Fancy Rats: The Most Important Basics for Ownership

two rats on a blue hammock

Fancy rats need contact with fellow rats – for instance, cuddling.

Rats divide opinions: Some find them disgusting, whilst others value their intelligence and alert nature. If you would like to keep fancy rats as pets, you can find the most important information here.

Appearance of fancy rats

The cute face with little round ears and beady eyes, the cute paws, the lively character – it's no surprise that rats have their fan club.

As rodents, rats (technical term: Rattus) belong to the family of mice. Of 65 rat species worldwide, only the black rat (Rattus rattus) and brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) are native to Europe.

Fancy rats are a brown rat subspecies bred by humans and can be kept as pets. Lab rats also descend from brown rats.

Whilst brown rats living in the wild have brownish-grey fur, the spectrum ranges from white to cream, champagne, grey and brown to black with fancy rats. Even piebalds and albinos can be found amongst fancy rats. Albinos have no colour pigment: their fur is pure white and their eyes are red.

Typical rat feature: The hairless tail

Both the tail and paws are hairless with rats. The hairless tail is one reason why some people find rats disgusting. It isn't bald, but has some small scales. Amongst other things, the tail helps rats to keep their balance when climbing.

An adult fancy rat measures between 22 and 26 centimetres from the tip of the nose to the root of the tail. The tail is almost the same length at around 18 to 22 centimetres. An adult male weighs between 250 and 600 grams, whilst a female weighs 200 to 400 grams.

These little rodents have acute hearing and a well-developed sense of taste and smell. Rats are crepuscular animals, meaning that they are predominantly active in the mornings and evenings. Their eyes are adapted to seeing in the dark and they do not tolerate overly bright light.

rat in a cage
Rats are climbing masters and need exercise.

Character: Clever and lively

Rats are intelligent animals that love exercise and need plenty of variety. Even if their cage is very lovingly set up, they will soon get bored if they have to spend the entire day in their enclosure. Hence, plan at least one hour per day of exercise in your home.

You should bear in mind that rats are rodents. Expect the odd piece of furniture to get chewed during the exercise period and make sure they can't get hold of any power cables. Cage equipment can also fall victim to sharp teeth if it is made of wood.

Rats are ideal pets for working people, because they are predominantly active in the mornings and evenings. They have time after work to devote to their furry housemates. Most rats become tame with a little patience.

Only suitable for older children

Rats are only suitable for children to a limited extent – solely because they want to have their peace and quiet during the day. As well, the fine motor skills of small children are not yet sufficiently developed for interaction with rats. They may well bite if they are accidentally touched clumsily or feel harassed.

From around eight years of age, children can help with caring for rats and even play with them alone. An adult should always be present beforehand.

Keeping rats: Only as a group – never alone!

Rats are incredibly sociable creatures and should definitely not be kept on their own. They need contact with fellow rats in order to be happy. They like to play, cuddle and groom each other.

Three rats is the minimum for species-appropriate housing. Bigger groups are also possible. However, the prerequisite for this is you having enough space and time to take care of the animals.

As well, rats are very territorial and group-oriented animals. Never put a new fancy rat in the cage without further ado, because the group could react aggressively to the new arrival. Rats that don't know each other have to slowly get used to one another.

Rats are very fertile

Rats are sexually mature from around six weeks of age. A female can give birth to up to 20 rats – per litter! Another complicating factor is that rats can have offspring several times a year. 

You can assume that you won't find enough takers for so many rat babies. In order to avoid unwanted offspring, you should only take in animals of the same sex or get males castrated.

Rat cage

Rats spend most of their life as pets in a cage. It should therefore be big enough to provide sufficient space for sleeping, eating, climbing and playing: the bigger the better. In general, it is recommended to ensure a floor space of at least 0.5m2 per rat.

Important: The right location for the cage

The location of the cage plays a crucial role for wellbeing. A rat cage belongs neither in the garden, nor on the balcony or in the garage, since rats are quite sensitive to significant fluctuations in temperature. They should also avoid direct sunlight.

