Table of Contents
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Introduction | Rats Need Company | Socialization with Humans
Husbandry | Nutrition | Health Concerns | Breeding | Separating the Sexes | Resources & Acknowledgements

Attention Rat Lovers!
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Last Updated: May 14, 2003.

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Rats make excellent pets! They are clean, extremely smart, and very social toward humans, making them one of the best pocket pets out there. Of course, they are often greatly misunderstood -- many people continue to associate them with the kind of rats you'd find in a city sewer. However, domesticated rats are as different from wild rats as labrador retrievers are from wolves! Jack Hanna says that rats are the nearest thing to a dog you'll find in a small mammal! Times are changing, and rats are becoming very popular as household pets.

Sadly, compared to other companion animals, there is still not a whole lot of information out there on rats as pets -- accurate or otherwise. Hopefully, this brochure will help you learn the basics of proper care for these wonderful little rodents. I also hope to help you find the perfect supplies and accessories to give your rats the best possible life. I have used many of these products myself, and highly recommend them.

Though greatly abbreviated, the information contained in here should help anyone get started, and point you in the right direction to find the facts you need. I highly recommend seeking out the items on the Suggested Reading list at the end to learn more.

Rats Need Company

Rats should always be kept as pets in same-sex groups of two or more, for many reasons. In the wild, rats live in immense colonies, and naturally need and enjoy the company of other rats. They groom each other, sleep together and play together. No amount of human attention can replace the company of another rat. Therefore, pet rats are better off with at least one other for companionship.

It is also believed that pet rats fare better emotionally when kept in groups, which not only keeps them happy, but healthy, too! Single rats often seem to be more easily stressed and can be more prone to disease -- some rats can even develop behavioral problems or neurotic tendencies when kept alone. Since caring for two rats is no more difficult than caring for one, and the extra cost is nominal compared to the benefits of having two together, there really is no reason not to get two or more. As long as you give them attention individually, they will each bond with you -- in fact, many people believe that keeping two rats actually helps them bond to you more easily.

Though it is very possible to introduce a new rat as a companion for a single rat, it is much easier to get both at the same time, preferably from the same litter, as they have grown up together and already know each other. Debbie Ducommun has written an excellent article about introducing rats, which is available on The Rat Fan Club Web site, under Helpful Info, at I have used this article to introduce my own rats, with great success.

Human Socialization

Rats are very social animals, and are most easily socialized with humans when they are young. Therefore, it is important in their social development to have contact with humans from almost the moment they are born. Not only should breeders and pet store employees handle or interact with the rats at least once a day, they should also allow you to have direct contact when visiting. In many cases, the best way to choose a pet rat is to allow the rat to pick you! The most social rats make the best pets of all. Just be sure that your hands are clean -- the rats may detect food scents and try to bite (thinking it is a morsel, not to be mean), or may smell another animal and become very frightened.

Most human illnesses are not transmitted to rats (strep throat is one exception), but itŐs better to be safe than sorry. If you are ill, avoid the pet store or breeder until you are feeling better.

When picking a rat up, you should never grab him or her by the tail. This is very uncomfortable to them, makes them feel unsafe, and does not help in their socialization. Tails have also been known to break off or lose skin with improper handling. Skin that has come off the tail cannot be reattached, nor will the tail grow back. Amputation of the tail tip is often required. You should always pick up a rat around its middle, and then support their feet with your other hand or your body. This makes them feel very secure, and reduces the chance of someone dropping them if they squirm. Rats that are regularly lifted by their tails tend to harbor a distrust of humans, and may not make the best pets.

The environment pet rats live in is very important. Rats have a few special needs compared to some other pocket pets, such as hamsters or gerbils, but they are easily accommodated with a little knowledge and common sense.

A hamster cage or Habitrail is NOT an acceptable home for a rat. Such habitats are far too small and offer poor ventilation. Glass aquariums are acceptable, but do not offer the same ventilation as a wire cage, so must be cleaned more often to avoid harmful ammonia buildup. A cage should offer a bare minimum of 2 cubic feet for one to two rats -- about the equivalent of a 20-gallon long aquarium, but more room is always better. I prefer 2 cubic feet per rat. I always recommend that people purchase or construct the largest cage they can.

