Rat Care

Rat Facts

  • Average life span of 2-3 years.
  • Length: body 9-11 inches; tail 7-9 inches.
  • Nocturnal, so will be most active at night.
  • Males are called bucks, females are does, and babies are pups or kittens.
  • Rats are social so do best if kept with another rat (or group of rats).
  • Rats reach puberty very young - at 6-8 weeks of age. They shouldn't be bred this young, though, so make sure males and females are separated before this age.
  • Females go into heat every 4-5 days (for about 24 hours) and may seem agitated or restless during this time.
  • Wide range of markings, as well as varieties (e.g. standard/smooth, rex, hairless, tailless).

Cages for Rats

A large wire cage is best, especially one with horizontal bars that allow the rat to climb on the sides if they wish. A tall cage with ramps and platforms is ideal for providing room for multiple rats. As minimum, a cage with 12 by 24 inches (2 square feet) of floor space is okay for two smaller rats, as long as the cage is tall and you provide shelves and/or hammocks for extra space. Larger is always better. Large aquariums are okay, but do not provide good ventilation (and must be cleaned more often).

Avoid cages with wire flooring as spending time on wire flooring has been linked tobumblefoot. Many cages have wire balconies and shelves, which are not ideal. However, you can modify wire balconies by covering them with a thin sheet of wood or other solid material (fix to the cage with wire ties). Also look for wire that is a fine grid (1/2 inch by 1/2 inch maximum). Your best bet is to look for cages that have plastic or wood shelving, or you can modify cages using melamine covered boards to make your own shelves (easy to clean). Many enterprising rat owners have built their owne large cages. See the Dapper Rat's Grotto and theirpages of other ideas for inspiration.

For bedding, avoid cedar and pine wood shavings (see "The Problem with Cedar and Pine Shavings" for more information), but aspen (or other hardwood) shavings are fine. There are many other good pet bedding and litter options available these days that are very absorbent, not dusty and safe for small pets. Some are pelleted so might not be all that comfortable for rats to play and sleep in, so some people use the pelleted products (which are usually very absorbent) under a layer of softer loose bedding. For a sampling of the newer alternative pet bedding products, see "Top Ten Alternatives to Cedar and Pine."

You will also want to provide some nesting material which the rats can shred and use to line their nest box - paper (no ink), tissues, or paper towels work well.

Usually, the rats will chose a bathroom location in one area of the cage. Heavily soiled litter should be scooped out daily, and more litter added if needed. The whole cage should be cleaned and new liter and bedding provided once a week or so.

Nest Box 
A nest box should be provided - and can be store-bought or home made. A cardboard box makes a perfectly acceptable nest box, although it may need to be replaced often. Other possibilities include a flowerpot or jar turned on its side, or a section of PVC drain pipe (perhaps cover one end). Store box boxes are good too, but keep in mind that wooden ones can be hard to clean if they get urine on them, and the plastic ones might get chewed up fairly quickly.

Toys and Accessories 
Rats love to climb, and will make good use of ladders, ropes, hammocks, tunnels, and platforms. Toys should be provided as well - blocks of wood for chewing, cardboard tubes, and toys designed for ferrets or parrots are good choices. Look for rope and wood toys as many plastic toys can't stand up to chewing by a determined rat. Simple items like large cardboard mailing tubes, crumpled paper, paper bags, and cardboard boxes can also make wonderful toys. Remember that rats are very intelligent and need to be challenged, so rotate the toys on a regular basis so the rats do not become bored. 

Some rats like to run on exercise wheels (and some will never try!), but the wire type commonly found in pet stores isn't very safe for rats as their feet or tail can get caught in the rungs or the supports on which the wheel is suspended. A solid surface wheel is preferred, for example something like the Wodent Wheel.

Heavy ceramic food dishes are probably easiest to use as they are sturdy, don't tip over too easily, and they are easy to clean. A water bottle with a sipper tube can be used for water. Make sure a supply of fresh clean water is always available.

Where to put the Cage

The cage should ideally be placed in a relatively quiet location but still near the social activity in the home. Rats are nocturnal so should be located where it is fairly quiet during the day. Placing the cage on a table or stand will help the rats feel more secure. The cage should not be placed in direct sunlight or in drafty locations. Limit access to the cage by other household pets, as a rat will understandably feel threatened by a cat or dog hovering outside the cage.


