Complete Guide to Caring for a Pet Rat


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Getting a pet rat can be an exciting time, but it can be intimidating to acquire an animal that you’ve never owned before. 

So how do you care for a pet rat? This guide will go over the basics of owning a pet rat such as: supplies needed before purchasing a rat, food and treats, habitat, training, proper handling, bathing, health issues, and enrichment. Owning a rat is a serious responsibility so people should learn about them before adopting one. 

pet rat

By the time you reach the end of this article, you’ll know everything you need to comfortably bring a new rat into your household. Read on to find out more about pet rats and their care. 

Types of Pet Rats

There are several types of rats that are available as companions either at ratteries or in pet stores. Here are some of the rat breeds you may find available to purchase or adopt:

  • Standard rats: A standard rat appears like a wild rat in appearance with a short, glossy coat. Standard rats are the least expensive option of pet rat and are commonly found for sale both as companion animals and as food for predators such as large snakes. 
  • Dumbo rats: Dumbo rats are similar in appearance to standard rats and can come in a variety of colors, but the major distinction of dumbo rats is their oversized ears. This gives the rats a babyish and appealing look. 
  • Hairless rats: Hairless rats are a mutation of the standard rat and don’t have any fur, making them a good hypoallergenic pet for those that have issues with pet hair and dander. Hairless rats are susceptible to cold temperatures since they don’t have a coat to regulate their body heat like other rat types.
  • Satin rats: Satin rats are similar to a standard rat except that they have a coat that is especially shiny and soft to the touch. Satin rats also have whiskers that curl.
  • Rex rats: Rex rats have curly, wooly coats and curly whiskers. Like satin rats and dumbo rats, rex rats can either come in a standard color or in a variety of other coat colors.
  • Marked rats: Marked rats are rats that contain two colors in their coat, usually white and a darker color. These rats often contain a marking across the flank as well as markings around the face, head, and neck.
  • Other color varieties: There are many specialty colors of rat other than the standard color such as agouti, cinnamon, fawn, silver, and topaz. Ratteries are constantly breeding new and exotic colors and coat patterns in domesticated rats by crossbreeding different varieties.

No matter what kind of coat or color appeals to you, there is sure to be a type of rat out there that you’d enjoy keeping as a pet.  

Supplies Needed to Keep a Pet Rat

Rats are simple to care for, but they do require some basic essentials to be healthy and happy pets. Here is a checklist of the things you need to purchase and have set up prior to adopting or purchasing your new pet rat: 

  • Rat cage: Since rats need lots of enrichment and exercise, the best option for a rat is a wire cage that has multiple levels. This not only increases the amount of floor space in the cage, but the vertical space also gives the rat activities to do while in the cage in the form of climbing and running back and forth between levels.
  • Bedding: Rats need shredded bedding designed for small animal cages that that is capable of absorbing waste and keeping associated odors to a minimum. Do not use aromatic wood chips such as cedar or pine in rat cages, as rats have very delicate respiratory systems that are damaged by the fumes of these aromatic woods. Rats also need nesting material like wool. PRO TIP: If you have an equestrian community nearby, look for a suitable horse bedding for use in your cage. There are a wide variety of options available and they are much more economical than pet store bedding.
  • Rat house: Rats are tunneling animals and prefer to have a hide in the cage where they can tuck themselves away from prying eyes for some privacy, especially while they’re sleeping. A rat house should preferably be large enough to hold multiple rats since they like to snuggle while they nap together.
  • Hanging water bottle and food bowl: A water bottle installed on the side of the cage can help keep the rats’ water clean and free of contamination from the cage floor. A ceramic food bowl is good for depositing rat kibble or other treats.
  • Toys: Rats are very intelligent animals and a rat left with nothing to do for hours at a time will end up bored. To keep them entertained, be sure to provide plenty of toys and other sensory stimulants so that they have plenty of things to explore and do.
  • Food and treats: The majority of a rat’s diet is made up of kibble, but it’s important to supplement your rat’s food with a variety of healthy treats such as commercial dried treats or cut-up fruits and vegetables.
  • Non-toxic disinfectant: A rat’s cage needs to be cleaned regularly in order to avoid unwanted odors and respiratory illnesses associated with dirty bedding, so it’s important to get a cleaning solution designed for small animal cages to keep smells down and keep your rat healthy. 

