Rat Care & FAQs

We have provided information that we will hope answer your commonly asked questions on rats. We know this will help build the bond between you and your animal, and we hope it will continue to be a resource for your rat’s happiness and health for years to come. Please click on the category you are interested in learning more about:

Before Getting a Rat

Is a Rat Right For You?

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

They love a good meal, can be taught to come when called, and readily bond with their human caretakers. If it’s intelligence and curiosity you’re looking for in a fuzzy companion, a rat may be just right for you.

Sure, you’ve seen the striking white rat, but did you know that these animals have been bred to boast five coat types–including curly Rexes, shorthaired Standards and shiny Satins? You’ll find rats in all colors from chocolate and coffee to champagne and powder blue. Markings include caps, hoods and blazes. And some animals are prized for their eyes, which can be black, ruby or pink. Rats measure up at about 14-18 inches, including tail, and have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 to 3 years.

If you’re thinking about getting a rat, you really should be thinking about getting more than one. Unlike Syrian hamsters, for example, who are solitary and must live alone, pet rats love to be with their own kind. Two or more ratties will keep each other company, which is especially nice if you’ll be gone most of the day. If at all possible, get a pair of same-sex siblings when they are young. Note that a neutered male can live with females, or a spayed female can live with males. Don’t keep intact males and females together or they will mate…and mate!

Rats aren’t the type of pets you can just feed, water and passively watch through the bars of their cage. Rats are easily hand-tamed and will need an hour of supervised playtime out of the cage every day. These daily play sessions are not an option, but are necessary to keep your super-smart companions mentally stimulated and physically fit. If this sounds like more of a chore than a pleasure, it’s best to consider another pet.

Rats have a bad rap as destructive chewers, and it’s true that they will gnaw on anything in their paths. The fact is, chewing is perfectly natural and perfectly normal for these little guys. Like that of all rodents, rats’ teeth grow continuously, so they need to chew–and chew!–to keep their choppers in good condition. Please ensure that your pets always have safe, appropriate chew toys to satisfy these needs. It’s also important to remove all electrical wires and potentially dangerous items from the area whenever you let your rats out to play.

You may have also heard that rats, well, SMELL. They do have a unique odor, especially males, but there is a very easy solution to this problem. Simply clean the cage regularly, and be sure to change the bedding a couple of times a week.

Have these fuzzy guys met your criteria so far? Rats may be right for you, but how about the other members of your family? It’s ideal if everyone is involved in the decision-making and care-taking. Because they’re friendly and hardy, rats are touted as great pets for older children. Younger kids, though, are a different story. Sure, they may love your rats, but may express that love by squeezing the animals or otherwise mishandling them. It’s smart to allow little ones to play with the rats only when supervised by an adult.

Still got your heart set on rats? We suggest getting yours from a reputable breeder or, best of all, adopting from a shelter or small-animal rescue group. Search on sites like Petfinder.com for rats looking for a second chance at a good life.

Bringing Your Rat Home

Handling

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Congratulations on your new rat! Bet you can’t wait to get to know all about your pet–and once he settles in, this naturally curious and friendly fellow will want to know all about you, too. You can start to earn his trust and affection by getting him used to being handled.

A good way to start the getting-to-know-each-other process is to offer your pet treats. (You’ll soon find out how much rats love to eat!) We recommend small bits of healthy nibbles, like chopped-up fresh fruits and veggies, a few sunflower seeds or some crust from a slice of whole-wheat bread. Try not to get into the habit of giving your pet his treats through the bars of his cage, or he may come to learn that whatever comes to him this way–including fingers–must be a yummy snack.

When your pet is comfortable accepting treats from your hand, you can pick him up, using one hand to support his bottom and the other over his back. From there, you can cradle him against your chest. That wasn’t so hard, right?! After multiple sessions, your rat will begin to get used to being handled–and he may even enjoy snuggling and demand to be petted. If he climbs up your shoulder for a ride, you’re really lucky–and loved!

Once both you and your rat are comfortable with handling, you can train him to get onto your hand voluntarily. Your pet may climb onto your hand on his own–but if he doesn’t, you can easily show him how. Using food as a lure, lead him onto your hand. He may start out by just putting his feet on your hand (he’ll need some leverage to grab that treat, after all!), but with patience and persistence on your part, he’ll gradually work up to sitting completely on your hand. This way, he’ll be able to let you know when he wants to come out to play. Remember that all rats need at least an hour of supervised exercise out of the cage everyday, but these play sessions should commence only when you’ve hand-tamed your rat.

In return for your rat’s cooperation during handling, you must ensure that he is never picked up by someone who hasn’t mastered the proper technique. A rat should not be picked up by the tail, for example, as this can cause the skin at the tip to break off.

