“…rats are extremely social animals, no matter how much time you spend with your rat daily they are going to need at least one other rat friend in their mischief.”
Pet rats have been around for a long time, and are probably one of the most domesticated animals on the planet. Humans have been raising and breeding rats for centuries, but only recently have pet rats been really stepping into the public eye. With there long history of domestication and being highly affectionate and intelligent animals it’s no wonder why. You may not realize it but rats are extremely social animals, no matter how much time you spend with your rat daily they are going to need at least one other rat friend in their mischief. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of the pack – you’ll still be spending plenty of time with your new friends, requiring proper handling on a daily basis.
They are also very active, and will require ample space to run, climb and play in their home. Active animals also require a proper diet, so it’s important not to cheap out to save a few bucks. Your rats will thank you with a longer and healthier life.
In this article we will break down the main points of basic rat care, discussing in detail why it’s important to give the best to your rats and help give them a happy, healthy life. The main topics we will be going over is Housing and Handling, Food and Diet, as well Health and Wellbeing.
Housing and Handling
Rats are larger rodents, and as such require a larger amount of space to live out their lives. As well, due to rats proneness to respiratory disease, it is important to choose a cage that is well aerated. Preferably a coated metal cage with a deeper base tray if possible. It’s also important the cage be both taller and still wide enough to give ample room for your rats to run around, climb and play. A deeper base tray will come in handy, as rats naturally burrow, and the depth will help keep your bedding or substrate contained… well at least that’s the idea. Make sure your substrate is loose, dust free bedding such as aspen, poplar or hemp bedding. You should never use Cedar or Pine bedding as they can contain toxins. Don’t forget to add plenty of hides for them to relax and rest. Several nice dark places for your boys or girls will be essential to making them comfortable and help them feel at ease in times of stress. There is many other amenities you will want to add to your cage to make it truly a good home for your new pets, find out more by heading over to our article; A Cage Is A Home.
So now that you have a suitable home set up for your rats, it’s time to talk a bit about handling and routine care. It’s extremely important that not only is your rat living in a mischief with other rats, but that you interact with them each on a daily basis. Your rats will get to know you and love you, eventually being considered one of the mischief in most cases. Rats can be very playful and love to interact with their human family often as much as their own. But a rat that has been neglected, ignored and unhandled can very quickly grow away from human interaction, and even in severe cases develop fear and aggression towards humans. Be gentle and kind with your rats, and reward and praise them often for their good actions. Not only will it enrich their life, but you might be surprised at just how intelligent rats are. Easily learning all sorts of basic and simple commands and actions. Want your bedding substrate to go further? Most rats can even be litter trained (though some are just stubborn, and there’s not much you can do). Just always remember, a good owner helps make a good pet. Take care of your little ones and they will reward you with ample love and little rattie kisses.
Food and Diet
Your rats diet is extremely important, and while rats can eat many things, they themselves are usually pretty good in the wild about eating properly. But pet rats can be very trusting of their human counterparts, and will stop performing such actions such as test nibbles, where a rat will take a small bite of something then wait to see how their body reacts before eating it fully. So it’s important to know what your rats should and should not be eating, and just how much of it is good for your furry friend. Let’s first go over a rats basic nutritional needs. As omnivores rats need a balanced diet, and while proteins and even fat is important in their diet they really shouldn’t have to much. The main staple of a rats diet is fiber. As well very moist foods should be feed in moderation.
So what should you be feeding your rats? Well this will slightly vary depending on who you talk to, but generally a good lab block food is an easy and healthy rat diet, with brands such as Oxbow and Mazuri being highly regarded. Becoming ever more popular though and what I truly believe to be the best of the best is Science Selective (and this is what my animals are normally feed alongside a large variety of other healthy foods). Some owners opt to feed a dry mix, almost always made at home with a variety of oats, cereals, grains, pasta, seeds, et cetra. The main issue with a mixed feed is that the rats have the ability to pick and choose, and some rats will do just that. This is why I generally recommend most the rats diet come from good quality rat food (about 80% of diet), and then supplementing several times a week with pastas, crackers, veggies and fresh fruits (around 20%), sometimes even proteins such as salmon or chicken and even chicken bones (yep, they can have them and they are actually very good for them) as a healthy treat. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the nutritional values of everything you give outside of already balanced rat foods. The following is a simplified break down of rats nutritional recommendations and food warnings;
75- 80% carbohydrates
12 – 20 % protein
4 – 6% of fat
These are poisonous and should never be feed to your rats.
