How to care for rats – the ultimate guide

Rats can make very good pets for families and even young children if they are supervised. Often they are described as “low maintenance pets” but of course there is still a lot to consider. In this guide, you will learn how to take care of rats and how to avoid the most common mistakes new owners make.

Things To Know Before Buying A Rat

Rat looking curious

The lifespan of rats is 2 years on average. This seems quite short but as you take over responsibility for a living being you should be aware of a few things:

  • All rats are nocturnal, this is also for house pet rats. As most pet rats are very social and have a strong desire to spend time with their human, they will fit their schedule up to yours to a certain amount.
  • The playtime you can offer your rat is not enough, even if you do it on a frequent basis. Most of the time your rat will be lonely in her cage. Because of that, you should hold rats in pairs or groups. Make sure all have the same gender if you do not want to be surprised with some baby rats. Female rats can get pregnant at the age of 5 weeks.
  • Female rats are easier to take care of especially for beginners. That is mostly because males are more territory. Often they won’t accept a new roommate later in their lives.
  • In contrast to the picture most of us have when thinking about rats, they are very clean pets that spend a lot of time grooming themselves.
  • Rats are very friendly pets that love to cuddle. But even if your desire is strong, let them be on their own for the first few days. You can start to touch and handle 3 or 4 days after they arrived in their new home.
  • As they are highly intelligent, you can teach your rats some tricks. Calling them by their name, jumping onto your hand by command and other things are fun for all of you.
  • There are some typical health issues Rats are prone to. Cancer and respiratory problems are quite common and you should be prepared to deal with them.
  • Think about your other pets. Do you have a cat or a dog? Make sure that there is a safe way for all species to get along with each other.
  • There are many rats who do not have a home. If you want to do them a favor, visit your local shelter or petfinder before you buy one in a pet shop.

What Does A Good Habitat Look Like?

Group of rats that are sharing a cage are looking into the camera.

Cage

As your critters will spend most of their short lives in a cage, you should try to make the best choice. Get one with a solid floor, to prevent foot injuries and bumblefoot. Aquariums are not suiting because of ammonia build-up due to bad ventilation. Go as big as your home and budget are allowing it, hamster cages from the pet shop are definitely too small.

Large powder coated wire cages with a solid bottom pan, horizontal bars for climbing and multi-level platforms are often a good choice. If you want to learn more about this topic, we recommend our article “5 Best Rat Cages That Really Suit”.

Make sure the place for the cage is not in direct sunlight and free from humidity before you set everything up. Rats love to have a quiet place to relax but also want to be near to your social activities. Placing them on a shelf instead of the floor will give them a good view. Most individuals love to look outside the cage and observe the things that are going on.

Bedding

Bedding for rats should be dust-free and not of cedar or pine as these woods can be toxic to the little critters. Your pets will use it as nesting material and you should make it at least 1 or 2 inches high so that they can hide and burrow. If you want to learn more about bedding for rats, we suggest our linked article.

Accessories

There are some accessories that your rats definitely need:

  • A hiding place to rest and sleep in
  • More than one-foot bowl to prevent rivalry when it comes to food and treats
  • A water bottle with enough freshwater
  • Something to chew on that keeps teeth clean and healthy

Toys

2 rats in a hammock

Rats are active and curious, no wonder that boredom can appear easily. Therefore toys provide joy and exercise. There are different toys that can be used to entertain rats:

  • Hammocks and platforms
  • Ladders, ropes and swings
  • Different toys designed for birds

Make sure to rotate toys every now and then to add some more variety. Apart from that, quality is very important as rats tend to gnaw on everything.

We already wrote an article about the best toys for pet rats.

How To Keep Rats Happy?

Cleaning Their Habitat

Rats are clean and expect the same from their environment. A dirty cage with old bedding can easily lead to health issues.

To make sure everything is like it should you just spot clean frequently. Change wet and smelly bedding, empty the litter box and remove poos when you find them. It is very easy to litter train rats which will save you much work.

Once a week you should change all the bedding. Along with that, you can deep clean the whole cage with all surfaces and accessories like the hiding house.

How To Handle And Play With Your Rats?

Rat in the hands of a woman.

Toys are not enough, you have to spend some time with your rats and play with them if you want to have happy pets. This should be on a regular basis and at least one hour per day.

When you are new to each other it can be that your rats will bite or scratch you. This is especially when they are stressed. If this happens, just squeak like a rat and pull your hand back. It is very likely that they understand what happened

When handling your rats, there is one important rule: Never lift them up by their tail. Rats are very good pets for families. Young children should be supervised especially at the beginning of their friendship.

Exploring the rooms in your house or flat is fun for every rat. If you decide to let them do so, make sure everything is rat-proofed and make the room safe:

  • Close windows and doors
  • Remove toxic houseplants
  • Remove electric cables that can be chewed on

Think about your furniture too. Apart from chewing rats might scent mark on your sofa and other things. Even you have to be prepared for this.

Which Kind Of Food Do Rats Need?

Rat eating self cooked foot.

As omnivores rats need a mixed menu. There are good foods available that meet their needs. Like most rodents, rats tend to pick the ingredients they like most, so products, where all ingredients are processed to one part, should be preferred.

Apart from that good foods are balanced in nutritional values. The best rat foods are low in fat and have a moderate protein level. You should have an eye on ingredients like alfalfa that are not digestible in rats.

Fruits and vegetables can be a good occasional treat. Rats love sweet things but you should resist giving them anything with sugar like chocolate under all circumstances. Whole pasta or bread is ok on the other hand.

How To Keep Rats Healthy?

As already mentioned, there are some common health problems for rats. These are

  • Tumors (especially in females)
  • Respiratory issues
  • Neurological problems
  • Parasites like lice

To prevent your rat from issues that get more and more serious, you should watch for different signs regularly:

  • Sneezing
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Abnormalities in poo
  • Bare patches in the fur

If you watch some of these things or are unsure you should take your rat to the vet.

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