Owning a Pet Rat

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Rats are popular family pets. They are extremely intelligent, inquisitive, interactive, and social. They can be easily trained to come when called and readily learn to perform tricks on command. If they are well socialized from a young age and treated gently, they are easy to handle, affectionate, and rarely bite unless provoked. Rats generally make good family pets but should never be left unsupervised with small children.

Rats tend to be nocturnal but are active for periods during the day. They do not shed a lot and seem to cause few allergic reactions in people. They are hardy animals that are very clean (despite popular belief) and they are reasonably easy to care for. Rats are usually happier with another rat as a playmate.

Life expectancy for rats is 2 to 3 years. Children should be informed of this so that the “sudden death” of their 2- to 3-year-old pet does not come unexpectedly. Rats love to chew and are great escape artists. They are suitable as a first pet for children provided there is proper adult supervision when the child is handling the rat.

Rat Care Facts

  • The incisors (front teeth) of all rodents grow continuously throughout the pet's life. The upper incisors are shorter than the lower incisors (about a 1:3 ratio). The molars (cheek teeth) do not grow continuously. Overgrown incisors are common in rats and can be prevented or minimized by providing the pet with gnawing opportunities such as access to pieces of wood and other chew toys. Your veterinarian can treat overgrown incisors by grinding or filing them down, often under anesthesia.
  • Rats are opportunistic eaters - they will eat whenever the opportunity arises. If they are improperly fed, they are prone to obesity.
  • Rats are prone to chronic respiratory infections (both bacterial and viral).
  • Female rats are prone to ovarian, uterine, and/or mammary cancer. It is highly recommended to spay all female rats at 4-6 months of age to prevent the risk of developing cancer in these organs.
  • Male and female rats get along well, but be advised, they breed at an early age. Females can have up to 7 litters a year and can produce 7 babies on average at every cycle.
  • Under stress and when fighting off an illness, rats may have what appears to be a bloody discharge around the eyes and nostrils; this is not blood but a chemical called porphyrin. The presence of porphyrin does not cause disease but is a symptom that something is wrong.

Selecting Your Pet

Rats can be adopted from shelters, purchased at pet stores, or purchased through breeders. Young rats are called pups. When selecting a pet rat, pay attention to the following things to ensure you select a healthy one:

  • A rat’s eyes and nose should be clear and free of any discharge that could indicate a respiratory infection. A rat that is sneezing several times a day may have a respiratory infection. Respiratory infections can become life threatening in rats, so it is important to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.
  • The rat should be active, curious, and inquisitive. A rat sitting quietly in the corner is often sick. Rats also should not appear thin.
  • Moisture around the anus could indicate diarrhea.
  • The skin and haircoat should always look sleek and well groomed and should be free of parasites such as fleas and lice.
  • If possible, examine the rat's mouth for broken or overgrown incisors (front teeth), discolored gums (they should be light pink), and any obvious sores.
  • Ask the shelter or seller if they offer any guarantee of health.

Veterinary Care

Your rat should be examined within 48 hours of purchase by a veterinarian familiar with rats. This examination is often required by the shelter or seller, or any guarantee may be voided. Your veterinarian will examine your rat, record its weight, and discuss housing, proper diet, and appropriate toys. A stool (fecal) sample should be examined for parasites. Rats require physical examinations and fecal tests at least annually to check for parasites. You can discuss neutering your pet rat with your veterinarian. Rats should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year and twice a year as they get older. Rats do not require vaccinations.

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