How to Care for a Pet Rat

Four Parts:Deciding to Keep RatsCreating a Good Home for RatsKeeping Rats HealthyKeeping Rats Happy

Rats have been called "low maintenance dogs" because of their appealing blend of intelligence and loyalty. While no pet can really be considered "low maintenance," rats are certainly much easier to care for. A well-socialized, happy rat makes for a friendly, sweet, inquisitive, intelligent, and interactive pet. These entertaining creatures make great pets, but if you are considering getting a pet rat, do your homework first. Caring correctly for any pet, no matter its size, is important.

Part 1
Deciding to Keep Rats

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    Consider the commitment. Rats live for around 2-3 years or more, so look ahead and be sure you can care for the pet over this length of time.[1]
    • Think about the time and commitment it takes to look after another living animal. This means keeping the cage clean, regular feeding and handling, and if the pet gets sick, taking him to the vet.
    • Remember that you'll need to find someone to care for your rats when you go on vacation or out of town. Many rat owners can testify that it's really hard to find someone comfortable enough to care for and handle rats (a lot of people can be squeamish) so try, if you can, to line up at least 3 or 4 potential candidates who are willing to watch your rats if you need to leave town. Pet stores sometimes offer to take care of pets.
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    Think about your other animals. If you already own other pets, especially cats, then think about whether or not the pets you already care for will be able to live harmoniously with rats. Research about how to introduce a new pet, or keep the cage on a high shelf or in a closed room other animals cannot get into. It is most likely the best idea to keep your rats and and other animals separated.
    • Cats may be a particular problem. They prey on rodents, including rats, and so you could end up inadvertently teasing the cats and terrifying or endangering the rats.[2]
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    Spend some time with rats. Before deciding to purchase rats, visit somebody who already has one. There are features of this animal that some people find unpleasant, so it's a good idea to make sure you will actually enjoy caring for them before obtaining any. There are many variations of rats, including tail-less, fur-less and miniature.
    • Pet rats that are kept in clean conditions do not have a strong smell, but they do have a slight odor that not everyone likes. Before getting your own pet rat, make sure you are comfortable with the smell, or find a good bedding to absorb it. Remember, harmful chemicals and pine shavings are bad for rats - the resins can irritate their lungs.[3]
    • Similarly, some people find the scurrying action of a rat disconcerting. Little claws can tickle! Rattie tails can also be a little strange at first. Try handling a rat to make sure you are comfortable with the animal's mannerisms and anatomy.
    • Be sure to have a good cage that is big enough, airy, and safe. Wire cages are preferable to aquariums, as they allow for better air flow. Do not get aquariums or your rats will get respiratory infections and most likely die. Make sure the floor is not wire or your rat could possibly get bumblefoot. If you use wire pick a cage with bar spacing between 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch.[4]
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    Consider the risk of cancer. Unfortunately, cancer is a common problem in pet rats, and it can sadly shorten their life. Although not every rat develops tumors, it is something to be aware of as a prospective rat keeper. Unspayed female rats are the most prone to cancer. Other issues may crop up, including mites and respiratory infection.[5]
    • Ask yourself if you can afford the cost of surgery if your rat develops a lump that needs removal. If the answer is no, then are you prepared to euthanize a beloved pet at a relatively young age in order to prevent suffering? If this is not something you can handle, rats may not be the right pet for you. The most important thing is responsibility.
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    Choose the right number of rats. Rats are social creatures who enjoy each other's company, and live in colonies in the wild. It is highly, "highly" recommended that you purchase more than one, and it is best if you purchase them at the same time. [6]
    • A rat needs almost constant interaction to prevent boredom, so it's best to get two or more rats. No matter how much time you spend with them they will still be lonely, so get another one if you possibly can. Your rats will thank you.[7]
    • The better alternative is to buy more than one rat, so they can keep each other company. If you decide on more than one rat, it is advisable to get your rats from the same place at the same time to reduce problems with quarantining or introducing them. Rat introductions can be difficult, especially with territorial, intact male rats.
    • Keep in mind that two rats is not at all more work than one. In fact, you'll find that it's easier to care for two or three rats because they'll all be happier with one another to play with. Differences in the amounts of food and bedding you'll need to use are marginal and hardly noticeable. The only real challenge in getting more than one rat is trying to fit them all on your shoulders when you walk around with them!
    • Likewise, if you opt for multiple rats, get animals of the same sex, or you may find you have established a breeding colony. Breeding rats is not advisable unless you're a breeder and know exactly what you're doing--there are so many rats without homes that it's much better to not breed.[8]
    • Some veterinarians will neuter rats, so if you unexpectedly find you have a male and female, you can talk to your vet about the possibility of having the male neutered. Keep in mind, however, that rats are not usually desexed because anesthesia is especially risky for them.
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    Buy your rats. Rats are best acquired from a breeder or rescuer. They have a more intimate knowledge of the rats in their care and can help you find the right animal or animals for you. It is best to buy them from a trusted breeder or rescuer as pet store rats can sometimes have more health issues, making it more expensive in the long run.
    • Always thoroughly research any rescuers/breeders before choosing your pet, to make sure they keep their animals in humane and healthy conditions.
    • Pet store rats are usually from "mills" and little consideration is taken for their health. If you do decide to buy from a pet store, avoid rats with the following problems: red discharge around the eyes and nose, noisy breathing, open wounds, lethargy, cloudy eyes, dull coat or runny feces.[9]
    • Male and female rats may be mixed in pet store rat cages, one of the many reasons you shouldn't be adopting from a chain pet shop. Even if you only buy one or two rats initially, a few weeks down the road you may find you have more rats than you bargained for if one of them is a female, so be sure that it is the preferable gender that you want. It's okay to decide not to own a rat!

