Keeping Pet Rats: A Short Guide

Pet rats, when given the correct care and management, are by far the most intelligent, affectionate, and responsive of all the small rodents, and are ideal pets for children. Do you have time to make friends with a rat?

When choosing your pet rats, contact a reputable breeder. Watch closely how the rats are handled, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you are confident in handling the rats yourself before making the final decision.

Rats are naturally social animals and are much happier when kept in single sex pairs rather than on their own. Both bucks and does make good pets. Litter mates make the best pairs, but unrelated kittens can be put together. Beyond ten weeks of age dominance hierarchy develops, especially between young bucks, which may lead to squabbling. You can still introduce rats beyond this age, but it may get progressively harder as they grow older.

Rats love coming out of their cage to play and explore their environment, but they are not usually compatible with other small rodents, cats, dogs or birds. Rats also tend to gnaw things and so should not be allowed out without close supervision.

Rats live to around 2 years of age. Adult bucks weigh around 500g and adult does around 300g, so a large cage is essential (at least 2' x1' x 1' for a pair). It should be easy to clean, and should be cleaned out once or twice a week. Cages should be kept out of direct sunlight and draughts, as sudden changes in temperature can cause health problems. Untreated wood shavings, cardboard bedding, hay or shredded paper make suitable bedding materials. Rats are very clean animals and will spend a lot of time washing and grooming their coats.

To remain healthy, rats should be fed a staple diet of rat or rabbit mix with dry dog biscuits. Fresh fruit and vegetables in moderation will be enjoyed, as will table scraps. Fresh water from a bottle should be available at all times. Up to the age of 10 weeks, young rats should receive supplements of food with a higher protein and fat content, such as puppy food. Take care not to overfeed your pets, as obesity will shorten their lives and may lead to health problems. In particular beware of feeding chocolate, cakes crisps etc. - while your rats may love these foods, such items should be restricted to an occasional treat.

Before considering breeding from your rats, contact an experienced breeder for advice and remember that you will have to find homes for the kittens. The gestation period is approximately 22-23 days, and breeding pairs should be separated before the doe gives birth as re-mating will take place immediately after the kittens are born. First litters average about eight or nine in number but many does will produce more than this. The kittens should be weaned and kept in single sex groups at five weeks of age.

The most common ailments affecting rats are:
  • Spots and Scabs (too rich diet, sharp claws need trimming, or mites may be present)
  • Abscesses (often from an infected cut or bite)
  • Tumours
  • Malocclusion (deformed teeth, and sometimes occurring if one tooth is broken or damaged)
  • Respiratory Diseases
  • Loss of Weight and Condition (may be a sign of underlying disease or old age)
An ailing rat should be seen by your veterinary surgeon as soon as you suspect something is wrong, no matter how minor it may seem, as any delay may lead to serious problems. Your rat relies totally on you for its welfare, and a good vet will not mind at all.