Feeding pet rats is not difficult, but it is important to use a diet specifically designed for pet rats for the bulk of the diet. There are some homemade diets recommended by experts, but you must stick to these very well and make sure your rats get a variety of fresh supplements, or else the diet can end up imbalanced. However, some commercial diets meant for rats can end up being imbalanced too, if the rat is able to pick and choose their favorite parts and leave the rest. For most owners, a combination of a good rat block and some fresh treats as supplements is the easiest and best way to provide a balanced diet.Store-Bought Foods 
Look for a diet made especially for rats. A pellet or block (essentially a large pellet) type diet is generally considered best. Loose mixes can be very well balanced and complete diets, but only if the rats eat everything in the mix, and many won't. If you feed a block or pellet, they won't be able to pick and choose which parts they are eating. The rat blocks can be available at all times. A commonly recommended diet is Oxbow Hay's "Regal Rat." A rat and mouse diet that meets the same general requirements (e.g low calorie, low fat) is a good compromise if you cannot find a good rat diet. However, hamster, gerbil and other rodent diets are not a good substitute -- their nutritional requirements are different these usually contain alfalfa which is apparently not very digestible to rats.

Fresh Foods 
Rats benefit from a variety of vegetables, fruits and and other fresh foods that help to keep them healthy. Keep in mind that serving sizes are pretty small (as in a teaspoon or half-inch cube) for a rat, so avoid giving large amounts of fruits or vegetables, or diarrhea may result. The following is a list of treats you may wish to try, keeping in mind that feeding a wide variety of foods is the best way to ensure optimum nutrition and health:

  • fruit: apples, cherries, grapes, banana, strawberries, other berries, melons, plums.
  • vegetables: broccoli, potatoes, peas, carrot, cooked sweet potato, kale, parsley, bok choy, squash.
  • cooked liver, other very lean meats (cooked)
  • whole wheat pasta and bread
  • cooked beans (including soya)
  • yogurt (especially with live cultures)
  • brown rice
  • unsweetened breakfast cereals
  • mealworms
  • small dog biscuits
  • some leftovers from your meals are okay in moderation, but avoid fatty or sugary scraps and items off the list below.
  • special treats (given only occasionally): whole nuts in the shell (almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts), sunflower seeds (high in fat), carob chips

What Not to Feed 
Avoid feeding any of these items to pet rats:

  • chocolate
  • raw beans
  • raw sweet potato
  • cabbage, brussel sprouts
  • green potatoes
  • sweet sugary treats, any other "junk food"
  • caffeinated beverages
  • carbonated drinks

Store-bought Treats 
For the most part, you are better off feeding the fresh foods listed above as treats. Many pet store treats, such as yogurt drops or the treat sticks are quite high in sugar and/or fat and should be given very rarely if at all.

Playtime Outside the Cage

Beyond providing the basics in food and housing, rats do not require much else except your attention and free time outside of the cage. Make sure that the area you allow your rats out in is rat-proofed since rats will chew on just about anything they can get their teeth on. Most importantly, make sure electrical wires are out or reach or encased in plastic tubing. Also make sure the rats cannot access anything that is toxic, including poisonous plants. Make sure anything you don't want your rats to chew is out of reach. Rats also tend to scent mark as they roam, leaving little drops of urine. The odor is not offensive, but you may want to cover furniture with a throw while they are out. They will also do this to their owners, so be prepared!

Nail Trimming

Rats have sharp little nails, and for your comfort when playing with your rats you may need to trim their nails. Check them every one to two months. Nail trimming is not difficult, escept that your rat will probably object and try to squirm away. You can use a pair of human nail clippers and trim a little off the tip if needed. Just take a tiny bit off the tip and avoid the pink part (quick) that may be visible inside the nail, as this is a blood vessel and nerve. If you do happen to nick the blood vessel, a little cornstarch applied to the nail tip should stop any bleeding (or you can by a product at the pet store called Kwik Stop that is used the same way).

At the same time you check the nails, try to get a glimpse of the teeth to make sure they are not getting overgrown. Make sure you provide lots of opportunity (through wood blocks and toys) for your rats to chew and keep their teeth healthy.

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