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Pet Rat Information Sheet | Part 1

The Pet Rat Information Sheet is intended as commonsense advice for owners of domestic rats (Rattus norvegicus). It was originally written for people adopting rats from the authors in the UK. The document does not necessarily reflect the advice or policies of any organisations of which we are members. It is offered to a wider audience as a public service, but we cannot be held responsible for your decision to act on any advice contained in it. The authors are not veterinary professionals, and this document is not a substitute for veterinary consultation.

Please note that, due to the time taken in looking after our own animals and families, the authors cannot answer email pet care questions. For rat care advice online, we suggest you try the Usenet newsgroups alt.pets.rodents or rec.pets, and mailing lists for rat owners.

Introduction

The purpose of this leaflet is to help readers keep healthy, happy pet rats. Its main focus is upon animal welfare – what owners can do to give their rats happy lives, and thus make them better pets.

Rats as Pets

Rats are clean, intelligent, affectionate animals which bond to their human companions in much the same way that dogs do, and with the right care should provide a comparable level of companionship. They are the same species as the wild brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, but have been selectively bred for looks and temperament for at least the last century and are now quite different in temperament from their ancestors. They are far less aggressive towards humans and rival rats, and display a number of behavioural differences from wild rats, which have been noted by researchers.

Rats become very attached to their owners, make playful, sensitive pets, and can be taught to come by name and learn a variety of tricks. Unlike many other rodents, however, rats are a fairly high maintenance pet. They need at least an hour’s playtime outside their cage every day. Because they are much more intelligent than many other small animals, rats can suffer greatly if not given enough attention, free-range time, and environmental stimulation. While rats are extremely rewarding pets and will repay any attention and affection you give them a thousand fold, they may not be suitable for everyone; if you cannot guarantee to give your rats at least an hour of quality time every day, then perhaps a lower maintenance pet would be more suitable.

Where to get pet rats

It is best to buy your rats direct from a responsible breeder, for many reasons. A breeder who has only a few litters of baby rats (called ‘kittens’) at a time should have handled them from an early age, so that they are well socialized. The rats will have been spared the traumatic upheaval of moving to a busy shop at a young age, and so will have suffered less stress. They have had fewer opportunities to catch diseases from other animals. You will be able to meet the parents and relatives of the baby rats, and to check that they are healthy and friendly. A good breeder will be able to give advice after you have taken the rats home, and will usually take her rats back if you have any problems with them.

The best way to find a responsible rat breeder is to contact your local/national rat club and, ideally, ask around before you buy. For example, the UK’s National Fancy Rat Society keeps a ‘Kitten Register’ of baby rats which are well socialized and suitable as pets – send an SAE to Cat Russ, 77 Sandholme Road, Brislington, Bristol BS4 3RX for a list.

Buying rats from a pet shop is more of a gamble than buying direct from a breeder. Some pet shops have knowledgeable staff, who handle their rats daily and treat them well. Others may see small livestock as just another commodity to be piled high and sold cheap. Advice from pet shop staff can be unreliable; no qualifications, or even experience, are needed to sell pets or to advise people on their care. Incidentally, the size of a store is no guide to the quality of its advice; some of the large chain ‘pet superstores’ are notorious for their poor animal care. If you buy rats from a pet shop, look around before choosing a store. Find out where they get their rats from. The best options are stores which take in small numbers of rats at a time from local breeders, or which breed small numbers of their own rats, and give them lots of attention. However, many pet shops purchase their small livestock from pet wholesalers, and this is the worst possible start for an animal. These rats are bred in huge numbers, then transferred to the wholesaler, who sells them on to pet shops. They can suffer great stress, and have lots of opportunities to pick up diseases. In order for the rats to reach the pet shops while they are still small and ‘cute’, they are often taken from their mothers far too young.

Before you buy from either a breeder or a pet shop, consider whether they meet up to the following standards. Good rat breeders and good pet shops put a lot of time and effort into breeding and socialising pet rats; they will only breed from good quality, healthy, friendly animals and will allow the mother to rest between litters. The babies will have been regularly handled from a young age – before their eyes have opened – and should be confident in human company by the time they are ready to leave home, not hiding away or urinating in fear when they are picked up. They will usually be over six weeks old, and certainly no younger than five weeks; the breeder or pet shop should be able to tell you their date of birth. They will have no problem telling the sexes apart – rats can be easily sexed from a few days’ old, with a little practise. They will have kept male and female rats separate from the age of five weeks, because females can become pregnant even at this age. Good breeders and good pet shops will certainly care about the welfare of their animals, and will want to make sure that you have suitable housing and know how to keep rats, before they will let you buy any from them. If they were not concerned that you would look after the rats properly, it might indicate that they did not care about the animals themselves.

