All About Rats: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

All About Rats: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat,  Nutrition and Well-Being

Vanessa LeRoux


Experience Level: Ideal for beginners! Best for kids over twelve, but they'll need some adult oversight.
Size: Rats grow up to 20 cm in length in body.
Lifespan: These delightful companions typically live between 2 to 4 years.
Behaviour: Rats are nocturnal and crepuscular, being most active at night, in the mornings and evenings. They'll likely be asleep while the kids are at school.
Diet: Just like us, rats are omnivores.
Social Life: They're happiest when they have one or more buddies. Stick to the same gender for the happiest results. They are intelligent and trainable and will enjoy interacting with their pet parent.
Rat Breeds: This information applies to all breeds of rat. Learn fun and interesting facts about your rat at the end of the care sheet. You’ll love knowing these extras about our rat friends.

Shopping Checklist: What will I Need for My Rat?

    • Habitat: Aim for a spacious area of at least 90 x 60 x 120 cm. The more rats you have, the larger the cage needs to be. Multi-level homes are ideal since rats love a three-dimensional playground. If you are choosing a rabbit cage, be aware of the distance between the bars. If a rat can get its head through the bars, the rest of their body will also go through.

    • Food: Stick to rat pellets for the base of a balanced diet. See the rat menu below.

    • Food Dish: Consider an attachable or sturdy ceramic bowl; rats have a playful nature and might toss light-weight standalone ones.

    • Water Source: Bottles are great, but if you prefer bowls, ensure they're secured to the cage. Remember, most bowls can get messy with bedding or food and need daily cleaning.

    • Bedding: Paper bedding, straw, shredded paper, and wood pellets are all excellent choices.

    • House and Hammocks: Ensure houses and hammocks can accommodate all your rats at once. They like to snooze and snuggle together. If you have a roomy cage, there's no reason not to hang a second hammock for your rats to hang out in.

    • Nesting Materials: Use hay, shredded paper and tissues/toilet paper to provide your rat with a variety of nesting materials with which to build their nests. Just note that Snuggle Stuff can become entangled around the feet, so keep an eye on that, and it will be fine.

    • Treat Time: Every now and then, spoil your rat with a treat. They love it! (See the rat menu below.)

    • Dental Care: Keep in mind that rats' teeth never stop growing; gnaw stones and chew sticks, wooden blocks, sanitised branches from fruit-bearing trees, dog biscuits, and natural loofah help keep them at the right length. Add a healthy mineral block.

    • Playtime Essentials: Climbing structures, hammocks, tunnels, hanging wooden toys, Timothy hay balls, hideouts, and anything chewable (not plastic) are a must for these active critters. Add new toys or rotate them to maintain interest. As they become chewed up, throw them out.

    • Exercise wheel: Rats love to run on an exercise wheel. Choose a solid wheel at least 30 cm in diameter to accommodate your rat's size. A hamster wheel is too small for a rat.

    • Grooming Essentials: Rats clean themselves thoroughly. For spot cleaning, use a damp cloth. If, on rare occasions, you would like to bath your rat, use baby shampoo or puppy shampoo only. (No flea and tick shampoo). Never return a rat wet to its cage; they can get pneumonia.

    • Litter Box: A clean litter box promotes a healthy rat and keeps the cage smelling better.

    • Nail Care: Add a rough surface to their habitat, like a clean rock or piece of wood. It helps keep their nails in check. (But remember, if their nails need trimming, it's best left to a professional.)

    • Harness and Leash Set: Pop a harness and leash on your rat and take her for a walk or into the garden to investigate the goings on outside.

How Do I Set up a Rat Habitat?

    • Location: Choose a spot with low humidity, cool temperatures between 18-24 degrees, and away from direct sunlight. Rats are sociable and like to be in the mix of things in the home. Place the cage at eye level, which will promote more time spent with them. Be careful that nothing surrounds the cage that could hurt their tails when they poke through the wire rungs.

    • Bedding Basics: Fill the habitat with bedding. First, a 2-3 cm layer of wood pellets, then a 5-7 cm layer of shredded paper or a layer of straw. For digging fun, maintain a minimum depth of about 7 cm. Create a pile of paper bedding in the corner of the cage and give your rats a place to dig and burrow. Spot-clean as necessary. Follow product guidelines for changing the bedding.

    • Cosy Corners: Equip the space with a wooden house and hang a hammock. These are perfect for relaxation, snuggles, and occasional munching. Remember, rats like a 3D space for exploration, exercise and entertainment.

