Introduction to Rats as Pets

About Rats

Despite popular belief, rats aren’t disease-ridden, dirty creatures that bite and scratch – in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Domesticated rats make clean, friendly, playful, quiet, inexpensive, low-maintenance and entertaining pets that are often described as miniature dogs. Rats are suitable for children and adults alike. Rats are friendlier than hamsters, gerbils and mice – these are sociable creatures that love company. Rats can also be taught tricks, such as to come when called and to hop through a hoop. Some dedicated rat owners have even succeeded in housetraining their pets.

Choosing a Rat

Choose a rat that looks inquisitive, healthy, alert and active. Never decided on one that sneezes several times or looks ill – indications of a sick rat includes discharge from the eyes or nose, rough tails, listlessness, bloated stomachs, frequent scratching, thinness and broken teeth. Bearing in mind that rats can start reproducing at six weeks old, don’t pick a female that has shared a cage with males if you don’t want several rats in your home! You could consider giving a home to an older rat that doesn’t have a home. Ask your local animal shelter whether they have any rodents.

Male or Female?

As rats are sociable creatures, it’s a good idea to purchase two of the same gender. It’s up to you whether you get a male or a female – males, or bucks, are a little more odorous than females, but make relaxed and easygoing pets that are quite content to sleep on their owners’ laps. Females, known as does, are more active and inquisitive, and make more playful pets.

Cages and Supplies

When choosing a cage for a rat, get the biggest that you can afford. Choose a large and spacious one that can accommodate two rats and some toys. Wire cages are preferable to plastic or glass tanks, which can become overheated in the summer months – however, make sure that the bars are close enough together to prevent your rat from escaping. Don’t place the cage in direct sunlight or draughts.
You also need to buy wood shavings to line the cage with. Don’t use pine or cedar shavings – although these are inexpensive, they contain phenols that can injure a rat’s internal organs.


Being clever animals, rats need to be kept amused with toys. These don’t need to be expensive – just a PVC drainpipe or an empty tissue box can provide hours of amusement. Hammocks, cat toys and corks are also popular with rats. Other ideas include a plastic box of soil, which rats like to dig in; a climbing rope made for birds; or a ferret’s corner litter-pan that can be hooked onto the side of a wire cage. Use your imagination to think up more ways to entertain your rat!

Diet and Food

Rats can be fed a standard rodent mix or dog biscuits, available from the pet shop – just be sure to give your pet fresh fruit and vegetables daily. The diet can be further enriched with seeds, uncooked or cooked pasta and rice. Half a boiled egg, yogurt-coated raisins and sunflower seeds are favorite occasional treats. Rats can also be fed leftovers, such as kiwi fruit skins, potato peelings, uneaten vegetables and strawberry leaves. Among the foods that are dangerous for rats are: Bleu cheese; Licorice; Peanuts; Raw sweet potato, raw Brussels sprouts, raw artichokes, or raw red cabbage; Green beans; Wild insects; Rhubarb; Raw bulk tofu; Caffeine; Orange juice (male rats only); Chocolate; Carbonated beverages; Dried corn


Rats are prone to tumors, mite infections and respiratory infections. Whilst these can be treated, keep in mind that vets who are experienced with rodents are sometimes hard to find. Ask a local rat club or another rat owner for recommendations.
Rats have a short lifespan – most don’t live longer than three-and-a-half years.


In spite of popular belief, rats are quite fastidious animals, and keep their coats in good condition – however, they benefit from occasional baths. Fill a tub with enough lukewarm water so that it just touches the rat’s stomach. Lather a shampoo that was made for puppies or kittens into the rat’s coat, taking care to keep it out of the eyes and ears. Rinse out the shampoo well, and dry your rat using a towel or hairdryer.