Basic Rat Care

Rats make wonderful pets and fit well in most homes, but it is important to understand their needs before deciding to add rats to your family.

Background

Known as: Domestic rat or Fancy rat
Weight: Males, 1 to 1 1/2 lbs; females, 1/2 to 1 lb
Length: 12-18 inches, including tail
Lifespan: 2+ years
Good with kids?: Great for families, but young caretakers should be supervised by an adult.
Fun fact: When rats are very content, they grind their teeth and boggle their eyes!

Behavior & Handling

Rats are friendly and curious by nature, but you'll need to get your pets used to you. Start by feeding them small treats. When they're comfortable with that, pick them up one at a time, one hand supporting the bottom, the other over the back. When you get to know each other better, don't be surprised if your pets want to snuggle or sit on your lap or shoulder!

Once your rats are settled, let them play outside the cage in a safe, secure area for an hour (or more) every day. Out-of-cage playtime is important and will keep your smart, active friends mentally stimulated and physically fit. Supervise at all times, as rats will chew on anything in their paths, including electrical wires.

Daily Care

  • Remove soiled bedding, droppings and stale/uneaten food daily. Clean and refill the water bottle every day.
  • Clean cage completely once a week by replacing dirty bedding and scrubbing down the rest of the cage.

Rat Supply Checklist

  • Wire cage
  • Aspen or recycled paper bedding
  • Small boxes or plastic rodent house
  • Hammocks
  • 12" Exercise wheel (solid, no rungs)
  • PVC tubes for tunneling
  • Rodent chow (also called rat blocks)
  • Attachable water bottle with drinking tube
  • Unpainted, untreated piece of wood, dog biscuits or safe chew toy
  • Toys, including swings, ropes and other toys made for parrots

Signs of Illness

Bring your rats to the veterinarian annually for check-ups. Don't wait for your yearly appointment if you think one of your rats is sick, seek help immediately. Common signs that something isn't right include sneezing, lethargy, weight loss, dull eyes, open wounds, diarrhea and difficulty breathing.

Rats are susceptible to external parasites such as mites. If you think your pets are infested, consult a veterinarian.

Companionship

Rats are extremely social and should be kept in same sex groups of at least two. It isn't natural for rats to live alone, even though they love (and need) time with their humans, a human companion cannot entirely replace the company of another rat. Rats that live together have fuller and more active lives. Rats are nocturnal and need companionship throughout the night, their person cannot be with with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Since rats are extremely intelligent and will get bored if left alone. Though it is "acceptable" for a rat to live alone with enough interaction it isn't what is best for them...and as owners we want our pets to have the best lives we can give them! Occasionally rats will become too aggressive to live with another, but this is very rare, in most cases all that is needed is a more gradual introduction or altering (spay/neuter).
Since it is unnatural for a rat to live alone they can develop neurotic tendencies or behavioral problems, including aggression. There is a common myth that only a single rat will bond with their human, while in reality as long as each rat gets some alone time with their humans they will strongly bond.

Exercise & Toys

A bored rat is an unhappy rat! Provide PVC tubes for your pets to run through, and ladders and hammocks. Parrot toys, including swings and ropes, are great for rats.

Some rats love exercise wheels. Get one with a solid surface without wire rungs that's at least 12", so your pets' tails cannot get caught while running.

Give your pets appropriate chew toys to help wear down their teeth, which grow continuously.

Housing

Solid-bottom, wire cages with half inch or smaller bar spacing are recommended for rats. 2' X 2' X 2' is the minimum size for a pair of rats, but get the largest cage you can afford. Keep the cage indoors, away from drafts, direct sunlight and extreme temperatures. A room where the family gathers in the early evening is ideal, your sociable pets will love it!

Rats should have as large of a cage as possible, the more time they spend in the cage the bigger it should be. Sometimes cost and space limit the size of a cage that you can get, so the cage calculator can help you pick a suitable cage for your rats. Two cubic feet is the minimum space pet rat, though I would recommend 2.5 cubic feet or more.