    • Dishes and Toys: Ensure your rat's habitat includes food and water dishes that are accessible for your rat and easy for you to clean and refill. Attach a water bottle. Then add a variety of toys and their exercise wheel.

    • Litter Tips: Consider litter training by positioning a box in the area where they choose to pee and poop the most, usually in the corner. It makes cleanliness a breeze!

    • Dental Essentials: Incorporate the gnaw stone and chew sticks, wooden blocks, natural loofahs and other chewables into their cage to ensure those teeth stay short and healthy. Find a spot for the mineral block.

    • Nail Care: Make space for a rough surface, like a clean rock or piece of wood. It helps keep their nails in check.

    • Cleaning Routine: Dedicate some time each week to thoroughly clean the cage. A dash of mild, unscented dishwashing liquid and cage cleaner or a disinfectant safe for small animals, like F10SC, will do the trick.

The Rat's Menu: What, When, and How Much to Feed

80% Pelleted Food: Refill daily, ensuring the bowl remains about 3/4 full. 1 to 2 tablespoons per day, split over two meals. A rat should never live on dry food alone.

10% Vegetables: Serve fresh veggies like carrots, squash, spinach, broccoli, and kale daily—friendly reminder: Clear out any leftovers after a few hours. (Steer clear of Iceberg lettuce.)

10% Fruit, Nuts, and Treats: Twice a week, treat your rat to fruits such as bananas, berries, watermelon, kiwi and pear. Raw cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds are all good for your rat. One nut 1-2 times per week per rat. Once a week, for a twist, throw in a raw or cooked, tri-coloured pasta spiral that has a spinach or tomato flavour; they find it extra tasty.

Protein Boost: Here’s a tip: boiled eggs, cooked chicken and turkey, crickets, cooked lean red meat, or dried mealworms are significant protein boosts. One pinch 1-3 times per week. Remember to remove food after a few hours.

Water: Ensure daily access to a water bottle or a bowl of fresh, clean water. Wash the bowl daily and scrub the bottle once a week with pet-safe disinfectant to avoid algae and other biohazards.

Switching Brands: When changing to a different food, it is crucial to 'wean' your rat onto it by mixing old with new and gradually decreasing the old brand to avoid upsetting the tummy with food he has not had before.

Food Storage: Store food in a tightly sealed container in your fridge or freezer to maintain freshness for a lot longer.

Feeding Tips and Tricks: In their natural environment, rats are habitual foragers. To simulate this behaviour and stimulate your pet rats, think about dispersing their daily pellet portion across their habitat instead of just placing it in a bowl. This approach encourages them to actively seek their food, reducing the chance of one rat monopolising the food source. Moreover, hiding treats like hay and vegetables in paper bags or cardboard tubes adds an element of playful challenge, as rats delight in gnawing through the material to access their rewards.

Everyday Meal (80% Pelleted Food) Refresh daily 1-2 Tablespoons over 2 meals
Fresh Veggies 10% Serve daily Variety is key
Fresh Fruit 5% Twice a week 1-2 Teaspoons
Nuts 5% 1-2 Times a week One nut
Protein Boost 3 Times a week 1 Pinch
Water Refresh daily Check regularly, keep clean

Safety First for You and Your Rat

For the health and happiness of you and your rat, remember to gently wash away germs with warm, soapy water and pat your hands dry before and after bonding with your furry buddy or visiting their home.

When it comes to handling, approach your rat with care and gentleness; they can sometimes nip or scratch, especially if they're feeling stressed.

If your rat's home is a wire cage, adding some cardboard at the base is a thoughtful touch. It not only offers protection for their delicate feet but also provides a fun chewing activity for them and keeps their teeth healthy.

From First Touch to Daily Play: Rat Handling Best Practices

    • Settling In: Start by giving your rat a few days to settle in before any handling.

    • Gentle Approach: When approaching the cage, let your rat get familiar with your smell and voice; move with care and speak in soft tones.

    • Lifting Technique: When it's time to pick them up, gently scoop from below using both hands, avoiding any sudden grabs from above.

    • Safety First: For safety, always handle your rat over a low surface and keep them close to your body to minimise the risk of falls.

    • Tail Caution: A golden rule: never lift your rat by its tail.

