Rats In The House : Keeping Fancy Rats
Pet rats are often called fancy rats and make excellent pets for children and adults alike. Contrary to popular belief fancy rats do not carry diseases like their wild counterparts. Rats have been bred in captivity for hundreds of generations. They are small clean animals that are intelligent and friendly. They tend to be tamer and gentler than other popular rodents kept as pets. Fancy rats rarely bite. They don’t require a lot of space and are inexpensive and relatively low maintenance.
- Size: body 6-11 inches; tail 7-9 inches.
- Weight: 6-18 ounces with some males weighing up to 2 pounds.
- Average lifespan: 1.5-3 years.
- Lifestyle: Nocturnal
- Males are known as bucks, females as does and babies as pups or kittens
- Puberty: At 6-8 weeks rats are sexually mature but it is not advised to breed them this early.
- Gestation: females can come into heat every 4-5 days.
- Rats are social and enjoy the company of other rats (keeping rats of the same sex is advised).
Choosing a cage and adding furnishings is an important aspect of owning and caring for fancy rats. They cage is the creatures’ home and where they will spend the majority of their time. Choosing the right size and adding interesting things for the rat will give it a happier, healthier life. Cages should be kept out of drafty or hot areas. Also while Rats enjoy being around people and seeing what goes on they are nocturnal animals so a calm quite spot isn’t a bad idea. There are several types of cages that can be found at pet stores and other local stores. The larger the cage the better, there is no such thing as too big. At minimum the cage floor should be 24 inches long by 12 inches wide.
- Aquariums: While many keep their rats in an aquarium they are not the best choice. They are good at keeping bedding and other messes contained. Also the solid clear sides make viewing easy and keep out could drafts but they also keep out fresh air. This lack of ventilation can cause build up of ammonia which comes from the rat’s urine. This buildup not only can become quite smelly it can also affect the rat’s health and cause breathing difficulties. In warmer months heat also builds up inside the tank. Also since aquariums have no bars offer very little opportunity to set up an interesting habitat for your pet. If you choose to keep your rats in an aquarium you will need a mesh wire top. Make sure the top fits snugly over the tank, aquarium clips can be found at many pet shops and help keep tops securely on. Aquariums may be a choice for mother rats and their babies as the tiny babies can escape through wire bars.
- Wire Cages: There are a variety of wire cages on the market, some of which are specifically made for rats. Some may be simple and have one level while some can be multi level. Wire cages make excellent homes for keeping rats as long as they are kept out of drafts and direct sunlight. Most have deep plastic bottoms that hold bedding and prevents most from being kicked out. The wire bars allow ventilation and allow the ammonia to dissipate into the surrounding air. The rat will also be able to see and smell the world outside its home. The bars also enable things such as hammocks and toys to be hung in the cage and make the home much more interesting for the rats. Rats will also climb the bars; this provides them with exercise when inside the cage. Having toys and hammocks higher up in the cage stimulates them to get moving and build muscle. Wire cages make it easy to rearrange toys and hammocks hanging from the bars, rats love to explore and this will give them something new and exciting. A word of caution with tall cages; while rats love to climb they can and most likely will fall from time to time. The higher the cage the longer the fall is to the bottom. Using hammocks and plastic shelving will keep the rats from falling too far and prevent injury.
- Doors: A lot of wire cages come with small doors. When looking for a suitable cage for you rat it is best to find one with large doors and preferably more than one door. Rats are curious little creatures and most will come to investigate when the door opens. If you have many rats in a single a cage a small door may lead to accidental injury as all the rats come to greet you and come out of the cage. Larger doors also make it easier to clean the cage and interact with the rats inside their home. Cages with doors on the roof make cleaning and rearranging toys even easier.
