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fAcTs - Pet Rats

Rat FAQ

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Rat playing with a kitten
FAQ updated 2002 June 05

 

RATS AS PETS?

 

OKAY, TELL ME MORE!

 

COUPLE OR SINGLE? MALE OR FEMALE?

 

DO RATS AND OTHER PETS MIX? AND WHAT ABOUT KIDS?

 

PREPARING A NEW HOME TO MY RATS

 

GETTING AND TRANSPORTING RATS

 

THE FIRST DAYS

 

EVERYDAY LIFE

 

WHAT DO I DO WITH MY PET RATS WHEN I'M ON HOLIDAY/ IN HOSPITAL etc?

 

HEALTH AND HYGIENE

 


 

RATS AS PETS?

 

Q: Can rats be kept as pets at all, will they become tame?

A: Yes, they do. Like other pets they get used to humans very quickly when they are treated kindly. Rats can even learn to answer to their names. They like being close to their 'master', and as soon as they made friends with you they will love to sit on your shoulder or inside the pockets of your coat or sleep in the sleeve of your sweater now and then...

 

Q: How long have rats been kept as pets?

A: Since the 1960s.

 

Q: How do I know whether a rat is the right pet for me?

A: Answer yourself the following questions:

  • Do you like close body contact to rats?
  • Do you have got enough space and time to care for them? You'll need to prepare a "rat-proof" room where the rats can play every day without hurting themselves and without damaging your furniture.
  • Be aware that rats are prone to die of cancer after about two years and that they need veterinary treatment when they get old. Not every vet has experience in treating rats, so you need to find a good vet before getting your rats!
  • Make sure that family members etc don't mind the rats and that nobody is allergic to animal hair.
  • Is there someone who will care for your rats while you are ill or on holiday?

 

Q: Is it complicated to keep rats so that they feel at home?

A: No, it's quite easy: If you make sure to provide healthy food and entertainment and if you expend enough time for them, you will soon have won a smart and cuddly friend. Like all pets, they must not be neglected or be treated moodily.

 

 

OKAY, TELL ME MORE!

 

-> You can also read the short summary about rats' features, abilities and character

 

Q: Are rats really as smart as they say?

A: Yeah, rats are intelligent animals, and curious but suspicious. They learn incredibly fast and are therefore able to adapt to new surroundings and changing conditions quickly. E.g. there are rats volunteering as tasters, and when one dies of a toxic bait, the other rats memorize the poison's smell and they'll never touch anything like that again.

lab rat in a glass tube
Heeeelp... I taught the human to feed me when I touch the button,
but she is too stupid to release me from that bottle...

Q: I heard wild rats can be found in places as different as basements, ships, attics, sewers, even the 10th story of skyscrapers, everywhere... How do they get there, how do they survive there?

A: Rats are skilled athletes: They can squeeze themselves through small holes, they can swim distances of several kilometers, they can catch fish with their hands, they can dive, they can climb up vertical pipes and poles, the can balance their way across ropes and cables, and they can adapt to almost any climate.

 

Q: Aren't rats wild animals, what if they bite me?

A: As a matter of fact rats are very social, good-natured and friendly animals. And like most other pets they won't bite unless you scare them. This includes you ought not try to pet them during the first days before they really got used to you.

If a rat really should bite you, this can result from different reasons:

  • The rat just got scared by a sudden movement, loud noise, or is in pain. Don't be mad at her and calm her down before you try to touch her again.
  • The rat is defending her "territory". Don't touch the rats' house and don't rummage about inside the cage while they are near - the cage is their cave and home. Better don't stick you fingers through the bars either.
  • Sometimes rats only nibble at your fingers, socks, sweater in a friendly way to play "cleaning of fur" with you, like rats do it for each other.
  • You fingers might smell of some food you have touched recently - since rats distinguish objects rather by smell then by looks, they mistook your fingers for food. Wash your hands with water, but don't use perfumed soap.

