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Rats Make Fantastic Pets - But Are They Right For You?

Updated on November 10, 2011
Mommy and Daughter
Mommy and Daughter

Really think this through. Although much lower maintenance than the average pet, a small critter isn't something that should be tossed in a cage and only thought about in passing every now and then. I see this quite often with hamsters, and in truth, it's probably why most hamsters don't care for their humans and are prone to biting. But I digress... unlike hamsters, rats don't want to be left alone. Rats are in a completely different league.

Rats require lots of play, lots of attention, and lots lots LOTS of love. They are social animals; they crave interaction with humans, as well as needing interaction with their own.

So, you think you're ready to be owned by a rat?

Rats Are Like Potato Chips, You Can't Have Just One.
I will admit to being utterly addicted to the company of rats. When you walk into the room and their heads poke up from their nests anticipating your cuddles, or when they decide you're too dirty and will clean you to their liking, or even if it's just to fall asleep on your shoulder or in your lap or on your desk while you work on your human things... rats. are. adorably addicting. They just are! And it's a very good thing they are because you will definitely need more than one rat. Rats thrive in each others company. They'll be happiest in twos and trios of the same gender. The more the merrier, as long as they have plenty of space in their cage! Just don't keep males and females together, unless one or both are spayed/neutered. Spaying a female rat is far more risky than neutering a male rat, so opting for the male to be done is much simpler if you insist on keeping both sexes in the same cage. There are pros to spaying/neutering such as a longer lifespan, males and females can be kept together, and for males who can get a bit stinky with their manly musk, their manly odor fades. Obviously if you keep opposite sexes together, they will breed and rats breed like crazy. Please be responsible and don't risk it.

Fatty Dorian sitting upon his shelf.
Fatty Dorian sitting upon his shelf.
Vladimir and Wally.
Vladimir and Wally.

Spending Enough Time With Your Pal.
At the very least, you should spend an hour or two per day with your pet rats. The funny thing about pet rats is... they WANT your company. They need it. They crave your affection and attentions. They look forward to every interaction with you. A human bonded with their rat can be a very special thing, not so different from a human and a canine. Remember: YOU and you alone, are the world to your rat. Even if you can't spend all day with them, that is okay. They will cherish the time they do spend with you.

Keeping their cage in a high-traffic area of the house (living room, family room, etc) is a great way of keeping them in on all the "action" even when their cage is closed. When I was in high school, I had my boy rattie's cage sitting upon my desk in my room. There was a shelf right next to the desk, and I don't remember closing their cage often. They would never venture too far from the utopia of their home, but one particular rat Dorian, loved sitting on the shelf. He would just sit there and watch whatever would happen in my room. My other rat, Vladimir, made his own little alcove nest in a lower shelf attached to the desk. My sister and I called it his cave. And the third rat, Wally, preferred staying in the cage. I suppose he was the den mother of the group. I know it isn't possible for every situation to allow the cage open, and let your pet ratties have a shelf, or desk to themselves, but it was a great way for them to feel almost independent and part of the action 24/7. RIP my little Boy-Boys.

Mmm, noodle.
Mmm, noodle.

Costs.
Rats themselves are *pretty* inexpensive. They can range anywhere from $5-$50, whether you get them from a reputable breeder, pet classifieds, or a store. Let's get the horrors out of the way first. Please, I beg of you, do not support rat mills. Rat mills, much like puppy mills, are where rats are over-bred in unsanitary conditions, forced into small tubs, where they don't ever get fresh air, playtime, treats, nada. To see and understand what a rat mill really is, you can read about them here: http://www.fancy-rats.co.uk/community/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=85838

I warn you, the images and content are disturbing. It's not just rats either, but guinea pigs, mice, rabbits, -- pretty much every single one of the animals sold in a chain pet store came from a place like that.

