Pet rats: A guide to the surprisingly smart and affectionate rodent
If your knowledge of rats extends about as far as Pizza Rat — the viral rodent who carried a slice of pizza down a flight of subway stairs — that’s about to change. Though their reputation of being dirty street animals precedes them, domestic rats can be more like common house pets than you may think. Like cats, pet rats can actually be very clean creatures, and like some dogs, they can be quick learners.
Dr. Marjorie Bercier, DVM, board certified zoological medicine specialist and assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, explains that you can teach them to spin or go over obstacles, and they’ll also retrieve items and enjoy interacting with people.
No doubt people connect with the domestic version of these critters. Read on for the answers to frequently asked questions about pet rats.
What do people who own pet rats like about them?
Like so many house pets we know and love, domestic rats — the kind bred for the purpose of being pets — like being around humans and are tamer than those found in the wild.
“They like to play, and they’re very social,” Bercier says. “They like to be where people are, where most of the activities are happening.”
They’re in sync with the human body clock
Compared to hamsters, another rodent that makes a popular pet and which are more active at night, rats are on the same schedule as humans, awake during the day and resting at night, Bercier says. So, there will be no wheels churning while you’re trying to sleep.
And despite the reputation perpetuated by their wild subway-dwelling counterparts, pet rats are meticulous about keeping themselves clean.
“The biggest misconception is that rats are dirty,” says Dr. Rachel Warnes, DVM, a New York shelter veterinarian who has a pet rat of her own. “But they spend more time grooming than cats.”
Their personalities sparkle
“They are friendly, affectionate, smart, and low-maintenance,” Warnes says.
She says she loves breaking biases against pet rats by introducing hers to skeptical friends. “None of my friends are able to resist holding my rats once they've gotten over the initial ‘ew,’” she says. “Now they're the life of my parties and always passed around, which they love.”
Just like cats and dogs, rats have unique personality traits.
“I’ve always had female rats, and they are super friendly and affectionate,” says Warnes. “My first rat, Veronica Mars, was mischievous and loved climbing furniture and curtains. She loved playing with my cat and could fetch things, kill bugs on command and would come when I called her.”
Warnes’ current rat, Neptune, thinks the house cat is her mother and always tries to cuddle her “much to my cat’s chagrin,” Warnes says, noting that Neptune likes hanging out in her lap to be pet, as well.
Timid rats may need a little encouragement coming out of their shell.
“Some are shy when you first meet them but are quick to warm up with treats,” Warnes says. “My rats love frozen blueberries; that's their kryptonite.”
Where do I get a domestic pet rat?
Ginny Shugrue, program coordinator for the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, has owned seven rescue rats. Some of them, including one she named Lucky, were saved before becoming snake food. If you live in New England or the Northeast, check out Mainely Rat Rescue, a foster home-based rescue, with foster homes located throughout the area. A nationwide resource is the Traveling Rat, which lists rescues and rat-friendly local shelters by state. You can also check with your local shelter.
Some major pet store chains will carry rats for around $14 each. Feeder rats, which are bred as food for snakes can be as low as $2, but they’re usually not guaranteed “pet quality,” as they’re more likely to carry disease.
You can find domestic rats in different varieties — rex, hooded and dumbo are just a few — each have unique characteristics, like large ears, small ears, specific colors, etc.
How should I set up a pet rat’s environment?
Decorate their cage
Pet rats should live in large, vertical cages, because they like to climb. Decorate their cage with hammocks and hideaways (sometimes called igloos) so they have a place to kick back, if needed. They enjoy toys, especially the kind that can be chewed and contain hidden treats.
These rodents will typically keep their digs pretty clean. They can also be trained to use a litter box and are not typically destructive or messy in their cage, Warnes says.
Make sure they have company
And because rats are social animals, not only with humans but with their own species, a companion is recommended.
“It’s best for them to be kept in a multi-rat type of household in the same cage, and same sex would be best,” says Bercier, who recommends you spay or neuter rats to avoid overpopulation, certain health issues and male-on-male aggression.
Use caution around interaction with other pets
Rats can coexist with other species, but always proceed with caution. Warnes plays it safe and keeps her dogs locked in a room when her cat and her rat have playtime together.
“Some dogs are good with rats, but my dogs are a little too interested,” says Warnes. “Cats and dogs are natural predators, and rats are prey, so you want to be extra careful if introducing them. Better safe than sorry.”
Feed it pellets and experiment with food
Rat owners often enjoy experimenting and finding out what their pet’s favorite foods are, according to Shugrue, whose rats enjoy Cheerios.
Domestic rats typically eat a pelleted diet with a supplement of fruits and vegetables, Bercier says.
Bagged pellet food can be purchased at pet stores for about $10 and is usually low-fat and packed with necessary nutrients.
Rats can be at risk for obesity, Bercier says, so it’s important to monitor their exercise and food intake. “A lot of people are tempted to buy seed mixes in the pet store, and rats will love that, because it’s very rich in fat, and it’s very tasty,” she says. “That in itself will predispose them to obesity, and then, the other factor that comes into play is lack of activity.”
Bercier recommends seed as a treat once a week or every couple of days.
Should I be concerned about safety with rats?
Biting and rats
Rats don’t typically bite, but it really depends on the person handling them, says Bercier.
“If they hold them too tight, it might be stressful for the rat and that could trigger a bite,” she says. “When they’re in a secure environment at home with the people that they know, it would be very surprising for them to bite.”
That said, rats are not recommended as pets for very young children who may not know how to handle them. Handwashing after handling rats is also recommended.
If you are ever bitten by a rat, consult with a physician immediately. Some rodents can carry bacteria that causes an infectious disease called Rat Bite Fever (RBF), which can be serious or fatal if left untreated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health issues with rats
The two most common conditions that veterinarians will see in pet rats are respiratory disease and mammary tumors.
Respiratory disease is typically caused by a type of bacteria called mycoplasma.
“A lot of rats will be exposed at a very young age, like right after they are born,” she says. “They don’t often show signs of sickness until later in life. If they go through a stressful time (for instance, experience illness or a change in the environment, like a new cagemate, house or room), that pathogen can take over and make them pretty sick.”
Respiratory disease is treated with an antibiotic but can be challenging to treat, especially if a rat is older and has other health issues.
Female rats are more at risk of developing hormone-dependent mammary tumors if they are not spayed, as removal of the rat’s ovaries and uterus axes estrogen and progesterone production. For this reason, it’s recommended that spaying is done as early as possible.
Another health-related concern a potential rat owner will want to take into consideration: the small animal’s short life span, which is usually only about two to three years.
“The one downside is that they don’t live as long as other house pets,” says Shugrue. “It can be hard because you’ve got to say goodbye in three years.”
Clearly, people are still willing to risk that heartache because those precious few years together are packed with joy, companionship and love.
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