Rats are fascinating little creatures. There are around 65 different rat species that we know of. Most of them live in Asia. Rats can live on the ground or in trees. Most species are very good at climbing and building their nests and shelters in trees. Others build their homes in holes or crevices.
The rats, that we can keep at home as pets are pet rats. They are specially bred over several decades to become tame and docile. The lab rat is also a result of breeding the brown rat for many generations.
As a whole, pet rats are really easy to take care of. They need a cage with areas to sleep and hide in, some things to climb on and play with, food, and water. The cage should be cleaned once every one or two weeks depending on the number of rats and the size of the cage.
In this article, you will find all the information you need to care for your pet rat. You will find everything you need to know on feeding, drinking, social interactions, and many interesting facts that will help you to make the best out of your experience with your new best friends.
Before you get your first rats, you will need a carrier to pick them up. When you get your rats in a pet store, they will put the animals in a paper box, but rats are able to chew their way out, therefore it is better to have a carrier equipped with some bedding or a fleece blanket. Rats can chew holes in almost everything. Whatever you give them to play with, be sure that it’s ok for you that they bite holes in it.
How to Look After Pet Rats
Rats can be found all over the world. They live in nests in trees, underground, and also everywhere where humans live. They like to sneak into houses and live in basements, attics, and sheds.
There are around 65 different species of rats that can be found all over the world. They are omnivores and can eat basically everything and can also chew through more things than you would expect.
They will create tunnels through plastic, wood, brick, concrete, and even aluminum. Their teeth are extraordinarily strong and even harder than steel.
They have a rather bad reputation in Western society. The word “rat” is sometimes even used as a swear word. Rats are associated with filth and disease. In Asian countries, rats are associated with many positive characteristics such as intelligence, luck, honesty, and creativity.
The daily duties with pet rats include feeding and changing the water. You will also want to clean the cage approximately once a week, but that highly depends on the size of the cage and the number of rats you own. The more rats you have, the quicker it gets smelly, and the bigger the cage, the more time you have until you need to clean.
Is it Easy to Take Care of Pet Rats?
Rats can make awesome pets. They are smart, cuddly, and make great companions.
As a whole, rats are easy to take care of. They are low-maintenance pets, that require not too much space, and are very hardy. Just like any animal, they should be handled with care, and it will take some time for the rat to trust you. But despite that, they are super easy to take care of.
Your rats need food, water, and shelter to survive. You can offer them a handful of dried rat food from the pet store every day and some fresh food such as vegetables, fruits, as well as bread, cooked rice, or cooked pasta as a special treat every once in a while.
They need access to water at all times. Rats sometimes use the water to clean themselves, and they will just walk over the water bowl. This is why the water has to be exchanged every day so that the rat has fresh water all the time.
And that’s about it with the daily obligations!
Of course, you can spend a lot more time with your rat, training, cuddling, and playing together.
How to Bond With a Rat
Every rat comes with a different character just like humans. Some rats are very shy, some are very confident, and it depends on the character of you and your rat and how quickly you bond with each other.
As a whole, spending time together is the most important thing to bond with a rat. Talking to the rat, sitting in front of the cage, and offering food from the hand will help the rat to trust a new owner.
After you got your pet rats, you should give them some rest first. Let them settle in and get to know their new home for a few hours or even for an entire day before you approach them.
A way to help your rats to get used to you is to spend a lot of time with your rats. You can sit in front of the cage, talk to your pets and be patient. Rats from pet stores are usually not used to being handled. It is normal for rats to need some time to adjust to a new environment and to get used to new sounds, voices, and of course, people.
If you want to, you can put something to eat on your hand and place your hand in the cage. After a while, your rats will come to your hand and start sniffing and searching for the food. At first, they will be hesitant to touch your skin, but if you don’t move, they will quickly realize that your hand is no danger for them.
Some very young rats might nib on your skin, but as long as it does not break the skin, this is just their way of getting to know you and is not aggressive behavior.
You can also leave the door of the cage open while you sit in front of the cage, but make sure that all doors are closed so that if the rats manage to get through, they cannot escape. Simply talk to them and let them get to know the sound of your voice and your smell.
Once they start trusting you, you can pet them, but make sure that they approach you first and that they are not frightened. Otherwise, they might bite you.
When your rats are confident to walk on your hand, you can pick them up and carry them around. Let them climb on your shoulder and bring them to an area where they can explore and run around.