By purchasing a pet rat from a popular chain, you are essentially putting money into the pockets of these horrific businesses. They are only out to make a quick buck and at the animal's health and well-being. These animals don't get fresh air. They don't get a break from breeding, birthing, and rearing. When they can no longer breed (if they make it that long), they are used as feeder food. Their entire life is spent in a small tub with a few airholes. Is that worth the few bucks you might save by buying a pet rat from say, petco or petsmart? No. You can even ask an employee where they get their rats, the answer will always be: "They get shipped here from <such and such>." They aren't bred in the store, nor are they from reputable breeders from the area. It's a stark reality. The rats that come from these places don't live long, and are rife with problems whether they be respiratory, or something more serious. Adopt a rat from a shelter, or find a reputable breeder. Craigslist has frequent rat listings as well, and those rats won't be coming from insidious origins.

Neptune, in her stuffed animal.
Neptune, in her stuffed animal.

Back to the costs of rats. Are you willing to buy a big enough cage to give your pet enough room to climb, scamper, run, and do all the other rattie things they like to do? Go with a multistory wire cage. It's best for climbing, hanging hammocks, ropes, and the ventilation is very important. Martins Cages are top notch, they might be on the pricier side but they last forever and are perfect for rats. TOYS!!!!!!!! All pets need toys. Don't worry, rats will like ANYTHING you put into their cage. Although make sure it is safe for rats in the first place. You can buy cheap stuffed animals, material to make ropes, hammocks, and things all by thrifting. You don't have to spend a bundle on keeping a rat happy. Aquariums can work as well, but you will need to clean them much more due to the lack of ventilation. A couple rats would be cramped in a ten gallon, so go as big as you can. Cage toppers also add something extra and fun to tanks.

Depending on the amount of rats you have, food should be no more than $10-$15 a month. I wouldn't buy commercial rat grains, as they aren't too nutritional and your lovelies are just going to pick out their favorite things and leave the healthy stuff -- which is why I buy lab blocks. Lab blocks give them everything they need in a hard block, and I also feed them fresh veggies (peas, carrots) or fruits as well.

Bedding is subjective. Avoid pine and cedar chips, as these are hazardous to a pet rat's respiratory and overall health. You can really be quite creative in your preferred bedding type. You can make homemade bedding from soy-based newspapers, shredded cardboard, or my favorite - cloth bedding. I peruse thrift stores for cheap sweatshirts, or material, and cut them up to fit the cage. You will need to change cloth bedding more frequently but it's simple with a quick wash in the washer. When dryer-ing them, I don't use a dryer sheet.

Proper Care For Mr. or Ms. Whiskers.
This means vet trips when needed, all the right research (did you know rats shouldn't drink soda? they shouldn't eat oranges, chocolate, or lemons?), getting the right size cage along with the proper bedding. Research, research, research, knowledge really is the best offense when getting a pet. The more you know, the more capable you are in taking the BEST care of them. Lack of information can severely impact the quality and longevity of your pet's life, and that goes for all animals, not just ratties.They should be fed fresh food along with high quality lab blocks, and fresh water daily. Don't wait for the water to completely drain from a water-bottle. Have you ever left a bottle of Aquafina or Evian sitting out for days, then foolishly tried taking a sip when you were thirsty?

That is exactly what some rats deal with, and everyone and everything great and small, deserves fresh water. Also bathing -- also subjective. You don't have to bathe your rats, but if you prefer a squeaky clean (pardon the pun) rattie, then bathing with a gentle shampoo in the sink will suffice. Some rats love water, some rats loathe water. Each rat has a different personality, and I really mean that.

While health is a big issue, proper care also means keeping rats occupied with toys in the cage, other rattie room-mates, and the time you put in with them. Rats are thinkers, and they love doing things like solving puzzles (put a treat inside something and watch 'em figure out how to get to it). Even the biggest of cages can become boring fast, so keep interesting things inside! Rats LOVE hammocks, you can purchase these from the internet (many go towards animal shelters and rescues), buy from a store (though they can be quite pricy), or make them yourself! While I'm no seamstress, hammock making is quite simple, or if you prefer knitting or crocheting, they are viable options as well.

