Rats 101: Is a Rat the pet for you?

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The domesticated rat is an excellent pet. Why?

They’re Small

Rats don’t get very big. A small wire cage is best, but they can also be kept in a ten gallon aquarium with a lid.Because they are small (and generally contained within a cage), they make great pets for those who live in apartments or small houses. Many landlords will not care if you keep a domesticated rat. Ask first, of course.

They’re Clean

Rats were framed for the plague, and they’ve been saddled with the unfounded myth that they are not clean. If you don’t believe me, watch a rat groom itself. Much like a cat, they will groom themselves by licking their paws and running them through their hair. While you still need to change their litter every week or so to keep the cage from smelling, you’ll soon discover that rats are relatively easy to take care of.

They’re Interactive

Thinking of buying fish, or a gerbil or hamster? These creatures, for the most part, are not interactive. A gerbil or hamster may tolerate you picking it up and crawl around on you as you try to keep it from jumping off you. A properly hand tamed rat, however, will sit on your shoulder, happy to get their ears scratched. Rats can be taught to come and do tricks too. Most importantly, because they are social animals, they love to play. If you play with them, they’ll play with you.  Rats possess more intelligence than other rodents.

You’ve decided a rat (or rats) is the pet for you! What now?

One or Two?

Sometimes, two rats is a better choice . . . but you must carefully consider many factors. First, how much time will you (or your child) have to spend with the rat? As I said before, rats are social creatures and thus require much attention. If you anticipate an inability to spend time with your rat(s), you may want to consider two rats.

However, you must be careful if you decide on two rats. First, you’ll want to make sure you select two rats of the same gender unless you plan on breeding them. If you do decide on breeding them, be prepared to seperate them after the babies are born.


While an aquarium with a hood will do, consider a good cage with multiple levels. Make sure any rats that will be in the cage cannot fit their head through any of the gaps. A rat that can fit its head out will be able to fit it’s body out. Most rats, once properly homed in a cage, will not go far from the cage if they do get out, and will usually return if they are happy there . . . however this is not always the case  and is especially important if you have cats or dogs. A cage can provide a rat with much more entertainment than an aquarium as they can climb all over it. Multilevel cages are great. You can hang treats or other objects from the cage which can provide the rats with extra stimulation. Rats are curious, any changes in their cage will keep them entertained.

You should line the cage with bedding. DO NOT USE PINE OR CEDAR . The only safe beddings for any rodent is ASPEN or RECYCLED PAPER bedding. The oils in other beddings can damage a rodent’s lungs.

A water bottle will be needed. Glass water bottles are best as they are easier to clean and they last longer. They may be a bit more expensive, but the benefits outweigh the cost.

A food dish is optional, but recommended.


The most important thing to remember about caring for your rat is that they need your attention. With the proper attention your rat will quickly become very tame, and will love to ride in your arms or on your shoulder. This is especially true for single rats. A rat with no social interaction, be it from you or another rat, will quickly become skittish and will not like to be held.

It’s also important to make sure a rat’s bedding is changed when it becomes soiled. Depending on the rat or rats, this may be one week or two before it needs changing. As a general rule, when it begins to smell a bit its time to change it, but 7-10 days is a fair estimate.

A good diet is also very important. Gerbil food will work, but rat bites (sold at many pet stores) are a better overall bet. Still, rats love seeds so make sure to keep some Gerbil food on hand for them. You should feed them every day or two. Adjust frequency as your rat’s body needs. Some may need feeding twice a day to maintain healthy weight, while others will get by just fine on once every two days. A rat should have a nice round belly but not too fat. Water must be kept fresh and if you’ve selected the right sized water bottle, you’ll not have to worry as the rat will drain it before it stales. Treats can consist of fruits, veggies, or lettuce. Experiment, as rats like different things. Cheese is fine but not as a regular item.

You may or may not wish to provide your rat with toys/decoration. Half dome wooden houses, ropes, etc are great but resist rodent wheels unless the track is solid. A rat’s tail can be caught in that type of wheel.

Breeding Your Rat

Before you decide to breed, consider that you will have to seperate the happy couple after the babies are born. Male rats make great fathers but they will impregnate the females almost immediately after the babies are born. This is all well and good except that if you choose to let the male stay, you will have litter after litter of baby rats. It is generally not a healthy thing for the female to do this many times, so even if you do this you will eventually need to seperate them for the health of your mommy rat.

Also consider that you’ll need to find homes for the babies. We kept some of our babies and put them (same sex) in with the parents so they wouldn’t be lonely. It’s worked well, but that still left us with many rats to find homes for. Not everyone sees a rat as a good pet, or this article wouldn’t be necessary, would it? An average rat litter is around 15 babies (two or three will likely die from a litter this big before they are fully developed). Many pet shops will give you store credit or even pay you, but consider that they will need to be three or four weeks old (when they are eating solid food only, they are ready) and will eat you out of house and home in the mean time. Also, consider that many of the babies that go to pet stores end up feeding snakes.

So you still want to breed? Make sure mommy rat has plenty of necessary nesting material and the room is warm. Make sure she has plenty of food and fresh water, keep the cage clean (you won’t be able to change it again until the babies are at least a week old)  and wait . . . That’s all you really need to do until they are born. Do not handle the babies (unless they end up out of the nest, and then sparingly) until they grow fur. This may or may not be a problem depending on how much your rat trusts you, but its better to be safe than sorry. Praise her and her babies! She doesn’t know what you’re saying but she gets the tone of your voice.

When you decide to handle the babies, don’t be surprised if mommy rat grabs them from you and takes them away. This is normal. Don’t make a game of this. Handle the babies away from her or don’t handle them. You may “hand” them back to her after handling them but again, don’t do this too soon. This is also an excellent test of how well the babies will be away from their mother. When handing the babies back, if mommy rat refuses to take them, they are likely weened and no longer need her. The best method is still observation of them eating solid food.


Owning a rat can be an exciting and fulfilling experience. Properly cared for they will teach responsibility to kids, provide lots of fun, and make excellent companions. Enjoy!


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