Rat Rescue

Rescue organisations sometimes have rats which need good homes, and your national rat club will be able to put you in touch with members who deal with rescued rats. In the UK, the National Fancy Rat Society is not a rescue organization, but many members take in homeless rats. One of the nice aspects of the rat world is that it does not polarize into those who breed and show, and those who keep rescues – most rat breeders find room for a few homeless rats amongst their prize winners. ‘Rescued’ rats may have been dumped by owners who did not look after them properly – often by people who bought a breeding pair and then could not cope with the babies. Sometimes they have been seized by animal welfare organizations, either from individuals or from pet shops. If you adopt an adult rat, you will be able to get a rough idea of its health and temperament straight away.
Initial shyness may subside as the rat gets used to you. Baby rescued rats are more of a gamble, as it may be hard to find out about the health and temperament of both parents. It can be very rewarding to give a home to an animal which truly needs one, and many rescued rats make great pets. However, we recommend that you do not take on rescued rats until you have kept a couple of friendly, well-socialized rats, after which the rescued rats can benefit from your experience.

‘Rescuing’ from pet shops

Imagine this scenario: in a dingy pet shop, staffed by people who apparently could not care less, you find a tank full of rats. Overcrowded, dirty, perhaps with no food or water, some of the rats are obviously sick and many of them are unhappy. No-one cares about these rats because they are ‘just snake food’. You buy one of these unfortunate rats, knowing that you have saved it from certain death. Is this ‘rescuing’? Many of us have done it, including the authors. However, we do not believe that it does any good, and it’s certainly not ‘rescuing’ in the same way that giving a home to an abandoned rat is truly ‘rescuing’ it. Once you leave the nasty pet shop, another rat will be sold for snake food in place of the one you bought. The total number of rats sold for snake food will not change, just because the shop sold one as a pet. However, the pet shop staff will note that rats are selling well. They may be encouraged to breed more rats. They will not be encouraged to look after the ones they have better. If you find that a shop is not looking after its livestock properly, and want to improve the welfare of the animals, then write to complain to your local council, for the attention of the environmental health officer. Contact the local animal welfare organisations. Contact the local newspapers. Visit the shop and try explaining politely how they could improve things. If that doesn’t work, kick up a fuss. But please, don’t buy from them – it will only encourage them. If you want to rescue a rat, see ‘rat rescue’ above. You can give a home to needy rats, without encouraging irresponsible breeders.

Before buying rats… please consider whether you can commit yourself to caring for them properly for three years or more. Pets’ needs do not change just because their owner gets a new job, or new interests, or will not find time to play with them any more. You cannot assume that you will be able to re-home rats in a year or so, if your interest fades. It is very stressful for an adult rat to have to adjust to a new home and new humans.

Rescue organisations have many animals to rehome, from cases of genuine need – for example, where the owner is seriously ill or has become homeless. They really do not need people to dump animals on them when the owner could easily, with a little effort, look after the rats themselves. Here are a selection of very poor excuses : ‘my daughter won’t clean them out’ (so teach her about responsibility!), ‘I forgot that I was going to work abroad when I bought them’ (i.e. ‘I’m bored with them..’), ‘I have a new baby and I don’t want animals in the house now’ (the rats are no danger to the baby, and the baby will love watching them). There are all too many sad cases like these, where owners abandon pets for no good reason.

If you have a genuine reason for not being able to keep your rats, first contact their breeder, then any rat club which you are a member of. If your breeder cannot help, and you are not a member of a rat club, then try an animal rescue organization like the RSPCA.

Please do not dump pets outdoors under the illusion that you are ‘setting them free’; domesticated rats brought up in captivity would be terrified in the wild, unable to fend for themselves. Most would either be killed by cats, or starve to death, within days of release.

Handling rats

The more attention you give your new rats when you first get them home, the sooner they will get used to your voice and your smell and begin to make friends with you. Handle your rats as much as possible, whether they seem to like it or not at first — they will soon learn to enjoy your company. Unless a rat is very nervous or unwell, you cannot give it too much attention or handling. One good way of getting your rats used to you is to let them ride around the house on your shoulder or inside your sweater.
Rats should not be picked up by the tail — they don’t like it, and it can cause injury. It is best to lift your rats by placing one or both hands under the chest, behind the front legs -but be careful not to squeeze.