Wire cages (such as rabbit and ferret cages) are by far preferred. They offer superior ventilation, plenty of climbing opportunities, and better flexibility for modification and "decorating." Space between wires should be between 1/2" x 1/2" (for babies) and 1" x 2" for adults. Some good cage manufacturers include:

Fern Cage Manufacturing Company
11830 Wakeman Avenue
Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670
Tel 562.696.5969, Fax 562.696.0905

Corner Creek Acres
1603 S. Milner
Ottumwa, IA 52501
Tel 515.684.7122, Fax 515.684.0726

Martin's Cages
4554 Marietta Avenue
Columbia, PA 17512
Tel 888.451.2234

KW Cages
Tel 800.447.CAGE

The Ferret Store

Some people believe that wire-floored cages need to be covered to protect rat feet from developing a condition known as bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis). This is not actually true. Bumblefoot is actually caused by a number of factors, including genetics, body weight, improper pressure, and cage cleanliness. I recommend a variety of surfaces for them to walk on. In my cage, I only have one level covered with vinyl carpet runner. The ramps and balconies are left uncovered.

It has been found that both cedar and pine shavings are NOT acceptable as bedding for rats, mice and other pocket pets. Studies have shown that exposure to the phenols in cedar and pine (the chemical that makes them smell nice) can cause respiratory difficulty, as well as liver and kidney damage. A list of published articles is available. With so many better, safer products on the market, there is no longer any reason to use these soft wood shavings as bedding. Some alternatives are listed below.

Keep in mind, also, that clumping and clay-based kitty litters are not advised. Clay-based litters are very dusty, and can cause problems with the rat's delicate respiratory system. Clumping litters can cause problems if ingested. It's important to remember that cats only visit their litter box to do their business. Rats live in their litter. Paper-based cat litters are fine, and a few of them are included in the list below.

Care Fresh
reclaimed paper pulp product
Distributor List:

paper-based, contains baking soda
Ampro Industries, Inc.

Housekeeper's Eco-Bedding
paper-based, like crinkled paper bags; expands
Ranpak Corp.

shavings or pellets
Available from many sources

Critter Country
grass fiber pellets
Moutain Meadows Pet

Yesterday's News
recycled paper product
Canbrands International Ltd

paper-based, has odor control compound
XORB Corporation

Cell Sorb Plus
Fangman Specialties

heat-treated aspen pellets
PJ Murphy Forest Products

Alfalfa pellets
a.k.a. rabbit food; green pellets
Rats can't digest it, so they won't eat it.
Readily available from many sources

Cages should be cleaned at least once a week in a home setting. Depending on the size of the cage, ventilation, and number of rats, cages may need to be cleaned more or less frequently. A rat cage should never smell, as they are very clean animals. If the cage smells, it is because it is long overdue for a cleaning. Rat urine creates ammonia fumes, so a dirty cage leads to an unhealthy build up of ammonia.

Though cages can be cleaned with a commercial pet cage cleaner, sometimes the fumes from these types of products can cause respiratory problems. It is recommended to clean the cage with warm water and a mild soap, rinsing thoroughly. A very diluted bleach solution is also acceptable. Household cleaners, such as Windex, Fantastik, etc., should never be used due to harmful fumes.

Rats need to be stimulated mentally, as they are very intelligent creatures. Toys can range from bird toys to something as simple as cardboard tubes. My rats enjoy PVC tubes, purchased at a hardware/ home improvement store for about $3.00 each. Ferret litter pans and terra cotta or plastic flower pots can make great sleeping spots. I have also made hammocks out of wood dowels and scrap fabric, and tossed empty tissue boxes into the cage.

Some rats enjoy exercise wheels, but usually only the females, and only if they have been exposed to a wheel at a young age. I personally have yet to get one of my boys to use a wheel, but all rats are different. Of course, since a rat is bigger than a mouse, hamster or gerbil, they need a bigger wheel. Wodent Wheels are made especially for rats, and come in multiple sizes, depending on the size of the rat. Wodent Wheels are manufactured by Transoniq.