Rats need at least one hour each day where they can walk free in a bigger place than their cage. Make sure that doors are closed and that there are no possibilities for them to escape. Now you can just sit on the floor and wait for them to come to you. Rats are super curious animals and they will eventually start exploring you.
The one really handy thing is a hoodie with pockets such as a bonding pouch. This exists for cats, but it does not really make a difference. Your rats will love to chill close to you in the cuddly hoodie of yours, once they started trusting you.
Bonding with rats can take several weeks or even months. Be patient, because it’s worth it.
Keep in mind that they have to get to know a whole new environment with new people and new smells, but once you became friends, you will have a great time together.
How to Clean a Rat Cage
Cleaning the cage for your pet rats is one of the regular routines that come with owning rats. Depending on the number of rats and the size of the cage, you will probably want to clean it every 1 to 2 weeks. If the cage starts to be smelly, you are almost a bit late for cleaning.
As a whole, rats are very clean animals that can even be potty-trained. Cleaning the cage involves cleaning all the equipment in the cage and of course the bottom of the cage. Everything inside of the cage (including the rats) should be removed for the cleaning procedure.
Before you start, you should remove the rats from the cage. If you are already good friends and trust each other, you can just let them run free (in a closed room without any possibilities to escape) while you clean their cage.
If your rats are still very young or very shy, you can put them in a carrier with some bedding from the cage and something to eat to calm them down.
Now it’s time to remove everything from the cage. Plastic equipment can be rinsed with water, wood can be brushed off, and the bedding should be thrown away. Make sure that you don’t accidentally throw away any toy that you wanted to keep.
Do not use any chemicals to clean the cage. Rats have extremely sensitive noses and breathing in chemicals from cleaning supplies will hurt them. When I had rats, I always used tab water only. If the dirt does not come off, you can use a cleaning supply from the pet store which is made for cleaning pet cages.
Once everything is clean, you can start putting everything back in. I always used newspapers as a first layer on the ground of the cage and bedding on top.
Rats love to explore, therefore you can change the toys and the setting of the houses every time to clean the cage. Make sure to offer them many spots to hide and don’t forget to put the bowl with food and the water bottle back in the cage.
When the cage is ready again, you can put your rats back in and watch them explore their new home. They will instantly start moving things around, tearing the paper apart if you gave them something to play with, and make themselves comfortable.
How to Feed Pet Rats
Rats are omnivores. They eat both meat and plants.
They eat basically everything you offer them, but they do have favorite foods.
You can acquire some dried rodent or rat food at the local pet store. Rats tend to sit on the edge of the bowls with the food to eat. Therefore you should use a rather heavy bowl to make sure that it doesn’t flip over while your rats are having dinner.
I used to put around one handful of dried food in the bowl for two grown rats every day.
In addition to the dried pet food, you should offer them fresh food, preferably every day. You can give them vegetables and fruits (they won’t like citrus fruits but almost everything else is fine). Always remove the seeds because some seeds contain hydrocyanic acid which is poisonous to rats.
If you want to make your rats extra happy or train with them, you can offer them something special such as minced meat, dairy products such as cream cheese, yogurt, cooked rice, or cooked pasta.
Try to find out, what your rats like the most. Every one of your rats might have a different favorite dish.
What Does a Rat Need?
Rats do not need a lot of equipment. These are the things you need for a pet rat:
- Wired cage with a solid bottom
- A substrate on the floor
- Bedding for nesting
- Something to hide in and play
- Bowls for food and water
- “Rat toilet” bowl on the edge
- Dried animal food
- Regularly fresh food
Rats are social animals and want to be kept together with other rats. They don’t need extra light, a heater, or any other species equipment as long as the cage is kept in a room with natural light, but not directly in sunlight. Rats should not be kept outside in a garden or on a balcony. They are not used to sudden temperature changes.
Wired Cage With a Solid Bottom
The cage for your rats should be wired and especially for rodents. A rat is pretty good at escaping. If the head fits through, the rest of the body can follow. That means that the wires should be narrow enough to keep your pets in the cage.
The bottom should be plastic. This will make it easier for you to clean the cage.
The size of the cage highly depends on the number of rats you own. The bigger the cage the better for the rats, and if you can insert a second level, your rats will love it.
Here is an example of a deluxe enclosure on Amazon if you own several rats. This cage has full-width doors, several floors, and much space to roam around:
Do not use an aquarium or terrarium for your rats. These enclosures do not allow enough air circulation for rodents and you might have issues with molt. Rats also love to climb and they cannot climb on glass.