The ideal spot is slightly elevated, quiet and protected from draughts – but still interesting. After all, these little rodents love a diverse environment. Ideally put the cage in the room that you will use for exercise too.

Rats are very hygienic animals and regularly clean themselves. You should also clean the cage regularly every few weeks.

Hot water is usually sufficient for this, possibly mixed with a dash of vinegar or some washing-up liquid. Don't use any harsh cleaning products with a strong smell, because rats' sensitive noses don't cope well with this. Perfumed litter is also forbidden.

Basic equipment for a rat cage

The cage needs to be set up in a rat-appropriate way in order for your pack to feel comfortable there. This includes numerous options for sleeping, hiding and clambering about. Perhaps you will even treat your rats to a little hammock for chilling out?

Food bowls should be as heavy and stable as possible, since rats like to sit on the rim in groups. Many rats use a type of rat toilet. Take a shallow bowl, fill it with litter and place it in a suitable corner of the cage.

This is what you need for basic equipment:

Find suitable cages as well as toys and accessories for the interior in the zooplus online store.

The right food for fancy rats

Rats are omnivores and consume both plant-based and animal protein. Grain food is the main component of their diet, whilst fresh fruit and vegetables should also feature regularly on the menu. You can give your rat a treat too with quark, mealworms or hard-boiled eggs.

Try out different treats. Rats are real individuals when it comes to food: What one likes may not appeal to others.

Ensure too that fresh water is always available to your group of rats. Nipple drinkers are most suitable. Many rats also drink from the bowl.

You can find different varieties of rat food in the zooplus online store.

two rats eating corn

Health problems of fancy rats

Unfortunately the life expectancy of fancy rats is not particularly high. They reach a maximum of two to three years of age. If you have children, you should gently prepare them for the fact that their pets won't live very long.

Some diseases already emerge at 1.5 years of age. Mammary tumours and respiratory diseases are particularly common with rats.

Rats tend to hide their pain. This is a legacy of living in the wild, as a sick rat would soon fall victim to a predator. If your fancy rat appears sick, you should see a vet as soon as possible.

The following signs can indicate that your fancy rat is sick:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue, feebleness
  • Changes to the fur (lumps, bald patches)
  • Adhesions on the buttocks

Important: See a vet quickly!

Not all vets specialise in rats as they do cats and dogs. Hence, find a good vet for your pet rats in plenty of time.

Buying fancy rats

Have you taken a shine to these little rodents and would like to take a little pack of fancy rats into your home? Then you should take a look at your local animal shelter, as unwanted rat babies always end up there.

Rats are also offered in small ads in weekly papers or online. However, dealers who sell their animals there are generally only interested in a quick profit. Species-appropriate accommodation or sufficient healthcare provision are often of secondary importance, so you're best off steering clear.

Conclusion

Keeping fancy rats is relatively demanding. They need the company of fellow rats and plenty of variety in order to live a happy life. If you want to keep rats as pets, you will have to plan sufficient activity time for them.

Health problems can also become a challenge. Expect regular trips to the vet when rats are slightly older. Perhaps you can set aside a small sum on a monthly basis for possible treatment costs.

But if you let yourself go with the adventure, you will be rewarded with extremely loveable companions. One thing is for sure: There's no such thing as boredom with a pack of fancy rats!

Our most helpful articles
8 min

Holland Lop

Simply adorable, little Holland Lops with long lop ears conquer the hearts of all animal lovers in a flash! With the right care and plenty of affection, these cute rodents are ideal pets for the whole family. Read more on owning Holland Lops.
7 min

Lionhead Rabbit

Dwarf rabbits are most suited to being kept as pets. A particularly popular dwarf breed is the lionhead rabbit, which we will introduce you to here.
4 min

Chinchilla

Length:  30-49cm Weight:  1 - 1.5kg Lifespan:  15-20 years Indoor or Outdoor:  Indoor Domestic varieties include:  chinchilla lanigera, chinchilla brevicaudata.