Some people may not be keen on the idea of keeping pet rats, but as any existing owner knows they can be very rewarding pets.
Rats are inquisitive and intelligent animals. In order to keep them healthy and happy, it’s important that owners make sure they fully understand their needs and how to meet them. All pets have five welfare needs that owners must legally meet, but each type of pet’s exact requirements differ
Here, PDSA Senior Vet, Sean Wensley, gives his top tips on how to meet these five needs for rats:
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Rats need a large cage to allow them to get plenty of exercise – the bigger the better. It must be secure so that they can’t escape, and different levels will give the rats opportunities to climb, which they love. The floor should be covered with non-toxic wood chips or other suitable paper-based materials, but don’t use cedar or pine woodchips as these are toxic. Avoid dusty materials like wood shavings and sawdust, as these can cause respiratory problems (see ‘Health’ below).
Rats need a dark nest box where they can sleep during the day. Shredded paper (e.g. clean white kitchen roll) or a commercial rat bedding should be provided, but don’t use cotton wool as this can become tangled around their legs and may cause blockages if eaten.
Good hygiene is crucial to rats’ health, so remove any soiled material two or three times a week, and thoroughly clean the cage out once a week.
It is best to feed commercial rat nuggets, as these contain all the nutrients rats need in the right proportions. Mixes of seeds, grains and nuts aren’t recommended as rats can be picky and leave bits they don’t like, which can cause health problems. Follow packet guidelines and weigh the food out to avoid accidental overfeeding – rats can quickly become obese.
Small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables, such as small pieces of apple and carrot, can be given occasionally, but avoid citrus fruits as these are too acidic. As rats are omnivores they can also be given small amounts of lean meat, eggs or pulses (such as beans or peas). Constant access to fresh water from a bottle with a metal spout should be provided.
Rats need plenty of toys and objects in their cage to explore, climb on and hide in, such as cardboard rolls, boxes, ladders, ropes, seesaws and hammocks (they love hammocks!). They also need a wheel, but one without gaps in the rungs to prevent injury to their legs and tail.
Providing these things will allow your rats to express their natural behavior and prevent boredom and frustration.
Rats are highly social and need the company of other rats to play with and provide warmth and reassurance. It is best to keep two female rats together; littermates are best as this reduces the chance of fighting. Two males can live together if they are littermates, but may still fight. Males and females shouldn’t be kept together, as they will breed from six weeks of age, producing up to 18 babies per litter.
Rats will often play-fight, taking it in turns to chase, pin each other and play-bite the back of the neck. This is harmless fun, but watch out for signs of true aggression such as biting each other’s bottom or sides, their fur standing on end or causing each other injuries. Squeaking can occur during both play fighting and aggressive fighting, so isn’t necessarily a sign of a problem, but always keep an eye on their behaviour and seek professional advice if you are concerned.
Check your rats daily for signs of illness or injury. Respiratory infections are among the commonest illnesses in rats, and signs of this include runny nose or eyes, snuffling, wheezing or difficulty breathing. If you spot anything that concerns you, or you are not sure about, contact your vet straight away.