A Substrate on the Floor
Rats need some kind of substrate on the floor that they can easily walk on. There are plenty of options you can choose from at your local pet store. Substrate should not be mistaken for bedding. Bedding will be used for nesting, while the substrate is supposed to be on the floor of the cage.
Bedding for Nesting
The bedding in a rat cage will be used by the rats for nesting. You don’t have to put it directly in the houses. The rats will have a lot of fun carrying the bedding around and putting it exactly where they want to have it.
Rats don’t need super soft and special bedding from the pet store. Of course, you can use that, too, but you can also go for cardboard, toilet tissues (as long as it is perfume-free), soft paper such as newspaper, or shredded paper which is not too strongly printed.
The bedding should be unscented, non-toxic, and of course physically safe.
All these materials will keep your rats entertained for quite a while. They will enjoy tearing the paper apart.
Rats need places to sleep in. If you own several rats, you should offer them several houses. Most of the time, rats like to sleep in the same place together, but they also need the option to avoid each other.
The houses can be made of plastic, wood, hay, or simply cardboard. I used shoeboxes as housing in addition to wooden houses and my rats loved it.
Something to Hide in and Play
Rats need places to hide in to feel safe. You can use toilet rolls as long as the rats are still small and fit through. You can also use any kind of cardboard boxes, or anything else that is safe for the rats to play with. You can be creative, rats don’t need expensive toys from the pet store, as long as you can offer them different things to play with.
My rats always loved their hammocks. I used one open hammock and one hammock that had a tunnel. This was probably one of their favorite things to play with and to sleep in.
Bowls for Food and Water
The bowls you use for food and water should be sturdy and rather heavy. Rats tend to sit on the edge of the bowl to eat and drink and a light bowl could flip over.
Instead of a water bowl, you can also use a water bottle.
My rats sometimes used the water bowl to clean themselves, but they also walked straight through it, leaving the water somewhat dirty. This is why I usually had bot water bowl and water bottle.
“Rat Toilet” Bowl on the Edge
It is possible to potty-train rats. Whenever you see feces in the cage, you can pick them up (don’t worry, they are dry and you can wash your hands right after) and put them in a bowl on the edge.
I used a different substrate in that rat toilet to make it even more obvious to the rats that this is the toilet area. After only a few days, the rats used that toilet to pee and poop. But make sure that the toilet is cleaned regularly because rats like it clean.
If the toilet is too dirty, they will not use it anymore.
You can either use a big bowl or a corner pan for pets, such as this one on Amazon:
Dried Animal Food
You can acquire dried animal food at the pet store. Many stores have dried food, especially for rats. I also used the food for other rodents and for birds, but leftovers were always more than rat food.
Regularly Fresh Food
In addition to the dried animal food, you should offer your rats fresh food regularly. They love salad, cucumber, potatoes, apples, bananas, and many more things. They don’t like citrus fruits. You can just give them a variety of different things and see what your rats like the most.
Things a Rat Does Not Need
A rat does not need extra light or a heater.
They don’t need a wheel, because of the form of their backs. Running in a wheel can actually hurt them.
Where Can I Get Pet Rats?
When you are done preparing everything for your new pet friends, it’s time to get the rats.
There are different possibilities where to get rats.
As a whole, rats can be acquired from pet stores, local animal shelters, breeders, and private persons, who are looking for a new home for their pets.
Rats from pet stores are often very shy because they are kept in their cages and not handled often. It will take more time for you to bond with your pet, but every pet is different and there is also a chance that a rat from a pet store is super confident and trusts you very quickly.
Make sure that the pet store you choose has a good reputation and takes care of the animals.
You can also get a rat from a local animal shelter. The rats at shelters are sometimes very shy, and sometimes very confident around people. That depends highly on how their lives looked like before they came to the shelter.
A local breeder or private person can also be a good option to get pet rats. Usually, rats from breeders are already used to being handled and are more confident than rats from the pet store or from the shelter.
Once you have decided where you want to get your pet rat, try to get to know the rats before you decide which ones are the best for you and your family.
Every rat has a different personality. Try to find the best fit for you. Some are shy, some very curious, some love being held and cuddled, and some come as a pair and should not be separated.
And when you found the perfect rat(s) for you, enjoy the time together and get to know each other.
Lisa is one of the two founders of Animal-Knowledge. She has been very interested in animals and insects from a very young age and has owned different kinds of pets such as snails, ants, fish, turtles, mice, rats, hamsters, rabbits, a dog, … you get the idea 🙂