This week’s post was written by Stacey, one of our licensed technicians. She wanted to offer an introduction to having a rat as a pet. This basic introduction to keeping and caring for a rat (or any exotic animal) centers on providing a stress-free, comfortable environment for a rat. It’s very different from a dog or a cat. This setup and caring for living space for an exotic pet is known as husbandry. Diet and husbandry are the two most important parts of keeping a non-traditional pet. On to Stacey’s information!
Rats are very interesting little creatures. They have quite a history. Early on rats developed a very close relationship with people. They have lived with humans since humans learned to farm. Food and shelter were readily available. Being opportunistic they took advantage of the situation. The Norway rat originated in China and managed to hitch-hike around the world with merchants. England became a regular breeding ground literally. People started catching and breeding unusually colored rats as early as 1840. A number of these rats were sold as pets. In England, pet rats became a social fashion statement. It is rumored that the Queen of England and Beatrix Potter had rats for pets. Clubs were created, Norway rats became known as Fancy rats, and popularity spread.
Research and preparation should be done prior to pet selection. The Norway rat remains the most common. Dumbo, hairless, hooded, and Berkshire are only a few varieties. When possible, rats should be adopted around 8 weeks of age. Their lifespan is typically 2-3 years; however some have lived to 7 years. Rats usually live in groups, therefore, two or more should be purchased at the same time. Males and females, unless spayed or neutered, should be separated to avoid unwanted reproduction. More importantly, the rats should be healthy. They should be relatively clean, free of external parasites, their eyes and nose should be clear without drainage. They should also be curious of people, not fearful.
Socialization is very important for them. They require daily attention, not just feeding, but actual handling and playtime. This makes them easier to tame since they actually enjoy company, be it from other rats, humans, dogs, or even cats. Most domesticated animals show a tolerance for other species. People must use their own judgment when introducing themselves, other people or other animals together, regardless of species. Initial introductions should proceed with caution to avoid injury to either party. Interspecies playtime should always be supervised. Obviously if a cat or dog has a strong prey drive, they should not be allowed access to pet rats.
Understanding rat behavior is necessary. Keep in mind, rats are prey animals. Certain behaviors are ingrained for survival. For instance, when startled they tend to bite first and usually run while the predator nurses the wound. When crossing or investigating a room, they stay close to walls or other objects preferring not to walk into the open. This makes them less of a target. They also seek out hiding places and like to climb. They also have poor eye sight in light, but their sense of taste and smell are highly developed. Mistakes are sometimes made where fingers that smell like food are confused with actual food or if a person startles the rat. In these situations, it is important to understand they were not being ‘mean’, they were simply reacting. Yes rat bites hurt, but they cause very little damage and hopefully the handlers learn from their own mistake.
Rats are fairly inexpensive to keep. A good cage is the bulk of the cost. Pet rats do spend a large portion of the day in their cage, so cage size is important. Minimum size should be 24x15x12; however, they would appreciate the largest cage allowed by the budget. It needs to be adequate for the number of rats and should accommodate climbing behavior. Toys are necessary, too. They do not have to be expensive. Boxes, apple or pear wood branches, papers (no glossy or highly colored ads) are all fun items. Pine and cedar shavings are harmful to rats and should be avoided. Care guides are available both online and through libraries and pet stores. A prospective rat owner should utilize these resources and seek follow-up care with a veterinarian experienced in rat care.
Rats are fun pets. They are highly intelligent. Interaction is important and helps keep an active rat to owner relationship. Both children and adults should find them easy to care for.