What do these loyal and loving rodents need to be healthy and happy? Find out with our pet rat top tips!
Domestic rats, also known as ‘fancy rats’, are descended from the Brown or Norway rat. They are a type of ‘rodent’ (mammals characterised by the presence of a pair of incisors which grow continuously in both the upper and lower jaws) and have pointed snouts with large, twitchy whiskers, long, hairless tails, prominent ears, and slender bodies.
“There are lots of varieties of rat with different coats and eye colours,” states animal welfare charity Blue Cross. “These include white, cinnamon, blue and parti-coloured coats with dark or pink eyes. Male rats are called bucks and females are does. Baby rats are known as kittens.”
Rats make excellent pets, especially for older children and adults. They’re clean, friendly, inquisitive and highly intelligent. They bond well with people and rarely bite.
They also relish the opportunity to do all the things that come naturally to rats – climbing, running, foraging, exploring and playing. Providing plenty of things to keep their curious minds and sprightly bodies busy, along with the right nutrition, will help your pet rats live their happiest lives.
Keep reading to find out:
- Health – how do you know if your pet rat is in good health?
- Behaviour – what activities does your pet rat need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
- Companionship – does your pet rat need a friend?
- Diet – what should you feed your pet rat?
- Environment – what housing does your pet rat need?
- Rats can be trained using positive reward-based methods to respond to their own names, give ‘high-fives’, fetch a ball and roll over. It’s a great way to give your pets an enriching and rewarding experience and improve your bond with them.
- Rats show empathy with other rats. Rats remember if they’ve received help from another rat and will help others in the future. The more help they receive, the more they will help other rats. They also share their food and will give the biggest share to the hungriest rats. If they’re given a choice between receiving their own treat and their companion rats also receiving a treat, they choose the option that ensures their friends also get a treat.
- Like humans, rats go through multiple stages of sleep. Rats experience slow-wave sleep to REM sleep and even have dreams when they’re asleep.
- Rats laugh when they’re tickled. Scientists have found that when rats are happy or excited, they emit very high-pitched squeaks (too high for us to hear), which is rat ‘laughter’. Rats remember which humans have tickled and played with them in the past and prefer to spend time with those people. Another way to tell if a rat is happy is that their ears turn pink!
- Rats are very clean animals. Rats often spend hours grooming themselves or each other. It’s now thought that the Great Plague of 1665 was spread by human lice and fleas and not by rats.
- Rats need their whiskers to help them balance and find their way around. Rats’ whiskers are more sensitive than human fingertips. Rats brush these long hairs against objects or the floor, helping them build up a detailed picture of their surroundings.
- A group of rats is called a mischief.
As with all pet animals, every pet rat owner must provide for the following needs of the animals in their care:
- Health– Protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease and to have veterinary treatment if they become ill or injured.
- Behaviour – The ability to behave naturally for their species, for example, to play, run, dig, jump etc.
- Companionship– To be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. For example, company of their own kind for sociable species like rats, rabbits or guinea pigs, or to be housed alone for solitary species like Syrian hamsters.
- Diet – A suitable diet. This can include feeding appropriately for the pet’s life stage and feeding a suitable amount to prevent obesity or malnourishment, as well as access to fresh clean water.
- Environment– A suitable environment. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore.
Veterinary charity PDSA advises: “The needs of each type of pet are very different and it is important owners know what these needs are, and how to meet them. Researching carefully before purchase can help owners understand what they will need to provide.”
1. Health – how do you know if your pet rat is in good health?
A healthy, happy rat will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose and be interested in what’s going on around them.
Checking your rats over every day is a good habit to get into. According to Blue Cross, signs that something’s not right include:
- Loss of appetite
- Lethargy or tiredness
- Runny nose or eyes
- Wheezing or sneezing
It’s a good idea to weigh your rats regularly too. Suddenly putting on or losing weight needs to be investigated by your vet. The RSPCA also advises looking out for chromodacryorrhea (red staining around eyes and nose), which indicates stress, possibly from illness or social or environmental problems. If one of your rats shows a change in behaviour or in their eating and drinking habits, seek the advice of a vet as soon as possible.
Your rats will also benefit from a vet check-up once a year. Rats are prey animals so will hide signs of ill-health. This is why an annual vet visit is so important.
