Pet Advice rat-3534317_1920

Published on February 13th, 2019 | by Debbie Martin


Join The Rat Race

Rats are not often the first choice of pet for most people. They are not considered to be cute and cuddly as dogs and cats. However, there’s more fun to be had in keeping these misunderstood creatures than you might imagine for children and adults alike.

You may be surprised to learn that not only are rats intelligent – and quite easy to train -they are also very sociable creatures that prefer to bond with their owners rather than bite them!

A Pet For Those With Busy Lives

No longer are rodents simply children’s first pets. Pet rats are becoming increasingly popular among younger adults who because of their busy working and social lives may not have the time required to adequately look after a dog or cat but nevertheless still want to share their lives with a little furry creature. Some love to take their pet out and about with them and nothing is more easily portable than a rat! Not only are pet rats inexpensive to buy and feed they are perfect for those who prefer a pet which can interact with them at the end of a working day. Rats, which become more active in the evening, are a perfect choice and especially so when you consider the choice of interactive activity toys available; perfect for those Instagram and Snapchat photo opportunities. Today’s switched-on young adults are more likely to opt for luxury bedding, high-end and complex living quarters and premium nutrition for their pet rats with a health-conscious sugar-free diet high on the menu.

A pet rat can generally live for around three and a half years, a life span that can conveniently fit into most people’s plans. Genetic, social and health variables along with how they are looked after will have some effect on the rat’s life expectancy. However, the fact that young rats are quite hardy and robust creatures plus the fact that people are nowadays more conscious of the right way to keep animals means that owners are more willing to learn about basic husbandry and nutrition.

Origins of Pet Rats

The rats we keep as pets today are descended from and related to the wild rat that most of us are familiar with, the Rattus Norvegicus (Norway rat) or Brown Rat. This hailed not from Norway but actually originated in China. It is believed that they sailed into Europe on a Norwegian ship in the 1700s. The wild rat is recognisable in the UK by its coarse brown or occasionally black fur and hairless tail. For most of us, the only experience we will have with the wild rat is when we see one in the garden looking for bird food or when one gnaws through cupboard doors with its powerful teeth. As most people know, the wild rat is a resourceful animal and will eat absolutely anything. This has enabled it to become the most successfully adapted mammal on earth, bar humans, existing in all continents except Antarctica.

The first known domestication of the rat was sometime in the 1800s when they were captured and kept for the barbaric ‘sport’ of rat-baiting. This was made illegal in the UK with the introduction of the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act. Around the same time, it was noticed that some rats had naturally occurring colour variations such as black and albino (white) and these were kept and bred from. These were the bedrock from which today’s rat breeders and fanciers produce more colourful coat variations as well as other breed specifics such as big ears – the so-called Dumbo rat – and short tails.

The Domestic Rat’s Temperament and Characteristics

The wild rat’s preference for living in large colonies explains the domestic rat’s sociability. Rats love company whether human or other rats. The rat will sleep throughout the daytime which makes them ideal pets for children who are at school all day or adults who are out at work all day. They are blessed with a gentle character and a sense of curiosity which is what makes them love to climb all over their human owners without once wanting to bite them! This is why they make such great pets for children although young children should not be allowed to handle a rat unsupervised at least until the child is taught how to do this properly. Young rats are quite happy to live together in a social group but are sure to separate out the sexes if you are not intending to breed. Females can produce litters of up to 16 young and can breed from around 5 weeks old; she will be ready to breed again within 24 hours of giving birth!

There are subtle physiological and character differences between male and female rats. Female rats are:

  • Smaller in size
  • Have a smoother coat
  • Less likely to sit still for long and like to satisfy their curiosity by climbing

Male rats are:

  • Larger in size
  • Can have a ‘musky’ smell and a coarser coat
  • Happy to sit still on an owner’s lap with a more relaxed and compliant demeanour

If you already have a rat and wish to add another one – or two – be aware that it can be difficult to introduce adult rats and especially males so the introduction should always be strictly supervised.

Housing Your Pet Rat

Rats should always be kept securely and safely indoors because they are extremely vulnerable to the cold and to heat dehydration. Their cage should be made from wire but with a solid, firm floor to avoid trapping their feet in the wire. The cage should be big enough for them to satisfy their climbing instincts, ideally no less than 50cm x 80cm and 50cm tall. Never use a glass aquarium-style cage – these are not suitably ventilated for the health and comfort of the rat; ammonia fumes, which can cause respiratory irritation, would be unable to escape from a glass cage. Domestic rats are very clean animals so make sure there is plenty of material on the floor of the cage to catch droppings and urine and clean this out daily.

There should be a separate sleeping area, perhaps a cardboard box, in a corner of the cage and this should be filled with shredded paper bedding which should be dust-free to avoid respiratory problems. In common with most other animals rats prefer to sleep hidden from view and undisturbed so children should be taught to allow Ratty his peace and quiet. Rats love to play so provide an assortment of toys like running wheels (with a closed back to avoid damage to tails and feet), PVC pipes, a swinging hammock made from an old towel, ladders and treat balls. To get the best experience out of keeping your rat it is advisable to allow it out of the cage for a period of time every day to play and bond with you.

Nutrition For Your Rat

Rats will eat anything but that doesn’t mean you can feed him on unsuitable food. Unlike other small animals such as chinchillas, guinea pigs, degus and rabbits the rat needs a high protein diet with minimum fibre and a low (or no) sugar content. Commercially produced complete food mixes that are nutritionally balanced are the best option as these are produced to a recognised standard, as are the treats you can buy. Always follow the feeding guide instructions on the pack to avoid overfeeding; a rat which is very overweight will have a shortened lifespan.

In addition to commercial dry mixes, you can safely feed your rat with other things like:

  • Green vegetables
  • Cooked grains and legumes – never feed raw
  • Fruit but never avocado or apple seeds
  • Very small amounts of cooked meats, cooked eggs, low-fat cottage cheese

** Be aware that fruit, vegetables and sunflower seeds can sometimes cause skin problems so it’s best to keep these as a very occasional treat.

Snacks can include dried corn, beetroot, celery, aubergine, lettuce, cucumber, spinach and radishes. Other very occasional treats could include small pieces of toast, small amounts of non-dairy yoghurt and low-sugar baby food. Here are the things you should never feed:

  • Citrus peel
  • Uncooked dry beans
  • Peanuts
  • Mango
  • Chocolate
  • Poppy or apple seeds
  • Avocado
  • Raw sweet potato

Always provide plenty of clean, fresh drinking water.

Health Problems in Rats

When fed a correct, balanced diet and kept in a clean environment rats are generally healthy animals however you should check your rat regularly for signs that all is not well such as loss of appetite and lethargy. Rats can commonly be affected by the respiratory disease but if you bed him down in clean, dust-free material this is reduced. Check regularly for red discharge around the eyes and nose and call your vet for advice if you spot this. Clean his tail (a hard to reach area) with a mild shampoo when necessary.

To minimise the chance of health problems always buy from a reputable breeder and never buy a rat less than six weeks of age.

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About the Author

Debbie Martin has worked at Beeston Animal Health for over five years, having previously worked as a nurse in equine and small animal practice. Although generally involved with aspects of marketing these days and putting her psychology degree to good use, she still has a great depth of up to date knowledge in all creatures great and small. Debbie lives at home with her partner and two children and spends much of her spare time looking after her horses, dogs and cats or at the home farm with the cows, sheep and turkeys.

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