10 Tips on Keeping Rats

pet rat

Fancy rats can become very trusting and enjoy contact with their owners.

They like cuddling with their owners and are incredibly capable of learning: Rats are fascinating animals and keeping them is more than possible even for working people and older children. These cute rodents are relatively low-maintenance pets, although the work required shouldn't be underestimated by first-time owners in particular.

Preliminary considerations on keeping rats

Rats are clever, sociable animals. Observing them, playing with them and teaching them little tricks can bring animal lovers great joy. Since these rodents are particularly active in the late afternoon, evening and early hours of the morning, they make suitable pets for working people.

Rats as pets for children?

Older children too can take on responsibility for a pack of rats and take care of them together with their parents. However, you should bear in mind that rats only live to around two years of age on average and the death of a beloved pet may be painful (not just) for children.

Purchasing 

Fancy rats that are kept as pets descend from brown rats. They are found with several fur colours, including black, brown, cream and piebald. Albinos, i.e. white rats with red eyes, are also quite common.

Rats from animal shelters

If you would like to take on one or several rats, you should take a look in your local animal shelter: Many tame fancy rats are regularly waiting for new owners in the small pet sections of animal welfare associations. You can take your new pet with you for a small nominal fee.

Lifestyle: How many rats should be kept together?

As pack animals, it's important that rats are never left sitting alone in a cage. They need the company of at least one fellow rat for a species-appropriate life. Keeping three to six rats is ideal.

To prevent any unwanted offspring, rats of the same sex should be chosen – females are considered more tolerant than males. Alternatively, females and castrated males can be kept together. Would you like to expand your rat pack? Then you should put a young rat in with the adults.

pet rat
A rat cage should have several levels to give them enough space to climb and play.

Cage and basic equipment for keeping rats

How much space does a rat need? The animal welfare association recommends a spacious cage of 100 x 50 x 120 centimetres in size for a pack of two to six rats. The cage should have several levels that these agile climbers can reach with ladders or branches.

Setting up a rat cage

The floor should be covered with soft, dust-free wood shavings. As well, these clean rodents need a toilet corner with cat litter or chinchilla sand. A sleeping spot padded with untreated hay or straw as well as several options for playing and hiding, such as cardboard tubes, make for a perfect rat home.

Exercise

Regardless of how big and diversely set-up your rat cage is, daily exercise is a must. For several hours a day, these energetic and curious animals should have the opportunity to explore a secured room under supervision. You should clear away power cables, books, toxic plants and anything else that shouldn't be gnawed at during the exercise session.

Occupation: How time-consuming is keeping rats?

Playing together is an important part of keeping a rat. Be it in the cage or during the exercise period, rats need a great deal of variety in order to be mentally and physically stimulated.

Fun and games for rats

Unprinted cardboard boxes filled with crumpled paper are popular for climbing into and digging around. Cardboard boxes or old books can also be used to construct exciting labyrinths with little tasty treats like chunks of cucumber awaiting these rodents.

A person feeding a treat to a domestic pet rat in its cage
Rats can even learn little tricks with some patience and treats as a reward.

Interaction

In contrast to many other small pets, rats often become very trusting – especially if they already had intensive contact with humans when they were young. The more time you spend with them, the tamer and cuddlier they become. Many rats like sitting on their owner's shoulder and enjoying close physical contact.

Tip: If you would like to take a rat out of its cage, you should gently place one hand under its abdomen and the other over its back to protect it. Rats do not like being lifted by their sensitive tail.

Diet

Rats are known as omnivores, but they eat more plant-based than animal food. They like oat flakes and special grain mixes, as well as fresh vegetables like cucumber, lettuce and carrots. With the exception of citrus fruits, fruit also finds its place on the menu.

Rats consume animal protein in the form of boiled eggs, quark, yoghurt or mealworms. Nuts, rusk or crispbread make suitable occasional little snacks.

Health

If rats are kept in a species-appropriate manner, they will only rarely get sick. Dull fur, crusty eyes and stuck nostrils indicate that something is wrong with these rodents. Clearly audible breathing noises, loss of appetite and apathy are also signs that a rat is ill.

In this case, you should immediately see a vet – ideally a specialist in small pets. Respiratory infections and tumours are typical rat diseases.

Reproduction: Important topic for keeping rats

Rats very much like to reproduce. Females can become pregnant from as early as five to six weeks of age. They give birth to an average of ten young in each litter and are ready to conceive again immediately after birth. Hence, a female rat has on average four litters, i.e. 40 offspring per year.

You should definitely pay attention to the sex of the animals when putting a group together so that keeping rats doesn't get out of hand. Breeding is best left to professionals too.

Conclusion: Keeping rats as an alternative to guinea pigs?

Fancy rats are often much more suitable pets (not just) for children than guinea pigs or rabbits, for instance. Unlike these typical prey animals, tame fancy rats generally aren't scared of being touched and stroked. On the contrary, they enjoy being with their caregivers and long cuddling sessions.

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