Mention rats to most people and they will initially think of dirty, sewer-dwelling vermin that eat filth and pass on horrid diseases. However there is a growing interest in keeping clean, domesticated fancy rats as pets. The pet rat is actually the same species as the sewer-rat, Rattus rattus or brown rat, but generations of breeding have led to a variety of attractive breeds. The fancy rat (not even the black-coloured variety) is not to be confused with the black rat or ship rat (Rattus norvegicus) which is much smaller and all but extinct in the UK.
Why Rats Make Good Pets
They are intelligent and sociable. They are as likely to be awake during the daytime as at night, and they can be trained to perform simple tricks. They enjoy the company of people, are rarely aggressive and ,as they are easy to care for, they make ideal pets for children.
They are clean. Unlike mice, rats do not smell (unless you neglect to clean out their cage).
They are cheap and easy to care for.
Their lifespan is short (average two to three years) so they do not require long-term commitment.
They come in a wide range of attractive varieties (see below).
Below are a few of the more common types and colours of fancy rats. The term 'self' indicates that the rat is the same colour all over, with no markings.
White Self - Coat is all-white, eyes may be pink or black.
Champagne Self - Coat is a pale warm beige, eyes pink.
Mink Self - Coat is grey-brown with a slight bluish tinge. Eyes black.
Blue Self - Coat is steel-grey with a distinct bluish tinge. Eyes black.
Chocolate Self - Coat is a rich chocolate brown. Eyes black.
Black Self - Coat is pure black with no white hairs. Eyes black.
Agouti - Coat is a mixture of reddish-brown and black hairs with no white markings. This is the typical 'wild rat' colour.
Blue Agouti - Coat is a mixture of blue-grey and black hairs with no white markings.
Hooded - The head and shoulders, and a broad stripe down the spine, are coloured (any of the above colours). All other areas are pure white. Eyes pink or black.
Capped - The whole body is white except for a coloured 'cap' on the top of the head in any of the above colours.
Berkshire - The majority of the coat is of one of the above colours, apart from a broad white blaze on the face and a white belly.
Siamese - This attractive rat is marked like a Siamese cat, with a champagne or buff body and dark chocolate 'points' (ears, nose and feet). Also occurs in a much rarer blue-point.
Rex - Not a colour variety. The Rex may be any colour but its fur and whiskers are curly.
What Rats Need
Company - Rats are sociable animals and should not be kept alone. At the very least you should keep a pair together (of the same sex if you do not want them to breed). Female rats are usually smaller and slimmer, and more active than their male counterparts. Males tend to be more docile.
Cage - The cage should be an absolute minimum of 18" x 24" and 18" high, which is suitable for two rats. Males, which grow bigger, may need more space. Most cages sold in pet-shops as 'rat cages' are actually too small. Wire-walled cages are better than glass or plastic tanks, because rats love to climb. The floor of the cage should be solid, not wire (as in a chinchilla cage) as the wire base will hurt the rats' feet. Unlike rabbits, rats are not tolerant of the cold, and they should be kept indoors.
Bedding - The floor of the cage should be covered in wood-shavings (not sawdust) to a depth of about an inch. The rats will also need a box or other kind of bed in which to sleep. This can be lined with clean hay (from a pet-shop, not a field) or shredded paper. If you do not have a specially-made bed-box, other items such as empty coffee-jars make ideal beds. Provide fresh bedding daily.
Food - Rats are naturally omnivorous but most rat-owners keep their rats on a largely vegetarian diet as meat-products are rich in protein and can cause health problems. The basic staple food is a proprietary rodent mix which usually contains grains, dried rolled peas, maize, small protein biscuits, alfalfa pellets (which rats almost always hate) and often also sunflower seeds and peanuts. Nuts, like meat, should be fed sparingly as they are protein-rich. As well as the proprietary mix, rats should have a daily portion of fresh fruit or vegetables, of whatever variety your rats prefer. For example, many are particularly fond of tomatoes. You can also give them other treats; warm toast, dog-biscuits, breakfast cereals, scrambled egg, cooked pasta, rice or potatoes, or left-overs from your Sunday dinner. Avoid feeding anything that is high in fat, sugar or salt. Generally if a food is healthy for humans, it is also fine for your rats.
