How to Care for a Rat

Rats that are domestically raised are very popular pets in many countries including Canada. They are readily available, relatively inexpensive, easy to care for and usually enjoy human handling. Rats have been used extensively in research laboratories for many years. Consequently their medical problems, many of which are inherited disorders resulting from intensive inbreeding, have been traditionally approached on a group basis rather than on an individual basis. As a result, very little practical and useful information exists on the medical care and treatment of individual pet rats. Furthermore, even less information is available to the pet owner on responsible home care and their potential medical problems. Experienced hobbyist breeders who have studied and done their homework are a good reliable source for this information.

The scientific name for our pet rat is Rattus Norvegicus and it originated in central Asia. Rats have been domesticated as far back as the 17th century. This has continued to the present day, resulting in many breeds and varieties of excellent pet quality.

Rats, have also been used extensively in biomedical research. Most of the tremendous number of breeds and strains currently in existence have resulted from intensive inbreeding efforts by research laboratories over the years.

Hobbyist breeders are now trying to breed the tumors and other potential health problems out of pet rats. Inbreeding has tremendously shortened the life span of our domesticated pet rats. Line breeding can improve temperament, markings and health and is acceptable for 4 generation at the most then an unrelated, healthy, out cross should be used.

Wild rats are found in all kinds of habitats in most places around the world, and are well known for their adaptability and their long-time association with people. They tend to be omnivorous (feed on plant and animal material) but exhibit tremendous opportunism in their feeding habits when living in and around humans and their dwellings. Wild rats tend to be nocturnal (night-active) animals but often use daylight hours to search for food.

Laboratory and pet rats on the other hand, are not strictly nocturnal. Pet rats are more than willing to run to you just for a visit in the middle of the day. Rats are clean loving, dedicated pets but unfortunately live relatively short lives averaging approximately 2½ to 3½ years which can be disconcerting to many pet owners so they like to give them lots of love and attention.

Domesticated rats generally tolerate gentle handling and very rarely ever bite like some other rodents unless threatened, startled or handled roughly. They are best known for their intelligence, cleanliness and top notch affection. Cage mates sometimes become territorial and possessive when new rats are introduced into their territory. They may squabble but will rarely draw blood.

They can become jealous and compete for your attention and affection just like dogs. They will even lick you, groom you and grind their teeth to show affection They also have their pecking order when rats leave or are added to a cage. They also take great pleasure in sneaking in your pockets, sleeves and running down your shirt where they will let you know how happy and contented they are about the situation by grinding their teeth (bruxing) till they happily fall asleep with their owners.

Housing Rats

Proper housing is a major factor in the maintenance of healthy rats. The psychological well- being of the animals must be of primary consideration. Rats can be housed with in enclosures made of wire, glass aquariums or powdered coated cages.

The large powdered coated cages with horizontal bars seem to be the most popular for ventilation. These keep your rat healthy and more fit because they get more exercise, you can hang toys and wheels to occupy them and they are the easiest to clean.

Water bottles are more sanitary for their drinking water than dishes than can spill or get soiled by litter. I personally like the big neck square ones because they are easier to clean, seem to hold on to the bars better and less likely to get chewed as well. Wood and similar materials should not be used in constructions of enclosures because they are difficult to clean, disinfect and cannot stand the destructive gnawing of your rats. Wood can create a problem if you should ever get lice or mites.

You should also make sure you have the proper size enclosure, plenty of room for play and your rats cannot escape. It must be free of any sharp edges and other potential hazards that they could get caught or tangled in. Beware of some soft recycled plastics or harmful dyed articles that can be ingested.

Hanging toys as well as large exercise wheels are great for optimum mental and physical health. I like to shop in the dollar stores and hardware stores. I enjoy both making and buying toys. I like to buy safe ball chain and put it through pulleys to hang different toys on so my rats don’t get bored. You can use metal shower curtain holders, cable ties or binder rings to hang toys. Bird toys, keys, bells, 4 inch PVC pipes like the “T” and the “Y” and even rawhide can also be used for toys. Just use your imagination and change things around so they don’t get bored.

Powder Coated Cage

Horizontal Bars

Colander Bed and Pulley Chain Toy

Pictured in the graphic on the far right is a safe ball chain and pulley combo complete with a toy that the rats can pull up. Of course, there is also the dinner bell they ring when the fridge door opens! Are they smart or what? Note the adjustable corner shelves and ladders in the first cage (far left photo above). The bed is a vegetable strainer from a dollar store. Notice that the square water bottles stay safely intact. Roll-a-nests and wheels are also added for fun. The cages are roomy and easy to wash in the bathtub with a hand shower head.