Q: How big will a rat become?

A: Their body length ranges between 20 and 28cm, their tails are usually between 17 and 23cm long. New-born rats weigh between 40 and 100g, grown-up rats weigh between 200 and 500g, males a bit more.

 

Q: How old will a rat become?

A: Pet rats --all of them descendants of lab rats-- most often die of cancer after 2 years, maximum 3.

 

Q: Is it true that rats are only awake at night?

A: Not quite, actually rats prefer twilight. This means they are most active in the (early) morning and in the evening. Please let them sleep the rest of the time if they want to.

 

Q: How do rats find their way in the twilight?

A: Their whiskers are extremely sensitive, allowing them to feel their way through the dark. Additionally, their sense of smell and taste is highly developed, so they can distinguish places, food, persons and fellow rats by their smell rather than by their looks. This compensates for their bad eyesight.

 

Q: Will the rats mind my playing trumpet at home?

A: Yes, you can bet they will! Rats cannot stand loud noises, they need quiet surroundings to be happy. Their hearing is much more acute than man's, and most of their "private conversation" is held in ultrasound not perceivable by us. -- However it was discovered that rats go for soft flute music! (cf The Pied Piper Of Hamelin) ;-)

Q: Are there different colors?

A: Yes, rats' fur can be agouti (wild brown), white, creme-colored, black, gray, bluish or reddish. They can be plain, spotted or hooded (half-this-half-that, say, head, neck, shoulders and back are black, the body is white) or capped. White ones with red eyes are albinos, those cannot stand bright light.

white rat with a gray pattern
Pretty rats colored like this are called Husky rats.

 

Q: Is it true that rats spread the plague in medieval times?

A: The rats themselves didn't, but they are said to have spread fleas that were infected. Those fleas belonged to about 250 species (mainly rodents) that directly or indirectly spread the infection, and many humans were even infected by their own fellow-men. There! Don't you go scapegoating! :-P

black purple and yellow drawing of scary rat monsters
Gaaa! We eat you! Boo! We are so evil!
Come on, be scared, or the little worm on my shoulder will sing "Oops I did it again"!

 

COUPLE OR SINGLE? MALE OR FEMALE?

 

Q: Will it be okay to keep one single rat if I've got enough spare time to care for him/her?

A: No, not at all. Rats are gregarious animals and certainly do need company of their own kind to be happy. A human friend can't replace a rat friend to another rat. Only keep rats in same-gender groups.

 

Q: But if I keep a couple, won't they breed?

A: Oh yes, they will, rats are pretty fertile and already mature at the age of 4-6 weeks! That's why it's important to keep nothing but m/m or f/f couples (e.g. sisters or brothers) instead of a m/f couple. When they have started breeding once it won't be easy to find friendly homes for all of the young rats at the speed they reproduce, so avoid "mixed couples" at all costs.

 

Q: Oh, I don't mind baby rats - why not breed?

A: Don't do it: On planet Earth, there are about twice to thrice as many rats as men, for a female can give birth to 10-15 young ones four times a year - There is nothing more unnecessary than breeding even more rats. If you keep too many rats in one cage, they'll become aggressive and egoistic, they'll stop breeding and kill each other - survivors of over-population will never rehabilitate!

 

Q: What if I keep a m/f couple in separated cages?

A: That's only a temporary solution to keep them from breeding. In long terms it will be a terrible nuisance for the couple to be separated, because they can smell each other but can't get close.

 

Q: How can I tell a male from a female?

A: Hm, the rats themselves surely don't seem to have any problems in telling the difference... Well, generally, the males' anus and sex orifice are further apart than the females'. From 1 month of age the males' testicles and the females' teats are visible. But unfortunately there's no way for an unexperienced layperson to be 100% sure about a young rat's gender. To play it save always ask an expert (veterinarian) after obtaining a couple of rats!

the males' anus and sex orifice are further apart

male rat

the females' anus and sex orifice are closer together

female rat

 

Q: One of my two females already seems to have been pregnant when I got her, what do I do now?!