Rat-Proofing your house

Once your rats are used to you, make sure you know where your rats are while they roam free range, and rat-proof any room that they are let loose in. Rat-proofing requires a little common sense, but need not become a major DIY project. Many rats will scent-mark ‘their’ territory with tiny drops of urine and you may want to keep a ‘rat-blanket’ to throw over soft furnishings when the rats are out. Electrical cords that cannot be kept out of reach of small teeth should be covered with aquarium tubing which can be bought cheaply from most pet-shops, or hosepipe; it is easiest to slit the tubing along its length and feed the flex into it. Rats will also chew books, clothes, pencils and other items, and are adept at knocking things over. Breakables and valuable possessions should be put out of harm’s reach while your rats are out and about. Make sure that windows and doors are closed, and that there are no possible escape routes. Rats can fit through tiny holes, so you should check for cracks along skirting boards, between floor-boards etc. It is strongly advised that you do not wear shoes while your rats roam free-range. Some house plants can be poisonous (check in a book on houseplants to find out if yours are safe), and rats often enjoy climbing plants and digging in plant pots – so it is probably most sensible to keep plants away from your rats.

Biting and nipping

Biting, out of fear or aggression, is unusual in pet rats. It is not something that you should have to put up with. Here are some of the situations where it may occur, and some possible solutions:
Male rats occasionally become aggressive towards humans and/or other rats at some point between 3-12 months of age, although if this happens it is most common at 4-5 months. The rat becomes ‘super macho’ if his levels of male hormones are too high. He will puff up his fur, hiss and huff at other rats and people, and may attack or bite cage-mates or his owners. He may also scratch at the floor, rub his sides against hard objects (to leave his scent), and leave trails of scent-marking pee wherever he walks. Normal, happy bucks may also scent-mark like this, but problem rats take it to extremes. If a male rat starts to squeak when you pick him up, or threatens to bite you when he is playing outside the cage, then we recommend that you take action quickly and do not leave it until you get bitten. This condition can usually be cured by having the rat castrated, and his hormonal levels and behaviour will return to normal after a few weeks. Castration also stops excessive scent-marking. A rat whose hormones are driving him to obsessive levels of aggression and sexual frustration is not a happy animal, and we do not think that it is fair to leave him in such a state. If you must have a buck neutered, make sure that you use a vet who has done this operation on rats before: rats have an internal muscular structure unlike that of dogs and cats, and a slightly different procedure must be used (the base of the inguinal canals must be stitched closed). Neutering normally costs about £30 (at time of writing — 1998). The National Fancy Rat Society has a list of vets that have experience in dealing with rats.

Female rats sometimes bite when they are pregnant or have babies. This behaviour usually disappears when the babies are weaned. Although such biting is perhaps understandable, most female rats do not bite in these circumstances, so we believe that the biting doe should not be bred from again – she may pass the trait on to her offspring, and also the breeder may avoid handling the babies if she is worried that the mother will savage her. This means that the babies may not be as well socialised as they should be.

Intervening in a rat fight is a common way to get bitten. The rat may think that you are another rodent joining the scrum, and bite in self-defence. To avoid this, break up rat fights by squirting the animals with water from a plant spray, and separate the animals for a few hours until they cool down.

Finger nipping may occur if your rats are used to getting treats through the cage bars. This is not true biting, but merely an accidental nibble. If a finger is poked through the bars too, the rats may nip, mistaking the finger for food. Train your rats to tell the difference, by telling them when food is arriving – eg ‘Sweeties!’ – or fingers, eg ‘Be gentle!’. If this fails, stop feeding treats through the bars; instead, open the cage door to put your hand inside when hand-feeding.

A terrified rat may bite out of fear, if it has been scared by rough handling. Gentle treatment, perhaps with the aid of thick rose-pruning gloves, may help. More to come on this in next revision.

Sometimes a rat crops up which is just nasty. This is rare amongst rats from responsible breeders, but more common when indiscriminate breeding occurs. Not surprisingly, it is particularly common when rats which bite are bred from – the tendency towards bad temperament is often inherited, and may be recessive. This means that breeders need to select for good temperament in every generation, because even friendly rats may have the odd nasty child. Biters should never be bred from, no matter how pretty they are. If a rat continues to bite for more than a few weeks after castration or continued gentle handling, you should consider having the rat put to sleep. This is a difficult decision which no-one apart from the rat’s owner can make, but the authors believe that a savage animal, kept permanently in its cage because people are scared to handle it, is not having much of a life. We would rather offer homes to other rats which could enjoy their lives more.

