Many people can be squeamish about rats. After all, they carry disease and live in the sewers, don’t they? And as for that long tail! This is exactly what ran through my mind when my husband suggested buying a pet rat. We lived in a tiny flat that couldn’t possibly support a dog or even a cat, but we did have room for a small cage. I’m glad that I was eventually convinced to give rats a try, because domestic rats actually make great pets. They’re sociable, intelligent and fun to watch. Most importantly, they are the ideal first pet for a child. If you like the idea of giving a different type of furry friend a home, read on for the tips and practises that will soon make your new pet an important part of the household.
So you’ve decided to go ahead and buy a pet rat? Brilliant! Now you have some choices to make:
- The first thing you need to decide is where to get your rat from. If the rat is going to be a child’s pet, I recommend the local pet shop. The child will be able to choose for themselves which rat they want, helping them to form an early bond with their new pet. If buying from a pet shop, the rats are also likely to be young (usually they will be about six weeks old and newly weaned) as, believe it or not, rats sell fast and it is unusual for a rat to grow old in a shop. The added benefit of having a young rat is that they are not yet set in their ways and can be more easily trained.If you want your rat to stand apart from the rest of the crowd, another option is buying a fancy rat such as a Russian blue or an English mink from a specialized breeder. Fancy rats are rarer, more expensive rats and will not often be seen in shops. Breeders’ advertisements can usually be found in pet magazines or on pet shop notice boards. If you are interested in having a rat for yourself and not for a child, there is one last option and that is adopting an abandoned rat from an animal shelter. This may not be suitable for children because these rats will be older and may have been mistreated, so you will need patience to form a strong relationship with them. I think adopting a rat is an important option to consider because rats are often left for years at shelters, surrounded by the ‘cuter’ kittens and puppies, with no prospect of a new home.
- When you have decided where you will get your new pet, the next decision is whether to choose a male or a female rat, a buck or a doe. The twosexes are dissimilar in their needs and habits and you will have a completely different experience depending on which you choose. Bucks will often fight with each other, so you might decide to have just one per cage. Rats are sociable pack animals though and you will have to pay a solitary rat extra attention. This can include handling him regularly, talking to him; and leaving the radio playing when you go out. Bucks can grow fairly large (they can weigh up to 700g) but are more placid than does and can be more affectionate. This is partly because they are so laid back that they can’t be bothered to attempt escape when you cuddle them!One drawback to keeping a buck is that he is likely to scent his living area, producing an unpleasant odour if his cage is not cleaned regularly. He may also become more aggressive once mature, which will mean a trip to the vet for a castration. Does are more lively than bucks so are more fun to watch in their cage. They also have softer fur, produce less odour and can be kept in groups. They are less affectionate, however, because they find it hard to sit still for long. My husband and I keep does and they always seem to be looking for mischief!
- The Perfect Ratty Habitat Ideally, your new rat’s cage should be set up and ready for use before their arrival. Once you put your rat into their cage, they may hide themselves for a few hours until they get used to the sights, sounds and smells of their new surroundings. Any cage must be big enough for a rat to feed, sleep and climb in. Your rat will need a water bottle, a food bowl, a covered area to sleep in and toys. The toys are very important because your rat will need lots of exercise. In our cage we have connecting ropes for our rats to climb on and a large plastic tube positioned against the back wall. Rats also need objects to chew so that they can wear down their teeth. Any toy that is made of wood will do. Alternatively, used toilet roll tubes are inexpensive and are great fun for your ratties to shred!My husband and I have tried many different products in the base of our cage over the years, including hay, shredded paper, sawdust and cat litter. Hay and shredded paper become extremely messy very quickly and can be a nightmare to clean out, while the small wood fragments found in sawdust can irritate a rat’s eyes. Our favorite product is wood-based cat litter. It is more expensive but it cleans out easily and locks in odor. This means that your cage will often not need cleaning out for an amazing ten days, rather than the recommended seven. If you choose this option, a small ball of meadow hay in one corner of the cage will give your rat something warm to snuggle into.Rats are not fussy eaters and will eat any rat food you find at the pet shop or supermarket. Its fun to give them scraps as a treat, however. In the past our rats have enjoyed chicken, pieces of apple and even potato peelings. You can also buy pre-made rat treats, they often come on a stick that can be hung from their cage. This is excellent for a rat’s teeth because they are usually hard and crunchy; and if you hang them somewhere that the rat will have to climb to, will also provide exercise and amusement for your pet.It is advisable to occasionally bathe your rats, although they sometimes don’t appreciate it! An adult would have to help a child with this because the rat must be grasped firmly at all times. One of our rats actually jumps straight up out of the water every time we attempt this. We run a very tepid mini-bath into a sink and massage medicated pet shampoo into our rats’ fur. This guards against any parasites that may have found their way into the cage; and soothes various skin irritations. Rats will only need a tiny amount of shampoo and you must be very careful not to get it into their eyes. When clean, we carefully towel our rats dry. All evidence of shampoo must be carefully washed out of your rat’s fur because your rat will lick and dry themselves once back in their cage; and they wouldn’t want a mouthful of soap.
Venturing Out of the Cage!
Part of the joy of keeping rats is that they are an interactive pet. Does are less likely to sit still and let you pet them as a buck would, although if you grasp them firmly in one hand when removing them from their cage, they will allow you to stroke their heads. Eventually, they may sit or lay in the crook of your arm. An exercise we found useful when getting to know our new rats was to place them on one shoulder and stand with our arms outstretched so that the rats could run along them. This created a sense of trust between us and our pets, as well as providing exercise. Sometimes your rat will defecate outside of its cage. This is a sign that it is distressed and your rat should be returned to its cage immediately, both to calm it and to show it that only the cage should be used for toilet purposes. When you have played with your rat away from the cage a few times, this will stop. You just have to be patient.
If you can ‘ratty-proof’ your room, another way to give your rats an environment outside their cage is to let them explore the floor area. You will have to make sure that no wires are left out for your rat to chew and that every small space (such as underneath a desk or settee) is covered. I know from experience that if your rat finds a small, dark space, it takes a lot of coaxing to get them out again. My husband and I found the room where we keep our rats too difficult to rat-proof, so we shut all the doors in our hallway and let them out in there instead. Alternatively, you could buy a rat ball, which may be an easier alternative for children. This is simply a large plastic ball with a locking door. When you put your rat inside and place the ball on the floor, the rat is free to walk around the room while protected by the ball. This will alleviate any fear of losing your pet underneath a chair or having them chew on your new DVD player’s wires.
Enjoy your new rat and have fun. They can be very loyal and affectionate and will be sure to surprise you for years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Visit Caroline Bernard-Smith’s webpage at www.carolinebarnardsmith.tk.