These rodents don’t have the best reputation and many people see them as dirty, disgusting creatures with long, scaly tails and sharp teeth – however, they couldn’t be further from the truth. Here are 10 things you need to know before owning rats.
They need the company of their own kind
Rats are highly social animals who need to be kept in at least pairs however if you have space and the budget, you can have more than two. They are very interactive with each other and enjoy playing, grooming and snuggling up together. Whilst you’re busy at work or school your rat needs a friend to cause mischief with. Rats are easily bored, so getting them companionship of their own kind will help keep those ratty brains busy and offer comfort too. They communicate through smell, touch and high-frequency sounds that humans are unable to hear. Two rats aren’t more work than one, and when you see them playing you will never want a lone rat again.
One thing to note is like most groups of animals, there will be an alpha rat who is in charge. If you already have ratties and want to add more, make sure you know how to bond them safely.
Male and female rats have certain traits
Generally, males are lazier and will happily sit on you whilst you watch tv, whilst the girls are normally adventurous and always on the lookout to explore. This isn’t the rule, however, but most rat owners will agree with this. The girls are on the go all the time, and easier to train due to their keen attitude – they do tend to be more mischievous and will keep you on your toes when you have them out. There is a difference in size, as the females tend to be a lot smaller. The biggest downside to females is there is a risk of them developing mammary tumours. Spaying female rats is very uncommon as it is a high-risk procedure, but you can potentially have mammary tumours removed and your vet will be able to advise you.
The boys are usually more like couch potatoes and can get very big. It’s important to make sure your boys don’t get overweight, so if they are lazy, try and get them to move as much as you can. Both male and female rats can be lovely, so you can’t really go wrong with either sex as long as you put the time in to get them used to you. The other option is to bond a neutered male to a female so you get a mix of both personalities without the risk of having lots of baby rats.
Rats are intelligent
Rats are smart little rodents who will get bored very easily if you don’t give them enough to do. It’s important to keep your rat entertained to keep their brains busy and your little pals happy. These little smarty-pants can be trained to do tricks, it just takes a bit of time and food rewards, but they are capable of coming to you when called. These rodents can learn to navigate mazes and even solve simple problems. They form strong bonds with each other and their owners and show empathy and compassion to other rats when they are in distress, which are qualities that are usually attributed to humans and not animals.
Owning rats will keep you on your toes! They love to play!
Rats are naturally inquisitive animals who enjoy playing. Ropes can be hung in their cage (USA link) to give them something to walk across, and hammocks (USA link) are usually a hit as they enjoy hiding in them and snuggling down at bedtime. Another popular game is pea fishing, where you can put peas in a shallow bowl of water and your rats can fish out the food. Screwed up balls of paper provide great amusement as they can carry them and if you hide food in them, the rats can rip open the parcel to get to the food. Lots of cat toys are safe for rats, such as tunnels, jingle balls and cat wands they can chase and grab.
Rats need space
Rats do need a fair amount of space, which will vary depending on how many you have. As well as having a large cage, you must allow them time out of their cage each day in a safe area. Some people rat-proof a room and allow them to run around under supervision. Others set up playpens (USA link) that allow them to explore in a contained area. Be careful with playpens though, as they can chew their way out. I used panels to make my own rat playpen which meant I could take it apart and store it away easily.
Whichever option you choose, make sure dogs and cats are shut out of the room for safety and provide them with lots of toys. Rats love to climb (USA link), run through tunnels (USA link) and carry things (USA link) in their mouths. Toys can be as simple as cardboard boxes or something more elaborate, such as cardboard tanks (here is a link for the USA – yes, you read that right!)
Make sure you rotate free-range toys and toys in their cage so everything stays new and exciting. You can hide food around for them to find, which helps to keep them engaged and active, or use puzzle feeders which encourages them to think to get to the treat.
They need to live in a suitable cage
Rats don’t do well in glass aquariums as they do not provide proper ventilation, and rats like to climb which they will be unable to do in a tank. Some ferret cages do offer a lot of space, however, some of them have large bar spacing which could mean your rat could squeeze through and escape – this is an even bigger risk with babies. Indoor bird aviaries can be used successfully to house rats, as long as you add ropes, hammocks and ledges, giving your rats more space. All rats are different, and some are more destructive than others. If your rat is a chewer, you may need to invest in a fully metal cage to stop them from escaping (just make sure you cover the shelves if they are made of wire of they could hurt their feet).
They are clean
Contrary to popular belief, rats are clean rodents. They don’t like getting dirty and love to groom themselves and each other – if you are lucky, your rat may even try to groom you! Rats won’t need bathing by you, so don’t bathe your rat or submerge them in water. If they do get dirty, you can use a baby wipe to gently clean them and if they are getting dirty regularly, it may be worth taking them to the vet to make sure there isn’t an underlying cause for this. Rats prefer to go to the toilet in one corner of their cage, so can easily be trained to use a litter tray making it easier for you to change their litter daily.
Rats don’t live very long
This is the worst thing about owning rats – they have unfairly short lifespans and on average, live for two to three years. Rats are prone to certain illnesses, such as tumours so it is important to handle your rat daily so you can check they are in top health. Some tumours can be surgically removed by your vet, so if you find any lumps, get them to the vet as soon as you can. Give your rat a good, varied diet, keep their cage clean and give them attention every day.
They need a varied diet
Many store-bought rat mixes are boring to rats, and the best way to keep them healthy is to give them a varied diet, after all, variety is the spice of life! I make my own mix for my rats, which includes a ‘base mix’ which is a store-bought rat (or rabbit mix), supplemented with things like grains such as cornflakes, dog kibble, herbs and seeds to name but a few. If you want to make your own mix, make sure you look into this properly to find out what percentage of each ingredient you need. Rats also love fresh food and can eat most things such as fruit, chicken, eggs and vegetables to name but a few. Again, make sure you read into what is safe before you start sharing your dinner with your rats.
There are lots of rats in rescue
All over the country, rats are sitting in rescue, waiting for homes. From dumbos, to hairless to rexes – any rat can find itself needing a new home. The nice thing about adopting is your new pets should have been assessed so you will know what their temperaments are like. Many rescues will offer a bonding service, so if you want to add more rats to your clan, the pressure of doing so will be taken away and done by the rescue. It also means you are giving unwanted rats a second chance and allows the rescue to help more rats whose fate may be uncertain.
If you are still unsure about owning rats, perhaps mice would suit you better?