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Pet Rat Care

  • Life Span: – 2-4 years
  • Male: – Buck
  • Female: – Doe
  • Young: – Kittens
  • Sexual Maturity: – 5-10 weeks
  • Gestation Period: – 20-22 days
  • Litter Size: – 6-22 (average 10)
  • Weaning Age: – 3-4 weeks

There are two species of Rat, the Black Rat ( Rattus Rattus ) and the Brown or Norwegian Rat ( Rattus Norvegicas ). The Black Rat is the smaller of the two being just 16-22cm in length with a tail that measures 17-24cms. The Brown Rat is 22-26cms in length with a tail that is 18-22cms. The Fancy or Domestic Rats you can now buy in the pet shops are descended from the Brown rat. Both species are believed to originate from Asia, from there spreading to Europe and on to the other countries.

There is a lot of prejudice surrounding the rat, it has been widely believed to be responsible for spreading disease. It was blamed for the spread of the Bubonic plague in the 4th century and for spreading the Black Death in the 6th and 7th centuries, but we now know that the diseases were spread not by the rats themselves but by the fleas that lived on them. Records tell of rats being captured in the early 1800′s and bred in captivity for Terrier competitions and again in the late 1800′s for use in laboratories for scientific research. It is thought that in these laboratories, because of the rats docile nature and high intelligence, their suitability as a pet was revealed, by the 1900′s, rats were being bred for the pet market. Due to selective breeding over many years the fancy rat is bigger than it’s ancestors and comes with many different markings and in a wide range of colours.

The Rat is a rodent, the word ‘rodent’ comes from the Latin word ‘ rodere ‘ meaning ‘to gnaw’. The rat has four incisor teeth, two at the top and two at the bottom, that grow constantly throughout it’s life and need to be continuously worn down. Occasionally rats, especially in captivity, have overgrown teeth (malloclusion) because they have not been given the opportunity to wear them down, either by incorrect diet or lack of gnawing material. These overgrown incisors will need a veterinarian who will trim or surgically remove them.

In their natural environment rats are very sociable animals that live in large groups, usually of close relatives, it is therefore not recommended to keep one rat alone. Same sex pairs that are bought at an early age will usually live peacefully together, it is however more difficult to introduce two adults especially males. Males can be castrated at about ten weeks and can then live with a female without the fear of unwanted offspring. Bucks are larger and much more relaxed than does which are smaller and more active.

Rats make excellent children’s pets as they are docile, clean and intelligent, they love to be handled and are easily trained to come when called and they love nothing better than to travel about inside their owners sleeve or on his shoulder. They rarely bite unless they are very frightened. They constantly wash and groom themselves eliminating the need for expensive grooming equipment, stroking will remove any dead hairs.

Before buying your pet here are a few things to consider:

  • Age: – do not buy an animal that is under four weeks.
  • Posture: – do not buy an animal that is lethargic and/or huddled at the back of the cage.
  • Eyes:– do not buy an animal that has discharge, watery or crusty eyes.
  • Ears: – do not buy an animal that has dirty, crusty ears or that has an obvious discharge.
  • Nose: – do not buy an animal that has a runny nose and/or that sneezes.
  • Vent: – do not buy an animal that is soiled or wet around it’s rear end.
  • Skin: – do not buy an animal that has sores, dandruff or is constantly scratching.
    Always check the animal over for lumps/growths.


As with any animal, the cage should be as big as you can find, remember your pet will spend the rest of it’s life in it, it is your responsibility to make it a ‘home’ not a ‘prison‘. As already mentioned rats need to gnaw therefore a plastic or wooden cage is not suitable. Cages manufactured for rabbits and guinea pigs are often not suitable because the gaps between the bars are too wide. There are purpose made ‘all metal’ cages for small rodents, with a deep metal base and a wire mesh top. These cages usually have two or three levels. To make them even bigger, buy two cages connect the second wire mesh top on top of the existing one, fasten securely, cut a hole through, provide a ramp or ladder, your pet now has a superb cage. You could also join the two cages side by side and join in a similar way, there are no end to the possibilities. Rats love to dig, so the redundant base can be filled with sand or wood shavings and used as a digging pit when your rat has ‘out of cage’ play. For good sturdy cages look at www.ferncage.com and for more good cages and clips for joining cages checkout www.martinscages.com

The location of the cage is something to be considered very carefully. Here are some points to consider:

Temperature – away from the draught of open doors and windows – away from direct sunlight – away from direct heat, radiators, fires, kitchen appliances. The cage should be placed where there is a steady maintenance of comfortable temperature.
Noise – away from radio, stereo, television, telephone or doorbell. Many children choose to have their pets in their bedroom, remember to always move the cage out of the room before playing your music!
The base of the cage can be covered in wood shavings to absorb any urine, always ensure that any wood shavings have not been treated with chemicals. Your cage will need to be furnished with two heavy based earthenware dishes for dried food and fresh food and a gravity fed water bottle. A hayrack is also necessary to prevent hay provided for eating from becoming soiled. Your rats will also need a box in which to sleep, this can be made from wood or there are many designs available in the pet shops.


