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Pet rat: all you need to know

Despite what many people think, rats are actually clean and intelligent animals. They also make for excellent pets as they enjoy human company and they can teach children about the responsibilities of pet ownership. Many have the perception that these animals are dirty because they think of wild rats, which they may have encountered in cities or woodland areas. However, pet rats are handled and socialized from birth, and as a result, they should not be viewed in the same way. If you’ve just bought your first rat, or you’re in the process of buying one, then we guarantee that you’ll share some great memories in the future. Take a look at this insightful and info-packed owner guide and learn all about how to look after these fascinating and charming pets.

Pet rat types: all you need to know

Rats are often considered pests, but domestic rats are actually very intelligent, affectionate creatures and they make great pets. They are perfect for people that want a pet but don’t have space for a dog or a cat. If you are considering buying a pet rat, this guide will teach you about their care requirements, their lifespan, and the different rat breeds available to you.

Different Rat Types:

The fancy rat is the most common type of rat kept as a pet and it is descended from Rattus Norvegicus, the brown rat. They make great pets, and they are often preferable to other pocket pets, like hamsters because they are less likely to bite. There are a number of different varieties of fancy rat that you can choose from.

Standard Rat

As the name suggests, the standard rat is the most common breed of fancy rat. They are a cut rat with short, glossy fur. Most of the females tend to have slightly longer, softer fur than the males.

Hairless Rat

The hairless is a bald rat with thin, pink skin that has a translucent quality to it. They might not be as cute as a standard rat but they are perfect for people that are prone to allergies and may have a reaction to a rat with fur.

Rex Rat

The Rax fancy rat is another good option for people that suffer from allergies. They have a dense, curly coat without the guard hairs that normally make rat fur very coarse. Most people that are allergic to other rats are usually fine with a Rex fancy rat.

Dumbo Rat

The Dumbo rat takes its name from Dumbo the elephant due to its large, floppy ears. These rose petal shaped ears sit a lot lower on the head than other varieties. The Dumbo rat comes in all different coat colours.

Marked Rats

Marked fancy rats usually have two different coat colours that form various patterns. These include the capped variety and the Irish variety, among others. The National Fancy Rat Society identifies 11 different types of marked rats.

Caring for A Pet Rat

When buying any kind of pet, it’s important to understand their care needs first. The average rat lifespan is around 2 years, which is a lot shorter than larger pets, like a cat or a dog. However, owning a pet rat is still a big responsibility and you need to consider whether your lifestyle allows for a pet before you buy one.

Rats are very active when compared with other small pets, so a standard sized hamster cage, for example, would be too small. They need to be kept in a wire cage that is at least 50cm x 80cm and 50cm tall. Inside the cage, they need specially formulated rat litter and a nesting area. A cardboard box with shredded up paper is a perfect nesting area for all rats.

Rats are very active and social animals, so it is unfair to keep them alone. They need to be taken out of the cage for at least an hour a day for playtime, which means that you need to make your home safe and secure for them.

Rats make brilliant pets but owning one is a big responsibility, so make sure that you are able to meet all of their care needs before buying one.

Rats Love Company

First of all, as rats love company, it’s strongly advised to avoid keeping them on their own. Instead, your best option is to own a pair or group of the same sex. Rats which are the same gender will avoid unwanted babies being born. Make sure that you purchase your rat from an established and reputable breeder or pet shop. The best time to buy your new pet is when they are at least six weeks old. nRemember that if you have any questions regarding their wellbeing, gender, or ownership, then the pet shop staff or breeder will be able to assist you. Don’t forget that if your rat has company then they are more likely to have a healthier and happier life. (Ref *1)

The Perfect Pet Rat Home

Providing the best home for your long-tailed friend is important for their natural development and mental stimulation. If their home isn’t sufficient then this can cause them to become stressed in their new surroundings – making it difficult for both you and the rat to bond. In light of this, make sure you follow these tips for the perfect rat home:Choose a wire cage - the larger the better as rats love to climb

