Knowing how to care for your pet rats properly will not only benefit them by ensuring they’re the healthiest and happiest they can be, but also you as a responsible owner by making husbandry easier, saving you money and allowing you to enjoy your time with your rats to its fullest.

Read through our rat care guide for beginners to learn the ins and outs of proper rat care.

Things to Know About Rats

Rats are interesting and fairly complex creatures once you get past their fluffy exterior. Highly intelligent and keen, rats are unique pets and many owners can tell you in fine detail about all their rat’s unique personalities.

Things every rat owner should know before adopting pet rats:

  • Lifespan – Rats typically live on average around 25.6 months (or just over 2 years). Personal experience and information from other rat owners online shows that the upper age limit for pet rats sits at 3-4 years, with rats over 3 years old showing very visible signs of ageing.
  • Rats are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dawn and dusk (or in the early morning and in the evening). This makes them perfect companions for those who may work during the day, as their rats will be full of energy and ready to play as they get home.
  • Rats should never be adopted alone – As rats are highly social, adopting just one rat to live on its own will severely impact its quality of life and ultimately may even cause physical and mental health issues. Always adopt at least 2 rats (if not more) to ensure they keep each other company and provide essential rodent interaction.
  • Rats should be housed in same-sex groupings to avoid unwanted litters.
  • Rats need daily exercise outside of their cage – even if this is just for an hour or two a night. This time outside their cage provides essential exercise, enrichment and bonding time.

Supplies a Rat Owner Needs

Before getting your rats, having everything you need to look after them is key for a safe and happy welcome into your home.

Essential items to have before getting your rats include:

  • A good cage – including making sure it’s big enough and the cage bars are spaced correctly.
  • Correct bedding – including substrate, litter and nesting materials.
  • Basic cage furniture such as litter trays and bedding areas.
  • Toys and enrichment such as baskets, tubes, ropes and wheels.
  • Water bottles – gravity fed (two minimum as they can get airlocked easily)
  • Food bowls are optional as scatter feeding your rats is recommended, to encourage foraging and provide enrichment. Food bowls and scatter feeding can also be combined.
  • Food – including a store bought or homemade dry mix, fresh veg and fruit.
  • Cleaning supplies – rat safe cleaner, sponges, spray bottles and scrubbing brushes.
  • First Aid kit – including finding a good exotics vet or vet experienced with rats.
  • Spare cages and travel cages.

This list will be expanded on in the rat care guide below.

Housing Your Rats

Having a place your rats can call home is one of the most important things to consider when caring for your rats.

Cage Requirements

There are certain minimum requirements to be met when picking out a cage for your rats. However we want to go above and beyond for our furry friends so it’s good to purchase the best cage you can afford.

Minimum Cage Size

Rats should have at least 3 cubic feet of cage volume per rat. But if you have only 2 rats, a cage of at least 8 cubic feet is recommended, as anything less than that is pretty small for the rat’s level of activity.

Other than volume, you should consider cage height and floor space.

A rats’ cage should be at least 20 in in height, and have plenty of unbroken floor space to run around. A cage should have a minimum of 30 inches (76 cm) of floor space in one direction.

This rat cage calculator allows you to enter the dimensions of any cage you like, and will show the maximum number of rats the cage will allow, along with the volume of the cage in cubic feet.

The cages we can highly recommend are the Critter Nation for large groups of rats, or the Critter Nation Single Story if you want a cage that takes less room and can house up to 4 rats. See a list of suitable cages here.

Bar Spacing

The bars of your rats’ cage should only be 1/2 inches apart (1-1.5cm). This ensures even the smallest of rats can’t escape and potentially injure themselves.

What Kind of Cages to Avoid

There are a few things to avoid when looking for cages for your rats.

  • Avoid cages advertised as rat AND mouse cages, as they’re nearly always far too small for rats.
  • Wooden cages, converted wooden furniture, or similar DIY enclosures are not suitable for rats, as they’re easily chewed (leading to holes) and absorb rat’s urine, making them smelly and difficult to clean.
  • Glass or plastic tanks are unsuitable for rats as they provide poor ventilation, which can lead to respiratory problems in rats (plastic bottom cages are fine for substrate to be placed-if your rats don’t chew!).