Ratkins and a midnight lab block snack.
Ratkins and a midnight lab block snack.

Lifespan.
This is entirely up to the person, but a rat's short 1-3 year lifespan is either a good or bad thing. Like say, if you move around a lot, a rat's lifespan is probably perfect for you. For the rest of us, a rat that has really bonded with us only to say goodbye a short time later, well, it's heartbreaking. Are you prepared to deal? Their lives are fragile, but the good news is, taking the best care and precautions can further their time with you. It's unfortunate that a lot of rats have health problems -- especially those bought from pet stores and mills. They are prone to respiratory issues (sniffles, trouble breathing) and are prone to tumors. Tumors can be removed by a qualified vet (though not all vets are rat knowledgeable), but if your rat gets a tumor, it'll likely get another.

Let's talk about reputable breeders again. Those that are striving to better rats and their lifespan. I respect these honest folk because they are trying to better what the rat mills have done -- supply and stock poor ratties with poor health and temperaments. Ever try holding a rat from a pet store? It was probably shy, nervous, and tried to squirm away. Rats from mills have not been handled on a daily basis. Now have you held one from a good breeder? The difference is astronomical. Imagine adopting a puppy who had zero human contact -- that pup would probably be deathly afraid of you, vs a puppy raised in a warm, loving home. Rats from good breeders are handled from the day they were born, they grow up with human contact, and probably other pets and animals. These are the rats you should be looking for -- although I do hope you check your local shelter to see if there are rats in need of homes there.

Hammock times!
Hammock times!

Responsibility!!!
I cannot stress enough that all animals require the best care possible, and that ties into being responsible. From buying the right food, toys, play-time, etc. Every pet you have deserves fountains of happiness and love. Do you have what it takes to give the proper care, attention, and love to a pet rat? Yes, your rat might sit behind cage wires, but it is an animal too - an animal requiring what it needs most- love and respect. Respect your rat by feeding him or her special treats, cleaning the cage often, and finding new things to keep them occupied. Love them by handling them lots, giving them rides on your shoulders, and cuddling. Have you ever seen a rat ---soooo---- comfortable, that it was sleeping on its back, in your hands?

I have. And it's an amazing thing, for a rat to trust you so much, it would sleep in such a way.

Did you know that rats love you back? Will know their owners from strangers that pick them up? Did you know if you put a rat on the floor, it will not run away, but will run back to the safety of you?

Rats are these things and more. Go above and beyond for your pet rat, and you will have a wonderful companion. If you're ready to do all of the above - and beyond - for your pet rat, then it sounds like you are ready to join the ranks of the elated pet rattie owners out there.

I salute you!

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      Bethany Lafford 17 months ago

      Great article, live it. I love rats have always had them....they make the best pets ever. I currently have two girls called Scarlett and Calico, very sweet and such different personalitys. I understand what you say about rat mills and bad pet stores , but to be honest I always resue mine, they are breed to be eaten by snakes . They are supper wild at first but with love and patience they as tame as can be. I just believe they also deserve a good life, I even chose Calico because she has a deformed leg and needs a loving home more than any other rat. I wish I can take them all home with me, I always avoid that section of the pet shop. Xxx

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      morticia 23 months ago

      I would love to get a rat from a breeder, but there are none within states of me as far as I can tell -- do you have a suggestion or link to breeders I could reference? I couldn't agree more about the petshops, mills, etc. It's awful. I'd appreciate any insight!

    • kikinusbaumer profile image

      Kiki Nusbaumer 3 years ago from Chesterfield, VA

      Love this entry. Interesting that you don't recommend chocolate. I am getting conflicting research but will err on the side of no chocolate since veggies are better for you anyway. What great photos you have of your little guys! Thanks for sharing this info!