Part 2
Creating a Good Home for Rats

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    Buy the right cage. Buy a large cage with solid flooring, levels, and ramps. Wire flooring, if not properly cleaned, can cause bumble foot. If you are not experienced with wire floor ware, steer clear of cages with wire shelving. 2 rats need a cage that measures at least 18 x 28 x 31. Rats cannot be housed in tanks due to the ammonia build up.
    • For every rat, there should be a minimum of two square feet, but two and a half square feet or more is better.[10]
    • The bar spacing should be no more than 3/4 of an inch for a full grown rat, and no more than 1/2 an inch for babies. If the spaces between bars are larger than that, chicken wire can be used to close the gaps. The bars themselves should be powder coated to avoid rat urine corroding the bars. Rats are excellent jumpers and climbers and should be able to execute their acrobatics in their cage without flying through the bars.[11]
    • An alternative is a perspex or plastic house, such as Rotastak cage. These usually have a colored base (which helps the rat feel more secure) and clear walls so that you can see your pets. They are designed to be interconnect with other units so that you can build a complex and interesting rat city for your pets. The rats can also be restricted to one area while you clean the other attachments. Cleaning perspex or plastic is easy because of the flat surfaces (rather than all the nooks and crannies in chicken wire or metal bars).
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    Add food and water dishes. Set up an area for your rats to eat and drink, providing either separate bowls for food and water or a sipper bottle. Always provide more than one food and water source for multiple rats to prevent resource-guarding.
    • Sipper bottles are a great option because the water is kept clean in the bottle and the sipper is attached to the cage, preventing it from being knocked over by playful rats. Glass works best as the rats cannot chew through it.
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    Add the right bedding. The bottom of the cage should be lined with a soft, absorbent material.
    • Use a wood-shaving bedding found at a pet store for your cage's bedding. Be sure you're not using pine or cedar shavings, though, because the fumes from the shavings mixed with rat urine can be fatal for your pets. Pine and cedar are dusty and contain oils that can cause respiratory irritation and breathing difficulties. Such bedding materials should be avoided. Fleece or towels are okay, especially for covering wire platforms, however you need to wash them a two or more times a week, depending on how many rats you have. You can also purchase paper shavings, but it is expensive and smells. Newspaper is a good option and very good for the environment, but the ink could stain light colored rats. Hay is dusty and smells really bad when mixed with urine as well. [12]
    • Another good option is Carefresh, a reclaimed cellulose bedding available in many pet stores, or recycled newspaper bedding like Yesterday's News. Don't use your paper shredder and just shred your own paper, though--some of the ink can potentially cause illness in rats.[13][14]
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    Provide a nest. It is natural behavior for a rat to want to hide away at vulnerable times, such as when it is asleep. For this purpose provide a nest or sleeping area for your pets.[15]
    • You can either buy the typical plastic houses that are commonly found in pet stores, or you can get wicker balls that have a entrance holes. These more closely mimic what a rat would choose in the wild.
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    Consider a rat toilet. Just like dogs, rats don't like to soil their sleeping and eating quarters, and you can use this to your advantage by providing a rat toilet.[16]
    • Rat toilets are small plastic boxes with an entrance hole, or open corner-boxes. You can place aspen shavings, newspaper or Carefresh an inch thick in the bottom of the rat toilet.
    • Place the toilet in the opposite corner to the nest and food bowls. Most rats quickly work out what the box is for and are delighted to have a place to go and keep the rest of their accommodations clean. For best results, wait and see if your rats choose a corner of the cage to 'go,' before placing the litter box. However, not all rats are quite so neat, so just placing it in can also work.[17]
    • Rat toilets also make cleaning their cages easier, because every couple of days you can simply empty out the toilet, disinfect it with a spray disinfectant that is non toxic to small pets (vinegar works well), and refill it with rat litter.
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    Buy toys for your rats. Supplement your cage with toys, hammocks, and places to hide.
    • Rats love to be busy and will play with toys while you're away.[18]
    • Toilet paper rolls, small stuffed cat toys, ping-pong balls, hammocks... rats love to play, and anything will suffice to entertain them. Find little trinkets (not too little, though, or your rats might swallow or choke on them) around the house to decorate and make their cage look like a home.
    • Don't put things like yarn or string in for toys--they can choke your rats. Use common sense when choosing toys and make sure your rats will be safe with the item in the cage.

