Exotic and Unusual Pets: Rats

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Once feared, Rats are gaining popularity as house pets. Learn more about care for a pet rat.

Rodents, often feared, are gaining popularity as pets. Domestic rats are the result of selective breeding of Norway Rats. They are short-lived, with an average lifespan of 2 – 4 years.

One of the advantages of rats is, unlike many small animals, they actually like being with people, and appear to enjoy the contact. They can be held or walked on a harness and leash.two pet rats on shoulder

Two pet rats sit on their owner’s shoulder,


Pet Rats come in many different colors and, unlike many animals, it is the males who tend to be more friendly, while females are often more playful. Rats are social animals they prefer to be housed with at least one other rat (preferably same sex so you do not have unwanted babies). Ideally, you should get your rats and the same time from the same seller. This will help prevent the spreading of disease.

You can often find rats for adoption in animal shelters. Pet stores and private sellers are another option as sources for rats, but remember they are trying to sell you something, so make sure you check the animals and ask for a health guarantee.

Look for signs of poor health, runny nose, poor skin and coat, general listlessness. Never reward a seller who is keeping animals in less than desirable conditions. You are not “saving” the animal, you are encouraging them to keep other animals in the same sad conditions.


There are two common types of housing for rats, aquariums or cages with wire bars. Aquariums are not good choices, rats are prone to respiratory problems so the limited air circulation will be a problem. With wire cages you should select “coated” wire over bare “galvanized” wire, coated wire will last longer when in contact with urine. You usually won’t see a cage listed as a “rat cage” so you need to look for ferret cages. Those with multi levels are best. Purchase as big of a cage as you can afford, overcrowding results in stress, and stress often leads to cancer, a common killer of rats. A crowded cage will also become dirty quickly, you should allow at least 2 cubic feet per rat.

The bedding should be made from corn cobs, old newspapers, or aspen shavings. Cedar is especially harmful to their lungs and pine is not much better. Interestingly enough, both of these (cedar and pine) are also linked to causing Asthma in humans who work with those woods. In an average sized cage you should clean the corners every few days, with a complete cleaning once a week.

Your rat will need a bed, an overturned box will work nicely but you can also buy hammocks. It is important they have a sheltered spot to sleep.

Your pet rats will be happiest if their cage is located in a busy part of the house rather than in a closed off area.

Feeding and Care

Rats should not have too much protein when you purchase your food make sure it is 16% or less Protein. They can be given most fruits and vegetables, but are scavenging omnivores, so will enjoy cooked meat or dry dog kibble if you offer it as a treat. As a rule if it’s something you would not eat, do not give it to your rat, (no questionable table scraps).

You will need to have a non-spill bowl for food and a water bottle for water, which should be checked daily. Remove any uneaten fruit and vegetables so they do not get moldy.

Play with your rats frequently, being sure you hold them correctly, supporting them from underneath. Do not pick a rat up by its’ tail. A tame rat will enjoy sitting on your shoulder. Because rats are very intelligent they should be handled on a daily basis. You can also provide your rats with toys, those made for ferrets or parrots work well for rats. Generally, rats will not use the wheels often associated with hamsters.
Provide your rats with a mineral block, salt lick and chews to wear down their teeth.

Other Information

Do not feed your rat treats through the bars, this will possibly lead to it nipping fingers through the bars.

Cancer is a big killer of rats, you can help limit this by feeding washed fruits and vegetables only, and not using too many chemicals around your rats cage. Limiting meat may help as well.

An escaped rat will usually not be far from a wall or object, they do not like big open spaces.

A rat who has patches of missing fur is probably suffering from a poor diet, mites or lice. Other skin issues may be from too much protein, or, in some animals, too many sunflower seeds.

Rats are chewers, keep any cords out of reach. You cannot teach them not to chew as this is their nature, punishing them is unfair.

The “RAT” is an animal in the Chinese Calender, a very important animal too. His intelligence is what won him “The Great Race” earning his place just ahead of the Oxen, who came second.

A new rat who is not used to being handled might urinate on you, do not be alarmed, and do not drop him or her.

Rats should not have Chocolate, blue cheese, unripe bananas, beets, or spinach.

If your pet rats are showing any signs of health problems do not be afraid to take them to a veterinarian.

If you are placing anything fabric in their cage, make sure it does not have small loops in it as these can snag their nails, possibly even pulling them out.

Alternative pets to rats could be Rabbits, Ferrets, or Guinea Pigs.

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