There are many varieties of domestic rats to choose from as companions. In some overseas countries rats are very popular, especially with residents of high-rise accommodation where it is difficult to have a cat or a dog.
Prepare for your rats before you bring them home. Have ready the cage, food and drink containers, gnawing wood, bedding and, of course, a food supply. Moving house can be stressful for any animal, but by preparing in advance your rats can move straight into a secure and comfortable environment.
Rats are very easy to handle and soon become tame, provided they are carefully and gently handled. They will bite if handled too quickly or too roughly. A rat should not be picked up by its tail. Instead, slowly pick it up by cradling or cupping your hands, and then place the animal on a flat surface with a little food. Alternatively, put a hand gently around its chest and lift it onto the palm of your other hand for support. Gently stroke its back. Repeat this every day, as often as you can, and soon you will have a little friend that trusts you. Over time your rat will happily climb out of their cage and onto your offered hand!
Two male or two female rats of the same litter, housed together before puberty, will usually live quite amicably in one large cage. It is unfair to keep rats singly, as they are social animals and appreciate company. Do not house male and female rats together, as you will rapidly have unwanted baby rats.
Living quarters should be designed to give your rat the opportunity to show their normal behaviours, such as tunnels for hiding in and materials like straw and special wood shavings for warmth and nest-making. They should be housed in cages where they may be viewed from the front, not from the top, as this is less stressful for them. A minimum size cage for two adult rats would be one metre long by 60 cm wide by 60 cm high, but a bigger cage is strongly recommended. Many rat cages available from pet shops have wire bases with pull out trays at the bottom for easy cleaning. If you choose a wire-based cage make sure there are sections of the cage with a solid, soft covering to prevent your rats developing sore feet. Height is important in a cage because rats love to climb, and need to be able to sit on their haunches with their nose in the air. Rats are inquisitive creatures and they like to see out of their cages but they need privacy too, so some sort of covered shelter and nesting box should be provided within the cage. Because rats require a higher ambient temperature than rabbits or guinea pigs, they are not suitable for keeping in outdoor accommodation, especially in winter.
A suitable 'playground' outside the cage, or incorporated as part of it, is beneficial, not only for the rats but also for their owners who will enjoy watching the antics of the animals. Toys (such as plastic tubes, small boxes and driftwood) will provide many hours of amusement. Spending time with you each day outside their cage in a safe and contained environment, is both a great bonding experience, and stimulating for your rats.
Rodents’ teeth grow throughout their entire life, and so they need suitable material to gnaw, in order to keep their incisors sharp and worn to the proper length. A piece of untreated safe wood or a bone should always be available for this purpose. Many different, safe rat chew products are available from pet shops.
Rats need a lining to their cage that absorbs urine and can be used for nesting. Avoid cedar and pine sawdust or any treated wood, as these contain oils and preservatives that may be poisonous, and can cause respiratory problems. Shredded paper should be plain white paper, tissues or paper towels, but never newspaper as the printing ink can be poisonous. Choose aspen wood shavings or other specific products from pet stores for bedding. Kitty litter should never be used as a means to absorb urine as the fine dust from it can cause respiratory problems for rats.
Rats may well pick a corner of the cage for urination, and cleaning out daily is a simple matter. Bedding should be changed two or three times a week, and cages should be washed and disinfected each week. The rats should not be returned to their cage until the cage is thoroughly dry.
Rats are omnivores and require a balanced diet containing fruits, vegetables, hay, grains, seeds, nuts and meat based protein. Many rat commercially available rat foods have very high seed content. Seeds are energy rich and can lead to obesity problems if your rats’ diet is mainly based on seeds. Look for a food mix that is more cereal grain based, and then add in extras such as dry dog biscuits for protein (cat biscuits are too high in fat), unsweetened fresh cereals such as weetbix, dry pasta, dry fruit such as cranberries, oats, wheat, raw nuts and plain corn thins. Give fresh, washed fruit and vegetables regularly such as corn on the cob, carrot, peas, spinach and apple. Rats love gnawing on meat bones and having other treats like banana chips. Always use gnaw-proof containers for food, and make sure to remove uneaten fruit and vegetables to keep your rats’ food fresh.
A rat will drink 20-45 ml of water each day, so it is important that clean fresh water is available continuously from drinking bottles. These should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week with hot soapy water and a bottlebrush. Thorough rinsing afterwards is essential to avoid any chance of toxic residue.
To prevent unwanted offspring, the SPCA strongly recommends either having male rats desexed or only keeping same-sex rats together. Rats are prolific breeders, and SPCA's often receive the unwanted offspring. A male and female rat paired together throughout their breeding life could produce a litter every four to five weeks! As the size of an average litter is between eight and 11, it is obvious that the breeding of rats is not recommended.
Prevention is better than cure. Purchase healthy animals and maintain good husbandry by providing adequate ventilation, clean cage conditions, a healthy diet and regular vet checks. Respiratory diseases can be common and very serious for rats. Coughs, snuffles or pneumonia are caused by a variety of viruses, bacteria and other organisms. The most common and persistent is chronic respiratory disease. Signs include sneezing, weight loss, runny nose, snuffling and 'chattering'. If you notice any of the above symptoms - or any lumps, hair loss, diarrhoea, excessive water drinking or loss of appetite - consult your veterinarian.