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Image by Oxana Golubets

How to take care of your rat

These are very intelligent, friendly and highly social creatures. They make good pets with individual personalities that are easy to handle but due to their nocturnal nature would only be suitable for older children / adults. They live in colonies once plenty of food / space (fighting will occur if lack of these vital resources). Females are usually fine to keep together but males will fight, neuter if keeping opposite sexes together (male is still fertile for 8 days after neutering!). They breathe through their nose only and cannot vomit. Coprophagy is common (eat their own poo, it contains important b vitamins), and rats spend half their waking hours grooming. They have a poor sense of vision (though can see UV light) and use their whiskers (‘vibrissae’, which are as sensitive as your fingertips) to help them navigate. Their sense of smell is most important, they can learn everything about eachother from how their breath / urine / faeces smells. They use their urine to mark territory / preferred foods / eachother / humans. They have an innate aversion to cat odour – keep away from cats.

Diet for rats

Omnivorous, meaning they eat both animal and plant material. Feeding preferences are socially transmitted—ie they prefer what their mother eats. Commercial rodent mix like Burgess supa rat pellets etc (best ratio of ingredients : 16% protein, 5% fat, must increase protein to 20% if breeding) supplemented with fruit and vegetables are best. They are prone to obesity and will ‘pick and choose’ high fatty / sugary diets, so seed diets are not suitable (they pick out the fatty, sugary parts ignoring other elements that contain important nutritional requirements). They tend to avoid new foods so if changing diet, they may not eat it until they are familiar with it (present same food over multiple days). Scatter food through cage / in plastic kongs to encourage foraging, this helps stimulate them. Food restriction instead of constantly having food available has been found to decrease incidence of tumours, which these species are very prone to, and generally increase their lifespan. Never feed your rat through the cage – they may mistake your fingers for food! Water should be provided at all times, changed daily and if using bottles, check daily for blockages.

Housing for rats

Metal / glass cages best – no wood / plastic as these materials are easy to gnaw through. If breeding, must be small enough space between bars (1.5cm) to prevent escape of young. Min height 30cm, must be well ventilated as pneumonia very common (build-up of ammonia from their pee / droppings, this makes fish tank style cage unsuitable).  They benefit greatly from environmental stimulation in the form of furniture ie branches / ropes / tubes / ladders / exercise wheels (solid NOT open-tail will get caught and injured) and a ‘hidey hole’ (small cardboard box). Suitable bedding material include wood shavings or chips / sawdust / paper nesting material, or commercial ‘dust-free’ bedding. This must be cleaned out twice weekly to prevent ammonia build-up and also skin disease of feet / tail / underbelly from urine soaked bedding. Unsuitable bedding includes newspaper / corncob / cedar / pine / aromatic woodchips. Their hearing range is very different to ours and so should not be kept near TVs / dvd players / computers / as all of these emit a high frequency noise that can stress them out.

Fact sheet for pet rats

Life expectancy           26-40 months

Weight                          Females: 225-325g, Male: 300-500g

Gestation                     21-23 days

Size of litter                 6-12

Weaning                       3 weeks old (eat dry food at 2 weeks)

Puberty                        5-6 weeks old

Feed                             ~20g a day / 30-40 mls water

Things to watch out for with pet rats

DO NOT GRAB BY THE TAIL – this may cause the rat to ‘deglove’ the skin over the tail and expose the bone. No cure except to remove tail surgically. When lifting, use one or two hands around the rats chest and support the hindquarters. 

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