade, you can find a long row of different colors and patterns. Pet rats are normally around 14-18 in (35-45 cm) in length and weighs around 0.5 lbs (220 grams), while the size of wild rats varies greatly.   

Rat taxonomy

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Class:            Mammalia
Order:           Rodentia
Family:          Muridae

The species of rat most commonly kept as a pet is Rattus norvegicus, the Brown rat.

Pet Rat care

Rats are social creatures and therefore commonly kept in groups or pairs, since it is difficult for a human keeper to provide a single rat with enough social interaction. Males are however known to fight each other, especially in the presence of females, so they should ideally not be housed together. When adding a new rat to an existing group, keep an eye on them because the newcomer may be picked on a lot until has found its place in the pecking order. Rats sometimes become good friends with cats and dogs, but should not be housed with other rodents (hamster, gerbils, etc) since the rats are likely to kill them.  

The smallest recommended cage for two rats is 40 cm x 40 cm x 25 cm (16 in x 16 in x 10 in). Rats needs a lot of exercise and playtime, and the smaller the cage, the more important it becomes to let them out on a regular basis. Rats love to investigate and explore and are exceptionally fond of tunnels and mazes. They can learn how to use hamster wheels and hamster balls, provided of course that the items are large enough for the rat.   

The cage should not be placed in a drafty spot or in a place where the temperature can drop below 40 degrees F (4 degrees C). Brown rats are comparatively sensitive to high temperatures, so always give them opportunity to seek out the shade.

The cage bedding must be non-toxic, since the rats may chew on it. Give your rats a cardboard box or similar to seek refuge inside when they’re tired. Also include different toys in the set up since rats love to play and explore new things. Don’t give them all the toys at once; rotate so that they regularly get a “new” toy to play with.

If you want a sociable, friendly and cuddly rat, you need to spend a lot of time with it. You can for instance make a habit out of always taking it out of its cage and let it be with you as you sit down to watch TV. You can also make your rat used to sitting still on your shoulder; that way you can let it be with you as you go around your daily business of doing the dishes, vacuuming, etc. 

Feeding Pet Rats

Rats will eat virtually anything, but that doesn’t mean that all types are foods are healthy for them. If you want to keep your rat healthy, it is important to keep it on a balanced and nutritious diet containing a combination of protein rich food and vegetables and fruits. You can for instance use a high-quality commercial rat mix as a base and supplement with fresh fruits and vegetables. If you don’t wish to purchase ready-made rat food, you can combine fruits and vegetables with grains and different types of protein rich food, such as fish, shellfish, and insects. A vitamin supplement and extra calcium can be added to the food if you suspect your rat isn’t getting enough in its diet. The type of calcium block given to pet birds will also work.  

The teeth of a rat grow throughout its life so you must provide your pet with suitable objects to chew on.

Rats should always have access to fresh water.  

Breeding Pet Rats

Rats will breed both in pairs and groups (one male with several females). They reach full sexual maturity at an age of 10-11 weeks. It is possible for females to get pregnant when they’re much younger, sometimes just 5 weeks, but this is not recommended. Ideally, do breed rats younger than 4-5 months.

The gestation period for rats is roughly three weeks and a litter normally consists of 8-12 young. Rats are born with closed eyes and without any fur. After a few days the first traces of fur will be visible and the eyes will normally open when the rats are roughly two weeks of age. Rats are normally weaned when they’re a month old.

Pregnant and nursing rats need three times more food than normally to ensure proper development of all the rat pups. It is also important to house the mother in a cage large enough for her to get away from the youngsters when she needs a break. To prevent the mother from getting pregnant again right after giving birth, house her in a cage without any males. When a nursing mother gets pregnant, the new litter normally consists of stunted offspring.  

Pet Rat Health

Rats are hardy animals that rarely get sick. They are however prone to respiratory illness, including pneumonia, if kept in an unsuitable environment. Do not place the cage where it’s subjected to draft and always make sure the bedding is clean and dry. Respiratory illness usually manifest in the form f coughing, sneezing, laboured breathing, and runny eyes and nose. Pneumonia will require antibiotic treatment, while less serious respiratory infections can be fixed by plenty of rest in a warm environment (place a dry cloth over the cage).

Diarrhea in rats is usually the result of eating too much fresh fruits and vegetables. Stop feeding your rat greens until it has fully recovered and keep the amounts down in the future.

Constipation in rats is on the other hand usually brought on by not getting enough fruits and vegetables, or not having access to fresh water.

Rats can become infested with various parasites, such as lice, fleas, mites, ticks, and ringworms. Constant scratching should prompt a closer inspection of skin and fur. Some parasites can be killed with products available in pet stores (make sure they’re rat safe!) while others require a trip to the vet.

To avoid injuring your rat, always use both hands when picking it up (use one hand to support the front part of the body and the other hand to support the hind legs). Never pick a rat up by the tail.

Rat Facts

Pet rat fact # 1
Rats respond well to rewards (food) and can be thought tricks such as coming when called and sit up an beg for food.

Pet rat fact # 2
Rats are commonly used in research laboratories. Examples of rat strains developed specifically for scientific purposes are Fischer 344, Sprague Dawley, the Lister black hooded rat, and Holtzman albino strains.  The first rat strain developed to serve as a model organism was the Wistar rat, developed at the Wistar Institute in 1906. Many modern laboratory rats hail from the Wistar rat.

Pet rat fact # 3
Most Brown rats sport one single color or a hooded pattern. In hooded rats, one color will cover the body, while another color cover the head, usually with a strip of the head-color running down the back.

Pet rat fact # 4
In the wild, you can find many different species of rat, such as the Australian Long-haired Rat (Rattus villosissimus), the Philippine Forest Rat (Rattus everetti) which is found in the Philipines only, Osgood's Rat (Rattus osgoodi) which is endemic to Vietnam, and the Giluwe Rat (Rattus giluwensis, a species native to Papua New Guinea.  

Pet rat fact # 5
Even though the scientific name of the Brown rat is Rattus norvegicus, this species does not hail from Norway. Its native home is instead the grasslands of China from which it spread throughout the world.

Pet Rat lifespan

The average lifespan for a rat is 2-3 years.


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