As long as you have the above items ready to go, you’re all prepared to bring home a new rat friend! 

What to Feed Your Pet Rat

Rats are omnivorous animals, which means they can eat a combination of grains, fruits, vegetables, and some animal proteins. Rat pellets or feed should make up most of a rat’s diet since these commercial foods provide a balanced nutritious diet that prevents metabolic diseases, but rats should also get a selection of fresh foods to supplement their diet for nutrients and enrichment.

Here are some other types of foods that rats enjoy:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Unsweetened cereals
  • Cooked lean meats like liver or steak
  • Pasta and bread
  • Cooked beans
  • Yogurt
  • Mealworms
  • Mashed boiled eggs or scrambled eggs
  • Dog biscuits
  • Brown rice
  • Nuts and seeds, carob chips (occasional treats)

While rats can enjoy many different kinds of food safely, there are also some things that a rat shouldn’t eat to avoid health problems. These are foods you should avoid giving your rat: 

  • Chocolate
  • Raw potatoes (regular or sweet)
  • Raw beans
  • Sodas
  • Unripe bananas
  • Wild insects or fish
  • Poppy seeds
  • Nutmeg
  • Mango
  • Citrus peels

Because they enjoy a wide variety of food, rats are pretty easy to keep happy in the diet department. It is easiest to free-feed your rat kibble and then add other types of food on a day-to-day basis, being sure to remove any uneaten food within twenty-four hours to prevent spoilage.  

How to Handle a Pet Rat Safely

woman holding pet rat

When you’re handling a pet rat, it’s important to handle the rat gently so that it feels safe and secure while being carried or touched.

Adolescent rats especially can get skittish and may bite if they feel they are being squeezed or threatened. 

Rats can be easily injured if they are dropped, squeezed, or stepped on, so it’s important that small children not be allowed to handle rats.

Older children can handle rats but should only do so under adult supervision until the child is old enough to be trusted with small animals on their own. 

When holding a rat, never pick it up by its tail or the scruff of its neck. This is both painful and frightening to the rat.

In the case of picking up a rat by the tail, this can also potentially cause severe damage to the rat including paralysis, so it should never be done. 

Rats should be held carefully with one hand beneath the weight of their body, tucking the rat against the body so that it feels secure. Until you are comfortable with handling a rat, it is best to handle it while sitting on the floor since there is less chance of the rat being dropped from a dangerous height. 

Rats are Social Animals

several rats in a cage

It is commonly accepted by the pet community that if you’re going to adopt a rat, you should adopt at least two of them. This is because rats are a very social species of animal that lives in colonies in the wild, so rats that are left alone and isolated in a cage quickly grow bored and lonely. (source)

Rats that are raised with other rats are more outgoing and less skittish, making them more likely to bond with their human caretakers.

While some people mistakenly get a single rat thinking it will cause the rat to become more attached to them, this is cruel to the rat since no person can feasibly spend enough time with the rat to satisfy its social cravings without a cage-mate. 

If you can’t adopt or buy at least two rats together, it’s a better idea to look at other types of small animals as a pet that can be kept alone more readily, such as a ferret or a hamster. 

Male Rats vs. Female Rats

There is no major difference in the personalities of male rats versus female rats. While many people anecdotally report that male rats are more affectionate and cuddlier than their active, playful female counterparts—there are plenty of ratteries that would contradict this generalization with stories of cuddly, affectionate females or playful males.

When choosing a pair of rats, it’s important to get a same-sex pair of rats to avoid any accidental litters. While spaying and neutering of rats can be performed, it is a dangerous procedure for them since they are so small.   

Cleaning a Pet Rat’s Cage

rat in cage at pet store

Deep cleaning a rat’s cage at least once a week is an important part of rat care. Without regular cleanings, a rat’s cage quickly becomes stinky and unsanitary, leading to unintended health problems for the rat.

Since illness in small animals can quickly turn deadly, it’s important to practice good rat hygiene from the very first day you bring your new pet home. 

Each day when you refill your rats’ water bottle and food bowl, you should inspect the bedding for any obvious wet spots or droppings. Removing these droppings and dirty bedding gradually throughout the week can make deep cleaning the cage less of a chore. 

To deep-clean the cage, let the rat out to play (a soft enclosed playpen is a good choice) and empty the cage of bedding. Using an animal-safe disinfectant, spray down the bottom of the cage and wipe it thoroughly along with all the level platforms and the bars of the cage.