Bedding for Your Rats

There are 3 different types of bedding that rats need, in the categories we will list below (each used for a different purpose in your rat’s cage), however all bedding should meet the following conditions:

  • Low dust – Rats have very sensitive respiratory systems that can become easily irritated by dust inhaled from bedding.
  • Non toxic – As rats explore with their noses and mouths, non-toxic bedding is crucial to protect your rats from potential illness or injury caused by eating it.
  • Unscented – Similar to having low dust bedding, scented bedding will quickly irritate your rats noses and lungs, particularly as they’re spending time with their bodies and faces nestled up to it.
  • Physically safe – Bedding that is pointed or sharp (like straw, for example) can easily cause gouge injuries or injury to the eyes. Similarly, bedding that can form long strings has the potential to cause major injury to body parts that become trapped (like toes) or even strangulation.
rat bedding

Rats need three different types of bedding:

  1. Substrate Substrate lines the bottom of your rats cage and acts as a protectant to the bottom of the cage (from rat urine and faeces), as well as a comfy place for your rats to dig and walk around.
  2. Litter – An absorbent material used in litter boxes to promote litter training and to absorb waste.
  3. Nesting material – Your rats’ comfy bed, used to keep them warm and comfortable. This lines the bedding area of your rats cage.

Which Bedding Materials are Best?

There are so many options for rat owners when it comes to types of beddings to use in the cage. Some prefer paper, shredded card or other types of bedding. It’s a personal choice, so long as it is safe for your rats and serves its purpose well.

For substrate, you can mix and vary them to provide variety for your rats, and we recommend a few different kinds (however remember to trial new bedding introduced and ensure its ultimately safe for your rats, whatever you choose to use):

  • Paper-based bedding (natural and unscented)
  • Cardboard bedding
  • Coconut husk bedding
  • Hemp bedding
  • Aspen shavings
  • Shredded paper (printed with non-toxic ink, cut with a cross cut shredder to prevent sharp edges)
  • Sterile coco soil (kept slightly damp)

For litter we recommend recycled unscented paper cat litter, and advise to avoid mineral and scented litters all together.

For nesting material we can recommend simple torn-up paper towels or toilet paper. Allowing your rats to do the fine shredding to their liking is excellent fun.

Cage Setup and Enrichment

While deciding on a rat cage setup can seem daunting, it can be a lot of fun thinking up new ways to enrich and challenge your rats.

Running, digging and climbing are three natural behaviors that all cages should provide:

  1. Digging can be facilitated by providing a thick layer of substrate or a dig box for your rats, with some hidden treasures such as nuts in shells for them to hunt for.
  2. Climbing is usually performed on the cage bars, with only older rats needing to use ladders to reach different levels. Ropes offer variety, as well as fruit tree branches (cherry, apple, pear and plum are all safe options) as long as any sharp bits are removed, the tree is not toxic to rats, and is made safe by drying it out.
  3. Running wheels are a good option for those rats who like to run, as long as they’re of a safe size and material – at least 12 in (30 cm) across and made of solid material, not metal bars. Time out of the cage will also facilitate this.

Areas for your rats to sleep in like hammocks and boxes are also important furnishings, as well as tubes and tunnels for added enrichment.

Toys – Store Bought and Homemade

Toys can be as simple or complex as you make them, ranging from DIY rat toys such as shredded toilet tissue or a cardboard box filled with paper to store-bought or food toys such as cat danglers and coconut shells. As long as it’s safe, it can be played with!

rat cage setup
Rat cage setup by Hannah Mathews @hannahsrats

Free Roaming Time

As rats spend most of their time in their cage, 1-2 hours of supervised play outside of their cage of it is key to their happiness and wellbeing.

Keeping safety in mind, remove any electrical wires and plants that may be toxic to rats and plug any holes before allowing your rats out to play.

Secure a room away from other pets or other dangers and always supervise them.

Feeding Your Rats

Rats are omnivorous creatures – just like humans. This means they eat all types of foods as we do, and can take nutrition from a wide variety of food including meat, fish, eggs, grains and fruits/vegetables.

What’s a Healthy Diet for Pet Rats?

A good, balanced diet for rats typically consists of:

  • a grain based dry mix, which forms 50-80% of their food;
  • and daily fresh food which provides a range of different vegetables, fruit, and fresh protein to ensure that the diet contains all the necessary micronutrients.

As rats can get obese, portion control and keeping a close eye on your rats’ body condition (not so big as to have excess fat, not thin enough to feel/see ribs and hips) are two ways to help keep your rats in tip top condition.

rats eating

Commercial Dry Mixes

There are plenty of dry mixes available to buy for your rats if you don’t want to / don’t have the time to mix your own.