• Transoniq
1402 SW Upland Drive, Portland, OR 97221

Another accessory that really should be a must for all rat owners is a carrier for transportation to the vet. I have taken my rats to the vet in cardboard boxes, plastic terrariums and glass aquariums, but nothing beats my Cabin Kennel. Similar to a cat carrier, a Cabin Kennel is specifically designed for pocket pets like rats, ferrets and chinchillas. The Cabin Kennel is also airline approved, should the need arise to bring your pet on a plane trip. Cabin Kennels are made by Doskocil.

• Doskocil
PO Box 1246, Arlington, TX 76004-1246
Tel 800.433.5185, Fax 817.472.9810

One more accessory a pet owner might consider is a Pet Corral, which can provide a safe playspace, and not ruin any furniture. Pet Corral, and the larger version, the Grrreat Wall, are manufatured by Milestone Innovative Products. I have a Grrreat Wall, and I love it!

• Milestone Innovative Products
11823 Lindblade Street, Culver City, CA 90230
Tel 888.391.3555


Hamster and gerbil mixes, rabbit food and cat food are NOT acceptable as rat food. Hamster mixes do not contain complete nutrition, and often feature fatty seeds and nuts. Rabbit feed is made from alfalfa, which rats cannot digest. Cat food contains far too much protein, which will cause coat problems, especially for males.

The best nutrition for rats is in the form of a Lab Block. It has all of the daily requirements a rat needs. Some of the best brands are listed below. Be sure to choose a block that does not have corn as its first ingredient; soy- or wheat-based blocks are preferred. I have been using Owxbow's Rodent Maintenance Formula lately, which seems to go over very well -- much better than most lab blocks. It contains no corn, and has the same protein content of Nutro Natural Choice Lite.

Note to pet owners: not all the brands listed below are available to purchase from the manufacturer. Where possible, I have listed a retail source for the listed products. Otherwise, contact your local shops and ask if they carry any of these:

• Harlan Teklad
PO Box 44220, Madison, WI 53744-4220
Tel 608.277.2070
Fax 608.277.2066
Product - #8604 Rodent Diet (soy-based)
Retail - Available from the RMCA and

• Purina Mills
PO Box 66812, St. Louis, MO 63166-6812
Tel 800.227.8941
Fax 314.768.4894
Product - Lab Diet for rodents or Mazuri¨ Rodent Pellets
I was able to get Purina when I first started keeping rats, and it went over fairly well, but I have not been able to get it locally for some time.

• L/M Animal Farms
10279 State Route 132, Pleasant Plain, OH 45162
Tel 800.322.5623
Product - Square Meal for rodents
Retail - Available from Ritzy Rats Pet Shop
This is the brand I have had the most luck with, personally.

Other lab blocks available via retail:
• 8-1 Plus Advanced Nutrition Diet for Rats & Mice
I have never tried this brand, so I can't comment.

• Kaytee FortiDiet for Rats & Mice
Available at PetsMart and Petco.
I have used this brand, and found it to be the most unpopular of the lot, as have many other rat owners nationwide, though it is the most widely available. Corn is the main ingredient, and Ethoxyquin is used as a preservative. Honestly, I cannot recommend it.

Some dog kibble is fine for babies and nursing mothers, as it helps the babies grow, and helps mom retain her strength while nursing. I have also found that adults do just as well on light dog foods (for senior or overweight dogs). The best dog food brand for rats that I have found is Nutro's Natural Choice Lite, which has low protein (14%) and is lamb- and rice-based (not corn). In general, the protein content of a rat's diet should not exceed 25%. Below 18% is best for adult males. Some rats are more sensitive to protein than others.

Seed mixes formulated for rats and parrots are fine as a supplement to the staple diet, but should not be the sole diet. These mixes often contain items that go to waste, such as alfalfa pellets and tiny seeds. They also do not provide complete nutrition, and contain a lot of seeds and nuts that are high in fat, which can cause obesity and protein problems (where the rat will become itchy, and scabs will develop).