Rat Care Essentials: Tips for a Happy, Healthy Pet

Litter Training: Rats can be trained to use a litter box from the start. Position the box where they usually relieve themselves. Clean it using white vinegar and dish soap. When you change the litter, sprinkle some used bedding on top. This helps your rat recognise it as their chosen spot. Each time you place your rat back in its cage, set her in the litter box to remind her of its presence. If you see her using it, reward her with a treat right away.
Early Training: As younger rats adapt faster, begin training and handling as early as possible. Gradually increase the time you spend holding and talking to your rat, aiming for up to an hour daily. When your rat follows your training cues, reward it with praise and a tiny piece of a treat. Rats are intelligent and quick learners. After they grasp the idea of earning rewards for behaviours, you can advance from basic commands to teaching tricks. This includes actions like jumping through hoops, climbing up to your shoulder, or navigating a maze.
Stimulating Environment: Enhance your rat's living space with interactive toys, comfortable hideouts, and chewable items to engage their minds and bodies. Consider adding bird perches or wooden dowels as pathways for your rat to explore. Attach thick ropes across the cage and from the ground to the perches for climbing fun. Introduce a roll-a-towel dispenser with paper for nest-building. While water bottles are common, rats also appreciate a water dish to splash and clean their faces. But remember, the best companion for a rat is another rat.

Rat Health Checklist: When to Call Your Vet

A good rule of thumb is to be aware of changes in your rat's condition or behaviour. Rats need to be checked annually by a vet and should be sterilised. The following are common health problems in pet rats.

Teeth Problems: If teeth become overgrown, take your rat to the vet.
Respiratory Issues:
Rats with frequent sneezing, wheezing, or discharge from eyes/nose may have respiratory problems and need immediate veterinary care.
Rats can develop mammary tumours; early detection and removal can be curative.
Skin Problems: Symptoms like itching, dryness, or sores might indicate skin issues.
Swelling or sores on the feet, known as bumblefoot.
Eye Problems: Rats can suffer from eye injuries or infections, indicated by discharge or swelling.
Digestive Troubles: Ingesting poison or overeating can lead to digestive issues in rats as they cannot vomit.
Malocclusion: Misaligned or overgrown teeth can prevent rats from eating properly.
Heatstroke: Rats can suffer from heatstroke, showing symptoms like lethargy or rapid breathing.
Trauma: Physical injuries, like falls or wounds, require immediate veterinary attention.
Kidney Disease: Senior rats might show increased drinking and urinating due to reduced kidney function.
Ear infection: Causes loss of balance, head tilting, discharge and odour, redness or swelling and scratching of the ear. Lethargy and loss of appetite occur as well.

Beyond the Cage: The Fascinating Realm of Pet Rats

Laughter and Joy:

Rats are one of the few animal species that can laugh. When they are happy or playing, they make a high-pitched chirping sound, equivalent to laughter in humans. They exhibit this behaviour when playing with other rats or when tickled by humans.

Highly Skilled Swimmers:

Rats are excellent swimmers, and they can tread water for up to three days. They can also hold their breath for a considerable amount of time, allowing them to swim underwater for long distances. If you want to see your rat swim, put her in a container where she can get out of the water easily when she wants to.

Incredible Jumpers:

Rats can jump up to 90 cm in the air and leap a horizontal distance of about 120 cm. This makes them agile and able to access food and shelter in various environments. It’s here that tells us that the bigger the cage, the better!

Dexterity and Problem Solving:

Rats are incredibly dexterous and can learn to manipulate objects with their paws, such as opening latches on cages. They are also excellent problem solvers and can work out complex tasks to access food. Provide your rat with mental stimulation by hiding some of his food for him to ‘hunt’ down and giving him lots of chewables and toys.

Temperature Regulation:

Rats regulate their body temperature through their tails. Blood vessels in the tail expand or contract to release or conserve heat, helping them maintain a stable body temperature—rats like a temperature of 18 to 24 degrees.

Fulfilling Furry Friendships: Concluding Guidelines for Rat Upkeep

Caring for pet rats extends beyond basic needs; it's about crafting an environment that suits their physical and emotional requirements. A spacious cage is vital, especially as you add more rats to your family. Each additional rat necessitates a proportional increase in cage size to prevent overcrowding and territorial disputes.

Diet is another pivotal aspect. While commercial rat foods are available, a mix of fresh fruits, vegetables, and occasional proteins ensures they receive all essential nutrients. Health checks, especially for issues like overgrown teeth, are crucial. Rats' teeth continuously grow, and they can face health challenges without proper monitoring and chew toys.

In essence, understanding and addressing the unique needs of pet rats ensures their happiness and well-being. The more attentive care you provide, the more affection and companionship they offer in return.