By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.
Rats are highly intelligent animals that, despite their reputation for being dirty and ugly due to their bald tails, are clean and sociable animals that can make wonderful pets.
They do have some specific care needs which must be taken into account when being cared for. The housing provided for rats should be as large as possible, they are inquisitive and love to investigate new areas. Cages should have wire mesh with as small a gap as possible, they can fit through much smaller spaces than you may expect! The shelves and floors of the cage should be solid and not mesh as this can injure feet and lead to sores. Absorbent bedding and nesting materials should be provided as lots of time is spent building nesting areas, but these materials should be safe for the rats – ideally paper based, avoiding materials with long strands that can wrap around legs or cause problems if swallowed.
Rats will use specific areas of the cage to toilet so training is possible and can help to keep bedding clean. Keeping cages away from direct sunlight, draughts, areas of the house likely to be noisy, predators and away from strong smells such as air fresheners/smoke are all important.
Rats can be prone to obesity so their diet must be monitored, and care taken to avoid overfeeding or feeding of too many fatty foods. Wild rats living alongside humans will eat pretty much anything they come across, but to maximise the health and lifespan of a pet rat, more care must be taken. Rats are omnivores, eating both meat and vegetable matter, but the easiest way to feed a complete diet is to use a good quality, prepared diet – avoiding those with added sugars including molasses which can increase the obesity risk. Variety can be provided by supplementing small amounts of fruit and vegetables, cooked egg, cheese or seeds/grains, but these should be factored into the daily food allowance not given as extras. Ideally small amounts of proteins should only be added weekly but no supplementation at all could lead to deficiencies. Feeding can be a good time to provide mental stimulation to pet rats – hiding food within bedding or toys and providing occasional whole nuts or seeds for them to break into. A cooled, unpeeled, boiled egg can take time to get into and make them think.
Rats are highly social animals and should never be kept on their own. Ideally, same sex groups of siblings work well, but introductions later in life can be done carefully. Two lone individuals will likely see a period of fights which need to be monitored to ensure no significant physical or emotional damage is done. Providing multiple food and water resources, as well as ensuring there are no places individuals can be cornered will help to reduce tension. Adding a new individual to a bonded group should be avoided as this can disrupt the social dynamics and lead to fights.
As a general rule, rats are more active at dawn and dusk and love to play. Providing climbing frames and hammocks can help to make the most of cage space, as well as giving them spaces to dig and tunnel where possible. Generally, rats tolerate handling very well. If treated gently and handling is introduced slowly and carefully, they are rarely known to bite and are usually calm. Handling them using the base of their tails is never recommended – it can lead to injuries and is very stressful. They can be trained to do a range of tricks given time and patience, as well as some tasty rewards! They are a long-term responsibility as will become bored if left to their own devices.
Regular health problems seen in rats can include skin and coat problems including bald patches though mites or fungal disease, overgrown teeth, masses and abscesses, pododermatitis, urinary tract issues and respiratory disease. Teeth should be checked on a regular basis, as should claws which should be trimmed as needed. They are generally very clean animals and any deterioration in coat (including piloerection where the follicles of the hair contract) can be an indication of pain or illness.
Overall, rats can make wonderful pets and are intelligent and fascinating creatures, even suitable for children to handle under strict supervision. They do, however, need large spaces and some consideration to their dietary needs as well as constant mental stimulation to prevent them becoming bored.