- Avocado skin and pit (contains the fungicidal toxin Persin)
- Green potato (contains toxic Solanine)
- Fluorinated and/or Chlorinated Water (it is recommended to use filtered water and not tap)
- Green bananas (inhibits the growth of certain digestion enzymes)
- Uncooked/dried beans (contains Hemaglutin, a very toxic anti-nute)
- Blue cheese (contains toxic molds)
- Caffeine (this drug can overload the rats system, and has a toxin overdose level of about 200-400mg)
- Dried corn (can contain the fungus Aspergillus flavus)
- Licorice (causes neurological poisoning)
- Raw sweet potato (the compounds can quite literally cause cyanide to be produced in the stomach)
- Poppy seeds (can cause acute morphine toxicity)
- Raw/Red cabbage (breaks down Thiaman in the body)
- Raw brussel sprouts (breaks down Thiaman in the body)
- Raw peanuts (can contain the fungus Aspergillus flavus)
- Rhubarb (prevents calcium absorption)
Rats could potentially get hurt from ingesting or trying to ingest these foods.
- Citrus fruits (extreme amounts of D-Limonene can causes kidney damage and cancer in male rats, rind is bad flesh is ok in small amounts)
- Mango (extreme amounts of D-Limonene can causes kidney damage and cancer in male rats, small amounts ok)
- Carbonated beverages (rats are unable to burp, so the gas gets trapped)
- Sticky foods (like peanut butter; can cause chocking)
- Wild insects (can carry parasites and disease)
These won’t hurt your rat but they can have a poor impact on overall health and should be fed sparingly.
- High-fat foods
- Sugary foods
Before we move on, there’s one last thing I want to touch on here. Rats naturally forage for food, and it’s a wise idea to keep up this habit in your pets to keep your animals active and physically fit. If you feed your rats from a food dish only, they may lose out on a lot of exercise they would normally get foraging and be more prone to becoming overweight or even lethargic. So hide some food in the bedding for them to dig for, and in and around objects in their habitat for them to forage. Enrichment such as this goes a long way for both your ratties health and entertainment.
Health and Well Being
Now a lot of what we have already talked about in this article is going to of course have direct effects on your rats health and well being, so you should already be very well prepared to start taking care of your rats to help ensure the best conditions for them. If you make sure to properly feed, handle and house your rats as detailed in this guide it’ll go a long way towards a long and happy life for your little ones. But unfortunately even with all the best care in the world and excellent, healthy lines sometimes our ratties just have issues, and the more you know now about what could happen the better prepared you’ll be on the sad chance that one of your mischief gets sick or injured. Look out for any changes in habits such as lethargy, lack of diet, aggression and similar abnormalities. I certainly don’t claim to be a medical expert of any kind, for rats or otherwise. As such I will link to some external websites, including The Rat Guide, at the bottom of this section as a further research aid. However, if any of your rats are sick it is always best to schedule an appointment with your vet to have them checked out as soon as possible. Your rats count on you to make the right decisions for them as responsible owners, and having committed to an animal that is often susceptible to illness you should always take the appropriate and immediate actions necessary to ensure their health, safety and comfort. Make sure before owning rats you find a vet close enough that will treat rats. With that said, let’s go over a couple common health issues in rats, how you can know if your rat is at risk or sick, and what you can do in the mean time while waiting to take them to a vet to help make them as comfortable and safe as possible.
Bleeding – Put pressure on the area until bleeding stops or seek vet assistance if it does not. Cornstarch or baking soda can be used in minor situations such as an injured nail. Rats will be rats, and sometimes they hurt themselves or even a cage mate. In the first case, it’s important to make sure your cage is and play areas are safe for your rat. We discuss this more in our housing article. In the later, it’s important to monitor the situation, see the next box for more.
