|Getting your first rats? While there can be lots of little nuances to the care of any pet, here's a basic care sheet to help you get started. |
Picking Your Rats
- Make sure you get at least two, either of the same gender or spayed/neutered.
- Males are more sedate and likely to enjoy (even clumsy) handling. Females are more active, small, and clean.
- Type/variety does not affect compatibility, personality, or health.
- Adult rescues are the most predictable and excellent pets. Adopting from an established private breeder can provide insight to how a younger rat will behave and any health developments. Rats from pet stores can make just as good pets, but their temperaments and health are less predictable.
- Online cage calculators figure for 2 cubic feet per rat. This is a bit simplified, but it's a start.
- Rats require one to two square feet usable floor space each. Fewer rats need more space each than more rats.
- Rats typically make use only of the highest full floor in a cage and any partial shelves above it, so keep in mind the cage layout.
- In a wire cage, coated wire and plastic pans are more durable and will reduce odor significantly.
- Bar spacing should be no wider than 1" square or 3/4" horizontal spacing. (Horizontal bars allow for climbing.)
- At any cage size, groups of rats do best when there are less than eight or so individuals. More than this are prone to fighting even if they have plenty of space.
- Large aquariums make good housing for elderly rats or in homes with mischievous pets, young children, or frequent (rat-shy) visitors.
- Make sure aquariums have lockable lids made entirely from wire or mesh for maximum ventilation. Keep them away from direct sunlight.
- Avoid any litter with aromatic oils. This includes pine, cedar, and other soft woods.
- Paper-based pellets such as Cel-Sorb or Yesterday's News are favorites. They can be harder to find. They control odor well, but have a scent of their own that some people do not like.
- Aspen litter is a cheap and healthy choice. However, it tends to get kicked out of wire cages easily, so regular sweeping around the rats' cages is necessary.
- You can use shredded paper or cloth bedding but must change it frequently, as these things do not control odor.
- Other types of litter are available and might be worth trying. Keep in mind that rats will chew on anything in their cage, so keep it non-toxic.
- Rats are omnivores with dietary requirements similar to humans. They cannot be fed a diet of cat food (carnivorous diet) or guinea pig food (herbivorous diet).
- Commercial rat food is available. It is best to choose a block or kibble rather than a mix, which rats will pick through.
- A quality dog kibble is a good staple for a rat diet. Rats require lower protein and fat content than most dogs, so choose a brand marked "lite" or "healthy weight" and watch the protein numbers. Rice-based foods are better than corn or wheat. Supplement a kibble diet with cereals and vegetables.
- Rats can also eat a diet entirely composed of human food, but owners must take care to keep a balance of protein, starches, and vegetables.
- Food marketed for humans are healthier and more affordable than most commercial rat treats. Cereals, dried (or fresh) fruit, cooked noodles, yogurt, etc. are excellent treats. Rats also love to chew bones.
- Most junk food is safe for rats in small quantities. The occasional M&M is fine, but don't overdo it.
- Rats love a secure box for sleeping and hiding. Plastic houses can be found in pet stores. Rats also love cardboard boxes and will modify them to their liking.
- Ferret beds and hammocks are favorites, especially among lazy males. Chew-prone rats can make quick work of destroying them, but you can also make your own from scrap cloth and rags.
- Any kind of chew toy is appreciated. You can use toys made for dogs, rodents, or birds.
- Many females enjoy exercise wheels. A rat wheel needs to have at least a 11" diameter and a solid running surface to prevent injury.
- Most rats will be healthy with no issues at all, so don't panic about this section. (I am covering only the most common issues.)
- Sneezing by itself is no cause for alarm. Rats will sneeze if their environment changes or if their cage has not been cleaned often enough. Try to identify and remove what is offending the nose.
- Excess red discharge from eyes or nose can be a symptom of allergies or an infection. A little is not alarming, but too much can be a sign of something serious. (It is not blood. It is a pigmented mucus.)
- Lethargy or labored breathing is a red flag, especially if the rat is also "puffy-looking" or not eating. The animal could have pneumonia. Move the rat to a small cage/box/aquarium with a heating pad and call the vet as soon as possible.
- Bumps and lumps are most commonly abscesses, sebaceous cysts, or mammary tumors. Tumors typically occur in females over 18 months old. If suspicious of a lump, get to a vet.
- Fur mites and lice can infest rats from any number of sources. The signs can include excessive scratching, scabs,or hair loss. A vet can treat these or you can try using products made for birds or rodents (less expensive but also less effective).
- To avoid spreading diseases to your pets, minimize contact with other rodents, especially ones in pet stores or concentrated gatherings, and quarantine new rodents before introduction.
- This is by no means a comprehensive list of potential health problems rats can get, but they are the most common. Changes in behavior are often the first clues that a rat is unwell, so watch for changes in appetite, lethargy, or avoiding cagemates or handling.
Good luck with your new furry family members! You can find lots of tips (and conflicting opinions) online from breeders and enthusiasts.
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