Rats should have constant access to a Superior Nutrition rat specific diet that will make up around 70% of their daily diet. Varieties such as Science Selective or Vetafarm are high quality, researched diets that have the essential nutrients needed to ensure your rats stay healthy. You can't generally overfeed these foods and most rats are safe to have a bowl of this readily available.
Rats also benefit from having supplemental foods such as vegetables, protein and some cooked foods as part of their daily diet. Providing a variety of choices helps with enrichment, encouraging natural behaviour and these can also be used as treats. Rat specific treats are also available to help with training, rewards and bonding.
Most popular supplemental foods for rats include cooked egg, cooked chicken and bones (great for their teeth) cooked pasta, peas, carrot, cooked corn, cooked kumara, blueberries, banana, grapes and avocado. Be mindful of excess protein or any added salt during the cooking process. Introduce all new foods gradually.
Do not feed citrus fruits, rhubarb, raw peanuts, raw potatoes or kumara, carbonated drinks, alcohol or caffeine. Be careful with sticky foods such as peanut butter as it can cause choking.
Food not eaten within 24 hours should be discarded.
Water should be available at all times. Drink bottles are recommended rather than bowls or in addition to as rats will toilet in bowls. We recommend having a minimum of two water bottles available in case one runs out or has a blockage, these should be placed at different levels within the cage.
Rats should always be kept in pairs or groups; they are highly social animals who thrive from interaction with other rats and studies have shown that rats can become clinically depressed if kept their own. Having pairs or groups of rats does not negatively affect their bond with humans; in fact rats are likely to be more comfortable and outgoing with their surroundings when kept in a suitable group.
When adopting rats you should keep same sexed groups unless the other sex has been neutered or spayed. Very rarely will a rat not want company and regardless of their sex most rats will get along well with the right introductions.
It is important that the enclosure is not in direct sunlight, draughts or places of extreme temperature change (rats should never be housed outdoors). Ideally, the cage should be made of metal (wired) and must be well ventilated but escape proof. It is best to provide the largest habitat you can afford as rats are very active. The Pet One Rat Cage is considered a great starter cage for two-three females or two males. However if you wish to have a bigger group or provide a larger space there are large bird cages such as the Avi One 604 or 604T which can have platforms, ropes and hammocks added to become a true rat palace. Fish tanks are not suitable housing for rats due to the lack of ventilation.
Rats do best when kept in social areas of your home such as the lounge, but be careful placing them near the kitchen or near strong smelling scents as they have delicate respiratory systems. Rats can be active and noisy at night time so keep this in mind if you are considering keeping them in a bedroom.
The ideal rat enclosure should include multiple hidey houses, hammocks or hanging hideaways as rats love to be off the ground.
Width is more appreciated than height, but with tall cages there should be clear ‘stations’ of feeding, hiding, and play areas to help encourage your rats to use all levels of their enclosure.
Wheels included in enclosures should have a diameter over 30cm for adult size rats to ensure adequate room for safe running and stride. Full plastic wheels are easiest to clean and safer as they prevent toes and tails being caught between any bars.
Rats are very inquisitive and play for large portions of the day. Rat wheels, ladders and rope toys make excellent gymnasiums. Encourage explorative and play behaviours by hiding treats around the cage and providing a variety of rotated toys for them to play on and hide in.
The bedding or substrate in the bottom of the cage needs to be chemical and dust free. Suitable bedding types for rats include aspen, pelleted paper based products, kritter crumble and some wood pellets. Always check if the product is safe for rats as they have sensitive respiratory tracts and often many wood/pine beddings can aggravate this delicate system.
A 4cm deep layer is advised on the base of the cage and should be cleaned regularly. Hay or straw is not recommended as it can be quite sharp and provides no nutritional value to a rat’s diet.
Levels in the enclosure can often be covered with polar fleece to provide softer and varied surfaces, particularly under hiding areas to provide a comforting base for the rats.
Rats require weekly in depth cleaning with spot cleaning during the week. Sometimes they may require cleaning more regularly depending on enclosure size, number of rats housed in the enclosure etc.
Toys, soft bedding and hides should be cleaned weekly or more regularly if required.
Enrichment and training
Rats are incredibly smart and love rewarded learning. Rats can even be taught tricks such as spin, retrieving items, coming when called, ‘sit up’ and love obstacle courses. All training requires patience, kind handling, plenty of treats and consistency.
Daily time out of their cage with you is essential and will also help with exercise, tameness and having happy rats. In the wild, rats are naturally inquisitive and active animals so simulating that level of exercise is important.
Rats can be toilet trained by having designated litter tray in the corner of their cage and placing stray droppings into it when they toilet elsewhere. A flat stone can also be added to the litter tray to encourage peeing in the tray. While this is not always 100% it can help with maintaining a cleaner enclosure.
Another way to enrich your rats’ life is to offer them opportunities to work for their favourite treats, such as vegetable fishing and dig boxes.
Place a heavy shallow ceramic bowl or dish and fill with water, add some of your rats favourite veges (such as peas, corn pieces). Some rats will love water and others may be more wary and may take several tries to get excited about playing in their vegetable pool. This is a great way to help them keep cool in summer, and a lot of fun to watch.