A store bought dry mix should have certain requirements met as it’s 60-80% of a pet rat’s diet, and should be formulated to meet all of their nutritional needs:

  • Grain based
  • Meat or soy based proteins
  • Seeds, herbs or fruit as added extras in the mix

Formed dry nuggets can also be used as the main portions of a rat’s diet, which are nutritionally complete pellets that are uniform in color and texture.

These can be good to prevent selective feeding (a rat picking out and eating only his favorite bits from a dry mix), however this choosing of preferred tastes and textures also forms part of their enrichment and enjoyment of the dry mix.

When buying a dry mix, look for a variety of grains used in the ingredients, 10-15% protein and under 5% sugar.

Homemade Dry Mix

Instead of buying a commercial dry mix, you can also make one yourself. Homemade diets are usually fulfilling for both owner and rat, as you get the satisfaction of knowing exactly what goes into your rats’ diets, and they get a vast variety of tastes and textures.

If you want to learn how our Alison makes a dry mix for her rats, while applying the principles of kidney friendly diet, you can see her dry mix recipe here. As a quick overview, her mix contains:

  • Straight grains (30-40%)
  • Commercial rat nuggets (included as they are fortified with vitamins) (10 – 20%)
  • Semi-processed grains (20-30%)
  • Ingredients to provide protein (10-15%)
  • Ingredients to provide healthy fats (5-10%)
  • Vegetables / fruit / fungi (5-10%)

This homemade dry mix isn’t a complete diet due to lower amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals compared to store bought mixes, so it should be complemented by fresh foods and protein throughout the week to round out the diet. If you’re feeding your rats with a homemade dry mix without an added protein, you should add protein in the form of eggs, chicken, fish, or another protein meal once a week.

Read more about how to feed your rats with homemade dry mixes here before getting started.

Fresh Foods

The focus for fresh food is on veggies and fruits. Fresh food can be fed daily, however some rat owners like to feed it 4-5 days a week or even twice weekly. The general rule is that fresh food should make around 20%-50% of your rats’ diet.

Rats can eat lots of different fresh foods, as long as some basic rules are followed:

  • Nothing toxic (if it is to humans, it will be to rats)
  • Nothing sticky as this can present a choking hazard
  • No mango or citrus for male rats (Research found that high amounts of those fruits can cause cancer in male rats, due to high contents of d-limonene. Your rats will be fine if they accidently nibble on your orange, but it’s best to avoid giving it to them to be on the safe side.)

You can give a few different types of veggies in one serving to make it more interesting. A good amount for feeding daily veggies is 0.8 in / 2 cm piece of each vegetable per rat. See our list of safe and unsafe vegetables and fruits here.

If you choose to feed a dry mix without protein added, then fresh protein is needed. Good options are egg, chicken, or fish.

healthy diet for rats

Homemade Treats

While treats should be fed in moderation, there are a few healthy, homemade treats to mention here as enrichment for your furry friends.

  • Biscuits made from leftovers and a few pantry ingredients offer an exciting treat that differs in flavors each time
  • Vegetable biscuits are a trusty favorite that are less smelly and keep well
  • Banana and oat blobs that are so delicious, they can be shared between rat and owner!

You can get the recipes for these delicious homemade treats here.

Other rat treats can be simple ‘snack foods’:

  • Nuts in shells (macadamia nuts offer a particular challenge)
  • Cooked bones
  • Frozen peas in a shallow bowl of water (for an ‘apple bobbing’ experience)
  • Hard boiled egg in the shell

Litter Training Your Pet Rats

Litter training is usually instinctual in most rats as they’re fastidious cleaners and like to have one area for toileting.

One or more trays are needed depending on cage size, as well as some good quality litter to fill them.

  1. Find a good place to put your litter trays in (e.g. in a back corner of the cage)
  2. Move any stray poo into the tray to help encourage your rats to use it
  3. Move trays to a preferred area if your rats have a preference or are ignoring the trays.

A Note on Pee

Rats use pee to communicate, so will pee in little dribbles alot of the time.

For a “toilet” wee, they’ll usually use a litter tray if one is available if they’re awake. When they’re asleep, they’ll just go where they lay, and there’s not much an owner can do to stop them!

rats in a litter box

Behavior and Bonding

Rats are inquisitive and curious by nature, however they all have their own personalities. Knowing your rat’s individual behaviors can help you understand them better and bond with them.