Does and Bucks

It is very easy to tell the difference between male and female rats. Males have large, prominent testicles which are visible under the tail from well before the age when they are ready to leave their mother. They can draw their testicles up inside them if they are afraid, but will not do this for a long period of time. A good rat breeder or staff at a good pet shop will find it easy to tell which sex baby rats are. If they cannot tell the difference with ease, they should not be selling the animals.

Both male and female rats make great companion animals, although they have different characteristics. Does (females) are smaller, more lithe and more active than Bucks (males). Does have a smoother coat (unless they are rexes, in which case they have a less curly coat); they have almost no discernible smell and rarely scent-mark territory. Approximately once every five days a doe will be in heat for around twelve hours. This usually happens in the evening. You will notice that your doe is in heat by changes in her behaviour: she will be jumpy, skittish, and may perform a mating ‘dance’ by freezing, arching her back and fluttering her ears if you tickle her haunches. Bucks are larger and more laid-back than does. Their coat is coarser and has a slight musky smell to it. While they are as affectionate as does, they are much lazier, and when left free-range will often curl up in a corner or on your lap. Some bucks scent mark almost everything that they run into — including their human companions — but this is not as disgusting as it sounds as the ‘scent’ is only a few drops of urine and does not smell strongly.

As discussed in ‘Biting and Nipping’, occasionally male rats may need to be castrated if they become too aggressive. This is not a usual occurrence and should not be confused with the normal rough and tumble of adolescent rats. However, if you own a male rat, you should remember that neutering may become necessary. On the other hand, female rats are much more likely to develop mammary tumours than males, and you may decide to have these surgically removed. When you take on a pet, you have to take on the risk that it may one day need an operation.

Growth and Lifespan

Rats are born after 21-28 days gestation, although the normal term is 22-23 days. Rats have poor eyesight but their senses of hearing and smell are many times more sensitive than ours. Baby rats’ eyes open when they are between 13-16 days old, although they can hear and smell a few days after birth. They often start to nibble solid food as soon as their eyes open, but they still need their mother’s milk until they are at least four weeks old. As with all mammals, mother’s milk is the best food for young rats – they should not be weaned from the mother, or fed milk substitutes/animal formula, without good reason. Their bodies are designed to thrive on rat milk, not cat formula! There is no need to offer soft weaning foods; unlike human babies, young rats have teeth and can gnaw from the moment they start to eat solids. They do not need purees.

Rats normally leave their litter at 6 weeks of age; they are fully weaned from their mother at 4-5 weeks, but benefit greatly from staying with their breeder and being socialised until 6 weeks, since the period from 2-6 weeks of age is a crucial stage in the rat’s mental and social development. It is important that rats are allowed to stay with their litter until this age, and the UK’s National Fancy Rat Society (NFRS) does not allow baby rats to be sold through its shows or register before they are six weeks old.

Rats usually become fertile between 5-12 weeks of age, but does have been known to get pregnant as young as 3 1/2 weeks. This is only an issue if young does are introduced to older males who can mate with them; their litter brothers will not become fertile until after 5 weeks of age. If litters are not separated by sex at 6 weeks old, some does are likely to be pregnant. We are aware that most rat books say that does do not become fertile until 8 weeks old, but unfortunately, many baby female rats have not read the books, and get pregnant a lot younger than this! Such early pregnancy places a great strain upon the mother and her babies; please don’t take the risk.

Rats grow rapidly until they reach 12-14 weeks. After this, the growth slows down but they continue to fill out until they reach six months of age. Adult bucks usually weigh 400-700g, does around 200-500g. As long as a rat has been handled as a youngster, it will bond to you no matter how old it is when you first get it. Rats usually live for around two years, although some make it to three and beyond. A big cage, other rats for company, a healthy diet, and lots of exercise is the best way of making sure that your rats have a long, happy life.

Social Life: Rats Need Company

Rats are highly intelligent, social animals, and although they enjoy the companionship of humans, they thrive in – and need – the company of their own species. Although they will usually survive if kept as single pets, pet care is not just a matter of keeping animals alive; rats will have happier and more interesting lives when kept with other rats. Rats should never live alone, and ideally should be kept in groups of two or more of the same sex. It is unfair to deprive any social animal of the company of its own species. Rats enjoy grooming each other, curling up to sleep together, and sometimes even fighting. It is usual for rats to scrap occasionally, especially when they are ‘teenagers’ between 3 and 6 months old; do not worry about this unless you see serious injuries, as the rats are just establishing a pecking order.

