By Emily Bruer
Rats may get a bad rap, but if you’re looking to add a small pet to your family, these smart, social, and trainable animals should be at the top of your list!
There are seven varieties of rats recognized by the American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association:
- Standard – with short, glossy, smooth coats
- Rex – with curly whiskers and hair
- Hairless – with no or sparse hair
- Satin – with a thinner, longer, lustrous coat
- Tailless – with no tail (sometimes called a Manx rat)
- Dumbo – with large ears set off to the side of the head
- Bristle coat – with a coarse, stiff coat
Note: Pet rats all belong to the same species – Rattus norvegicus, or Norway rat – and are not divided into breeds like dogs. Instead, they are loosely organized into descriptive categories called varieties or types. So, regardless of ancestry, two rats will belong to the same variety if they share the same trait, e.g., “hairless” or “satin”. A single rat may belong to more than one variety, e.g., “dumbo rex”.
If socialized from a young age, pet rats tend to be docile and sweet, and will likely be hanging out on your shoulder or fetching your Kleenex in no time!
While pet rats are available in just about every pet store, I recommend finding a local rescue or reputable breeder to get yours. Many rats in pet stores are kept in terrible conditions and commingled populations. Overcrowding can lead to lots of medical conditions like upper respiratory infection, and if they have their population commingled, you could adopt one or two female rats and one day come home to an entire litter.
How many rats should I get?
When deciding on whether to add a pet rat to your family, it’s important to also consider how much time you will have to spend with it. Rats are very social creatures, so if you work from home and can spend 4-6 hours a day playing with your new friend— you are the ideal rat owner.
However, if you will be away from the house and busy at school or work, the kindest thing you can do is get two or three. This way they can keep each other company while you are away.
Some other benefits of having more than one rat are that they will groom each other, play with each other, help build large nests together, and just be plain cute together. When I had rats, one of my favorite things to do was simply watch them interact with each other.
What type of habitat should I get?
Whether you are getting one rat or sixteen, it’s important you get a habitat that is large enough to accommodate them. A good rule of thumb is to have 2 cubic feet of space per rat. Males tend to like more floor space, while females tend to love climbing.
Looking for the perfect accommodation can be overwhelming, but there are lots of great resources out there for finding the right one. Many rat enthusiasts like to use ferret cages for their rats, while others like to build their own out of converted book shelves or other fun items. The most important things to keep in mind are that they will have enough room and that they can’t escape. You also want to make sure they have adequate ventilation, as too much humidity or ammonia could cause respiratory issues.
What is the best kind of bedding?
When choosing bedding for your rat, avoid any kind of wood chips, they aren’t very comfortable and the chemicals released by the wood can cause your rat to have breathing and liver problems, and may weaken their immune systems.
My favorite bedding to use is Carefresh Natural Pet Bedding; it is made from paper pulp and is very absorbent, soft, and safe for your little buddies.
When outfitting my rat’s cage I also liked to give them different things to make their actual beds out of. Some of their favorites were empty tissue boxes, tissues, paper towels, and pieces of fabric; occasionally I would give them tiny fleece blankets.
What kind of toys do they like?
There are tons of fun toys on the market for rats and they will love just about all of them! Some of my rat’s favorites were wooden ladders from the bird section of the pet store, ferret hammocks, and other wooden toys.
Tip: there is a world of fun for rats in the plumbing section of your nearest hardware store! PVC pipe is easy to clean and there are dozens of ways that you can hook the pipes together or use them to hide your pet’s food and treats.
What do I feed them?
This is one of the most important aspects of rat care! Rats are scavengers in the wild and benefit from a varied diet. When I had rats I fed them a super nutritious pelleted rat food, and gave them a variety of fresh foods daily.
When choosing a block or pelleted food, be sure to avoid those that have seeds mixed in or that have been dyed bright colors. Seeds are very fattening, and while they are great training treats, they should never be a staple in your rat’s diet.
Tip: If you’d like to make your own rat food, or see a list of dangerous foods, check out the Rat Fan Club website.
Now that you know the basics, you are ready to go out and find your perfect rat pal(s). Good luck on your new adventure and have fun with your adorable new family members!
- Rat and Mouse Club of America
- American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association
- Rat Fan Club
- Rat Behavior and Biology
Emily Bruer has been penning the adventures of her imagination since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Working at animal shelters for the last five years, she learned an incredible amount about animal care and behavior. She is currently employed at a vet clinic where she continues her animal education. Emily’s love of animals is evident when you step into her home, which she shares with six dogs and six cats, all of whom were rescues.