Dig boxes are a great way to encourage explorative and nesting behaviours. You can create dig boxes by placing a selection of soft material, fleece, tissues and/or other bedding into a box or hidey, with sprinkled treats at each layer. Rats will often get very excited to rip this new toy apart searching for all the best bits.
Handling and behaviour
Rats need at least an hour out of their cage every day with handling and interaction, and to stretch their legs.
Never pick up a rat by its tail as this is painful for them and can cause harm.
Always pick them up around their stomach and support their feet with your other hand. Carrying around your rat on your shoulders and in your clothes also helps them feel safe and secure.
Keep in mind when you get a new pet that it will take time for them to settle into their new home, and particularly with young rats they tend to be jumpier and more flighty than an older rat.
To get your rat used to handling, start with a soft food (such as yoghurt) on a spoon and reward good behaviour such as your rat coming towards you when you put your hand in their cage. Always reward good behaviour with a treat and verbal praise. Rats are very food driven and often bond easily with those who feed them.
When your rats are spending time out of their cage make sure that the area is secure, free of other pets and safe.
All rats will have their own personalities, but there are some key traits across the genders. Males are bigger than females, tend to have a stronger smell, and can often mark on things. However they are known for being super laid back and cuddly. Girls are active, playful and very inquisitive and usually don’t like to sit still much. Their coats are super soft and don’t smell as much as boys.
Bruxing and boggling are common when you have a very happy rat. Bruxing is when rats grind their teeth together. Boggling is when your rats eyes bulge in and out in a fast motion, often when very happy and content.
Rats are social and should only ever be kept in pairs or groups. They often display many play behaviours including wrestling, vocalizing, grooming and cuddling together.
You should always wash your hands before and after handling your rat or its cage contents. Pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems should ask their doctor before considering rats as pets.
Rats are naturally clean animals and do a great deal of self grooming, although some may need a little extra help as they get older. They don’t require bathing unless your veterinarian has recommended it as bathing is generally unnecessary and can be quite stressful to a rat.
Rats have sharp claws and although these can be trimmed by a confident trained person, they can often be kept worn down by including a variety of textures, including Lava/Pumice stone ledges placed at a key area like a food bowl, treat hanger or water bottle. Should your rat's nails require trimming, we would recommend talking to your local veterinarian to show you the safest way possible and the best tools to use.
As with all pets, it’s important to be prepared for medical expenses, throughout their lifetime, including unexpected care.
Finding a confident rat-savvy vet is important as rats can be prone to respiratory issues, tumours, abscesses, mites and lice. It's also recommended that they get desexed which will help reduce some of the tumour risks.
Ensure you keep a close eye on your rats for any changes in physiology or behaviour that could indicate illness.
The signs of a healthy rat include:
- Active, alert and sociable
- Healthy fur
- Clear bright eyes
- Eats and drinks regularly
- Walking and moving normally
- Normal stools
The signs of an unhealthy rat include:
- Overgrown teeth
- Weight loss
- Lumps or bumps on the skin
- Abnormal hair loss
- Eye or nasal discharge
- Sneezing, or coughing.
- Audible or laboured breathing
- Unusual stools
- Changes to behaviour, activity levels or personality
Other health notes:
Porphyrin is a reddened discharge that appears around the eyes, nose and down the back. This can be mistaken for blood in some cases. Porphyrin can be related to a rat being sick or stressed however is usually not an issue in small amounts. Please contact your veterinarian should you ever be concerned.
Ensure there are plenty of wooden chews in your enclosure to prevent overgrown teeth.
‘Buck grease’ is an oily orange substance that is apparent in male rats only due to an overproduction of testosterone. Washing this off your rats will not get rid of it and can often stress your rats out more. The best way to reduce/get rid of buck grease is to neuter them which reduces these testosterone levels.
Hormonal aggression can be a genetic trait with some rats (commonly males). This usually shows around the 6-12 month old age. Signs can be if they start to play too rough with their companions or owners, seeming more agitated than usual, huffing or marking territory. Desexing your rats is the only way to help reduce this. Hormonal aggression is different to behaviour aggression. If you have an aggressive rat it best to book an appointment at your local Animates Vetcare clinic to assess the cause.
- Good sized cage suitable to house a minimum of two-three rats
- High quality rat specific food
- Two large water bottles
- Paper/Aspen or suitable bedding
- Wheel/exercise toys
- Ceramic food bowls
- Chew toys & treat sticks
- Hammocks, tunnels and hideys
- Nesting material
Are rats right for you and your family?
- I have the appropriate housing for these pets.
- I have the appropriate finances for medical conditions that may appear.
- I understand that male and female rats should not be housed together (unless desexed).
- I understand that rats should always be kept in pairs/groups.
- I can provide daily supervised time for my rat outside their enclosure.
- I can commit to taking appropriate care for my rat for its life.
- An adult can provide primary care for this pet.
- Average size: 20-25cm including their tail (males are larger than females)
- Life span: 2-3 years on average