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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Providing a Home for a Rat

By Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian) ; Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM, Associate Director, Division of Comparative Medicine, Washington University

Your pet rat will need a suitable cage, a balanced diet, and the opportunity for exercise and socialization with you in order to remain in good health.

Housing

A wide variety of cages are available for pet rats. In general, a cage should have good ventilation, be easy to clean, and be escape-proof. It should have enough space to allow for some exercise, as well as areas for feeding and nesting. Extra space should be allowed if several rats are housed together. A plastic cage or glass aquarium or terrarium can make a good home for a pet rat; however the top should be mesh to allow plenty of ventilation. Metal or wire cages are less desirable because they can allow drafts (through mesh openings) and collect condensation. Metal cages are also harder to clean and disinfect and can corrode after long exposure to urine. Cages made with wood are unacceptable for housing rats, as their urine will soak into the wood. This causes ammonia buildup, which can lead to respiratory disease. Rats may also chew through the wood, allowing them to escape. The wood may also splinter, making it unsafe.

If wire shelves are used in the cage for the animals to climb on, they should be made of wire with openings no wider than ½ by ½ inch. Any wider opening might allow the rat’s back foot to get caught in the opening, leading to injuries such as a broken leg. The new powder-coated wire rat cages with solid metal shelves and plastic cat pan bottoms are the easiest to clean, and rats seem to enjoy climbing on the various levels.

The bedding and floor covering should be absorbent. Wood shavings or prepared litter can provide soft bedding for rats. Hay may be added. Recycled paper products marketed as bedding are safe and easy to clean. Cedar shavings contain oils that may be toxic to small animals, and their use remains controversial.

A water bottle with a hanger that allows rats to easily drink water can be used. A water dish should be avoided as rats may spill the water or push shavings in it. Holders with chew guards for the water bottle are available. These allow you to hang the bottle inside the cage. If you use a feed dish, it should be easy to clean and sturdy enough to prevent tipping.

As with any pet, those living in a poor environment will develop health problems quickly. An unclean cage combined with poor quality bedding materials can increase the risk of bacterial and viral infection in rats. The cages should be cleaned with hot water at least once a week and the bedding should be changed at least twice weekly. Avoid allowing a buildup of ammonia (due to urine), which is produced when cage litter is not changed frequently enough.

Diet

In the wild, rats eat a varied diet. Domesticated rats need a balanced diet including carbohydrates, protein, and fat, as well as certain vitamins and minerals. Commercially prepared food is available at pet stores and not only contains all the vitamins and minerals that rats need but also provides pellets that are hard enough to wear down the constantly growing incisor teeth of the rat. Some mixtures contain pellets mixed with seeds; however, these should be avoided because rats will often pick out the seeds and leave the pellets. Rats may avoid new foods, so if you are changing from a seed mixture to pellets, it is best to introduce the new diet gradually. Fresh vegetables, sunflower seeds, and fruit can be given in limited amounts as treats. Fatty treats should be avoided, because older rats are prone to obesity.

Food should be available at all times; however, any uneaten food should be removed from the cage before fresh food is provided (at least once daily). Use solid containers for food that the rat cannot easily tip over. Fresh water should always be available from a water bottle mounted on or hung in the cage. All food and water containers should be cleaned thoroughly every day.

Exercise

Routine exercise is necessary for good health in all animals. Rats are extremely active and enjoy opportunities to exercise and play. Access to exercise wheels, tubes, ladders, and climbing blocks provides stimulation and is part of a balanced life. It may also help prevent obesity. If you get an exercise wheel for your rat, it should be at least 12 to 14 inches in diameter. The cage should be large enough to accommodate some of these “cage toys” and allow comfortable movement around them.

Temperament

Rats are very social creatures. They appreciate being in a group, and will often spend large amounts of time grooming themselves or fellow cage mates. Male rats tend to fight unless they grew up together. Females can be in the same cage without any problems.

Usually, rats are great with children but they should be kept away from other pets in the house such as dogs, cats, birds, and other rodents. Remember that rats are the natural predators or prey for several of these animals!

Because rats are nocturnal, they can be quite active at night. You may want to consider locating the cage in a place where sleeping family members will not be disturbed by their activity.