Housing

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Congratulations on your new rat – and your new job as a rat housekeeper! Your biggest responsibility is making sure the cage you select for your pet is as spacious and sturdy, and remains as comfortable and clean, as possible. We recommended the largest, most well-made cage you can afford. After all, it is the most important investment you’ll make for your animal companion.

When selecting a cage, keep in mind the golden rule of happy rat housing–the bigger, the better! Your pet’s home should be at least 14 inches wide, 24 inches long and 12 inches tall, but 18 inches by 36 inches would be ideal. If you’ve got a multi-rat household, opt for an even larger cage.

Wire cages and glass or sturdy plastic aquariums are great choices for rat houses. Wire cages provide good air circulation and are recommended if you live in a warmer climate. They also allow your rat to interact with you more easily, and your pet can get in some good exercise by climbing on the sides of the cage. Just make sure the model you select does not have a wire floor or shelves, or your rat could get her feet and legs caught. Glass and plastic aquariums do not provide as good air circulation as wire cages, but they do resist corrosion and will protect a rat from drafts.

Take care when deciding on a location for the cage. A place that is not too cold, not too noisy and not too bright is just right–and if that place happens to be a room where the family gathers in the early evening, even better! It’s also smart to place the cage away from walls, where you’ll have easy access to it–you’ll be glad you did when it comes to cleaning time.

Next, you’ll need to make your rat’s house feel like a home. Line the cage with aspen shavings, pelleted bedding or shredded paper. These materials are all clean, nontoxic and easy to clear away and replace. Stay away from cedar and pine shavings, as their fumes can irritate your pet’s nasal passages, throat and lungs. Some rats like to make cozy nests for napping. If yours does, give her some shredded paper towels, napkins or straw, and watch her go to town. You will also need to designate an area in the cage where your pet can get some privacy, take a snooze or just chill out. You can use a PVC pipe, empty shoebox or tissue box for your rat hideout.

For the finishing touch, provide proper toys for your pet. Some rats are serious runners, so be sure yours has a solid metal or plastic exercise wheel. No wire wheels, as tiny rat feet and tails can get caught in the openings. Ladders and branches are fun, too, as are small balls (no rubber ones!) and cardboard tubes. Don’t skimp on the chew toys, please. Some individuals like rawhide chews, while others prefer wood and cardboard chew toys. If the cage is large enough, you can provide your little girl with a digging box halfway filled with potting soil or shredded paper.

To be a good rat housekeeper, you’ll need to remove soiled bedding, uneaten food and droppings every day. Once a week, dump out all the bedding and scrub the bottom of the cage with hot, soapy water. Rinse away all soap, and let the cage dry before refilling with bedding material. If it seems that your rat is unusually messy, don’t worry–she’s not. All rats are, well, messy. But we hope you’ll agree that her many charms outweigh this very slight character flaw!

Understanding Your Rat

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Smart, sensitive, friendly…. No, this isn’t a description from the personals–we’re talking about your rats! If you’ve never had the pleasure of owning a rat, your new pets may pleasantly surprise you with their intelligence and curiosity. And as you get to know them and discover what makes them tick, you’ll be better able to meet their needs.

Did you that wild rats are highly social and live in large groups? That’s why it’s of utmost importance that you bring home at least a pair. Two or more ratties will keep each other company, which is especially nice if they’re going to be left home alone all day. If at all possible, get two same-sex siblings when they are young. And note that a neutered male can live with females, or a spayed female can live with males.

It’s true that your rats love to be with their own kind, but they’ll readily bond with you, too. You’ll need to give each and every one of your pets some special personal attention every day. Read our HANDLING section for tips on hand taming, and pretty soon your little guys will be demanding to be petted and may even initiate a cuddlefest with you. It’s also important that your rats get playtime out of the cage in a safe, secure area every day.

Topping the list of perfectly natural, perfectly enjoyable rat behaviors is CHEWING. Not only does gnawing on something help to wear down your pets’ continuously growing choppers, it’s just plain fun! It’s up to you to ensure that your rats have safe, appropriate chew toys to satisfy these urges. Should you fail to meet these requirements, don’t be surprised if you find your pets chewing on your furniture or a stray electrical cord. Don’t get angry with them–just secure the area and give ’em some chew toys!

It may take time for you to figure out what your rats are trying to tell you. These guys are pretty quiet as far as pets go, but you may be chilling out with one of your rats and all of a sudden you’ll notice that she’s gently grinding her teeth and her eyelids are half-closed. Congratulations, you’ve got a happy camper! This is not to be confused with the loud clicking sounds of a rat chattering her teeth, which indicates she’s angry at another rat. And if you hear a long, high-pitched squeak, one of your rat’s is frightened or hurt, so be sure to find out what’s up right away.