Part 3
Keeping Rats Healthy

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    Keep your rats fed and hydrated. Check their food and water at least twice a day. Bowls easily get knocked over or bedding kicked into the water, so you need to be vigilant.
    • If using a sipper bottle, you still need to refresh the water daily, and remember to disinfect the sipper nozzle at least twice a week.[19]
    • Offer your rat about 12 milliliters (about two heaping teaspoon) per day of a compounded rodent food such as Oxbow Regal Rat, Mazuri, or Harlan Teklab blocks which can be bought in bulk online. These are superior to seed-mix diets because the ingredients are compounded together and the rat cannot selectively eat the tasty (and often less healthy) parts and leave the bland bits in the bowl.[20]
    • Supplement their compounded diet with fresh foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Rats have very similar dietary needs to humans, and they can eat nearly anything. Find a list of foods that rats can't eat and anything else is likely just fine. Rats can even have chocolate! Giving your rats a piece of fruit or even just some table leftovers once or twice a day is perfect for keeping them happy and healthy.[21]
    • Be aware that rats do have a sweet tooth and are also particularly fond of cheese. However, sweets can cause tooth decay and fatty foods will cause a rat to gain weight and become obese, so they are best avoided.[22]
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    Keep the cage clean. Daily "spot-checks" help maintain a clean cage, and a weekly complete cleaning will ensure healthy rats.
    • For spot cleaning of bedding, purchase a small plastic or metal scoop, similar to those sold for cleaning cat litter trays. Use this to scoop out soiled bedding, and dispose of it in a sealed plastic bag. Remove bedding that is wet, stained, or smells.
    • At least once a week, do a total deep clean. Put the rat in a separate box or safe play area to keep him away from the cleaning products. Completely empty the cage and dispose of the old bedding. Wash everything else in soapy vinegar water, rinse thoroughly, and dry. It is best to keep a separate sponge, bowl, and towel specifically for cleaning the rat's items.
    • With a disposable cloth wipe over all the surfaces of the cage. Rinse with water and dry. Now you are ready to put in clean bedding and replace the fixtures and fittings.
    • Harsh chemicals like bleach can harm a rat's sensitive respiratory system if inhaled, so avoid using such cleansers on your rat's home. Pet-friendly disinfectant products such as Nil-Odor work well, or you can purchase disinfectants that are safe for pets from a pet store or vet clinic.[23]
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    Maintain a healthy temperature. Do not leave your rats exposed to extreme temperature changes or drafts. Rats should be kept between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • If it is a particularly hot day, provide your rats with some cool, shallow water (about half an inch) to play around in; on a cold day, provide extra bedding so the rats can snuggle down and keep warm.
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    Watch for signs of illness. Caring for a rat includes seeking veterinary attention should it become ill. Signs to watch for are a lack of appetite, increased thirst, red urine, runny feces, weight loss, rapid or squeaky breathing, and rust-colored discharge from the eyes or nose.[24]
    • Check your rat once a week for the presence of skin lumps or bumps.[25]
    • Likewise, every time you handle the rat, look at its skin and make sure there are no red, inflamed patches, and that it isn't scratching excessively.[26]
    • Rats can pick up skin parasites from their bedding, so be on the lookout for signs of skin irritation or scabbing.[27]
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    Take your rat to a veterinarian. If you suspect your rat is unwell, take it to the vet as soon as possible.
    • It is better to plan ahead and find a vet who is used to treating rodents before you get rats, or at least while your new pets are healthy.
    • Ask pet shops or fellow rat-keepers to see which vet clinic they recommend. You can also search online forums relevant to your pet, and ask for recommendations. Most people are happy to share their good (and bad) experiences with rodent healthcare.[28]
    • Phone your chosen veterinary clinic. Ask which vet is most comfortable seeing pocket pets and if they have a special interest in rats.[29]
    • Another great question to ask is whether the vet keeps rodents himself. There is nothing quite like owning a pet to help with understanding another owner's concerns.