The RSPCA suggests: “Even if your rats are well, it’s still a good idea to take them for regular check-ups with the vet. Ask the vet to check if their teeth are growing correctly and get advice on protecting their health, such as through vaccination, worming and neutering.”
2. Behaviour – what activities does your pet rat need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
“Rats are very active and social,” says Blue Cross. “They love playing and will need lots of objects and activities to keep them entertained.” Their accommodation should be large, with lots of space for them to run, stretch up on their hind legs, hop, hide, climb, forage and do all the things that come naturally to rats.
To create an enriching environment that encourages natural ratty behaviours, the charity recommends the following:
- A cage with multiple levels as they love climbing.
- Hang up rope toys to scurry along.
- A rat-friendly hammock – you can make one by tying or clipping a small towel to the top of the cage.
- A rat-friendly exercise wheel which should be solid, not with rungs, so they don’t catch their paws or tail in it.
- Cardboard tubes and boxes to hide in and chew on.
- Rat-friendly pet toys – these should be available from good pet shops, but you can also use tree branches, old toilet paper tubes and plant pots.
- Trails of food hidden around their accommodation for them to find (dry rat nuggets are ideal for this).
- A gnawing block to keep their teeth healthy.
Every rat is different and it’s important to provide a selection of enrichment items and activities – and let each of your ratty pals choose to do whatever it is they like best.
RSPCA says: “Rats need choice, so never force them to do anything. Give them the choice to check out new surroundings at their own pace, as they’re naturally cautious. Rats are quick learners, highly trainable, very clever, curious and have excellent memories. They need mental stimulation to stop them getting bored, so consider training them. This can help you bond with your rat, as well as keeping them physically and mentally active. Never punish them – always use positive reinforcement to encourage training.”
It’s also important that your pet rats get to spend time each day outside their cage. Blue Cross advises: “Rats need at least an hour of playtime outside their cage every day, but you must first make the room safe and rat-proof.”
- Keep doors and windows closed and block cracks in floorboards, as rats can get through very small gaps.
- Keep house plants out of the way because some are poisonous to rats.
- Electric cables should be covered by protective piping so they cannot be chewed.
3. Companionship – does your pet rat need a friend?
As much as a rat will happily bond with their human, they benefit from a friend or two of their own species.
RSPCA advises: “Rats are social animals and need other rats for companionship. Rats live in large colonies in the wild with complex social relationships between group members. Without companionship, rats tend to get lonely and depressed.”
Pet rats also love hanging out with their human too. Blue Cross says: “If they’re handled correctly from a young age, they’ll develop a strong bond with you and enjoy being picked up. To help them get used to you, try carrying them around the house inside your jumper!” RSPCA adds: “Lots of them love to relax on your lap.”
Importantly, if you have a pair, trio or even a rat pack, you’ll need to ask your vet about neutering. Blue Cross advises: “To avoid unwanted babies, the best option is usually a pair or group of the same sex. If your pair or group is mixed, make sure the male is neutered to prevent unwanted litters. Male rats tend to get on very well if they have grown up together. If they start fighting and fall out, talk to your vet about neutering as this may help.”
4. Diet – what should you feed your pet rat?
Rats are omnivores, which means they’ll eat just about anything they can get their tiny paws on – even if it’s not particularly good for them. A good diet for your pet rats is one that’s a complete rat nugget food, which, along with a continuous supply of clean, fresh water, supplied in a water bottle designed for rodents, gives them all the nutrients they need to stay happy and healthy.
“It’s easy to feed your rats a fresh, healthy and balanced diet by feeding them commercial food pellets,” advises the RSPCA. “Always feed them food designed specifically for rats, rather than pellets for rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters or other herbivores – these won’t give rats the nutrients they need.”
Pet rats can often be selective feeders, eating only the parts of rat feed they take a fancy to, which can lead to an imbalanced diet. That’s why it’s best to avoid ‘muesli-style’ rat food mix varieties and choose complete rat nuggets instead.
As well as ensuring that your pet rats get all the protein, vitamins and minerals they need, rat nuggets are also ideal for adding enrichment. Simply hide and sprinkle nuggets around their housing to encourage their natural foraging behaviour.