A: Feed especially nutritious food and provide enough water during pregnancy and until 4 weeks after birth. If the mother has been pregnant for the 1st time and doesn't know yet how to build a nest for her new-born young ones, give her a hint by giving her some additional tissues and pieces of soft cloth. Try to find as many people as possible who will take the young rats. And -- a) separate the young ones by gender before they go on breeding and b) make sure it's really two females you've got, for mother rats are ready to conceive again 24h after giving birth!

 

Q: Can I support the rat mother in some way?

A: No, you don't need to do anything, rats are good and caring parents. Don't touch the young ones (unless the seem to be ill or dead) and spare them any kind of loud noise or possible threat, or the mother might become aggressive.

-> For more information on young rats' development please read the summary

 

Q: Can't rats be castrated?

A: Yes, they can, but as with all small animals they might die during the operation. Male rats can at the earliest be castrated at the age of 11 weeks - but remember that males as well as females are mature much earlier (4-6 week-old)! After castration, wait for 24h before letting males and female be together again.

 

Q: I keep a single rat, will she make friends with another rat I get to keep her company?

A: Yes, it is possible to make an elder rat accept a younger one of the same gender, especially with females; however it might not always work with an old male.

 

Q: How can I make a rat accept a new partner?

A: Since rats will fight strange 'intruders', do not just put the new one in the old one's cage. Let them get to know each other slowly, by keeping them in two different cages for a couple of days, close enough so that they can smell and see each other.

After a few days, when the new rat learned to trust you, pet the new rat and let her sit on your lap until she has adopted your smell. Then let the other one have her daily exercise together with the new one. Watch the rats' reactions when you let them meet for the first time outside their cages. If they accept each other you can try to keep them together in a big cage - In case they fight to the blood you need to interfere and they must be separated.

Often it looks like they are fighting at first, but then the weaker rat turns onto her back to surrender to the other one. This may repeat in the future, but it is okay as long as they don't hurt or bite each other. Congratulations, you brought them together!

In case they fight and bite, separate them, and be patient but careful. Since rats tell friend from foe by means of smell, try this trick to convince them they are "long lost relatives": Keep them separated at first, but exchange a piece of padding from their nests or some sawdust from the cage every day for a few days. This way they will adopt each others smell, improving your chances that they accept each other.

 

Q: Do males and females have different characters?

A: Both males and females can be equally friendly and tame when treated in a kind way. Males will generally become bigger than females, and they often are cuddlier and calmer with humans - on the other hands males are noisier in a group of male rats because they playfight for hierarchy. Females generally are more agile and more curious while exploring, but more calm in a group of female rats. Males mark their territory with urine, but unless the cage is not cleaned regularly they don't stink.

 

-> For additional information on their behavior please read the "BODY LANGUAGE" summary.

 

 

 

DO RATS AND OTHER PETS MIX? AND WHAT ABOUT KIDS?

 

Q: I want to get myself a rat, will it be okay if I already own ...

 

Q: ... a dog?

A: A dog can learn to accept a rat, if he's calm and well-behaved. Yappers will scare the rats however. Allow the dog and the newcomers to sniff at each other through the bars first. If the dog accepts them and the rats don't get scared, take the rats on your lap and let the dog get accustomed to their presence. If the animals stay calm and friendly, pet them and show them that you appreciate their reaction. Don't leave them alone together during the first weeks, until you are sure they get along.

 

Q: ... a cat?

A: No, not quite. It is nearly impossible to teach a grown-up cat not to try to eat or hurt the rat, so please don't try. Or the other way round: I know a cat that runs away screaming every time my rats are near...
However there's a chance that it might work with a young cat (about 8 weeks old): A young playful kitten might learn to accept a rat as playmate - but the rats always must be allowed to hide in their cage if they don't want to go on playing. Do not leave them alone together, until you are sure they really get along.

rat playing with a kitten
This kitty followed me home, may I keep her?