No matter how much time you can spend with your rat, you will never be able to replace the attentions of his own species. A rat’s most active time is in the middle if the night, when most rat owners are unlikely to be able to provide their pet with companionship. One fear expressed by potential rat-owners is that if they get more than one rat, the animals will bond together and be less tame as a result. The opposite is usually the case, as solitary rats can easily become clingy, introverted and neurotic. Rats kept in pairs or groups are happier, more confident, and no more difficult to tame. If you want proof of this, go to a rat show or visit someone who keeps a group of rats as pets. You will be able to meet plenty of extrovert, confident rats and their ratty friends. We are not aware of any sound argument for keeping rats alone, but there are many good reasons to let them live in single-sex pairs or groups: two rats are as easy to look after as one, a cage that is big enough for one rat is big enough for a pair, two rats are much happier and live longer than single rats –and they’re many times more interesting to watch! Do not worry about a pair of rats producing unwanted babies – rats should be kept in single-sex groups to avoid this, and it is very easy to tell the difference between males and females with a little experience.

It is possible to sex baby rats from birth with practise, and it is hard to confuse does and bucks from four weeks onwards, as by this age the male’s testicles have dropped and are clearly apparent. While baby rats are weaned before five weeks of age, they should not leave their same-sex littermates until they are at least six weeks old. Any pet shop or breeder who claims that their baby rats cannot be definitely sexed yet is either selling them far too young, and does not have the animals’ best interests at heart, or they know very little about rats. Either way, they should be avoided at all costs.

Introducing Rats

It is easiest to introduce rats to their companions when they are young (preferably under 10 weeks old). However, even adult rats can be introduced to companions. When introducing adult rats, first clean out the cage thoroughly to remove territorial scents from the resident rat. Dab both rats with perfume or vanilla essence (to disguise their smells) and introduce them on neutral territory, not in a cage which one recognises as its own. There will usually be some fighting for the first few days after they are introduced. This is not usually serious, but to avoid it you may prefer to introduce them gradually, letting them first just sniff each other and then work up to putting them in the same cage over about a week. It is harder to introduce adult male rats to other adult males, and such introductions need to be done over several weeks. It is usually fairly easy to introduce an adult male to a young baby male of 6-10 weeks, although the introduction must be carefully supervised.

Housing

Unlike rabbits and guinea pigs, domesticated rats are not hardy in cold weather. They must live indoors, preferably in your home, although an enclosed outbuilding could also suffice. For this reason they need a cage rather than just a hutch. Rats kept in an outdoor hutch are at risk of coming into contact with wild rats, and would be lucky to survive a British winter without illness or death from cold. The temperature should not fall below around 45 Degrees F/7Degrees C, and ideally should not rise beyond around 75 Degrees F/ 24 Degrees C. If the cage is sited in a busy part of the home, the rats will enjoy watching their humans passing by, and if part of the cage is at eye-level, you will find that you interact with them more.

Your rats will spend most of their lives in their cage, and because they are such intelligent, active animals, it is a shame to keep them in a small space. There is no such thing as a cage that is ‘too big’ for pet rats — giving your animals more space is an easy way to make their lives more interesting. As a bare minimum, the floor-space should be at least 24″ long and 12″ wide, but we would stress that this is the minimum acceptable cage size and most pet owners want to give their pets more than the minimum. It is really important to check the dimensions of any cage before you buy; it can be hard to guess accurately, and a few inches of space can make a lot of difference to animals as small as rats.

The Importance of Ventilation

The importance of ventilation is that decomposing droppings and urine give off ammonia. This irritates the respiratory tract, making rats vulnerable to respiratory problems (breathing difficulties). Litter on the cage floor absorbs moisture from droppings, which slows or halts the decomposition process, but some ammonia release is inevitable, even with the best litter. Good ventilation allows ammonia to dissipate in the surrounding air, thus reducing the amount that rats are exposed to in the cage. Ventilation is therefore a very important element in keeping rats healthy, and should be given particular attention whenever a rat suffers from respiratory illness.

Wire cages are by far the best housing for rats. In addition to providing good ventilation they are a ready-made rat climbing-frame, and they allow you to interact with your rats — you can feed and stroke them through the bars. Rats have keen senses of hearing and of smell; a cage provides extra stimulation as your rats can pick up new smells and sounds which they find interesting. Don’t worry about cages being draughty – all that is needed is a warm, sheltered nestbox for a sleeping place.