Rats are very intelligent and need plenty of toys to keep them amused, these can be as cheap or as expensive as you like. Cardboard boxes with holes cut out on all sides are always popular for hiding in and climbing on – cardboard inserts from toilet and kitchen rolls for chewing and carrying off to stash – plastic drainage/gutter pipe for tunnels – rope attached across the cage and also hung vertically, rats have wonderful balance and will love to climb these – branches from (untreated) apple, hazel or willow for gnawing and climbing – ladders and wooden platforms – there are many different balls and toys available in pet shops today, most ferret toys are suitable for your rat. I must at this stage mention wheels, most wheels are not big enough for your rat but there are some big ones available if you hunt them out. The metal wheels that have open bars are very dangerous as your pet can easily get a limb or tail stuck in them. If you can find nothing else, weave a bit of strong plastic, card or carpet through the bars but remember to replace it when it gets worn. If you are stuck for ideas check out www.ferretstore.com the Fun-nel Tubes and ball for ferrets are very good.

Your rat will need daily exercise out of his cage, this is also an area where you can use your imagination, build him a climbing frame/gym using blocks of wood, ropes and tunnels.


The cage will need to be cleaned every 3-4 days, renewing the bedding and washing the bowls, bottle and toys. Once a month the whole cage and its entire contents should be disinfected thoroughly. The water bottle should never be left to go green as this algae will cause digestive upsets in your pet, remove it at once with a bottle brush.


Rats are by nature scavengers, they are not at all fussy about what they eat, but it is important to provide them with a balanced diet. There are many different commercial foods available just for rats, these will form the main part of your pets diet. Fresh foods should be available to your rat every day, you can feed all manner of fruit and vegetables, but just like humans they will all have their own individual preferences. here are a few suggestions: apple, banana, broccoli, carrots, cucumber, celery, cauliflower, dandelions, grass, grapes, melon, parsley, pears, swede, shepherds purse, sow thistle and tomato.

Your rat will love a treat but try to balance them carefully so that he doesn’t get too much sugar or fattening foods at any one time. Treats can be: Nuts (with the shell left on, except brazils), sunflower or pumpkin seeds, raisins, bread crusts (baked hard), dog biscuits, very small amounts of cooked meats, cooked fish, chopped boiled egg, cooked mashed potato, cooked pasta and rice and cheese. Avoid treats containing salt and spices.

Rats love fresh sproutings, these can be made easily and cheaply. You will need a handful of mixed corn (as sold for chickens), line a small shallow dish with some soaked kitchen towel, sprinkle over the corn, water well, place dish on a window sill in a warm room watering as they dry out. You will soon have some sproutings for your rat, the whole dish can be put into the cage but remove it when all is eaten, or if the corn starts to go mouldy.


Before buying your pet it is advisable to check around the local vets to see if anyone specialises in small caged animals. Small animals go down very quickly when ill and you will not have the time to look for a suitable vet in an emergency.

Cancer is the primary cause of death in rats, it usually strikes at 2 years of age, but some poor unfortunate creatures seem to be constantly burdened with growths. The first swellings are often on the legs and flanks, the rat will become emaciated and lethargic as the condition progresses before eventually dying. Some tumours are operable so do seek advice from your vet. It is believed that the rats susceptibility to cancer is descended from its days as a laboratory animal.

External Parasites – Rats are prone to mites, lice, fleas and ticks just like any other pet. Your vet is best to advise you on a suitable treatment. If your pet scratches constantly, has sores, dandruff or hair loss consult your vet immediately.

Malloclusion – is overgrowth of the incisor teeth. This is caused by a number of things, poor diet – not enough hard material to make the teeth chew and grind, lack of gnawing material to help wear the teeth down or it can be due to bad breeding practices. This is a serious problem that can lead to starvation if not corrected, it can also lead to other teeth problems when the mouth cannot close properly and the back teeth are not able to work. Your vet will trim or surgically remove these teeth and advise you on future care.

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