If you would like to know what I feed my own rats, feel free to take a look at my recipe at I feed them a combination of Nutro's Natural Choice Lite dog food, Oxbow Maintenance (when available) and a homemade grain mix. Debbie Ducommun also has a complete homemade diet featured on the Rat Fan Club web site which offers balanced nutrition. The RMCA also has its own homemade diet.

Rats should have access to fresh water at all times, supplied in a water bottle. A bowl can be tipped and soiled by urine, feces and bedding, so a hanging, on-demand water bottle works best. The water should be refreshed every few days, and the bottle should be cleaned well each time the cage is cleaned.

In the summer, two or more bottles should be maintained, if possible. Store unused, full bottles in the refrigerator, and switch them throughout the day. Rats can only release excess body heat through their tails, so they can become overheated fairly quickly. If a rat does happen to go into heatstroke, he can be given an electrolyte drink like Pedialyte to help recover. You can also immerse him in lukewarm water, and promptly dry him with a towel.

Of course, eating lab blocks and grains all the time can be incredibly boring. Rats relish their treats! As omnivores, they will eat almost anything, but it is always best to give them healthy treats such as fresh fruits (blueberries, grapes) and vegetables (carrots, broccoli), cooked pasta with no sauce (they love it!), instant oatmeal, dry cereal and other healthy goodies. Commercial treats are fine in small quantities, but fresh foods are generally better for them.

Small items -- such as Rice Krispies, Cheerios and rolled oats -- make excellent training aids. Rats love them, and they are small enough to eat quickly. In addition, the animal will not get full too quickly, so training sessions can last longer.

One product that offers acceptable commercial treats is Vitakraft. Two products of theirs that are very popular with rats are the yogurt drops (any flavor) and the Cheese Wedges.

• Vitakraft Pet Products Co.
Chimney Rock Road 12E
Bound Brook, NJ 08805
Tel 732.560.7400, Fax 732.560.7499
Products - Cheese Wedges and yogurt drops

Another manufacturer of yogurt drops is Eight In 0ne. They make Yogies, which are available in a variety of flavors. My boys prefer peanut butter and cranberry, which are marketed as ferret treats. Why they don't make "rat" flavors is beyond me.

• Eight In One Pet Products, Inc.
"Yogies" Yogurt Drops

Health Concerns

I don't have enough room to cover every medical condition rats can face, but there are two major concerns that one should watch for -- respiratory problems and parasites. I'm going to cover a few of the major symptoms to look out for, and make suggestions of what you can do.

I am not a vet or an expert on rat health care, but I have had first-hand experience with these conditions, and have conversed with both my veterinarian and an internationally-recognized lay-expert on rat health, Debbie Ducommun. A good source for more in-depth information about rat health is her book, Rat Health Care. More information about this valuable resource is listed in the Suggested Reading section. As always, consult a veterinarian in all medical matters when it comes to your pets.

The most common health problems in rats are often respiratory in nature. All pet rats have the bacteria mycoplasma pulmonis in their system, though it can remain dormant and show no symptoms. Active myco can be triggered by environment (cedar or pine bedding, drafts, air fresheners, cigarette smoke, etc.) and secondary bacterial or viral infections (SDA). If left untreated, these secondary infections can lead to pneumonia and, ultimately, death. The most obvious symptoms of most respiratory illnesses (whether viral or bacterial) include:

• Wheezing or noises while breathing
• Excessive sneezing
• Porphyrin staining (red discharge) around nose and eyes

Advanced symptoms may include:
• Labored breathing or gasping
• Lethargy
• Drop in body temperature
• Disinterest in food or water
• Loss of coordination

• Noticeable weight loss

If your rat exhibits any of these symptoms, it should be treated with antibiotics from a vet. Observe the other animals in the cage for similar symptoms -- secondary infections are often contagious. It is often advisable to treat all of your rats at the same time.

