Busting 10 Common Myths About Pet Rats

by Alison Blyth
Myths about pet rats

When adopting a pet, it is necessary to do some research about the type of animal, their care, and what to expect. However, there is a lot of misinformation out there so in this post, we’ll take a look at some of the most misleading pet rat myths.

Myth 1: Rats Don’t Have Bladders – False

Rats definitely have bladders! They also have perfectly good bladder control – even if they don’t always exercise it – and they can be litter trained.

So where does this frankly weird idea come from? Rats genuinely don’t have gall-bladders, a small organ we have near our livers to store bile, so maybe that is the cause of the confusion. Another possible source for the rumour is that some rats are a tad… dribbly, and walk around leaving a trail of small drops of urine in their wake. However, this is quite deliberate on the part of the rat, who is using drips of urine to scent mark their territory and favourite things.

Which brings us to…

Myth 2: Only Male Rats Scent-mark – False

Rats scent mark either by leaving a little trail of urine drops behind, or by rubbing their back end and flanks on the object they want to claim. This releases fluid from the scent glands on their flanks – if you notice your rat has wet flanks and a weirdly aniseedy chemical smell, a bit like grape soda, they’ve been scenting.

It’s true that unneutered male rats are frequent scent markers because their testosterone levels make them particularly interested in telling everyone who is boss. However, not all male rats care, while some female or even neutered male rats can have very strong opinions. My girls scent mark me to prove I belong to them every bit as often as my boys do.

Myth 3: Rats Are Dirty and Smell – False

Pet rats don't smell

Rats are extremely keen on personal hygiene and spend far more of their day washing and grooming than humans do. They also keep their homes clean by using toilet corners and pushing dirty bedding out of their nest. Rats have a distinctive ‘ratty’ smell from the oils in their fur, and this can be stronger in unneutered males who secrete areas of “buck grease” on their backs. However, to smell a rat’s personal scent you have to hold it up to your nose and sniff – known in the rat community as “huffing a rat”.

If the smell of pet rats stinks out their room, then the issue is not the rats, but their husbandry. Regular, but not over-frequent, cage cleaning is the key to keeping your rats non-smelly.

Myth 4: Rats Carry Diseases – It’s Complicated

Wild rats can carry diseases and parasites – although they don’t carry an abnormal number compared to any other wild animals, and they weren’t solely responsible for the plague! What diseases a wild rat carries depends on their species and where in the world they live. 

However, pet rats are not wild rats! Sure, they are the same species, Rattus norvegicus, as the wild brown or Norway rat, but unless they have been dumped or kept outside, or exposed to wild rodents, they should not come into contact with the same parasites or pathogens. There have been some isolated cases of pet rats carrying diseases such as hantavirus, but these are unusual events. One disease that can be transmitted by pet rats is rat bite fever. This is caused by a bacteria that many rats carry in their mouths and noses, and is transmitted mostly by bites, but can sometimes also be transmitted by scratches, or ingestion of contaminated food. It is a rare disease (I’ve not seen a case in my rat owning community in 20+ years), but it can be serious if untreated, so it is important that owners let their doctor know if they develop any of the symptoms. It is also a reason to always practice good hygiene around pet rats, just like with any other animal

If you find a pet rat who has been dumped outside, or you end up hand-raising orphaned baby wild rats, you may be worried about whether they will be carrying any wild diseases or parasites. The best thing to do in this situation is to consult an experienced vet in your area. They should know what diseases are possible in your part of the world and provide prophylactic treatment to resolve any issues.

Myth 5: All Rats Bite – False

Pet rats don't tend to bite their owners

Most pet rats never bite a human in their lives – they are very affectionate creatures who want to be our friends and enjoy all the scritches, head rubs and treats.

However, it is possible to be bitten by a pet rat. The reasons for rats biting are:

  • Their hormones are running out of control and they’ve turned into aggressive grumpy teenagers with no impulse control – this is particularly common in males and in rats who have not been bred for temperament. Thankfully it is usually easily solved by neutering. 
  • They have experienced a major trauma in their earlier life and biting is a fear response.
  • They are being handled in a way that hurts or scares them.

