Rats make extremely good family pets; they are very intelligent and become quite tame with regular handling. There are many different colour variations available such as white, black, agouti and chocolate. Rats are not very expensive to keep, but you should buy the largest and most interesting cage you can afford. Rats live, on average, between two and two and a half years.
Fancy rats are descendants of the brown rat, which are thought to have originated from Asia. The keeping and breeding of fancy rats became popular in the early 1900s. As a result of captive breeding there are now many different colours and coat types, such as the Rex and even Hairless!
Rats need lots of exercise and stimulation, so buy the largest cage you can afford. There are many different types of rodent cages available, however it is essential that the cage you buy is designed for rats and not for smaller rodents such as hamsters. Perhaps the most suitable type of enclosure is either a large wire multi-level cage or an aquarium with a well ventilated, secure lid as rats are extremely agile and can jump up to two feet or more! The minimum size cage for one rat is 60cm x 37cm x 22cm.
You should provide your rate with an entertaining environment. Suitable items include apple tree branches, rocks, tunnels and pieces of rope. Nesting boxes suitable for birds can also be provided. The base of the cage should be covered with a layer of wood-shavings. Sawdust should not be used as it is too fine and can irritate eyes and noses, and cedar wood-shavings can cause an allergic reaction.
You can also provide your rat with paper nesting material for him to nest with. Straw is not suitable as bedding as it is too sharp and may injure your pet’s eyes and mouth.
The cage should be cleaned at least once a week with hot water and a disinfectant suitable for pets. Rats are very clean and normally do not smell. Your rat will normally use one area of his cage as a toilet; this may need cleaning daily to reduce any smell.
When you first get your rat home it is best to leave him alone for the first day or two, to allow him to get used to his new home. Allow your rat to sniff your hand before you handle him, this will help him get used to your smell. Gently stroke your rat in his cage to reassure him, once the rat allows you to do this he will normally allow you to pick him up. The rat should be gently scooped up with two hands, never pick him up by his tail. Once your rat becomes tame he will enjoy coming out to play at regular intervals.
Remember your rat likes to chew, so whenever you let him out of his cage he must be supervised at all times.
Rats normally stay healthy throughout their lives. However, they can be prone to a number of common complaints, most of which can be avoided with correct care and attention.
Rats can be prone to breathing problems; if your rat starts sneezing and is scratching excessively and there are no signs of mites this may mean your rat is allergic to something. Cedar wood-shavings can sometimes cause allergic reactions in rats.
Your rat’s teeth are constantly growing, and if they become too long he may be unable to ear properly. Signs that your rat’s teeth may not be growing properly are weight loss and a reluctance to eat and chew. Providing your rat with treats and a mineral block will help him to keep his teeth in trim. If your pet’s teeth do become overgrown you must take him to your vet.
Rats in the wild are scavengers and will eat a wide range of foods. In captivity you should provide your rat with a varied diet. The basis of a good diet should consist of a dry rat mix containing a mixture of seeds, peanuts and biscuits. This should be supplemented with cooked egg and washed and dried vegetables such as sprouts, carrots, cress, tomatoes and apples.
Feed bowls should be sturdy earthenware bowls as they are heavy, gnaw proof and easily cleaned and disinfected. Uneaten food should be removed daily, and the food bowl thoroughly washed. Remember your rat will drink a lot compared to other rodents so make sure clean, fresh water is available at all times.
Rats can be kept singly providing that you give them lots of human contact, care and attention. However, they are probably happiest kept in pairs from a young age – but remember, mixed sexes will breed very quickly, if not neutered.
National Fancy Rat Society www.nfrs.org or write to : Enquires Officer, NFRS, PO Box 24207, London, SE9 5ZF.