How to Bond With Your Rats

Rats are highly social and want to bond. Knowing their background is very useful as it gives you an idea as to how they were raised, with early associations with humans and hands being most important.

Time and effort is needed to increase the bond between you and your rats, even a seemingly small interaction like a “hello” when passing by their cage can help them get used to who you are.

Other ways to increase the bond include:

  • Handling, cuddling and stroking each day
  • Getting down on their level such as sitting and lying down
  • Joining in with their play, using wands or playing chase and wrestle (gently) with your hands.
  • Treats are always a positive

Socialising Your Shy Rat

Some rats need a little more encouragement than others to come out of their shell.

A few extra actions on your part as an owner can help them feel comfortable and happy with you and other rats:

  • Using a dressing gown to provide a comforting smell and soft, warm and hidden environment.
  • Reducing environmental stress, e.g. loud noises.
  • Encouraging bonding between a shy rat and other rats – they can help to teach and guide a shy rat.
  • Trust training – a little yoghurt or mashed avocado on a spoon can help entice rats out of their safe spaces and encourage them to stay.
  • Slow and steady is key, go at their pace.
Rat eating yogurt

Safe Ways to Handle Your Rats

Some rats love to be handled and held while others prefer running around and doing their own thing. Once you’ve gotten used to handling your rats it will become second nature, however some pointers are laid out below:

  • Scooping from below with both hands is a safe way to pick up your rats.
  • Make sure to support their body weight.
  • In some cases, using your whole hand around their middle and supporting their bottoms with the other hand can be used for extra security.
  • Some rats will love to climb up onto you on their own, and some “shoulder rats” even sit up on your shoulders to snuggle!

An important point to note is that you should never pick up a rat by its tail, even by the base.

Introducing Your Rats

The Carrier method is the most commonly used method to introduce rats, and it works most of the time.

Here are the steps:

  • Pop your new and old rat(s) in a small neutral territory such as a carrier or a small empty cage without any hidey holes that could make them territorial.
  • You can scatter some food and give water while closely observing their behavior.
  • When they are all snuggled up and relaxed together, move them to a larger cage. The step of moving rats to a larger neutral cage is done a few times, depending on how your rats get along. The Carrier method usually has 4 phases: a carrier, a small empty cage, a larger cage, and finally, the cage they will live in. If your intro goes well, you can use fewer steps.

After a successful introduction, the rats are not separated again unless they start violently fighting and drawing blood.

If the rats start aggressively fighting during the introduction, avoid using your hands to separate them, or you could get bitten in the commotion. Instead, have a water spray or towel ready.

For more details on this introduction method, plus a few others if this one doesn’t work, click here.

Rat Behavior

You may see some or all of the following behavior when introducing a new rat into the group (or indeed as part of their daily interactions):

  • Boxing
  • Kicking
  • Mounting one another (seen in same-sex pairings as well as opposite-sex pairings)
  • Barging each other and pushing
  • Pinning to the floor and grooming
  • Chasing – this is play

All of the above behavior is normal for rats in a group, but in some cases it can lead to a fight. Our guide on understanding rat behavior should help you figure out if your rats are playing or fighting and being aggressive.

Cleaning Your Rat Cage

How frequently your rats’ cage needs cleaning depends on factors such as the size of the cage, the number of rats you keep, what substrate is used and whether they’re litter trained. Some cages will need cleaning more or less frequently, as over cleaning the cage can make rats redouble their effort in marking their territory with pee.

Regular cage cleans ensure a clean environment for your furry friends, as well as protecting their delicate respiratory systems from the buildup of ammonia, found in rats urine.

As a rough guide, rat cages should be spot cleaned daily by emptying litter trays and removing any visibly soiled bedding (the sniff test can be used here!) with weekly deeper cleanouts.

As rats are naturally inquisitive, placing them safely out of the way during cleans (either in a travel cage or with another human for some free-roam time) can speed up the cleaning process.

Using pet safe disinfectant is also crucial, ensuring its unscented and thoroughly rinsed after cleaning can all protect your rats from any harmful or irritating residues. Eco-friendly dish soap can also be used, as long as everything is rinsed and dried thoroughly.

Pet Rat Health

Rats can get sick like any animal and although good breeding can help to prevent some health conditions, rats can suffer from some common health problems.

Common Health Problems

The main health problems rat owners will see are respiratory issues.