I also have a huge, 3 part, custom made, “Plexiglas” cage (shown on the right) purchased from a Montreal pet store. The top removes for easy cleaning off the base and there are cupboard doors below for storage. I have also put it on wheels. I can easily put smaller cages, wheels and hanging toys inside of it . Water bottles hang from suction cups inside the cage and feature metal protectors that prevent the bottle from being chewed. There is plenty of play room. The cage is 3x3x3 feet in the top clear base area and it sits on the cupboard. Stackable tool bins, purchased from a local hardware store, are used as little houses, when used upside down, and beds, when used right side up.

Food and Water

Good-quality food and fresh, clean water must be readily available at all times. Laboratory rodent chows (milled pellets or lab blocks) are preferred. These foods are available from feed stores, pet shops, and suppliers. The rodent diets containing seeds and nuts are not recommended because they contain too many fats and oils, provide inadequate protein levels, and are not necessarily balanced and can cause obesity in your rats.

Unfortunately like our own junk foods out there, owners see colorful boxes of food and supplements at the pet stores. Included among these feed may be seed mixtures, seeds mixed with vitamin and mineral pellets (often ignored by the pet), hay cubes, pellet food, complete diets, salt blocks, pieces of chewable wood, and a variety of treat foods that lure the unsuspecting buyer because those treats resemble the snack foods preferred by pet owners. Of most pet rodent feeds available, only the pellet, complete diets (with at least 16 percent quality protein) have use as primary diets.

Conventional (natural ingredient) pet animal diets produced by reputable companies usually contain adequate balanced nutritional components, but even those diets can be altered by damp, heat, oxidation, and vermin contamination. Owner-compounded diets, on the other hand, are more likely than are commercial products to lack certain trace nutrients, to be unbalanced, or to be contaminated with bacteria or mold. Pellet food involves heat, moisture, binder, hot-air dry, and compression in a shaped mold. This form usually is well received by rodents old enough to gnaw the hard pellets, and little is wasted. Powders and meals are wasted: the dust can collect around mouths and in noses and predispose a pet to medical problems.

Table scraps and alternative foods can be offered but these should be limited to healthful items like whole-wheat bread, non-fat yogurt, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources such as tuna, chicken, etc. and should not exceed 15% of what the pet consumes daily. If the above feeding recommendations are followed, malnutrition and related problems are very unlikely among pet rodents. Vitamins and salt blocks are generally unnecessary if you follow a good healthy diet.. Oil-rich and high-fat foods must be avoided.

Their dry food can be hung in a food dispenser or put in a heavy ceramic dish that won’t tip over. This prevents little opportunity for fecal (stool) and urine contamination of food. Fresh water is made available and kept free from contamination by providing it in water bottles. The tubes can become clogged with food debris, so they must be checked daily. The tube must be accessible to the smallest rodent within the enclosure. Before baby rats are fully weaned, they begin drinking water and eating pellet foods, so these essentials must be accessible to them at this time. Many deaths of baby rodents are due to starvation and dehydration. Like human babies they need feeding more often.

Food consumption varies with the quality of the food offered, the age, health and breeding status of the individual, the environmental temperature, and the time of day. Rats tend to eat more at night, but day time feeding is also common.

Water is best provided in bottles with, preferably, metal sipper tubes. Large square types with wide necks can be hung on the cages and are very good at staying on and easy to clean.

Having fresh water available daily is critical, as many pet rodents presented as “sick” are in fact dehydrated.

A Healthy Rat Diet….By Carole Nelson

A proper diet is essential for your rats good health. Rats are omnivorous, which means they eat both plant and animal material. Please do not try to convert your rats into vegetarians. They need animal protein, and cannot live on plant protein alone. Rats love food in general and will eat almost anything you put in front of them, savoring every morsel. They seem to eat when bored, even when sick or just for something to do. Rats love junk food just like us. Try to keep their diet as healthy as possible. Stay away from sugar. There are many healthy treats that you can offer your rats. Eating the same thing every day can also become boring just as it does for people. Hopefully I can give you some ideas on how to add some variety in their diet, while keeping them healthy at the same time.

Most commercial rat foods are unhealthy and should not be fed to rats. Most contain harmful additives, waste foods and chemical preservatives. Some contain corn that could even contain fungus and mold, tiny seeds and also alfalfa pellets which are hard for rats to digest and they usually don’t care for it any way. Some rabbits have been known to develop a condition called “Sludge” if fed too much alfalfa.

