Want a rat? Read this first…
Rats get a lot of bad press. When you keep fancy rats as pets, they are intelligent, affectionate, cheeky and full of fun, but a lot of people can only ever associate them with the disease-ridden sewer rodents that you see scurrying around in the bushes at the back of B&Q. My mum in particular can’t seem to get past their scaly tails, and isn’t their biggest fan.
If you’re not scared of rats and are thinking about a new pet that you can play games with and enjoy, here are a few tips about rat ownership that I’ve picked up along the way.
Where to get your rats
First things first, do not buy your new pet rats from a pet shop. They look sweet and cuddly when in their cages, but the likelihood is that they haven’t received enough attention and won’t be properly socialised. They’re also more likely to have behavioural problems when they grow up. Your best bet is to hunt out a rat breeder (they do exist!) who will hopefully have lots of lovely, friendly, socialised little babies looking for homes.
We picked up two 6-month old boys from a breeder who had had them returned from an owner that was allergic to their fur, so ours were already grown up and ready to show us the ropes. We went to see (and play) with them and they immediately climbed up to our shoulders and licked our faces, so we knew we’d been chosen!
Rats get quite lonely when kept by themselves so it’s best to get two or three brothers or sisters from the same litter. Boys + girls together = ratty explosion, so stick to one sex! Rats from different litters can be introduced but it takes a lot of time and effort, so if you can get two from the offset, then do.
When it comes to the choice between boys and girls, the main gender personality traits is that the girls are usually more active, and the boys are usually a little more lazy – more like lap-rats. However, as with all animals, these are just guidelines and there are always exceptions to the rules. We have two very active and playful boy rats who very rarely want to sit on your lap and would much rather be poking their noses in holes much too small for them.
Home sweet home
Before you pick up your rats, you’ll need to sort out a home for them. There’s plenty of rat cages on the market, and this is the one we have. The key thing is to make sure it’s big enough for your rat family to allow them plenty of space for cajolng and capers, while having close enough bars that they can’t escape. Different levels are good but sometimes messy (rats wee a lot) so it’s probably better to have lots of hanging toys for them like hammocks and rope ladders. Rats also LOVE cardboard boxes, so save any cereal boxes and toilet rolls for them as they’ll love tearing them up and sheltering inside them.
Rats need plenty to chew on, and you can buy wooden gnaw toys and salt blocks for them. They will also usually be litter trained, so you can buy a rodent litter tray for the corner of the cage and fill it with a rodent-friendly litter. Rats have very sensitive respiratory systems so dust-free litter is essential. We use Bio-Catelet cat litter which is little pellets of paper litter, and they seem to get on okay with it. It’s worth bearing this in mind for bedding choices too – sawdust/woodshavings are a no-no, and there are plenty of different paper beddings to choose from that will be great for them. They have sensitive little feet so anything sharp, or metal mesh floorings will hurt them and a soft paper bedding is best.
Rats love a varied diet and to begin with, we bought our food mixes from the breeder. We’ve since decided to create it ourselves and we create a massive bag full of:
- A simple rat food as a base (rat muesli/nuggets bought from a pet shop)
- A bit of uncooked brown pasta
- Some mealworms (dead ones, not quite so ew. You can get them in Tesco in the pet/birds section!)
- Some Shreddies
- A handful of dog biscuits
- Sunflower seeds
- Dried unsweetened banana chips
- Dried unsweetened cranberries
You can also give your rat fresh food like fruits and vegetables, plus little bits of meat. There are a few foods that it’s dangerous for them to have and a list of those can be found here on the forbidden foods list. Rats can’t actually vomit so if they’re given something they’re not supposed to have, they can’t get rid of it! My rats love carrot, tiny bits of cheese and as a very occasional treat they go crazy for a bit of strawberry jam on wholemeal bread.
Rats are hugely social and love to play. Ours love to be let out of their cage and have a scurry around, but the problem is that they are sneaky and love hiding. One of ours once got startled and disappeared through the 2cm gap between the skirting board and the bottom of the oven – cue lots of panic and frantically trying to crowbar the wood away to get to him. As rats are chewers, you don’t want them to get near any cables or antiques and it’s best to either find a room with no hiding places or to barricade off an area that they can play in.
We turn over a coffee table and link it up with a full-length mirror to create a little rat-pen that they can gambol around. If possible, your rats need to come out and play every day – they’ll love playing on/around you and some will happily sit on your shoulder while you’re wandering around.
There are of course plenty of other things you may need to know about keeping rats, and some great resources can be found here and here. Rats have such great personalities and so much fun to have around – and what better way to stop your musty old Aunt Mildred from visiting than a long-tailed rodent friend?