How should I care for my rats?

Rats relaxing in bed

Rats are now popular pets all around the world, and can make excellent companions for all people, both young and old.

But are they the right pet for you?

Are rats the right companion animals for me?

Rats are affectionate, charming, and intelligent rodents. They are clever; they can comprehend and learn things, and they have excellent memory. They need the right care and food, appropriate mental stimulation, and security. Rats are social animals and, as such, need the company of at least one other rat and the right environment to thrive.

Rats are fastidiously clean animals, contrary to popular beliefs.

They can make great pets for responsible children, as they rarely bite or scratch unless scared or hurt. With the right care and gentle confident handling from an early age they usually enjoy interacting with people and cope well as a companion animal.

So, if you are looking for these qualities, rats may be the right pet for you. The key to knowing for sure is research. Read up on the rats you are interested in, ask other people about them, talk to breeders, visit online forums, and so on.

A note of warning: rats, being small animals, have a shorter life expectancy than many other pets – living for approximately 4-5 years. This is going to mean a lot of heartbreak for you when your pets start getting older – something you may have to consider when thinking about starting with these amazing animals.

What kinds of pet rats are there?

There are many varieties and colours of rats available for people wishing to welcome these wonderful animals to their family.

Rats are not categorised into specific breeds like our domesticated dogs and cats. Although there are many different looking pet rats with various coat types and colours, they all belong to the same species — Rattus norvegicus – the Norway rat. (There are a lot of other rat species, but this is the only one commonly kept as a pet.)

Pet rats are purposefully bred by people interested in perpetuating a specific variety of rat, whether due to the looks and/or temperament of that variety.

Pet rats are categorised into up to seven varieties based on coat types. They are then categorised into subgroups according to colour and pattern.

Coat types include smooth coats, curly coats, hairless coats, satin coats (short, smooth fur with a lustre to it), and the bristle coat (short fur that is coarse and stiff).

The variety of colours seems almost endless – beige, champagne, chocolate, platinum, black-eyed white, pink-eyed white, silver black, silver lilac, hooded, Dalmatian, and many more. And these colours come in many different, but well-recognised, patterns including banded, hooded, variegated, merle, etc. Even their eye colour varies – black, dark ruby, ruby, light ruby, red, and pink.

One rat, or two (or more)?

Rats are social animals and need the company of other rats. Not all rats are compatible, though. They must be given the opportunity to learn to like each other and form a bond. Care must be taken with pet rats that unwanted breeding does not occur.

Species that live together in groups must interact and so have evolved various behaviours that allow and facilitate group living. The form and amount of social interaction that occur within a group are determined by their environment and their individual characteristics (e.g., sex, age, and reproductive status), but it is safe to say that rats are not solitary animals and should always be kept in small groups of their species.

If possible, rats should be housed together in a group from a young age (before or soon after weaning), and it is ideal to keep a group of siblings.

Preferably, keep your rats in small same-sex groups and make sure young males and female rats are separated as soon as possible after they are weaned (to prevent unwanted breeding). If you are going to keep mixed sex groups, have your rats desexed. This will not only prevent unwanted pregnancies, but also competition that may result in aggression.

Rats and mice should not be kept together in the same enclosure, as the two species may be incompatible when sharing resources such as space, food, and shelter.

Where should I keep my rats?

Companion rats are usually kept in indoor enclosures which means they are safe from household dangers and your house is safe from any undesirable behaviour while you’re away. Care must be taken to avoid temperature extremes, attacks by predators, or stress caused by loud noises and unexpected movement.

All rat enclosures should share three basic characteristics: they must provide enough room and environmental complexity to meet your rats’ physical and mental needs, they must be well ventilated, and they must be easy to clean. Ammonia, formed in the body and passed via the urine, can quickly build up if the enclosure is not well ventilated or cleaned infrequently. Ammonia is a respiratory irritant and can contribute to the respiratory disease complex seen in rats.

Solid bottom enclosures with deep bedding and ample nesting material and with wire sides and top to provide good ventilation are ideal. See this article for more information.

Where can I get my rats?

You may be able to adopt pet rats from shelters (such as the RSPCA), from reputable rescue organisations, and from reputable rehoming groups that help rehome rodents from research institutions. You may also be able to purchase rats from a pet shop, a breeder, or a friend or relative. There are things you need to consider in selecting where you get your rats, and this article discusses some of the issues and planning that you need to consider before you get your rats.

What does an unhealthy rat look like?

When purchasing a rat, it is important that you choose a healthy animal. You should also regularly check your pets over yourself, making sure there are no emerging problems that could negatively affect their lives. This article will tell you what to look for in more detail.

More information on common health problems in rats can be found here.

What do I need to get ready for my rats before I bring them home?

As with any companion animal, the decision to bring rats into your life should be well considered, researched, and planned. So, take your time to think things through before you buy any rats and try to make the transition from the place of purchase to your home a stress-free event.

Are you in a good place where you can commit to a companion who needs a lot of care and attention? These rats will be with you for possibly five years or so – do you have travel or other plans that might mean you cannot care for them for their expected lifetime?

Are there any restrictions where you live (e.g., local government or body corporate restrictions) that may affect your ability to keep a pet like this? What about your family or housemates?

If the answers to all these questions still give you a positive vibe for bringing pet rats into your life, you will need to get everything ready before your new companions come home. Things to think about:

  1. Where are you going to purchase a suitably sized enclosure?
  2. Where are you going to position the enclosure?
  3. What are you going to furnish the enclosure with (water and food dishes, toys, hides for security)?
  4. Is your house rat-proof and escape-proof? Is it rat-safe?
  5. What are the rats currently eating, and what do you want to feed them? You may need to transition your rats to a new diet over a few weeks, so you may need plenty of both the old and new diets.
  6. Have you made an appointment with a veterinarian experienced with rats so you can have your new pets checked over?