  • Never use a hamster cage as they are far too small
  • Aquarium style cages are also inappropriate as they have poor ventilation
  • Make sure the base of your cage is solid as opposed to wireframing – it’s believed that wire flooring can contribute to Bumblefoot (see Infections and Diseases)
  • As a minimum size, your cage should be at least 50cm x 80cm (floor space) x 50cm (height)
  • Ramps and platforms will allow your rats more space to explore
  • Place their new home away from direct sunlight and draughts

When kitting out your new pet rat pad with items and equipment, don’t forget the following:

  • Place litter on the floor to absorb droppings
  • Dust-extracted bedding will help to avoid respiratory problems
  • Steer clear of using cat litter as rat bedding
  • Place a suitable nest box in their home so that they can sleep in quiet and comfort
  • Their nest box can be filled with shredded paper for bedding
  • A rat hammock is also a great addition to your new pet home
  • Fill your new friend’s home with equipment and toys such as ladders, ropes, tunnels, blocks of wood and cardboard tubes
  • Rotate toys on a regular basis as rats are intelligent animals and need to be stimulated
  • You may also wish to obtain a solid surface running wheel (avoid metal variations as their tails can get caught)
  • Use ceramic bowls for food and a water bottle or two with a sipper tube as well

(Ref *1 and *2)If at any stage you need to purchase new or replacement products, then the features a whole host of rat food, toys, cages, and treats.

Cleaning Your Cage

Keeping your rat’s cage clean will keep their health in check and also avoid the spread of germs, which can make your pet ill and distressed. As a responsible owner, you should aim to give your cage a thorough clean once a week. Regular checks during each week also need to be made to remove any nesting or bedding that has become soiled.When you start your weekly clean, follow these 12 simple steps:

  1. Before you start cleaning, wash your hands thoroughly
  1. Remove the rat from the cage and place them in a carry case or box whilst your cleaning operation beings
  1. Take all of the equipment out of the cage, leaving just the bedding
  1. If any of the basic toys (cardboard tubes for example) are soiled, then throw them away
  1. Remove the bedding (leaving a small amount of the original clean bedding so that the rat remembers the smell)
  1. Use a disinfectant to remove tough stains and warm soapy water to give the cage flooring a quick wipe down
  1. Add a layer of fresh bedding - a mix of wood shavings and shredded paper is ideal and you only need enough bedding to absorb their urine
  1. Place extra bedding in the area where they sleep
  1. Once you’ve cleaned any stained toys with warm soapy water, dry them off and place them back in their cage
  1. Clean and refill food bowls and water bottles and place them back before spreading some food around the cage too
  1. Put the rat back in and watch them explore their new clean home!
  1. Finally, wash your hands again

(Ref *3 and *4) PLEASE NOTE: avoid pine and cedar shavings for bedding as they can be poisonous to rats. The newspaper shouldn’t be used as a floor covering either as the ink can be toxic.

Socialization - Handling Your Pet

Rats need mental stimulation; this process should involve a regular pattern of owner and pet interaction, or play time, outside of the cage. As it will take them a while to get used to their new environment, you should leave your rat to adapt for the first few days before you start to handle them. Be aware that even after this period they may still feel threatened or intimidated and react if you try and grab them straight away. By taking the correct steps and a calmer and less rushed approach, you will successfully be able to pick up your pet in no time at all. Here’s a look at our top tips:

  • First of all, always make sure they are aware of your movements before you interact with them
  • To begin with, slowly stroke the rat on the top of its head with your finger so that they become familiar with contact and your scent
  • Remember that treats can be used to entice your rat onto your hand or out of the cage and this tactic should be used in the initial stages of handling
  • Once they are comfortable with you in your surroundings, gently place your hand behind their front legs for support and lift them up
  • Bring them towards your arms and use your other hand in a cupped position for extra support
  • Allow them to explore on your arms, but when you’re holding them, cover their body with your other hand so that they can’t fall
  • Never pick up a rat by its tail as it’s easy to cause them damage and distress and if they’re really scared their tail can even fall off – this is a natural reaction to avoiding extreme threats and danger

(Ref *4 and *5) After a few attempts at handling your pet, they’ll naturally become socialized and comfortable with you in your environment. These intelligent animals will also be able to recognize your scent and determine that you aren’t a threat to them too.

