By Dr. Hannon
Rats can make great pets! Rats are easy to care for, have very little odor, and they rarely bite. They are affectionate and intelligent animals that often will bond quickly with their owners and easily learn new tricks.
Best Type of Domestic Pet Rat
The species of rat available in the pet and laboratory trade is Rattus norvegicus domesticus, domesticated from the Norway rat. Rats are characterized by their long bodies, short fur, small eyes and ears, and long hairless tails. Their eyesight is poor, so they often rely on their whiskers and sense of smell for sensory input and spatial orientation. And exactly how long do pet rats live? Pet rats can live up to 4 years, but are usually considered geriatric by 2 years of age.
Pet Rat Cages and Bedding Tips
Rats can be escape artists, so secure caging is necessary. Wire cages with metal or plastic bottoms work well, and it is recommended that their cages be a minimum of 24X12X12 inches per rat to allow adequate room for nesting, burrowing, and exercise.
Suitable rat bedding (also called substrate) includes: shredded paper (non-inked), recycled newspaper, composite materials or pellets, hardwood chips or shavings (preferably aspen), and compressed wheat straw. Cedar and pine shavings have been linked to skin, respiratory, and GI problems and should not be used.
Rat bedding needs to be ¼ to 1 inch deep, and should be changed at least weekly. If it isn’t changed frequently, ammonia from their urine will build up in their bedding, leading to respiratory problems. Rats should live in normal indoor temperatures.
Pet Rat Behavior and Socializing Pet Rats
Rats are social animals, and tend to do better in groups. Just make sure that it’s a same sex group, unless you want them to have babies! Rats should also have the ability exercise regularly, which can be provided by a large exercise wheel or climbing toys.
To help socialize your pet rat, frequent handling is often required. They should be picked up just like any other small animal. It is recommended to not pick them up by their tails. Not only is this stressful, but it could also cause tail slip, where the skin is pulled off of the tail, resulting in having to have the tail amputated.
What Should a Pet Rat Eat?
Rats are omnivorous rodents, and they do well on a commercially available rodent pellet or block. Small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables should be added, but seeds should be avoided because of their high fat content. Adults require 5-10 grams of pellets per 100 grams body weight per day.
Fresh water should also be available at all times. It is best offered in a water bottle with a sipper tube, as water bowls tend to quickly acquire bedding, food, and excrement. Adult rats require 10 ml of water per 100 grams of body weight daily.
Common Medical Issues with Pet Rats
Common medical problems for pet rats include: obesity, trauma (usually from bite wounds), incisor malocclusion (when upper and lower teeth fail to correctly close), external parasites, and pododermatitis (inflammation of the skin of the paw).
Upper and lower respiratory tract infections are also common, most often caused by mycoplasmosis, although there are a myriad of other bacteria and viruses that can contribute to it. This can become a chronic or recurrent condition that often has to be managed long term.
Geriatric rats are predisposed to neoplasia, the formation of a growth of tissue. Mammary tumors are the most common type of tumor. Rats have extensive mammary tissue, extending up their flanks all the way to the dorsal spine. These tumors are usually benign, but they can get quite large, sometimes weighing more than the rat that they’re attached to! Most mammary fibroadenomas are caused by excess prolactin from a pituitary gland tumor.