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Owning a Pet Rat

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Rats are very 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 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 tend to be nocturnal but are active for periods during the day."

Rats live, on average, 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 make good family pets and 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 a common problem 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.

"Overgrown incisors are a common problem 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."

Rats are opportunistic eaters (they will eat whenever the opportunity arises) and if improperly fed are prone to obesity. They are also prone to chronic respiratory infections (both bacterial and viral) and to mammary tumors. Males and females get along well, but be advised, they breed at an early age (less than two months) and frequently.

Selecting Your Pet

Rats can often be adopted from shelters or purchased at pet stores or through breeders. Young rats are called pups. 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 may have a respiratory infection that could become a chronic problem. The rat should be active, curious, and inquisitive. A rat sitting quietly in the corner is often sick. Rats also should not be thin.

Moisture around the anus could indicate diarrhea. The skin and haircoat 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. Finally, inquire as to any guarantee of health the shelter or seller is offering.

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 at least annual physical examinations and fecal tests 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 vaccination.

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