What should I feed my rats?

Rodents (from Latin rodere, ‘to gnaw’) are characterised by a single pair of continuously growing incisors in each of the upper and lower jaws. Rats need to chew (gnaw) to prevent their incisors overgrowing.

Your rats are omnivores, which means they will eat almost anything offered to them. But this does not mean any food is healthy for them!

Feed your rats a healthy and balanced diet by feeding them commercial food pellets for rats. Always feed them food designed specifically for rats, rather than pellets for rabbits, guinea pigs, or other animals – these won’t give your rats the nutrients they need. The food you feed them should be good quality, used before its best before or used by date, and stored correctly to keep it fresh and nutritious.

You can supplement their diet with small amounts of safe vegetables. Give these as part of their daily food allowance, not in addition to it, or it could cause obesity or health problems.

Treats should only be given infrequently and in small amounts; for example, fruits like apples, berries, and kiwi. Reserve treats for rewards during training and special occasions.

Avoid feeding seed/grain mixes, sugary, and high fat foods (e.g., sweets and dairy products), and potentially harmful foods/plants.

For more information on a healthy diet for your rats, see this article.

How can I use environmental enrichment to provide opportunities for my rats to experience good welfare?

Rats are, by nature, bright, active, intelligent, and inquisitive – the list of their wonderful qualities just goes on.

Environmental enrichment describes the provision of physical and social opportunities to promote rat behaviour that is important, valuable, and specific to them. It encourages and allows rats to do things that matter to them, resulting in positive experiences based on their individual interests, which underpins good animal welfare.

Appropriate environmental enrichment helps to meet your rats’ physical and mental needs, optimise their welfare, and prevent behavioural and physical problems that can develop when rats are not adapted well to their environment and/or have an environment that does not meet their needs.

There is a tendency to think that environmental enrichment means just providing some toys or other distractions. This is only a small part of the process. For suggestions on how to enrich the lives of your rats, see this article.

How will I keep my rats safe against household hazards?

Every year many rats suffer from health problems caused by their environment. Their human companions are often shocked (and horrified) when they discover that their rats have been exposed to a hazard in their own home, often a hazard of which they were not aware. Rats, in many ways, are like toddlers – capable of finding new ways of hurting themselves as soon as we turn our backs on them for even a moment!

Have a look at this article for more information on household hazards that can hurt (or even kill) your rats.

General care of rats

How should I interact with and handle my rats?

Their curious nature and friendly disposition generally make rats relatively easy to handle and their intelligence makes them easy to train. Always treat your rats with patience, kindness, and respect and only use positive reinforcement (reward-based training using food treats and other things they value) to train them.

Rats should be given choice about whether they want to interact with people and should not be forced. Most rats who are habituated to human interactions will approach a hand introduced into their enclosure and can then be easily picked up by placing one hand under their belly and then gently scooping them into your cupped hand. Once you have the rat in your cupped hand, the palm of your other hand can then be cupped loosely over the rat’s back to keep them safe while keeping your hand and the rat close to your body. Do not hold them up high, as they could injure themselves if they jump or fall.

This article discusses ways that you can handle your rats safely and with minimal stress.


Rats are very clean and usually do a great job of grooming themselves. If they need to have their nails trimmed or coat brushed, it is important to do this carefully, as your rats may be injured if the correct techniques are not used.  See this article for more information.

You should never trim the whiskers of your rats. Their whiskers are highly sensitive and vital to help your rats know where they are, where objects are and to help them to maintain their balance and get around objects safely.

Preventative health care

A significant barrier to the proper care of rats is that they are often wrongly considered low-maintenance pets. In fact, no pet is low maintenance and definitely not rats. These suggestions may help you to keep your rats happy and health for many years to come.

  • Take your rats to a veterinarian experienced with rats immediately after purchase for a check-up, then at least annually for examinations.
  • Feed them a fresh, high quality, toxin-free diet.
  • Provide clean, fresh, uncontaminated drinking water and change it frequently. Most rats can be trained to use a water bottle, which, if working well, minimises spillage and prevents contamination of the water.
  • Make sure your rats have an optimal and stimulating environment to provide opportunities for them to experience good welfare (e.g., offering toys, social interaction, and foraging opportunities).
  • Avoid poisons around the home (including spraying the house with insecticides and using rodent baits).
  • Know how they behave normally — being familiar with them and their normal behaviour will help you bond and also help you to notice if they’re unwell.
  • Desex your rats to avoid unwanted pups if males and females live together, and to avoid sex-related health problems.
  • Keep them out of harm’s way.

Reproductive control

Rats will, given the opportunity, breed prolifically, and they mature and breed early (as early as four weeks of age). This needs to be considered when you are bringing them into your home. Not only can it be difficult to tell the males from the females, but they also start breeding at a very young age!

Desexing prevents unwanted litters of rat pups and helps to prevent mammary tumours in female rats.

Desexing of both male and female rats is recommended. Speak to your veterinarian about the optimal timing for desexing your rats (and do it as early as possible!).

Parasite control

There is mixed information about treating rats for internal parasites (worms) and the best approach for your rats will depend on many factors. So, it is best to talk to your veterinarian for their advice which will take into account your individual circumstances.

Rats are frequently affected with external parasites, especially mites. These need to be treated promptly as they can cause a great deal of discomfort and even self-harm.

So, how do you decide how often to treat your rats for parasites, and what to use? This article discusses these issues.

Also Read

Updated on July 1, 2024
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