A cage can be easily converted into a rat adventure playground with a little imaginative use of ropes, ladders, tree branches, shelves, hammocks, and flowerpots attached to the sides. In addition to a minimum of two square feet of floor-space, you should try to get a nice tall cage for your rats: they love to climb, and you can maximise the available space by making shelves. The simplest shelves are melamine boards which can slide between the bars of the cage; they are convenient to remove and can be wiped down. Fer-Plast and other companies make excellent, reasonably priced parrot or cockatiel cages (such as the Fer-Plast Sonia 24″ long x 15″ wide x 25″ high or the Immac Gabbie Dora ) that are suitable for rats. It is worth shopping around, as prices can vary by as much as 100%; animal exhibitions are a great place to get large cages at wholesale prices. Used ads papers (such as LOOT in London) and classified ads are also good places to find cheap cages; make sure that you disinfect and rinse any second-hand cage thoroughly. A hamster cage, no matter how ‘large’, is not suitable for adult rats: even the three-storey ‘hamster-palaces’ do not have enough floor space or climbing opportunities.

Fer-Plast Sonia cockatiel cage, with melamine shelves and hanging flowerpots..

Wire cage floors

Some wire cages made especially for ferrets, chinchillas, or laboratory use, have wire floors with a pan below to catch droppings. These wire floors can be dangerous for rats; they may trap feet, and can also cause, or aggravate, a condition called bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis). This leads to severe irritation and swelling of the hocks, and cannot usually be cured.

Research shows that ammonia levels remain many times higher in cages with wire floors than in those with solid floors plus litter. (‘Differences in the microenvironment of a polycarbonate caging system: bedding vs raised wire floors’ by Raynor, Steinhagen & Hamm, Laboratory Animals Vol 17, pp85-89)

In any case, there is no advantage to having wire floors. A litter is still needed beneath the wire floor, to absorb urine and stop smells. The study above found that when litter was placed beneath the wire floors, the ammonia level was approximately halved – but still remained many times higher than that in cages with solid floors. This is probably because the movement of the animals mixes waste products with litter, thus drying them out more effectively.

Cages with wire floors are not even any easier to clean, as droppings get stuck to the wire. If you do buy a cage with a wire floor, remove the wire floor and set the cage in the litter tray. Wire shelves can be easily covered with off-cuts of linoleum, cardboard or carpet, which can be replaced when dirty.

An aquarium can be an option if, for some reason, a cage is not suitable or available. Aquaria offer less climbing opportunities, but this can be overcome with a little imagination and the use of some of the items listed above. However, aquaria have poor ventilation. The warm, humid, still air of an aquarium allows ammonia to build up rapidly, so it is important to make sure that the lid allows plenty of air to circulate. The lid should be composed entirely of wire mesh, perhaps on a home-made wooden frame. A fan close to the tank will help. Fish tank hoods and vivarium lids, or wooden lids with a few drilled holes, do not encourage air movement. Tanks must be cleaned out more often than cages, to remove droppings and control ammonia levels. Tanks do have the advantage of keeping the rats bedding, food etc. in their home and away from your furniture and carpets, and they provide extra security for rats who live in cat-owning households (although make sure that the lid is cat-proof!).

Plastic rabbit or cavy cages are sometimes used for rats. They all have thick plastic base trays, but the top half may be either all wire, or else clear plastic, containing a wire top door. Cages with a raised wire top half include the Ferplast Cavia range. These offer good ventilation and climbing opportunities. Shelves and toys can be attached to the wire on the sides. The larger versions allow lots of floorspace – sometimes 3 feet long or more – and they make good rat homes. Cages of the second type include the Savic Rody and Ferplast Duna, a large (approx. 30″ x 19″ x 23″) plastic tank with clear plastic top half. These cages offer limited climbing opportunities and poor ventilation, but are extremely easy to clean (they can be taken apart). While the Duna is super as a nursery for baby rats as it is secure and draught-proof, it should only be used for adults when there are no other feasible options. Determined chewers make short work of them.

In addition to a cage, your rats will need a nestbox. This is a place to hide or sleep in which allows the rats to feel secure, and to build a warm nest. A nest box can be improvised from many objects: a small empty cardboard box, a large clean empty jar, or a small bucket laid on its side.