Fighting – Rats often play fight, but sometimes things can escalate. Generally speaking play fighting involves pinging, pinning, and often light biting around the scruff and neck. This is most often followed by dominance grooming and back and fourth actions. This can sometimes escalate into actual fighting. As dominance is an important factor in rat hierarchy you don’t want to go breaking up every play fight and scuffle though. If there is blood drawn though it’s an immediate separation of the offending rat. Depending on the severity of the wound and the offending rats actions will determine how you should handle the situation. If things quickly deescalate and the injury is minor, the offender shows remorse or it didn’t seem to be a purposeful injury/attack the offender can be separated shortly then watched carefully with his cage mates to ensure that there is no repeat behavior. Once the rats have calmed and seem ok with each other without being together you can try reintegrating them if it seems safe. If the aggression continues or escalates though it may be time to look into other options before reintroducing the offending rat, such as neutering.
Porphyrin [Red Secretions] – This shows up around the eyes and nose of rats, and is simply put a red mucous. It is usually nothing to worry about, as rats naturally produce this, How ever a stressed or ill rat will have an overproduction and large and constant porphyrin should not be ignored.
Respiratory Issues – Along with tumors, respiratory infections are one the most common issues with a rats health. Most respiratory issues come on fast, and depending on the reason could be cause for concern. Mycoplasma, a bacteria common in rats, can cause a serious bacterial infection in stressed or already sick rats in the upper respiratory system known as Mycoplasmosis which unfortunately is incurable although progression can be slowed. As well rats can suffer from bacteria such as Streptococcus, Bordetella, and Pasteurella but are generally not that serious if treated right away though streptococcus has been known to cause death if not caught soon enough. There are also viral causes as well, such as Lymphocytic choriomeningitis and Seoul virus, the later being of concern to human health as opposed to your rats as they will not get sick from it but humans can become very ill if transmitted. Other non-disease related issues could be dusty or unclean bedding. Make sure you use a dust free bedding, and NEVER USE PINE OR CEDAR as these are toxic to rats and can be main culprits in respiratory issues. You’re rats can get cold as well, so make sure they are in a nice warm environment with plenty of bedding the warm themselves if need be, away from ac units, windows and even doors. Lastly, tumors as well can sometimes cause breathing issues if close to the lungs.
Tumors – As you may already know, there are two types of tumors – benign and malignant. Benign generally don’t cause much damage and don’t spread. How ever they can press against vital organs, bleed internally or inhibit the rats natural movement making it hard to support itself. They can be removed in most cases. Mammary tumors are the most common, effecting around 50% of all female rats several times and generally occur after 18 months of age. The second most common is pituitary tumors, which unfortunately are the third most common cause of death in rats.
Parasites/Fungus/Allergens – Things such as loss of hair, intense scratching and itching, redness of the skin, scabbing and abrasions can all be signs of parasites, allergens or infections. Rats oven get ectoparasites such as lice, mites, fleas or even sometimes ticks. Luckily most parasites such as these are little to worry about and with proper care. Endoparasites, which are internal, can also be common in rats including protozoa, worms, and bot flies. Endoparasites can be difficulty at times to spot, with early treatment and care being important to prevention. Rats can also sometimes suffer fungal infections, allergens and other forms of dermatitis. removing the irritant and/or topical treatments are often sufficient for treatment though in some cases antimicrobials may be required.
Barbering – Barbering is when a rat ends up with bald spots due to over grooming, from themselves or a cage mate power grooming them. It is usually nothing to worry about unless there are sign of irritation then treatment may be required. Make sure there is ample toys to distract the rats so they aren’t grooming due to boredom as well hides so the barbered rat can try and get away from the over dominant cage mate more often.
- Proper caging is vital to good well being.
- Rats need your attention as well as cage mates. Never permanently house a rat alone.
- Make sure to feed your rats a well balanced diet and they have plenty of room to exercise .
- Rats can eat a lot we can, but remember to keep them away from foods on the warning list.
- It’s important to watch for changes in behavior to make sure your pet is well.
- Have an experienced vet for your rat in case of issues and don’t hesitate to take your rat in.
A Final Thought
To end this article I want to express how important it is to make sure you are always giving your rat the best environment to thrive. Things such as housing, diet and well being are vital in keeping healthy rats. Make sure your new pets are getting everything they need, and that includes lots of love and attention from you as well. Rats may be small but they need ample care to live a long and healthy life just like most animals. Make sure you are prepared for the responsibility of taking care of another living creature, and your rats will reward you every day with their love and affection.