I have wanted a pet rat since I was 10 years old, but my parents never let me. Every couple of years I would bring it up, but the answer was always no. In 2010, once I was living on my own, I took the plunge and got my first three rats (who I always call “my girls”) and I have never looked back. I researched a lot before getting them, and I will share what I learned then and have learned in the past 4.5 years.
First, it is important to say that rats definitely aren’t for everyone, and a lot of people are nervous or scared around them which is ok. Not everyone can be a rat person, just like not everyone is a cat or dog person. But, they are much better pets than the average person realizes. They are smart, affectionate, clean, and quiet. They only smell when their cage isn’t cleaned regularly, and love interacting with people and each other. They can learn tricks, and watching them figure things out is fascinating. They are great pets for a small space, like an apartment, and for kids, since they are low maintenance, easy to handle, and the vast majority will never bite.
Rats are very social, and must always have at least one buddy to play with, groom, and snuggle, because single rats get lonely and stressed. These groups must be of the same sex, for obvious reasons (you think rabbits breed like crazy, you should see rats!). The best housing is a coated wire cage with a plastic or metal bottom that you can find at any pet store, but rats need more space than most people think, or that most companies will tell you. The rule is at least 2 cubic feet of space per rat. That means any cage must be at least 4 cubic feet in volume, because you will never have a lone rat, right? Height is more important than floor space, since they love to climb, and the space between the bars should be ½ inch or less, since young or small rats can squeeze themselves through 1 inch bar spacing. The Critter Nation cage is the most popular among serious rat owners, since it is big enough for many rats, is well made, and easy to decorate and clean.
Decorating the cage is the fun part! The traditional huts, wheels, wood/foam chew toys, and even wooden/paper bird toys are great, and boxboard (tissue/cereal boxes, etc) is always a hit. I also buy handmade comfy and colourful cotton and fleece hammocks online, which my girls love, especially in the winter. Bedding can consist of wood shavings (not pine or cedar, but aspen works great), paper based bedding material, or fleece blankets. You can even add a litter box, and litter train your rats!
It is important to get the right food for any pet, including rats. The best food for them is a high quality, all-in-one lab block, such as Oxbow Regal Rat or Harlan Teklad 2014. Seed mixes are popular in the stores, but unfortunately most rats will pick their favourite bits out, and not get a well-rounded diet. Imagine giving kids a mixture of French fries, broccoli, prunes and chocolate chips. What would be left over?! Veggies are also very popular, and should be given regularly, if not daily, with fruit sometimes as a treat. Favourites in my house are berries, spinach, green pepper, and carrots. Rats should not get too much protein, salt, or sugar, as it is not good for them long term.
Like any animal, sometimes rats need to see a doctor. They don’t require annual checkups or vaccines, but sometimes they will get sick. Common illnesses include respiratory and urinary infections, mammary tumours, and eye problems. It is important to call around and have a regular and emergency vet set up before you need one, because most vet offices will not see pocket pets, such as rats. The average lifespan of a rat is 2-3 years when they are well taken care of, which is short, but they live their lives to the fullest while they are around.
Rats are amazing pets, and can provide lots of love and entertainment! You can find them through pet stores, but I encourage you to find a rescue in your area. There are always homeless rats of all ages looking for homes. I have personally adopted all of my girls over the years (about a dozen so far), and fostered far more when I volunteered with a rescue, and they all have been adorable, loving, and wonderful pets. Rats are not what you think, perhaps you should give them a try!