Water - Fresh clean water should be available at all times. The ideal way to deliver water is in a gravity-feed bottle that is fastened to the outside of the cage with the spout inside.
Toys - Rats are playful creatures and they need stimulation. They need things to gnaw on, chunks of hard wood are best, and they help keep the rat's teeth in trim. Suggested playthings include empty toilet-roll tubes, pine-cones, empty cardboard boxes, ropes or chains attached to the cage bars, short lengths of drainage-pipe. You can buy large running wheels suitable for rats, but many rats do not like to use them. Maybe they are too smart to run and run without getting anywhere! Toys made for parrots are generally safe and suitable for rats. Rats should also have a daily session of supervised play outside of their cage. You will need to make sure your chosen play-room has no secret hidey-holes or access into cavity walls or under floors.
Health Care - Hopefully your rats will remain healthy and happy all their lives but should they ever fall sick, you should be prepared to seek veterinary care. Unlike cats and dogs they do not require annual vaccinations or worming. It is not normally necessary to neuter a rat but male rats can be neutered if you need to keep them in the same cage with females. Some of the more common ailments rats suffer from include 'sniffles' (a respiratory condition sometimes caused by bedding or an allergy), itchy skin, mites and mammary tumours. Like any other animal they are likely to require more medical attention as they grow older. Some rats have a genetic predisposition to obesity. This cannot be cured but obese rats are more likely to die prematurely from problems with heart or other organs. General signs of ill-health include hunched posture, lethargy, fluffed-up coat, laboured breathing, a red-coloured discharge from the nose, or unsteady gait and lack of balance. If you see these signs or any others that worry you, seek veterinary advice.
Breeding - Well OK, they don't need to breed but they sure want to, and are capable of doing so as early as eight weeks of age. Rats breed readily and frequently, and after a three or four week gestation, the doe (female) will normally produce a litter of between eight and 15 young. The mother will normally give birth to her young (called 'kittens') and care for them on her own without any human assistance. Indeed, if they are disturbed the mother may take fright and destroy her young. Once they are old enough and their eyes have opened, the young rats should be handled frequently to get them accustomed to human contact.
Handling - Rats should be handled often particularly when young, so they get used to you, your smell and your voice. Do not pick rats up by the tail; they don't like it, and are likely to be injured by it. Instead, pick them up by grasping them firmly but gently around the chest, then support them underneath with your other hand. Occasionally, a male rat can get aggressive and difficult to handle; this can be cured by neutering.
Choosing a Rat
There are three normal places to get pet rats.
From the Breeder - This is recommended. Ask to see the mother (and the father also if possible) so that you have an idea of the likely temperament of the offspring, and also whether there is any tendency towards obesity. The breeder should not allow the young rats to leave the litter earlier than six weeks of age.
From a Rescue Centre - Rescue centres and animal shelters often get litters of unwanted baby rats, and occasionally adult rats too. It is less likely that you will be able to see the parents. If the rat is an adult, check with the shelter staff about its behaviour. It may have been handed in by its previous owners due to behaviour problems or aggression.
From a Pet Shop - This is the least recommended option. Some pet shops are very careful and give the best possible care to their pets but many more treat their animals as mere commodities. Pet shop rats often have very little human contact or attention and consequently may be difficult to handle.
When choosing a rat you should look for one which is alert and active, but which does not object to being picked up and handled. Its coat should be clean and smooth (unless it is a rex rat) and its eyes should be bright. There should be no discharge from nose or anus, the tail should be clean and free from scaly patches.
Whether your rats are for breeding, showing, or simply as a cherished family pet, one thing is certain. If you care for them properly, and give them the love and attention they need, they will provide you with a great deal of pleasure and entertainment.