Rat Toys

Baby rats enjoy playing with toys and each other, whilst adult rats tend to use toys for sleeping in or on and reserve their play for humans or other rats. All sorts of objects can be useful for both purposes – some ideas are lengths of plastic drainpipe, large drainpipe connectors, lengths of wide drainage pipe, large glass jars, cardboard boxes, and old clothes. Small toys intended for hamsters or gerbils are good for baby rats. Some rats will run on wheels, but usually they are not interested in them — probably because they are too intelligent. Wheels with spokes are dangerous — legs, tails, or even heads can be damaged in them as one tries to jump on while another is running. Toys intended for ferrets and parrots are generally safe and suitable for rats.

Litter and Bedding

Litter is placed in the cage to absorb moisture from urine and droppings. By drying out droppings, it stops them decomposing and hence smelling. Bedding is used in the nestbox to make a comfortable bed, and also to absorb urine.

Wood shavings are the most commonly available litter sold to line the bottom of small animal cages. Wood shavings are not an ideal litter for rats, because they give off essential oils and can be very dusty. As both aromatic oils and dust can irritate rats’ respiratory tracts, shavings are especially unsuitable for rats prone to respiratory infections. The worst culprit is red cedar shavings which are sold in some pet shops in the UK as a deodorising bedding. Scientific research suggests that the aromatic oils in cedar bedding can cause health problems. While pine and spruce shavings do not carry the same degree of risk, there is at least anecdotal evidence that their long-term use causes similar health problems, and for this reason they are probably best avoided. Health problems such as those discussed above can only be diagnosed in a post-mortem examination. While it is unlikely that you will notice any dramatic change in the health of your pet as a result of changing cage litters, it is wisest to use a litter that presents few or no potential health problems to your pets. By avoiding shavings, it is possible that your rats could live longer and suffer fewer illnesses.

Unfortunately there are not many alternatives to wood shavings in the UK at the moment, but we use Bio-Catolet – a cat litter made from pellets of recycled paper. Sterile and dust-free, this litter is many times more absorbent than wood-shavings, and is much better at controlling odour. Although on a weight-for-weight basis it is more expensive than wood shavings, Bio-Catolet is far more efficient: you use much less and change it less often than wood (for example, once rather than twice weekly for an average-sized cage containing two females). Because of its efficiency Bio-Catolet is good value for money. It can be found in large branches of ASDA, Sainsburys, and Tescos nationwide, or ask your local pet shop to order it for you.

In a pinch, shredded paper-towels can be a safe stop-gap until you buy more litter. Normal cat litter — even the dust-free kind –is not appropriate for rats: the dust and clay can harm their health.

Bedding – shredded paper bedding from a pet shop is fine, although your rats will enjoy ripping up paper towels even more. Newspaper can be used as bedding, provided that it is printed with non-toxic ink. You can find out by telephoning the printer; if the ink is safe, the main disadvantage is that it may stain the rats’ coats. Straw or hay does little to absorb liquid or eliminate odour, although some rats and humans like it. One of the authors had a rat who blinded herself in one eye on a sharp hay stalk, but such accidents are probably rare.

Food

Like people, rats are omnivores. They fare best on fresh wholesome foods: wholegrain (brown) rice, vegetables, grains (wheat, barley, oats, millet), wholemeal bread, etc. and some animal protein. High protein puppy food is useful as a supplement to help build up young rats (up to 10-12 weeks), and normal to low protein dry dog food is a good component of a healthy diet. Ideally, an adult rat should be fed some whole-grains, some vegetables, and some protein (lean meat scraps, dog food or mealworms) every day. This can be supplemented with a bowl of ‘rodent mix’ as a snack food.

Debbie Ducommun of the Rat Fan Club has devised an excellent recipe for rat health food that appears to boost immune reaction and general health, see the Rat Fan Club (below) for details. Debbie is a vegetarian herself, but she found it impossible to formulate a vegetarian diet for rats which would fulfil all of their nutritional requirements. If you want your rats to thrive, they should have small amounts of animal protein. The simplest way of providing this is via a few dog biscuits.

While such home-made nutritionally complete diets are ideal and are strongly recommended, it is also possible to give your rat a well-balanced diet using pet-shop mixes as a base. Reggie Rat made by Supreme Pet Foods is specially formulated with the nutritional needs of rats in mind. In theory it is a complete food, but a) we have yet to meet the rat which will eat all of the mix, particularly the pellets, and the diet cannot be ‘complete’ if rats only eat part of it, and b)your rats will always appreciate healthy fresh snacks as treats. As it is quite high in fat and protein, restrict amounts of Reggie Rat for rats which put on weight easily. A less rich option is a good quality rabbit food like Burgess Supa Rabbit or Burgess Supa Natural (no pellets), supplemented with fresh vegetables, some animal protein (mealworms, lean meat or dog biscuit), and the odd cooked meat bone (chicken bones are fine — the rats just crunch them up) or natural yoghurt to provide extra calcium.