As you can see the second or third reasons are problems caused by humans, not a problem with the rat, and a lot can be done with good care, careful handling and trust training

Myth 6: Rats Can Eat Anything – False

And Myth 6a: Rats Need Very Specialised Diets – Also False

Rat diets are easy to understand because what they can and can’t eat is very similar to our own limitations and needs. Rats should never be fed:

  • most dried pulses,
  • green or raw potato,
  • avocado skin and stone,
  • or anything else that is toxic to humans.

They should also never be allowed to sample tobacco or alcohol.

On the flipside, if we can safely eat a food, it probably won’t actively poison them. Rats are a much easier pet than dogs and cats in that respect – if they steal your chocolate you won’t end up with a trip to the vet, although you might have a fight on your hands to get it back. 

However… just because rats can eat a lot of things without dropping dead, doesn’t mean that they should! Junk food, and highly sugary, salty and processed treats have no place in their diets, and its also best to avoid anything too spicy, as even if a rat isn’t harmed by a food, they can still get a stomach ache.

Just like humans, rats need a balanced diet rich in whole grains and vegetables and with an appropriate amount of protein and unsaturated fat to be healthy and in good condition. Too much food, or an unbalanced diet can cause health problems like obesity, heart issues, fatty livers, and nutritional deficiencies. 

Myth 7: Keeping Rats Is the Same as Keeping Mice / Rabbits / Hamsters Etc. – False

Keeping rats vs other small pets

All animal species have their own specialised needs and make different types of pet.

There isn’t much in common between say, rats and rabbits, except that they are both smallish and furry, have big teeth and like to destroy things. Even rats and mice, who are quite closely related biologically, are a different experience for a pet owner.

Myth 8: Rats Live to Be 5-7 Years – Unlikely

And Myth 8a: Dumbo Rats Live Longer Than Standard Rats – False

The average life-span of a pet rat is around 2-2.5 years. I personally believe that with good breeding and good husbandry, we should be able to raise that towards 3 years, as many of the health problems that pet rats die from occur before the rats really start aging. However, just as we don’t see the majority of humans living to a lot over 100, I think it is quite unlikely to see rats living to five years and above as anything other than rare exceptions. 

The maximum lifespans I have experienced in rats are 4 years for a pet fancy rat, and 4 years 7 months for a wild born Rattus rattus. However, while species of rat does have an influence on life span, variety of pet rat doesn’t: all the colours, ear types, coat types etc. live roughly the same length of time, with any differences coming from the line they have been bred in, rather than the variety itself.

Myth 9: Rats Are Cheap Pets – False

It’s easy to mistake rats for cheap pets – after all baby rats can sell for as little as $5 in some pet stores or online. Sometimes they even get given away for free.

However, the cost of a pet is not the dollar cost of its purchase. We also have to take into account its:

While buying things like a decent cage maybe a one off, food, substrate and medical care will be ongoing costs throughout a rat’s life.

Although pet rats don’t usually carry diseases that we can catch, they do get ill themselves, especially if they aren’t from lines that have been vigorously bred for health. Respiratory infections can happen at any age, and older rats can also experience cancer, heart disease, and a range of less commonly seen problems. Rats are also very good at hiding pain and symptoms of illness, so if you notice your rat is unwell, they need to see a vet urgently.

Vet’s fees are not cheap, especially in an emergency, and they are likely to increase with recent rises in the cost of living – so it is really important to be prepared for that before adopting any new pets.

Myth 10: You Can Make Money From Breeding Rats – Very Definitely False!

Breeding rats responsibly is not profitable

Breeding rats is not something to be entered into lightly, and it is certainly not something to do to try and make money. As we established above, rats are not cheap pets and breeding just pushes those costs up more: more cages, more food, more substrate and more vet’s bills.

Breeding responsibly and ethically (which is the only type of breeding I can support) has specialised costs of its own – for example, necropsies to establish the cause of death of breeding animals are essential to ensure that the health records are correct, and they cost around $100 a time, with an additional $250+ needed on top if there are tumours that need investigation by a pathologist.

In my experience, the income from selling the non-keeper babies in a litter just about covers the food and maintenance costs for rearing that litter (because both nursing mothers and weaned baby rats eat enormous amounts and need excellent nutrition). Everything else comes out my pocket.

Want a fact-check on any myths about pet rats you’ve heard? Ask us in the comments below.

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