Part 4
Keeping Rats Happy

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    Make sure your rats have good visibility. Keep the rat cage in an area where you are often present and the rats can watch what's going on around them. This will prevent feelings of isolation.
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    Spend time with your rats. The more attention you give, the more bonded, active, healthy, and friendly your rat will be. A single rat is a lonely rat, and this can cause behavioral issues. Unless your rat is aggressive, they are best not left alone. Even if they are aggressive, patient love and attention can bring them around.
    • Handle the rats daily, preferably two to three times a day for ten minutes or more.
    • Rats love to learn and solve problems, so consider setting up little obstacle courses containing hidden treats in order to mentally stimulate your rats.
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    Teach them tricks. Teach tricks by starting slow, rewarding, and reinforcing with treats and praise if done correctly.
    • Rats are very intelligent, and can learn many tricks, such as jumping through a hoop, spinning in a circle, standing up, and even giving a handshake, all on spoken command.
    • Do not punish your rat for failure. Rats don't understand negative punishments, and will only confuse the rat. Instead, give them a treat when they do it right.
    • If your rat bites, don't give him a firm tap and a "no." Instead, squeak like a rat would and pull away. Eventually your rat will understand.
    • Do not forget that each rat has his or her own personality, meaning that one rat may learn differently from others. Any specific method of teaching may work for one rat, but may not for another.
    • The key to successful training is to be persistent and have lots of short training sessions filled with treats.
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    Take them out. Rats enjoy a change of scenery, so if your rats are very tame, take them out and about on your shoulder.
    • If you take your rats outside, a harness is a good idea so that you have some control if the rat becomes frightened.
    • Join RatForum or Goosemoose, check out The Dapper Rat and many other helpful rattie websites!


  • Give your rat something to chew on, such as a toilet paper roll. They love using the chewed up pieces in their nest.
  • Training a rat to come on command is easy and useful. They can be trained with positive reinforcement with food rewards. This can be used to find missing rats and is something an owner should take the time to do.
  • A happy and contented rat will "brux" by chipping their teeth together. Sometimes their eyes bug out a little when they do this, but don't worry! This is just like a cat purring.
  • A good method of cleaning cages to remove the smell is to use a spray bottle of white vinegar and a spray bottle of peroxide. First spray the vinegar on the cage, then the peroxide, and wipe clean with a paper towel. This will remove odor and disinfect the cage cheaply.
  • Female rats tend to be more active. If you want your rat to sit on your lap for petting sessions, get a male.
  • Rats like to hide, so a small box allows your rat a place to sleep and hide.
  • A rat's teeth grow continually, so get an un-stained block of wood or other like item for them to chew on. This prevents the teeth from growing into the roof of their mouth.
  • If you want your rat to sleep at night and play during the day, put what they sleep in or on inside their cage only at night before you go to bed yourself. Make sure your rat doesn't get uncomfortable and if he/she is starting to get agitated, put his bed back in the cage.
  • Playing with it it will get it more active.
  • Male rats tend to be more smelly.
  • Never pick a rat up by its tail.
  • Make sure your rat has plenty of space. The minimum recommended cage size by the SPCA is 2'x2'x2'.
  • If you don't give your rat at least an hour of play each day, the rat will dislike you and easily become ill. Be sure you give it save items to play with so it doesn't get hurt and that you play with it nicely.
  • Female rats are very lovable and intelligent at giving affection to their owners.
  • Try giving your rats wine corks. They love to shred and chew them up!
  • Oil the wheel, if it is metal; this will make it quiet when your rat is having a spin!
  • NEVER keep your rat in a tank! Even with a screen mesh lid or no lid at all, there is a high build up of ammonia that can be detrimental to your rats.


  • Rats can be very timid, or aggressive, when you first bring them home (this is especially true for pet-store rats). Be patient when handling them.
  • If you get an albino rat (white with red eyes) be sure to keep it away from the sun. The sun's strong rays are harmful to albinos and can damage their eyes.
  • Do not feed a rat through their cage bars. Feeding them through the cage may cause them to associate everything outside with food. They may try to bite whatever happens to brush the cage including people, clothing, or other pets.
  • Rats chew on everything! Keep cords, shoes, clothing and other things you don't want chewed on out of their way when they are out of their cage.
  • Make sure you never pick a rat up by its tail. It causes rats extreme pain and discomfort.
  • Rats are very clever and can get into spaces you wouldn't think they'd be able to. Keep a close eye on them when they're out. They like to jump off of things, too.
  • If you don't want your females to get pregnant, do not keep males and females in the same cage together unless the male is neutered.

Sources and Citations

  1. Rat Care Guide. Annette Rand. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
  2. Rat Care Guide. Annette Rand. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
  3. Rat Care Guide. Annette Rand. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

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Categories: Mice and Rats