Cage accessories such as hides and toys should also be disinfected. 

When you’re done, add clean fresh bedding back to the cage before returning other items like the h

Rats and Other Household Pets

cat and pet rat

It’s important to be very careful if you decide to introduce your pet rat to other pets in the household such as dogs and cats. Many breeds of dogs such as terriers were specifically bred for hundreds of years to catch and kill rats, so dogs of that type can rarely be trusted around a rat without that prey drive coming out. Once you find out your dog is not safe with rats, it’s often too late. 

Cats are better companions to rats since they are closer in size and a rat can often hold its own in defense against a cat (at least long enough for a human to intervene).

However, the bacteria in a cat’s mouth can be deadly if the cat bites your rat, so it’s crucial to closely monitor any interactions to make sure that your other household pets are friendly and calm to avoid a tragedy. 

Here are some ways you can keep your pet rat safe with a dog or cat in the house: 

  • Assess the risk. Some cats and dogs have much higher prey drives than others, so if you know your cat loves to stalk birds and squirrels through the kitchen window or your dog is bad about killing shrews in the backyard, a direct social encounter might not be a great idea.
  • Keep the rat separated from other animals. This is easily accomplished by keeping the rat’s cage behind a closed door that other pets can’t access. This will remove any temptation for cats or dogs to harass the rat in its cage or knock the cage over attacking the rat.
  • Make sure that your rat’s cage is escape-proof. Many a rat has met his or her end via the family dog or cat by escaping its cage and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to keep this from happening, be sure there’s no way your rat can let itself out. 

Bathing Your Pet Rat

In most circumstances, you won’t have to bathe your pet rat. Rats are like cats in that they are adept at grooming themselves, and as long as they have access to fresh water they can give themselves a bath if they like.

Unless they are old or handicapped, most rats don’t need human intervention to stay clean other than a sanitary cage. 

If you find that your rat stinks, this is usually caused by a filthy habitat rather than any grooming issue with the rat. To avoid this problem, make sure that your rat’s bedding stays fresh and clean and isn’t saturated with urine or old rat feces.

Rats are like cats in that they prefer to be clean, so don’t make them stay in a dirty cage! 

Rats should never be dropped in water that is deeper than they can touch the bottom such as a bathtub, as this is a very frightening experience for the rat.

Rats are also susceptible to accidentally aspirating water if they are dunked or submerged, so baths should be avoided whenever possible. 

Rat Health Issues

There are a few health issues that rats are unfortunately prone to, especially as they grow older. Here are a couple of the medical problems that can crop up in pet rats: 

  • Cancer. Unfortunately, rats are prone to tumorous cancers. This often surfaces in the form of skin tumors or reproductive tumors involving the mammary glands or testicles. In some cases, the rat’s life can be extended by surgery, but this is an expensive option, and rats are a short-lived animal, only living 2-3 years in captivity.
  • Respiratory disease. Rats are susceptible to colds, pneumonia, and other forms of respiratory illness due to their delicate lungs. (source) This is why their cages need to be well-maintained, as dirty bedding is one of the major causes of respiratory illness in rats. 
  • Fighting injuries: Rats enjoy play-fighting and wrestling with each other, but sometimes if rats are living in crowded conditions, these fights can turn violent. Puncture wounds from teeth or claws can abscess or turn infected in a dirty cage, so keep your cage clean and if you see your rats fighting often, it might be time to separate them at least until you can secure a larger cage.

Keeping rats in a sanitary environment with plenty of space and ventilation goes a long way towards making sure they stay happy and healthy. 

Rats Are Great Pets

It is often said that rats have all the personality of a dog in a tiny package, and most people who have kept rats as companions would agree. For apartment dwellers and those who don’t have space or time to devote to a larger animal, a pair of rats can be superb pets. 

April

I'm an avid animal lover, former veterinary assistant, and blogger. My undergraduate work included a pre-veterinary curriculum and some graduate work along those lines as well from Cal Poly in Pomona, CA (GO BRONCOS!). These days I blog about all sorts of animal-related topics. Many I have or currently personally own, some I don't but am just interested in. Nothing in this blog should be construed as veterinary advice. I am a 100% advocate that if you think something is wrong with your pet, take it to a vet.

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