Rats have only become pets in the past 100 years, but they are smart, friendly and like to cuddle! They are also hearty and healthy and thus make great companions for families and kids.
Cages for Rats
A large wire cage is best, especially one with horizontal bars that allow the rat to climb on the sides. A tall cage with ramps and platforms is ideal for providing room for multiple rats. As a minimum, a cage with 12 by 24 inches (2 square feet) of floor space is okay for two smaller rats as long as the cage is tall and you provide shelves and/or hammocks for extra space.
However, larger is always better. Large aquariums are okay too, though they do not provide good ventilation and must be cleaned more often.
Avoid cages with wire flooring as spending time on wire flooring has been linked to bumblefoot. Many cages have wire balconies and shelves which are not ideal. However, you can modify wire balconies by covering them with a thin sheet of wood or other solid material (fixed to the cage with wire ties). Also look for wire that is a fine grid (1/2 inch by 1/2 inch maximum). Your best bet is to find cages that have plastic or wood shelving, or you can modify cages using melamine covered boards to make your own shelves which are easy to clean. Many enterprising rat owners have built their own large cages. See the Dapper Rat's Grotto and their pages of ideas for inspiration.
Avoid cedar and pine wood shavings, but aspen or other hardwood shavings are fine.
There are many other good pet bedding and litter options available that are very absorbent, not dusty and safe for small pets. Some are pelleted which might not be comfortable for rats to play and sleep in, so consider using pelleted products (which are usually very absorbent) under a layer of softer loose bedding.
For a sampling of the newer alternative pet bedding products, see "Top Ten Alternatives to Cedar and Pine."
Provide some nesting material which the rats can shred and use to line their nest box - paper (no ink), tissues or paper towels work well.
Usually, the rats will chose a bathroom location in one area of the cage. Scoop out heavily soiled litter daily, and add more litter if needed. Clean the whole cage and provide new liter and bedding once a week or so.
Provide a nest box which can be store-bought or home made. A cardboard box makes a perfectly acceptable nest box, although it may need to be replaced often. Other possibilities include a flowerpot or jar turned on its side, or a section of PVC drain pipe (perhaps cover one end). Store box boxes are good too, but keep in mind that wooden ones can be hard to clean if they get urine on them, and the plastic ones might get chewed up fairly quickly.
Toys and Accessories
Rats love to climb and will make good use of ladders, ropes, hammocks, tunnels and platforms. Provide toys as well - blocks of wood for chewing, cardboard tubes and toys designed for ferrets or parrots are good choices. Look for rope and wood toys as many plastic toys can't stand up to chewing by a determined rat.
Simple items like large cardboard mailing tubes, crumpled paper, paper bags and cardboard boxes can also make wonderful toys. Rats are very intelligent and need to be challenged, so rotate the toys on a regular basis to avoid boredom. For more ideas, see "Homemade Rat Toys" and "Top Rat Toys Online."
Some rats like to run on exercise wheels (and some will never try!), but the wire type commonly found in pet stores isn't very safe for rats as their feet or tail can get caught in the rungs or the supports on which the wheel is suspended. A solid surface wheel like the Wodent Wheel, is preferable.
Heavy ceramic food dishes are probably easiest to use as they are sturdy, don't tip over too easily and are easy to clean. A water bottle with a sipper tube can be used for water. Make sure a supply of fresh clean water is always available.
The cage should ideally be placed in a relatively quiet place but still near the social activity in the home. Rats are nocturnal so keep their space fairly quiet during the day. Placing the cage on a table or stand will help the rats feel more secure. Avoid direct sunlight or drafty spots. Also limit access to the cage by other household pets, as a rat will feel threatened by a hovering cat or dog.
Next: Feeding, Playtime and Nail Trims
Pelleted or block type diets are available for rats and are formulated to be nutritionally complete. Choose a rat block that is low in fat and calories and has soy meal high on the ingredient list rather than corn. While rat blocks should comprise the basic diet, a variety of fresh foods can be used as a supplement which will aid in keeping rats healthy and prevent boredom with the pelleted diet.
Packaged loose mixes are also available, but rats tend to pick out their favorite bits from the mix, which may mean they are not eating a balanced diet.
Try small amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grain pastas and bread, brown rice, yogurt, and occasionally low fat cooked meat, mealworms, cheese, seeds and nuts. In addition, treats such as dog biscuits can be given. It is important to keep rats on a high fiber and low fat diet, so limit higher fat foods such as cheese, seeds and nuts. Rats have a bit of a sweet tooth, but resist the temptation to feed sugary foods or junk food, including chocolate. More information on what to feed and what to avoid can be found in "Feeding Pet Rats."
Playtime Outside the Cage
Beyond the basics of food and housing, rats do not require much else except your attention and time outside of the cage. Make sure that their play area outside the cage is rat-proofed since rats will chew on just about anything they can get their teeth on.
Most importantly, ensure that electrical wires are out or reach or encased in plastic tubing. Also check that rats cannot access anything that is toxic, including poisonous plants. Keep anything out of reach that you don't want your rats to chew. Rats also tend to scent mark as they roam, leaving little drops of urine.
The odor is not offensive, but you may want to cover furniture with a throw while they are out. They will also do this to their owners, so be prepared!
Rats have sharp little nails; check them every one to two months. Nail trimming is not difficult, except that your rat will probably object and try to squirm away. You can use a pair of human nail clippers and trim a little off the tip if needed. Just take a tiny bit off the tip and avoid the pink part (the quick) that may be visible inside the nail, as this is a blood vessel and nerve. If you do happen to nick the blood vessel, apply a little cornstarch applied to the nail tip to stop any bleeding. (You can also by a product at the pet store called Kwik Stop that is used the same way.)
At the same time you check the nails, try to get a glimpse of the teeth to make sure they are not getting overgrown. Provide lots of opportunity (with wood blocks and toys) for your rats to chew and keep their teeth healthy.
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