While echinacea, an herb extracted from the purple cone flower, can't cure existing respiratory problems in rats, it may help prevent secondary infections by boosting the immune system, as it does in humans. Capsules can be mixed with food, or childrenŐs flavored liquid echinacea (alcohol-free) can be given. Rats should receive about 1/10 the human dose (about a drop a day), and should not be given the herb for longer than 5 to 7 days at a time, which can weaken its effectiveness. I must reiterate that echinacea is NOT a cure for anything. It only acts to boost the immune system.

Though not as common as respiratory ailments, external parasites, such as lice and mites, can occur in rats. Rat parasites are species-specific, so humans and other household pets cannot get them from an infested rat. Scratching and hair loss can also be caused by too much protein in the diet or a bacterial infection, so check these possibilities first before treating for parasites. Some symptoms may include:

• Excessive itching
• Scabs and/or hair loss from scratching
• Visible nits on hair shafts - lice
• Moving, brownish-red specks - mites

The best treatment for parasites is a visit to the vet for an ivermectin prescription. Though ivermectin can be injected, it is easy to overdose. An accidental overdose can be fatal. I prefer to apply the injectable liquid topically; just a drop between their ears, which they will groom and ingest. Another ivermectin alternative is an oral dose of a horse wormer that goes by the names Equimectrin or Zimectrin. Dosage is a blob about the size of an uncooked grain of rice, once a week for two to three weeks. This can be tricky, as the horse wormer is often not evenly mixed, so a vet check is preferred. Flea powders should never be used, as they are far too dusty, and can irritate a rat's delicate respiratory system. Shampoos will only kill the adults, and does not stay in the system long enough to affect the eggs as they hatch.


Female rats should not be bred from until they are at least three months old. There should be a space of at least two months between litters (starting after the last litter is weaned), to allow the mother to regain her strength after bearing and nursing a litter. Lastly, each female should not be bred more than two or three times in her lifetime. A female comes to the end of her breeding cycle at about 18 months of age, so it is not a good idea to breed her after that time. Litter sizes will decrease as her fertility wanes, and there could be complications.

Breeding, however, is not something to be taken lightly, by any means. Breeding any animal responsibly means making an effort to improve the species as a whole, not just to make more animals. This particularly applies to rats. If you are considering breeding, it is important to know rat genetics, have a breeding goal that involves improving the species, mentoring with a reputable breeder, and starting with good breeding stock from a reputable breeder. Pet store rats are NOT breeding material. You need to know the health and temperament history of your rat's line, going back several generations, including extended family, before you think about breeding him or her. Breeding is a monumental responsibility, and requires a lot of dedication and hard thinking before you begin. Blue Velvet Rattery has a very good article entitled, "Should I Breed My Rats?"


Separating the Sexes

When baby rats are a mere five weeks old, they are ready to reproduce. Therefore, males should be separated from the litter as soon as they are weaned from the mother (about five weeks of age), and should be kept separated from the females at all times. This will prevent the accidental pregnancies (which seems to occur at an alarming rate in pet shops). Many of these young rats are far too young and underdeveloped to healthily support an unborn litter, as they are not yet full-grown themselves. Likewise, the mother is far too weak to support an unborn litter so soon after weaning the previous litter, should one of her sons get her pregnant. Separating a litter by gender after weaning is in the best interest of the health of these young rats and their mother.

Once rats reach 3 weeks of age, it should be pretty obvious which are male and which are female (though it can be determined sooner, with experience). The males' testicles will be visible -- though they can pull them inside at will, especially if they are nervous or frightened. Females should have visible nipples on their bellies. The best thing to do is compare a few until you find two that are different, and then it will be easy to tell who is what. The diagram below should help.

Determining the Sex of Baby Rats

© Rat Fan Club

I hope that this page has helped you in learning more about rats and their needs. I update it from time to time as I learn even more, so check back from time to time.

Resources & Acknowledgements - Suggested reading, web sites, clubs, discussion forums, and more. Also bibliography, about the author and special thanks to those who helped me create this resource.


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