Rats as Pets: Pros and Cons to Consider Before Adopting

by Alison Blyth
rats as pets pros and cons

Obviously, I love having pet rats. Otherwise I wouldn’t currently have *cough* 25 *cough* of them in my house (in my defence, one of them is only here on holiday). However, although rats are totally awesome in every way, they aren’t the best pet for everyone. So, today I’m going to try and take you through a balanced list of both the pros and cons of letting some snuffly friends into your life. 

The pros of having rats as pets

Rats are fairly low maintenance

There are things we need to get right when keeping rats. They need a healthy interesting diet, a safe appropriately sized cage, other rats for companionship, daily attention for play and bonding, and vet treatment if required. They do have increased requirements compared to some other types of rodents.  

But they don’t need walking, they very rarely need grooming, and while their diet needs to be healthy and varied, there are relatively few foods they can’t eat. And being crepuscular (most active in morning and evening) they don’t mope when their owner goes to school or work – they just settle down for a nice snooze.

(Ok, confession – 99.99999% of rats are fairly low maintenance. The remaining rat is Albert, who is still offended that my husband and I can’t spend 24/7 cuddling him. But Albert is a bit special.)

Rats (mostly) want to be your friend

Rats like human company

Unlike a lot of small animal species, most rats are by nature confident, curious, and seem to like people. As long as they have been well-handled and not neglected, most rats enjoy spending time with their owners. The bond between a rat and its people can be as strong as the bond between dog and owner.

Rats are not too big and not too small

Rats are a really nice size for a pet. They weigh between 200 g (small girl) and 700 g (large boy) fully grown, and have a solid, robust body shape. That makes them pretty easy to handle even for children. But a couple of rats in a decent cage still don’t take up too much room in the house.

Rats are clean(ish)

Rats can be litter trained, will generally pee and poo in their favourite corner of the cage rather than on their human, and like nothing better than to spend several hours a day attending to their fur. Their cages can smell if not cleaned out enough, or if they are too small, but generally they are fairly low odour pets.

Rats don’t live that long so they aren’t a long term commitment

This appears in both lists as it can be both a pro and a con. On the upside, the fairly short lifespan of fancy rats (2-3 years on average) means that they aren’t a long term commitment, but they come in small packages of enormous personality.

The cons of having rats as pets

Rats don’t live that long… and it can break your heart

Given how huge their personalities are, and how strongly they can bond with their humans, losing rats after 2 or 3 years can be very difficult. It’s probably the most common reason for people who love rats to nonetheless stop keeping them. And it’s not a problem we can easily solve – even with the best care in the world, a fancy rat rarely makes it much beyond 3 years.

Rats have teeth – and aren’t afraid to use them

The cons of having rats as pets

Most rats don’t bite. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t cause havoc with their teeth. Rodents get their name from those big incisors at the front of the mouth, and the fact they like to use them to gnaw. Rats live up to that reputation. They will chew things in their cage (the base, plastic and wooden cage furniture, even hammocks). Given the chance, they will also gnaw things out the cage, so it is important to have somewhere to free-range them that doesn’t contain anything dangerous (like electric wires), and doesn’t contain anything you don’t want getting chewed.

Things that have been gnawed in my house include the sofa (we have a sacrificial second-hand one), vinyl flooring, clothes, dining chairs, the backdoor flyscreen, and in some places, the wall. It is completely natural, and is actually essential for the rat’s wellbeing, but new owners have to be aware and prepared.

Starting keeping rats is easy, stopping is harder

There are two reasons it is hard to stop keeping rats. Firstly, just because they are so adorable. Resisting adopting just one more, or making that leap to having no rats in your house can be tricky. Secondly, rats need company of their own species, and can get quite seriously depressed if kept alone. That can mean we end up adopting new friends to join an older bereaved rat and starting the ownership cycle over. One of the most common ways to stop keeping rats is to rehome the last member of a group to a home where they will have ratty friends – but that can be difficult if there is a strong bond between rat and owner.

Vet’s bills

Rats are awesome in every possible way… except their health. Fancy rats, unless they have been very well bred, are prone to a wide range of health problems. Particular issues are respiratory infections, mammary tumours, uterine infections and cancer. Just because rats can be quite cheap to buy does not mean they are an inexpensive pet. Without appropriate veterinary treatment, they will suffer, so it is important to adopt them only if the owner is prepared and able to pay what it takes to keep them healthy.

Rats are all individuals – and sometimes they don’t read the rules

Most rats are friendly and outgoing. Most rats don’t bite. Most rats bond with their humans. Most rats don’t poo and pee too much out the cage. But there are no guarantees. Nervous and aggressive rats exist, lovely babies can grow up to be hormonally aggressive teenagers – and owners need to be prepared to deal with what happens. And by prepared, I mean willing to accept the rat as who they are, and consider options like neutering, not euthanise or dump.

Overall, I recommend rats as pets, but they are individuals with needs and idiosyncrasies, so as always when adopting an animal, it is important to figure out if they are the right pet for you.

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