Rats are generally best protected in their enclosure, as this limits their access to potential dangers and keeps them safe. However, even when they are in their enclosure, there are still potential dangers – the danger may come to them, or they might escape. When they have time out of their enclosure for environmental enrichment and handling there are also potential hazards to consider. It pays to think about potential hazards for your rats, and plan ahead to prevent (rather than treat) problems.
Some common household hazards for rats include:
Your rats are most comfortable when the temperature around them is 21°–24°C; i.e., they prefer warm, but not hot, living conditions. They don’t have sweat glands, nor can they pant – they cool themselves by dilating the blood vessels in the ears, feet, and tail to allow heat to escape, and by grooming saliva all over their body which then evaporates to help them cool down. If this is not enough to cool themselves down, they will seek shade in tunnels or hides, trying to escape the heat.
When they start getting too warm, they will become less active, stretching out flat on their stomachs or backs to allow heat to escape from their bodies. If things get worse, they are likely to develop heat stress, exhaustion, or heat stroke. As well as being lethargic, they will progressively get weaker, start drooling, and stop eating. They may lose consciousness or start to have seizures. Urgent veterinary attention is required before they reach this stage, or they may die (see below).
Prevention is always better than cure:
- Beat the heat
- Keep them in air conditioning on hot days
- Move their enclosure away from direct sunlight
- Cover the windows
- Turn the lights off
- Use fans
- Misting them with a spray bottle helps. Lay wet paper towels or damp cloths around the floors of their enclosure (but always leave them some dry areas as well).
- Provide cooler areas in the enclosure; e.g., a ceramic tile, frozen water bottles, cold packs.
- Provide tunnels and shelters, even burying them under the substrate.
- Keep your rats well hydrated
- Make sure they have continual access to fresh, cool, and clean water
- Offer high-water content foods such as grapes, melon, strawberries, and blueberries.
If the worst should happen and your rats start showing signs of heatstroke, you must act fast:
- Try to bring their body temperature down until you can get to the veterinarian:
- Wet their fur with tepid/lukewarm water and apply a covered ice pack to their neck, armpits, or groin, and then use an electric fan to induce evaporative cooling. (make sure to use a thin piece of cloth or towel between the ice pack and skin).
- Place them, belly down, across a large ice pack to reach all the important areas at once.
- NEVER submerge your rats in cold water!
- DO NOT try to give them water by mouth – they may be too weak to swallow and instead choke on it.
- Get to the veterinarian as soon as possible. If possible, keep the damp rat on the ice with your car’s air conditioning on, as you drive to the veterinary clinic.
One of the bigger dangers to rats in most homes is electrical cords. Rats like to chew on everything, especially something that looks like a root or twig. They are more than capable of snipping through all kinds of wires lying around the house. To protect your pets and your cords, it’s a good idea to both get the cords up and out of their reach, and to use wire covers, such as split loom wire tubing.
Toxic houseplants can be dangerous to rats. Many people assume that they instinctively know not to eat poisonous plants, but this is not the case. They may nibble at a poisonous house plant simply because it’s there. Talk to your veterinarian about what houseplants are toxic to rats and make sure you don’t have any toxic plants where your rats might get to them.
As a rule, human foods should be kept away from rats. This includes things like cereals, crackers, bread, other processed grains, chocolate, and sweets. Only feed foods that are safe and appropriate for rats – if you have any doubts, don’t do it.
Use pet-safe cleaners and products in areas that your pets have access to. Be careful with insect sprays, avoid spraying these anywhere near your rats, their enclosure, or places where they spend time. Avoid using rodent poison, cockroach baits, and other poisonous items and chemicals, and if you must use them be very vigilant and keep them well away from your rats, their enclosure, places where they spend time, and anywhere they could get to. For information about humane rodent control, please see this article.
You may have medications that you use on other pets in the house or that you or your family take. Make sure you keep your rats away from these, and do not give any medications to your rats without veterinary advice. Some drugs (e.g., painkillers) are fatal if accidentally overdosed or eaten.
Plastic bags or packing material
Here the danger is suffocation – if a rat curiously checks out the inside of a plastic bag and can’t figure out how to get out again, there is a risk of suffocation. Make sure you keep your rats away from these and don’t leave them lying around anywhere they can get to.
Family pets like cats and dogs are predators and can cause harm to, or scare, your pet rats. No matter how friendly your other pets are, never underestimate what they can do in just a matter of a few seconds and the fear and stress they can cause to your rats, even if they don’t do anything to hurt them.
Rats are cute and cuddly, and small enough to be picked up by children. Unfortunately, not all children are adept enough, or old enough, to safely hold them (especially if the rat wriggles). Teach your children how to safely handle them, and always closely supervise small children.
Evans E (2006) Small rodent behaviour: mice, rats, gerbils, and hamsters. In: Bays TB, Lightfoot T, Mayer J (eds) Exotic Pet Behavior. W.B. Saunders, pp 239–261
Frohlich J (2020) Rats and mice. In: Quesenberry KE, Orcutt CJ, Mans C, Carpenter JW (eds) Ferrets, rabbits and rodents, 4th ed. W.B. Saunders, pp 345–367