Rats often get a bad rap in the animal kingdom, but if you look past the unfair stereotypes you’ll discover they can make wonderful pets. The most popular pet rat species in Australia are the Standard Rat, and the Fancy Rat (also known as the domestic brown rat). Rats are both affectionate and intelligent animals that form strong bonds with their owners. However, like any pet, it’s important to understand a little about the animal before you make a commitment to ownership.
Rats are social animals
If you want a pet rat, you’ll need to want at least two pet rats. Rats are social creatures, and they need at least one mate. If you want to avoid creating a colony of rats, consider desexing or only keep animals of the same gender. However, be aware that keeping two male rats together may result in fights.
Rats have short lifespans
Compared to cats and dogs, rats don’t live very long. With proper care, rats typically live between two and three years. Depending on your point of view, the short lifespan of rats may be seen as a positive because it doesn’t require long-term commitment, or if you’re someone who is deeply affected by the loss of animals you may wish to reconsider your choice. If you have several rats of similar ages, think about how you may be impacted by their loss close together.
Rats are prey animals
Rats can coexist with other species, but you need to exercise extreme caution. Don’t leave rats near cats and dogs unattended. And beware of wild animals such as snakes or birds on your property.
Rats are prone to health issues
One of the most common health issues experienced by rats is respiratory disease, often caused by dust or from ammonia in their urine. The best way to prevent respiratory issues in rats is to keep their living space clean, and avoid spraying scented products such as air fresheners or perfumes near their habitat. Also be alert for signs of laboured breathing, wheezing and sneezing.
Rats are also prone to heat stress, which can be fatal. Make sure your rat’s living space is in a sheltered and well ventilated area with adequate shade. On hot days you can provide a frozen ice brick or drink bottle in the hutch to help keep it cool.
Rats also tend not to recuperate well, therefore it’s essential you seek advice from a vet if any health issues arise.
Rats are clean
Rats don’t deserve to be stereotyped as dirty and smelly, particularly domesticated rats. Pet rats regularly clean themselves by licking and grooming their fur. They also strongly dislike being dirty and will clean themselves fastidiously if food or muck sticks to their body. Ensuring your rats’ living space is clean will help them feel comfortable.
Setting up their living space
Rats require a hutch to live in that is safe from predators. The hutch should include a resting place that protects them from the weather, is waterproof, dark, and dry. It should also include spaces for eating, toileting and exercising.
Bedding can be made from soft hay or shredded newspaper, but needs to be regularly changed to keep it hygienic and prevent health issues.
The floor of the hutch should be covered in a layer of litter such as shredded paper but, again, it needs to be regularly changed to keep the space hygienic and clean.
The exercise section of the hutch should have access to light and be fitted with climbing toys like ropes, ramps and ladders. There should also be adequate space for exploration.
Rats also enjoy digging and may benefit from a plastic container filled with soil and litter to play with (some hutches have plastic containers in-built for this purpose).
Rats can drink from a bowl or bottle, but a bottle is preferred by many because it keeps the water clean.
Rats also need time outside of their hutch to remain happy and stimulated. But make sure all ‘free time’ is supervised.
When you’re removing your rat from the hutch, never pick it up by its tail – always put one hand around its torso, and one supporting its hind legs. You may find your rat enjoys sleeping on your lap or in your pocket, or even going ‘walkies’ while perched on your shoulder.
Teeth and nails
To help your rats’ nails wear down naturally you can place objects with rough textures in the hutch such as a brick, rock or branches. If you place the object near a commonly used area, such as an eating or drinking space, it’s more likely to be successful.
Your rat’s teeth can also be kept healthy with chew toys. Rats will literally chew anything, so it’s important to choose safe toys made from natural substances such as wood, nuts or cork. Avoid plastic, metal or anything store-bought that can’t be confirmed as ‘non toxic’.
Rats are omnivores (they eat plant and animal material). They should be fed a combination of fresh fruits and vegetables and small amounts of good quality rat pellets or rat cubes with a high protein content.
Appropriate fruits and vegetables include: Apples (without seeds), bananas, beans, berries, bok choy and other Asian greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, citrus fruits, cooked Brussel sprouts, endive, fresh corn, melon, parsley, pears, peas, stone fruits and tomatoes
Grains and seed mixes are best avoided, while bread, cereals, pasta and sweets should be occasional treats.
The RSPCA also recommends avoiding:
- blue cheese
- green bananas
- green potato skins
- orange juice
- raw artichokes
- raw Brussel spouts
- raw dry beans and peanuts
- raw red cabbages
- raw sweet potatoes
- sticky foods, such as dried fruits, peanut butter and some lollies
By providing your rat with a safe and stimulating space, adequate stimulation, nutrition and general health care, you’re likely to form a strong bond and have a long and healthy friendship.