Space per rat: 2 cubic feet (approx. 0.06 cubic metres)
2.5 cubic feet (approx. 0.04 cubic metres)

Cage dimensions: Inches
Centimeters
Height
Width
Depth

Original calculator code from Ratty Corner

Safe bedding types:

  • Fleece - reusable (wash when dirty), absorbs moisture but doesn't help with odors
  • Paper/wood litters (CareFRESH, Yesterday's News) - absorb and hold moisture in one place
  • Aspen shavings - absorbent and reduces odors
  • Newspaper - must use soy-based ink to be safe, cheap, requires frequent changes

Dangerous bedding types:

  • Pine and Cedar - give off aromatic hydrocarbons (phenols) and acids that are toxic
  • Beddings that use baking soda - linked to deaths and respiratory issues

Diet

High-quality rodent chow (called rat blocks) should be available to your pet at all times. You can find them at pet supply stores and feed stores. Fresh, clean water should also be available to your rats 24/7. Offer small, bite-sized bits of fresh fruits and veggies daily (peas, broccoli, carrots, apples, bananas).

A great source of information on rat nutrition is the blog NOM-ology, I highly recommend checking it out.


Mazuri (Green's Feed)

  • Rodent Breeder 6F

Oxbow (Discount Pet Food & Supplies)

  • Essentials - Mouse & Young Rat (under 6 months)
  • Essentials Regal Rat Adult Rat Food (6 months and older)

Tekland Lab Blocks - Complete Diet (The Rat Shop)

  • Teklad Global 2014 - Best as a maintenance diet for adult rats (8 months and older)
  • Teklad Global 2018 (Native Earth 4018) - Recommended for pregnant, nursing, and growing rats (8 months and younger)
  • I recommend fresh fruits and vegetables with the lab blocks for variety

Popular homemade diets

They should also get fresh fruit and veggies. In addition I personal provide a dry mix for variety, making sure the blocks are about 80% of their diet.

The dry mix is: a variety of oats, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, fruit flavored baby puff grain snacks, dried fruit (bananas, papaya, golden raisins, raisins, pineapple), low-sugar rice puffs and low-sugar toasted whole grain oat cereal.

Forbidden Foods

Never feed your rats:

  • blue cheese - toxic mold
  • green bananas - inhibit starch digestion
  • green potato skin and eyes - toxic solanine
  • licorice - suspected neurotoxin
  • orange juice - contains d-limonene which can cause kidney cancer in male rats
  • raw artichokes - inhibit protein digestion
  • raw bulk tofu - can contain bacteria (packaged tofu is safe)
  • raw dry beans or peanuts - antinutrients, cause red blood cell clumping (roasted and cooked is safe)
  • raw onion - can lead to anemia and an upset stomach
  • raw red cabbage and brussel sprouts - antinutrient that detroys thiamin
  • raw sweet potato - cyanide-forming compounds
  • rhubarb - high levels of oxalates which bind up calcium
  • Mold Warning - Spoiled or moldy food can contain deadly toxins. Never give food that looks or smells odd or spoiled. If you see mold growing on a food, throw the whole thing away. Do not attempt to cut away the moldy section as invisible mold filaments penetrate deep into the food.

Feed with caution:

  • avocados - high in fat and a good treat to feed rats that need to put on weight but make sure the fruit is ripe. The pit, rind, skin and leaves of avocados are toxic, and the part of the fruit in contact with the pit has a higher concentration of toxins
  • carbonated drinks - rats cannot burp
  • chocolate - contains stimulants that can lead to heart failure or neurological poisoning in high quantities. A bit of chocolate is okay and can actually temporarily alleviate respiratory distress
  • dried corn - can have high levels of fungal contaminates which can lead to liver cancer. A little fresh corn is fine
  • peanut butter - can cause choking in rats, mix it with jam or something liquid to make it less sticky