Now let’s talk a little about what you’ll need if you want to keep rats as pets.
All in all, rats need large wire enclosures with plenty of levels or lofts for climbing. You may want to look at cages designed for ferrets. Cages designed for hamsters and other small rodents will not be adequate for the much larger and stronger rat. The ideal cage for two adult rats will be at least 2ft L x 1ft W x 3ft H, but this is the minimum and bigger is always better. Make sure the cage bars are less than one inch apart so that small rats can’t get out. If their head fits through, their body will too! Also keep in mind that the size of the cage depends on the number of rats you plan to keep. They are very active animals and will utilize all the space you are willing to provide.
Do not use aquariums designed for fish and reptiles as rat cages. Tanks are cumbersome, difficult to disinfect properly, do not allow good air flow, and do not have climbing space.
To keep their active minds occupied, you will need toys, sleeping hammocks, hide outs, and chew blocks. Change the variety of toys and chews frequently to prevent boredom. A great place to find distractions for rats is the bird toy section of the pet store! Wooden bird toys hanging from the cage bars are very intriguing to curious rats. You may decide to provide a running wheel for them, but make sure you choose a wheel large enough for your pet, but without taking up too much room in the enclosure. Some young rats will grow out of using a wheel as they get older, so a wheel is optional. Furnish the cage with a heavy food dish and a water bottle that holds at least 16 ounces.
Bedding is an issue a lot of small animal owners tend to bicker about. In general rats do well on a number of beddings, but some are prone to developing skin allergies or respiratory problems from wood based beddings like cedar, pine, and aspen. For this reason, I like to keep my rats on CareFresh or Boxo. These beddings are made from recycled paper materials and are soft, odorless, low dust options. Change the bedding in your rat cage one to two times a week or more depending on how many rats you are keeping. Rats are not especially stinky, but smells will develop if you do not keep the cage clean. Remember, the health of your animals depends on how well you take care of them, and rats will get sick if forced to live in a dirty cage.
The staple diet of your pet rats should consist of laboratory style rodent blocks such as Forti-Diet Rat & Mouse Diet, which is made up of compressed cubes specially formulated for all rodents. I do not like to give rats seed mixes as a main diet or they will develop something I call “Marshmallow Syndrome.” If you have kids and you’ve ever given them a cereal that has marshmallows in it like Lucky Charms, you’ve probably seen them pick out all of the marshmallows before touching the healthy part of the cereal. Well, rats will do the same thing! Seed mixes often contain sunflower seeds, which are like candy to rodents, so they will eat those first and not touch the rest. Seeds also cause obesity if offered as a staple. Occasional handfuls of seeds mixed in with their blocks are okay as long as it is not done too often. If you want to offer your rats variety, give them grain based cereal, dry pasta, fresh veggies, or Yogurt Drops as an occasional treat. Don’t give huge handfuls. Look at the size of your rat’s head, and give him something half that size. Giving a single grape to a rat is like giving an entire cantaloupe to a human! Don’t super-size your rat’s treats!
In the end, when you are taking care of your pet rats it is important to use common sense. Always think like a rat before you make any changes to your pet’s diet or environment, and keep in mind that your rats are not built to survive in the streets like wild rats. They need a balanced diet, the companionship of other rats, a warm home, stimulating activities and toys, and loving people to take care of them. Wild rats may be plentiful, but their average lifespan is 6 months whereas our pet rats can live 2 to 4 years. With this in mind, you can make sure that your rat is healthy and happy for as long as he lives.
An interesting article recently appeared about keeping rats as pets, read it here.