Vet Registration

Like all rodents, it’s important to register your pet with a local, established and professional vet. If you fail to do this and your rat becomes ill, it will be difficult to get the help and medical assistance you need. Registering with a vet will help with a number of areas, including injections and vaccinations and diagnosing diseases and infections too. Register at the earliest stage possible to avoid added stress if your pet falls ill.

A Rat’s Diet

Rats need a fresh, healthy and balanced diet and this can be achieved through commercial pellets or alternatively from small portions of fruit, vegetables, grains or seeds. You can introduce other foods into their diet, however, if you’re going to do this, make sure it’s done slowly over a week without overdoing it and aiding obesity. As rats need amino and fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals from their diet, you should never give them hamster, rabbit or guinea pig food. This won’t provide them with the nutrients they need for a balanced and stable diet. Alongside food, it’s imperative that your pet has constant access to clean and fresh drinking water. Without water, there is a serious danger of them becoming ill. Always make sure that your water bottles aren’t blocked and that they are filled with enough water for them to consume. If you notice that your pet is drinking a lot of water or very little, then they may have an illness or infection, in which case we advise speaking to your vet immediately.

Feeding Routine

Feeding should occur twice a day - once in the morning and again in the evening. Always remove any uneaten food in their cage and reduce the portion sizes so that next time around all of their food is consumed. This will help to keep them at a healthy weight by allowing them to take on board what their body actually needs, as opposed to overfeeding. Also, remember to stick to a dedicated feeding pattern without skipping meals.(Ref *7)

Foods to Avoid

Similar to other rodents, there are a number of foods that you should avoid feeding to your rat in order to prevent them from becoming unwell. First of all, avoid sugary and high-fat foods, for example, dairy, with the exception of offering them small amounts as rewards during training. Foods of this nature can contribute to obesity issues, so monitor the amount you are feeding your long-tailed friend. Here’s a look at some of the other foods you should and shouldn’t feed them:

Foods you can’t feed your rat

Foods you can feed your rat



Citrus fruits












Raw beans


Raw Sweet Potato

Cooked liver (small portions)



Brussel Sprouts


(Ref *7 and *8) A significant increase or decrease in the amount of food that these animals eat may be linked to a disease or infection. If you do spot that your rat is consuming more food or not eating much at all, seek veterinary advice immediately.

Infections and Diseases

As a responsible owner, you should regularly monitor and check for any alterations in your pet’s health. Spotting any signs and symptoms early means that your pet can be treated in the quickest time possible, without suffering any prolonged physical pain. Check out the below table for some of the most common viruses, infections, and illnesses:



Mycoplasma pulmonis (Myco)

Sneezing, lethargy, difficulties breathing, rough hair on their coat, staining which looks like blood around the eyes and nose.

Scabs - mites and lice

Scabs normally located around the shoulders, chin, and neck.


Caused by infection, small to medium sized lumps which can burst and puss.

Ear infections

Lack of balance, head tilting.


Small red bumps which look like calluses, bleeding, scabbing and inflammation of the feet.


Diarrhea and weight loss can be indicators, although sometimes there aren’t any symptoms.


Transmitted by contaminated feces – symptoms include diarrhea, rough hair on their coat, weight loss, lethargy, and in extreme conditions heavy bleeding.

(Ref *9) After interacting with your pet, even for a short amount of time, it’s important to wash your hands straight away. In some cases, it’s possible for infections to transfer over to humans and you’ll still want to maintain hygiene regardless. Once again, it’s important to stress that if you do notice a decline in your pet’s health, then seek advice from your vet at the earliest stage possible.

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