- Wire Floors: Many cages, especially those sold for ferrets. May come with mesh wire flooring or grate. These are not recommended for keeping rats. These floors can be very dangerous for rats, causing injury to their feet and toes. Research has proven that ammonia levels are higher in cages with wire floors than those with just solid floors and bedding. There is no advantage to using a wire floor grate as bedding is still needed beneath the grate. These grates are hard to clean as droppings get stuck in them. If a cage comes with a wire grate it is recommended to remove it and use the litter pan only. Cages with wire levels or shelving can be covered with linoleum, cardboard, or carpet, which can be cleaned or replaced when soiled.
- How many rats: Rats are friendly, social animals and it is advised to keep them in groups of 2 or more. If not planning to breed it is best to keep them with the same sex. Remember rats like most rodents can multiply very quickly. The larger the number of rats the bigger cage needed. Even if you only have 2 rats the largest cage you can afford is best. Even rats kept in the biggest cages still need human attention and time outside the cage for exercise, play, and socialization.
- Escaping Rats: One potential drawback to wire cages is the bar spacing. Some wire cages are made for larger animals such as ferrets and chinchillas and the bars can be rather wide set. Babies, young rats, and small females may be able to squeeze through the bars and escape, leaving them open to get into trouble. Young rats may need to be kept in smaller cages with smaller bars until they are adult and can be moved into a larger cage with larger bars. However don’t keep young rats in cages that are too small as this can stunt their development and not allow them the proper room to exercise and burn off excess energy.
Though fancy rats are the same species as wild rats they are not bred to live outside in the elements. However, if you absolutely have to keep them outside there are a few things to keep in mind. Provide them with shelter from the heat, cold, wind and rain. Insects such as misquotes and aunts can cause problems for pet rats, as well as other parasites. It is best to keep cages/hutches up off the ground. Sprays, powders and citronella candles can be used around cages but not too close since rats have sensitive noses. Fancy rats are not hardy rodents like guinea pigs and rabbits when it comes to cold weather. If they must be outside they are best kept in an outbuilding during cold months.
Another important choice to make when keeping pet rats is what type of bedding to use. Again there are many types available. Whatever litter you choose it is important to clean it on a regular schedule since ammonia and fecal bacteria buildup is both smelly and can be harmful for the rats. The purpose of using litter or bedding is to absorb moisture from the rat’s waste. Drawing out the moisture stops the decomposition process which cuts back on unwanted odor. Bedding also is used as a nesting material. On occasion rats may be allergic to particular types of bedding. In general pine and cedar bedding should be avoided.
- Pellet and Paper Based Bedding: One of the most popular littler choices is pellet and paper based bedding. Pellet bedding is made of recycled newspaper. Many rat owners use it, one down side is it tends to crumble and get dusty after it gets wet and then dries. There are many other paper based beddings on the market; most are made from recycled paper or cardboard.
- Shredded Paper: This is an inexpensive option. Newspaper or other paper can be ripped up and used as bedding but needs to be changed often as it gets mushy when wet. If using paper with ink make sure the ink is non toxic. Also bear in mind that light colored rats will look dirty and dingy from the ink. In some places it is possible to get unprinted newspaper to shred.
- Wood Shavings: If using wood shavings as bedding it is advised to use a hardwood shaving such as aspen bedding. Hardwood shavings do not contain harmful oils that are found in other wood shavings. It is absorbent but can be a bit hard to vacuum from carpets.
- Cloth: Cloth bedding can be used if either the rats or any humans having contact with the bedding have allergies. Old clothing or fabric scraps can be used. Use fabrics that do not unravel easily as lose string can get caught around tails and toes. Soiled cloth can be thrown away of washed with a mild or hypoallergenic detergent. Small amounts of bleach can be used but either run through 2 rinse cycles or wash again with detergent only. If you can detect bleach then the clot needs to be washed or rinsed again.
While Rats are hardly little creatures the wrong bedding can cause illness.
- Cedar or Pine Bedding: Though sold at many pet shops and department stores softwood shavings such as cedar and pine bedding are not good choices for rat bedding. Softwood shavings should NEVER be used because they contain TOXIC chemicals called phenols. These chemicals cause repertory problems. These chemicals are also what give off the strong aromatic smell that covers up urine odors. This has lead to their popularity as a rodent and small animal bedding but be aware it could make your pet ill.