Your rats speak loud and clear with their body language, too. For example, if you see one of your pets swishing her tail during playtime, she’s probably really excited. And when a rat stands super-still and slaps the floor with her tail, she’s feeling threatened or annoyed.

There are other ways your rats communicate with you–but half the fun is figuring it out for yourself. We will tell you, though, that if your pet climbs up on your shoulder when you are handling her, you’re really lucky–and loved!

Taking Care of Your Rat

Common Health Problems

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Health Problems To Be Aware Of

With proper nutrition, a clean living environment, and plenty of playtime and attention, your rat should remain healthy and happy throughout his life. If these needs are not met, however, your sensitive animal companion can become ill. Knowing what to look out for can help you to help your pet should a problem arise.

Did you know that many diseases commonly occurring in pet rats can be attributed to a POOR DIET? Rats love to eat, and their caretakers love to indulge them. But too much junk food and other treats high in fat and sugar can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke–all of which can shorten your pet’s time with you. If your rat is overweight, eliminate unhealthy treats and meet his nutritional needs with a pelleted diet and fresh fruits and veggies.

IMPROPER HOUSING can cause problems, too. Rats who are forced to live in wire-bottom cages can easily get their feet stuck, resulting in open wounds and even broken limbs. The constant pressure of standing on the wires can cause swelling and abscesses, which can become infected without veterinary attention.

Some animals may like it hot, but not rats. This species is highly susceptible to HEATSTROKE, which can be fatal. Signs of heatstroke include heavy panting, drooling and lying flat on the stomach. Rats prefer temperatures of 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so take care that your pet’s cage is not in direct sunlight. If you live in a warm climate, wire cages provide the best possible air circulation.

Parasitic infections have bugged many a rat. MITES can enter your home via wood shavings or other wood toys or chewing blocks in your rat’s cage. These pesky critters may show up as little red dots on the skin, and can cause your pet a lot of distress. Animals infested with mites tend to scratch constantly, and commonly have scabs on their face, hind legs, back and shoulders. A trip to the veterinarian is in order to clear up the infestation, and you may have to bathe your pet and treat the cage and surrounding area, too.

Rats seem to be prone to RESPIRATORY PROBLEMS, ranging in severity from the common cold to the serious Mycoplasma pneumonia. Symptoms of infection include constant sneezing with the production of mucus, wheezing and labored breathing accompanied by rattling in the chest. The onset of stress or another infection can cause an outbreak of Mycoplasma. Unless the disease is extremely advanced, it can be controlled with antibiotics. Please note that respiratory illnesses are highly contagious, so if you have more than one rat, you will definitely need to quarantine the infected individual.

If you notice any unusual symptoms in your pet, do not wait until a regularly scheduled check-up to consult the vet. Signs of illness, in addition to those discussed above, include lethargy, weight loss, dull eyes, diarrhea and difficulty breathing. If you think your rat is ill, contact the veterinarian immediately.

Nutritional Needs

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Who can eat more food than your family at Thanksgiving? That’s right, your rat! In the wild, rats consume nuts, seeds, vegetables, insects, eggs, and even reptiles, fish, small birds and mammals. Their domestic cousins are serious chowhounds, and take great delight in what’s for dinner. As a responsible caretaker, it’s your job to meet your pet’s nutritional requirements while resisting the urge to overdo it with the treats.

Commercial rat blocks–also called lab blocks–should make up about 80 percent of your pet’s diet. Nutritionally complete, they are available at pet supply stores and feed stores; try to find a formula with soymeal as its first ingredient. Your pet should be able feed freely on this food, so be sure it’s available at all times. A sturdy ceramic food dish will work well, but many rat caretakers sing the praises of specially designed wire dispensers that attach to the side of the cage. These dispensers allow the rat to eat as she pleases, cut down on waste and minimize the chances of the food becoming contaminated by feces.

Offer your pet some fresh fruits and vegetables every day. You may have to experiment a little to find your rat’s favorites, but carrots, shelled peas, broccoli, grapes, strawberries and bananas are good foods to start with. Take note that if you want to give your pet sweet potatoes, cabbage or Brussels sprouts, you must cook these foods first. Whatever you select, be sure to wash everything well–and remember, the idea is MODERATION! Too many fruits and vegetables can cause your pet to have diarrhea.

Rats also love people food, and on occasion it’s fun for them to have a nibble–that’s the key, just a NIBBLE–of what you’re eating. Good choices include a spaghetti noodle with sauce, pizza crust, small bits of cooked chicken and wheat bread. If it’s not healthy for you, it’s probably not good for your pet. Avoid junk food and anything high in fat, salt or sugar. Topping the absolute no-no list are alcohol; caffeinated beverages; candy; cookies; chips; chocolate; cheese, and sticky foods, such as taffy and peanut butter, that could cause your pet to choke.