Because of their sensitive respiratory tract, rats suffer from the following conditions commonly:

  • Mycoplasma bacterial infection – mycoplasma bacterium (or ‘myco’) live in the respiratory tracts of all humans and rats, and usually do no harm. In rats that have poor immune systems (e.g. through excessive stress), myco can cause acute or chronic respiratory distress and can develop into serious respiratory issues.
  • Corynebacerium K is another bacteria that can cause respiratory problems, however this nasty bacteria causes pus filled abscesses in the lungs.
  • Allergies (particularly to dusty bedding)
  • Viral infections such as SDAV and Sendai

Health issues that are not linked to their respiratory systems:

  • Tumors (external and internal), cysts, abscesses
  • Kidney issues – two main types are kidney degeneration and sudden onset kidney failure
  • Skin issues caused by mites, lice, fleas, ringworm…
  • Pyometra – a uterine infection
  • Heart disease

Symptoms of Pain or Illness in Rats

Rats are very good at hiding signs of pain or distress.

This is obviously a problem for a worried owner, so while it’s upsetting to think about, owners should know the signs to look out for if they believe one of their rats is sick or in pain.

  • Side sucking – abdominal breathing (the rats’ sides draw in to the extreme when breathing) is a sign of respiratory distress or intense pain
  • Creeping gait & a hunched posture
  • Fluffed-up (erect) coat
  • Tight jaws and flattened whiskers (grimacing)
  • Narrowed eyes and ears pulled down
  • Behavioural changes e.g. biting from a non-bitey rat
  • Lethargy and discomfort whilst handling

This is not an exhaustive list, but as they can hide their pain and discomfort well it’s the duty of every rat owner to ensure they know their rats’ normal behaviour, to be able to recognise the signs of distress and to have a good vet on hand to help.

Grooming Your Pet Rats

In short, rats need minimal (if any) grooming, except in special circumstances.

Bathing

A healthy rat doesn’t need to be bathed at all.

If your rat is very old and can’t reach their bottoms to self-groom, gentle removal and bathing of the genital and bottom area can help remove any stuck matter there.

The only other exception would be if a rat is prescribed a medicated shampoo, in which case follow your vet’s instructions and make sure the water is warm, never hot or cold.

Nail Care

Whilst sharp and non-retractable (unlike cats), rats do a good job of keeping their own nails short.

For a very old rat, some help clipping the hind claws would be appreciated, as they may not be able to bend around or bring the foot up to their mouth to reach them.

An extra pair of hands and gentle yet secure handling is needed for this.

Waxy Back Fur – Normal or Not?

A layer of orange “buck grease” under your male rats back fur is completely normal, and is caused by higher levels of testosterone in male rats.

If it’s not causing problems, it should be left alone.

Dental Care

Unless there’s a medical reason to intervene (for example malocclusion, in which a rat’s teeth or jaw are misaligned and don’t wear themselves down), rat’s teeth should constantly wear themselves down as they grow, so no human intervention is needed.

Ear Cleaning

Watching for signs of infection such as discharge, foul smell and signs your rat is irritated by their ears is always good, but generally your rats will clean their own ears (by digging in with their hind feet!).

For an old rat who looks like they have a build up of old wax, the best course of action is to seek advice from a vet and to leave the ears alone.

Where to Get Your Rats

Not every place is equal when it comes to buying or adopting rats.

Whether an ethical decision on your part, or availability/ affordability, it’s a subjective and personal choice.

We’ve set out some personal ideas and thoughts below when it comes to buying or adopting your rats.

Preferred Places to Get Your Rats

  • Rescues – many small animals need forever homes, but it’s important to do your research as factors such as legitimacy and whether they’re kill/no kill rescues come into play.
  • Personal rehoming between rat owners, for reasons such as changes of circumstances or loss of one of a pair of rats.
  • Reputable breeders – whilst doing your research is always recommended, a local rat fanciers society (if there is one in your country) can provide lists of known breeders in the area, and they offer a chance to adopt a rat with certain characteristics or particular varieties.

Places to Avoid

  • Pet shops & rodent mills / feeder breeders – low standards of welfare and a money-driven reason for breeding causes suffering for the does bred for the sale of their babies.
  • Small scale breeders who don’t want updates / don’t want to talk about their rats, and who seem to only be breeding for money.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading our complete rat care guide for beginners with essential first-time rat owner tips.

Rats are such wonderful and intelligent animals, it’s no wonder they’re so popular as pets around the globe. Watching them flourish in your care knowing as an owner, that you’re prepared and have the knowledge to care for them is a wonderful thing, for both you and your fluffy friends.