Rats should be fed a good lab block not dog or cat food. ‘Lab-blocks’ are a complete nutritional diet that meets the nutritional requirements of rats. Assorted vegetables and fruit should be provided at a minimum 3 times a week. ‘Lab-blocs’ are hard food made especially for rats. You can usually find them in most pet stores or feed stores. ‘Lab-blocks’ (such as Harlan Teklad, Hagen Nutri-blocks, Oxbow and Mazuri) should be the main staple of your rat’s diet. They also keep their teeth from becoming overgrown.

Now you must try to keep protein levels within healthy limits. Protein range should be around 16 to 18 percent. Pregnant or nursing females as well as babies up to 13 weeks old can be fed a higher protein ratio. If rats are fed too much protein this can lead to protein scabs as well as excess orange looking grease on the skin of males.

If you notice that your males has too much grease, and it’s taking away from his natural beauty, you need to cut down on the level of protein in the diet. Try adding more grains and pasta to his diet and bathing them in Palmolive or Sunlight antibacterial dish detergent and it will also help cut this grease.

My rats also receive a grain mix which includes but is not limited to:

· dry vegetable pasta twists (beet, spinach, tomato, carrot and squash)
· ¾ green split peas mixed with ¼ yellow split peas
· large natural oats
· Cheerios, “Rice Krispies” and Corn Bran
· pumpkin seeds – raw unsalted
· Dried Cranberries or dried blueberries

Fresh fruits may include but are not limited to:

· strawberries
· grapes (seedless)
· banana
· pear
· apple
· oranges (only for does, which helps protect against cancer, NOT FOR MALE RATS)
· watermelon
· cantaloupe
· kiwi fruit
· papaya
· raisins
· avocado
· tomatoes
· nectarines
· peaches
· plums
· honeydew melon
· mango
· blueberries

Please make sure to remove the pits from any fruit. Do not feed the skin on avocados.

Fresh vegetables include but are not limited to:

· squash
· mustard greens
· collard greens
· romaine lettuce
· spinach
· cucumber
· alfalfa sprouts
· zucchini
· pumpkin
· asparagus
· broccoli
· cauliflower
· brussel sprouts
· carrots
· celery
· fennel
· sweet potato, yams (cooked. DO NOT feed raw!)
· and sometimes cooked corn on the cob

Too much fruit or roughage can lead to diarrhea. Some vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower can cause gas so feed in moderation.

Occasional treats:

· rice cakes
· cheese
· baby food
· mixed baby cereal
. chicken bones
. dog biscuits
. soya milk
. fish sticks
. cooked rice and pasta
. active yeast cultured yogurt (contains good bacteria that aids digestion)
. cooked pasta and rice

Whole protein sources:

· chicken
· beef
· tuna
· salmon
· oysters
· shrimp
· liver

What NOT to feed:

· too much cheese (use a tiny bit as a treat)
· Too much peanut butter can cause a rat to choke and they cannot vomit. They lack the necessary muscles that would allow them to do so.
· dried corn (can cause liver cancer)
· Iceberg lettuce (full of water and has no nutritional value)
· orange juice or orange peel, (this causes cancer in male rats, although it protects against mammary tumors in does.)
· blue cheese dressing (toxic!)
· Licorice
· Rhubarb
· red cabbage (causes gas)
· artichokes (causes gas)
· raw banana, potato skins, green or starchy potatoes (not ripe all the way)
· poppy seeds can cause neurological damage and sometimes death
. Junk foods (chips, and fast food products and beware of buffet foods with preservatives in them)
· Excessive candy and/or chocolate. One chocolate chip, for instance, is fine and often acts as a bronchio-dialator which helps rats with respiratory problems.

I hope this information will be of use to you in deciding what to feed your rat. Please remember to consult your veterinarian to determine the proper care of your pet. This list is only intended as a general reference – it should not replace the advice of your veterinarian.


The frequency with which the enclosure should be cleaned depends on its design, the materials out of which it is made, and the number of rodents within. As a general rule of thumb, however, the enclosure and all cage “furniture” should be cleaned weekly with soap and water and dried well. Disinfecting should be done monthly. The food and water containers should be cleaned daily, washed well with an antibacterial dish detergent or washed in a dishwasher, if possible.

Vigorous scrubbing of the enclosure and “furniture” with hot water and soap and a thorough rinse should be followed by the use of a disinfectant. Vinegar is often required to remove the scale deposited by rodent urine.

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