Don’t forget that fresh, cold water should be available at all times. Did you know that the average rat can drink about two ounces of water per day? Get your pet set with a water bottle that attaches to the cage, and rinse and refill it every day. Regularly check that the sipper tube isn’t clogged–and that your pet can easily reach the bottle.

Playtime and Toys

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Your rat knows where it’s at–and where it’s ALWAYS at is PLAYTIME! Smart and sensitive, your pet needs to be physically active and mentally challenged to stay happy and healthy. Are you ready for your new job as rattie entertainment director?

It’s a given that your rat, like all members of her species, loves toys. It’s just a matter of figuring out what toys and activities she likes best. Some rats are serious joggers, so you should get yours set with an exercise wheel to see if running is the sport for her. Keep in mind that solid or plastic models are the real deal. Stay away from runged wire wheels, as a rattie foot or tail can easily get caught in the openings.

Tunneling is yet another popular rodent pastime, and you should get yours set with PVC pipes, plastic connecting tubes and interconnected cardboard boxes with cutout entrance holes for this purpose. Rats love climbing, too, and you can tie a big rope across your pet’s cage and watch the fun begin. Ladders and branches are also great toys, and don’t forget small balls–but no rubber ones, please!

A toy need not be expensive to be effective. Some of the best rat toys of all can be found right in your own home. Empty oatmeal containers, egg cartons and cardboard tubes can be crawled on, over and through–and then chewed, of course! If there’s ample room in the cage, nothing beats a cardboard box filled with soil or bedding for digging.

We can’t stress enough the need for your rat to chew–on safe, appropriate objects, that is. Your pet’s teeth grow continuously, so she’ll need to do a lot of daily gnawing and chewing to keep her choppers properly filed. Twigs or branches from non-poisonous trees that haven’t been treated with chemicals are great, and some rats also like rawhide chews. You can also find a variety of wood and cardboard chew toys at your pet supply store.

Once you’ve hand-tamed your rat, you should let her out of the cage for supervised exercise in a safe, secure room every day. That means you’ll need to remove electrical wires from the area, and anything else your rat could, but shouldn’t, chew. Bring out some of your pet’s favorite toys for out-of-the-cage playtime, rotating different toys for each session. It’s also a good idea to always make sure your rat has access to her own private hideout–an empty shoebox will do–to which she can retreat at any time during her “gym class”!

Treats

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

What’s the quickest way to your rat’s heart? Through his stomach, of course. While nutritionally complete lab blocks should make up the “meat and potatoes” of your pet’s diet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a rat who doesn’t appreciate a little (okay, a LOT!) of variety now and then. To ensure that your little guy enjoys his snacktime in the best of health, you’ll need to know what treats are healthy–and which ones aren’t.

Fruits and veggies are excellent choices, and you should offer your rat small amounts of these fresh foods every day. You may have to experiment to find your pet’s favorites, but carrots, shelled peas, grapes, bananas, apples and leafy greens are recommended for starters. If you want to offer your pet sweet potatoes, cabbage or Brussels sprouts, you must cook these foods first. No matter what’s on the day’s menu, however, be sure to wash everything first–and never offer your animal companion any food that is spoiled. Also keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Your rat has a tiny tummy, and too many fruits and vegetables can cause diarrhea.

It’s obvious that rats love food–but they seem to especially love whatever their human friends are eating! On occasion, it’s great fun for your pet to have a little taste of what you’re munching on. Good choices include spaghetti with sauce, pizza crust, a few sunflower seeds, small bits of cooked egg and chicken, and wheat bread. Avoid junk food and anything high in fat, salt or sugar. If it’s healthy for you, it’s probably healthy for your pet. Please take care to ration out treats, though; try limiting snacks to the successful conclusion of a training session, for example, or special occasions.

Topping the no-no list are alcohol; caffeinated and carbonated beverages; candy; chips; cookies; chocolate, and sticky foods, such as taffy and peanut butter, that could cause your pet to choke. We know that many owners indulge their rats with inappropriate treats like cake and candy bars–but we also know that there are many unhealthy rats out there, too. Overfeeding your rat and/or offering him inappropriate foods can lead to obesity, high cholesterol and heart disease–all health problems that can shorten your pet’s time with you.

We’ve got one final word of caution on the topic of treats. It’s probably not a good idea to give your rat his treats through the bars of his cage. He may learn that whatever comes to him this way must be something yummy for him to eat–including fingers! This is especially important to consider if you have young children.