- Clay Cat Litter: This should be avoided at all costs! Clay litter forms into clumps if swallowed and will form a deadly blockage.
- Corn Cob Bedding: This type of bedding has a tendency to grow mold after becoming wet. This not only causes an unpleasant odor but also increases the bacteria in the rat’s environment.
Furnishings and Accessories:
Some cage furnishings are necessary such as food bowls and water bottles, others are optional. The larger the cage the more interesting you can make the environment with accessories and the happier your rat will be. Rats are fun to watch so the more they have to interact with the more fun they are to watch.
- Food Bowls and Water Bottles: Are available at pet shops and most department stores. Water bottles come in many shapes and sizes. If housing 3 or more Rats together it is advised to get more than one water bottle. This will cut back on squabbles when one or more rat wants a drink at the same time. There are numerous varieties of food bowls on the market. Bowls that attach to the cage or are heavy ceramic bowls are best as they prevent food tipping. Rats have a tendency to stand on their food bowls and those that are light weight or not attached will tip. Some bowls are made to attach between the wire bars, this keeps the bowl off the floor and prevents tipping but rats that like to dig through their food may spill food out of their cage.
- Litter Trays: Rats can be trained to use a litter pan if desired. There are many styles available. Litter used inside the pan should be different than the bedding so the rat learns to use the pan and littler to toilet only.
- Hammocks and Hide Boxes: Rats love to sleep in a variety of places. Sometimes rats living with other rats may want to be alone. Providing them with different places to sleep will enhance their happiness. The bottom of the cage is a great place for dark hide boxes. These can be almost anything such as store bought rodent igloos to boxes. Keep in mind that rats will chew on things so don’t give them something that could be harmful if chewed and swallowed. Hide boxes with 2 or more exits are preferred. Rats like to cuddle together so a hide box that can fit all the rats is preferred. If your cage is high enough for hammocks these make great additions to the cage. Rats will often cuddle together in them. Hammock can be found at most pet shops, often labeled for ferrets but Rats enjoy them too. With some creativity you can even make your own from old towels or clothing. Some other hanging beds are available that resemble tents. These are another good choice.
- Tubes and Shelves: Tubes are great fun places for rats to play or just relax. There are many styles that can be found on the market, many can be connected together to make longer tunnels and mazes. Most are made of hard plastic but large cardboard tubes can also be used. However, cardboard tubes can be chewed up rather quickly. Shelving can be used in tall cages to provide extra living space for the rats and help break falls in high cages.
- Toys: Rats are intelligent and inquisitive little creatures that like to explore new things. Many toys are available for rats to enjoy. Some rats will run on a large hamster wheel but most are too intelligent and find them boring. Also the spokes can be dangerous to tails and toes. Toilet paper can be placed on top or around the outside of wire cages. Rats will eagerly pull the paper through the bars. Boxes of all sizes are also enjoyed by pet rats. Ladders and other large bird toys make good toy choices for rats. Soft cat toys and balls are also acceptable. Rats love climbing so braided climb ropes are very entertaining.
Rats are actually clean creatures that spend much of their waking hours grooming themselves and other rats. They also enjoy living in a clean environment. How often the cage is cleaned depends on the type of cage, the number of rats, and bedding/litter material. A good rule of thumb is to clean and disinfect the cage and all furnishings once a week. Food and water containers should be cleaned once daily. More than once set comes in handy as the soiled ones can be removed and cleaned, possibly in the dishwasher. Once soiled bedding is removed the cage and furniture should be washed with soap and water, followed by a disinfectant. Vinegar is useful in removing deposits left by the rat’s urine.
It is not advised to change the bedding daily. If you do this you may find the cage becomes smellier. This is because rats can become insecure when their smell is removed so they may urinate more frequently to mark their territory. This is most common with male rats but also true of females. Leaving a bit of the old bedding in with the new bedding will reassure the rats that this is their home.
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