Rat Care Guide
Jessi OíConnell, CVT
and edited by Susan Horton, DVM
Pet rats are of the species Rattus norvegicus.
These nocturnal rodents are characterized by elongated
bodies, short fur, small eyes and ears, and hairless tails.
Pet Fancy rats come
in six different varieties. These include Standard, Rex, Hairless,
Satin, Dumbo, and Tailless. There are also various colors and body
markings recognized by the AFRMA. From the common Pink-eyed white
(albino), and standard hooded, to the beautiful Siamese, and
everywhere in between. With all the different varieties it may be
a shock to hear they all fall under the species Rattus
norvegicus, commonly known as the Norway or Brown rat. Rats
can make wonderful pets because they are highly social,
intelligent, and affectionate. Due to their social and
affectionate behavior they should be housed in same sex or altered
sex groups. Rats should also get at least 30 minutes of supervised
play time outside of their cage to interact with you! Always
remember that when handling rats you must support their chest as
well as their back.
Anatomically, rats have open inguinal canals,
a diffuse pancreas, a divided stomach, a large cecum, and an os
penis. Rats do not
have gallbladders and cannot vomit.
Albino rats have poor eyesight, and all rats depend on
whiskers and scent for sensory input, sometimes weaving their
heads back and forth to focus on objects.
The red brown Harderian gland is a lachrymal gland located
behind the eyeball; this gland produces a lipid and red porphyrin-rich
secretion. In illness,
red tears may overflow and stain the face and nose, and can also
be spread or caked on wrists, ears and fur.
There is no blood in this tear film and the red crusts will
fluoresce bright under ultraviolet light.
As rats age white hair coats can take on a yellowish cast.
Because rats are social and need
companionship, they should be maintained in same sex or altered
Housing: The minimum cage size for a single adult rat is
(24Ēx 24Ē x 14Ē high). An escape proof wire cage with a
solid plastic or metal floor is optimal. Aquariums should only be
used as nursing cages or hospital cages, because ammonia tends to
build up rapidly in them. Rats should never be exposed to a wire
floor, because pressure sores can form. These sores can lead to
pododermatitis, which is an ulcerative condition of the feet
commonly known as bumble foot. Their cages should have plenty of
places to both sleep and hide. Some great options are hide boxes
and hammocks. Rats are highly intelligent animals and need to have
stimulation in their cages. They frequently enjoy running in
wheels, and should have a safe solid floored wheel available in
their cage. Toys donít need to cost a lot of money, card board
boxes and shredded paper, go over very well. Also they should
always have access to wood chews in their cage. As their teeth are
constantly growing and without a way to wear them down it can lead
to malocclusion of the teeth.
Pine and Cedar bedding should NEVER be used as bedding material
for rats. The phenols (natural aromatic chemicals) found in these
two types of wood are toxic. They have been proven to cause
irritation to their respiratory tract, and can lead to respiratory
disease. Safe options for bedding in rat cages include fleece
fabric, recycled newspaper bedding, and aspen. The bedding should
be spot cleaned daily and completely changed at least twice
weekly. With time and patience rats can also be litter trained
(feces) much like a cat.
Most rats will allow you to pick them up by
placing the hand firmly over the back and rib cage, or by scooping
them up in both hands. The
head can be restrained with the thumb and forefinger behind the
jaws. Scruffing the
loose skin at the nape of the neck can help restrain and active
rat, but many rats object to this.
Gender differentiation with rats is very simple, even from
early on. As males have a scrotum and an anogenital distance twice
as long as a female. Males should be separated from females at
five weeks of age to prevent pregnancy. Spaying and neutering are
both very beneficial. Neutering can lower testosterone as well as
prevent testicular tumors. And spaying prevents both pregnancy and
is thought to lower the risk of developing mammary tumors, which
are very common in female rats. It also allows both genders to
live together in the same cage.
are omnivores meaning that they eat both plants and animals. This
is very important to keep in mind when feeding your pet rat. The
staple of their diet should be a commercially available pelleted
diet such as Oxbow, Mazuri, or Harlan Teklad. Fresh vegetables,
lean meats such as chicken, and very small amounts of fruit can be
added for a variety. Seed based diets should be avoided at all
costs; they are both fattening and most importantly nutritionally
deficient. Fresh water should be given daily and using a glass
water bottle is preferred over plastic. The reason this is favored
is that you canít properly clean plastic bottles. And the glass
bottles can be run through the dish washer weekly to remove any
bacteria that could be growing. Keeping a close eye on your pet
ratís appetite is very important; it also can be very difficult.
It is recommended that you purchase a gram scale and weigh them at
least once weekly. The first sign of illness in rodents is usually
Interesting Facts: In general rats tend to have very poor
eyesight, albino rats in particular. Because of this it is not
uncommon to see them swaying their heads in an attempt to focus on
an object. Rats also lack a gall bladder and the ability to vomit!
Rats are nocturnal but easily adjust their sleep schedule so that
they are active when youíre home.
Rats can have severe dental problems. Difficulty
eating or dropping food may be signs that your rats teeth are misaligned.
Infection or trauma can cause the incisors not to meet
properly. Since these incisors continually grow, they will
become quite long. We can help with this problem.
What you need to Know
Life Expectancy is two to three years
Room temperature 65-80 degrees F (average
72F) with 40-70% humidity is suitable environment
Keep housing clean to minimize respiratory
Dogs, cats, and ferrets are predators.
Basically nocturnal, but can be active during
the day as well.
Monitor feces and urine output
Need at least 30 minutes each days for an
exercise/play with owner.
Bite aggressively only if restrained against
Often difficult to litter-train (fecal).
Feed pelleted diet, not seed diet.
Monthly examinations of weight, teeth, nails,
and lump checks recommended.
For more information on health
problems click here.
below are some examples of proper housing for rats.
At Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, we do
routinely spay and neuter them to ensure a more peaceful
colony. Some people suggest spaying may help reduce the incidence
of mammary cancer as well. Mammary cancer is a common
problem with rats. If a lump appears anywhere on your rat's
body, please have us check it out. These masses can grow to
amazingly large sizes quite quickly. They are usually safe
and easy to remove when they are small. Feel free to ask us
about these services.
For more information on health
problems click here.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to
provide helpful service to you and your pet. If you have any
questions, give us a call at 847-329-8709.
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