Rats will also enjoy small amounts of fresh food. Safe veggies and herbs for rats include carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet peppers, cucumber, courgette, peas, basil, sage, parsley and coriander. They’ll also relish a few sunflower seeds that they can manipulate in their paws while they eat. Also try the occasional cooled, hard-boiled egg – they’ll enjoy working out how to get it out of the shell.
Foods to avoid are anything sugary or high in fat, such as dairy products. There are many household foods that should be avoided including: chocolate, onions, peanuts, walnuts, blue cheese, citrus fruits, uncooked sweet potato, grapes, raisins, and rhubarb.
If your pet rats have consumed any of these foods, then it’s essential to seek veterinary advice.
Don’t panic if you spot your rats eating their freshly deposited droppings – this is a natural behaviour that helps them to absorb all the nutrients and minerals they need to stay healthy.
The RSPCA advises: “Rats feed mainly at dawn and dusk, and drink mostly during the night, so feed your rats twice a day – in the morning and evening. Give your rats their food in open ceramic bowls (not metal, as this creates ultrasound noise) – this allows them to carry food and handle or eat it wherever they want.”
5. Environment – what housing does your pet rat need?
Your pet rats’ home should be a quiet, spacious, safe haven, with some cosy, dark places to hide and take a nap.
The RSPCA states: “Rats suffer if their surroundings don’t suit them or if they’re prevented from behaving naturally.”
According to Blue Cross: “The best home for your rats is a wire cage – the larger and taller the better, as rats are active and love to climb. A rat cage should be at least 90cm (L) x 60cm (D) x 120cm (H) for two to five rats (larger for bigger groups). Hamster cages are not big enough for rats. The floor should also be solid rather than wire to avoid them trapping and injuring their feet or limbs. Aquarium-style glass cages should not be used because there will not be enough ventilation.”
The RSPCA advises that your rats will need:
- Shelters and hiding places – Rats have an excellent sense of touch, preferring to hug walls rather than enter open spaces where they can’t hide. They also spend lots of time sleeping and like to hide and sleep in safe, dark shelters.
- Nesting material – Rats like making their own nests and spend lots of time playing with nesting material. Suitable materials are hay, shredded paper, paper strips and paper tissues.
Don’t give rats nesting materials that separate into thin strands, such as cotton wool or similar ‘fluffy’ bedding products, as they can get tangled in them and they aren’t safe for them to eat. Blue Cross adds: “Avoid wood shavings or sawdust as this can cause respiratory problems. And, because rats are so sensitive to smell, you should not use bedding with an added fragrance.”
Choosing the right location is also important. Blue Cross advises: “Rats are nocturnal, which means they’re most active at night and at dawn or dusk. Because of their sleeping pattern, you may need to think about where to keep them. They’re very social and will like to be somewhere they can see you, but you may not want them to keep you awake at night!”
Rats can be quite sensitive to noises as well as the environment they live in. To help them stay happy and healthy, the charity says they’ll need to be:
- Indoors – It’s too cold for pet rats outside.
- Away from any draughts and direct sunlight – Rats are sensitive to extreme cold and heat dehydration, both of which can be fatal.
- Somewhere they can see and hear you – They’re very social and like to keep an eye on their owners.
- Away from loud noises and vibrations given off by televisions and speakers, as this can be stressful for them.
CHOOSE A COMPLETE RAT FOOD THAT PROVIDES YOUR PET RATS WITH EVERYTHING THEY NEED IN EACH TASTY BITE
Burgess Excel Rat Nuggets is a tasty dry food, formulated as small nuggets, that can be fed in an interactive way. Made at our factory in the heart of Yorkshire with the highest quality ingredients for the best in texture and taste and designed to prevent selective feeding. With balanced protein to support healthy growth, prebiotics to support healthy digestion and added linseed to maintain a healthy skin and coat, our high-quality rat food is perfect for hiding around their housing to encourage natural foraging behaviours.
TREAT YOUR PET RATS TO SOME LUXURY BEDDING
Made from unused offcuts from the teabag production industry, Excel Nap & Nest is highly absorbent, odour-free, soft on little paws and ideal for your rats to create a cosy nest to nap in! Light in colour, it’s easy to spot clean, reducing waste and making each resealable bag last longer.
CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your pet rats from Burgess, the pet experts. Housing, health, feeding and more. It’s all here >>
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