If you feed a grain mix, like Reggie Rat or rabbit mix, give just a small amount at a time. Most rats will pick out their favourite pieces first, but they will not get a balanced diet if they only eat their favourite part of the mix. Do not give any more food until all of the first lot has been eaten, except for the empty grain husks, and the pellets. These pellets are made of alfalfa, and they mainly add bulk to the diet. Most rats would rather starve than eat them; don’t worry, as they are not essential. It is better for rats to get their fibre from fresh fruit or veg anyway. We would not feed ‘mono-diets’ such as complete blocks of rodent food. Such diets are boring, depriving rats of the fun of rummaging through their food and eating the tastiest bits first.

The following foods can be used as treats/supplements to the regular diet: fruit (apples, cherries, grapes, banana etc.), vegetables (broccoli, potatoes, peas, carrot etc.), cooked liver, kidney, or other low-fat meat, cooked bones, cooked pulses (cooked Soya protein may reduce the risk of cancer), live yoghurt, sunflower seeds (an exceptional source of B vitamins), wholemeal pasta and bread, brown rice, unsweetened breakfast cereals, and the occasional capsule of cod-liver or garlic oil. Table scraps will be eaten with relish, but try to avoid feeding fatty or sugary scraps. Carbonated drinks should never be given to rats as they cannot burp, and the build-up of gasses in the stomach from fizzy drinks could be fatal. Bear in mind that dietary fat has been linked to tumours in rats, and keep fatty foods like peanuts and sunflower seeds as treats. Moderation is advised in all things – the diet should not be made up of just one main ingredient. For example, some people worry that too much maize (sweetcorn, or just ‘corn’ in the USA) could be harmful, although small amounts are enjoyed.

Fresh water should be available at all times, preferably in a gravity (ball-valve) bottle which will keep the water clean. Water should be changed daily, and the bottle should be scrubbed out once a week. If using a plastic bottle, it is a good idea to thoroughly clean or replace it every few months, to prevent excessive bacteria and algae building up. The problem with giving water in bowls rather than bottles is that rats tend to dump litter in the bowls, or knock them over. However, most rats prefer drinking from a bowl, and like to wash themselves with the water – so they do appreciate being given a bowl from time to time. Sick or elderly rats may find it hard to drink from a bottle, so a low bowl should be provided to encourage them to drink. You will have to clean the cage more often, but it will help to prevent the rat suffering from dehydration. Vitamin supplements should be added to food rather than to drinking water -most make the water taste horrible, and may discourage your rats from drinking. In any case, healthy rats fed a healthy, well-balanced diet should not need to have vitamin supplements.

Grooming

Rats are extremely clean creatures, spending almost a third of their waking life grooming. As such, it is rarely necessary to bathe rats, with the exception of light-coated varieties which may need the occasional stain-removal session if you wish to show them. If you decide that your rat needs bathing, make sure that you use a shampoo formulated for animals – a kitten or puppy shampoo is best – as human shampoo can irritate their skin.
Some rats do not clean their tails thoroughly and can develop dark stains or patches on their tails. If you wish to clean your rat’s tail you can do so with an old, soft toothbrush and either a gentle soap / animal shampoo, or bicarbonate of soda. Wet the tail and apply the soap / shampoo / soda. Very gently stroke the rat’s tail with the dampened toothbrush, or rubbing with your fingers, brushing away from the body towards the tip of the tail. Do not brush your rat’s tail roughly as this can damage or even remove the delicate skin on the tail, and can be very painful for her.

Some rat owners like to have their pets’ nails trimmed regularly. This can be quite difficult and for the first time it is helpful to visit a vet or an experienced rat owner – a show can be a great opportunity for this – and ask them to show you how to do it. Styptic powder (anti-bleeding) is a useful thing to keep on hand if you intend to cut your rats’ nails as accidentally nicking the vein inside the nail can cause serious blood loss. Putting a large (cleaned) stone or brick in your rats’ cage for them to climb on can also wear down their nails.

Changing the bedding (tissues, kitchen towel, etc.) in your rats’ cage daily will prevent them from becoming too smelly. It is also a good idea to give your rats a bowl of water every now and again, as mentioned above, so that they can wash themselves.

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