Q:... mice?

A: No, even though rats are a kind of big mice, they do not get along at all! Rats will most likely try to kill the mice. They should be kept in different rooms and it is recommended to wash your hands before and after you occupy yourself with one of the two parties.

little mouse
Hi. Me mouse. Me sweet. But not so smart. He he.

Q: ... a hamster?

A: No, hamsters are rogue animals and won't get along with rats (they do not even get along with other hamsters...). See mice.

 

Q:... a rabbit?

A: No, rabbits in general don't mix with rats either, for they might hunt the rats. See mice.

rat playing with a rabbit
Don't believe Ruth, I do like rabbits!
Especially in a light red wine sauce....HA HA HAAAA!

Q:... a bird?

A: No, better not. Rats consider small birds a prey and will try to attack them. Even inside a cage, this permanent threat will be a great nuisance to the bird. Bigger birds on the other hand might attack the rat. See mice.

 

Q:... fish?

A: Yes, this will be okay - given the aquarium is well covered and at a safe place! Rats can climb as well as swim and dive, and they just love to go fishing.... :-o

 

Q: Can I let my 11-year-old kid play with rats?

A: Better not, rats might bite if younger kids accidentally drop them or happen to scare them otherwise.

 

Q: What do elder kids need to observe when dealing with rats?

A: They must never ever grab rats by their tails, because this will hurt them! Tell them not to wake up the rats or bully them, they are no plaything. Don't let the kids feed them too often - right, the rats do go for that, but it is not healthy. When the rats are outside their cage, the kids need to be careful not to step on them and to keep shut drawers, doors and windows. For additional information, please read the "BODY LANGUAGE" and "SOURCES OF DANGER" summary.

 

 

PREPARING A NEW HOME TO MY RATS

 

-> For a short summary please read the "CAGE AND EQUIPMENT" checklist

 

Q: Am I allowed to keep animals such as rats at home at all?

A: It depends on where you live. In many countries you are allowed to keep small animals in a cage, but concerning rats you might need to ask your landlord/lady and/or the fellow-occupants of the house, unless you live in a house of your own.

 

Big old bookcase turned into a great rat cage (from: The Ratside Of Life)

Q: What kind of cage do I need? Will an aquarium or a wooden box do?

A: Just any wooden box won't do, for rats will bite their way trough sooner or later. Rather sooner. The disadvantage of an aquarium or terrarium is the glass windows - the rats wouldn't be allowed to climb around inside, so in that case you'd need to install some kind of climbing frame. But still the air circulation inside an aquarium would be pretty bad, so it is not recommended. Better choose a big hamster or bird cage with tight (horizontal) metal bars. The minimum cage size for two rats has a base of 80cm x 45cm and 70cm hight.

If you feel like doing handcraft: Huge individual cages can be built out of old wooden wardrobes or bookcases (varnished 4-5 times and fitted with wire-netting fences) -- wheels at the bottom for transport are recommended. To make cleaning your self-made huge cage easier, people recommend to construct it with two levels connected via a closeable way-through to the other half. While cleaning one half, you can have all rats gather in the other half of the cage respectively. When you are finished cleaning, you open the little door again, and the rats can spend the rest of the day in both parts.

 

Q: What is the best place to put the cage?

A: Choose a fixed place for the cage to spare the rats being moved to and fro the whole time. The place should be quiet, away from direct sunlight, cold or draught. It's best to put the cage at human eye level, e.g. onto a little table, instead onto the floor. So the rats can take part in their human's every day life, and they don't get constantly scared by the giant (maybe) "evil predators" that come down on them from above. It is not necessary to cover the cage completely as long as the rats have their houses to retreat. Not being completely separated from the rest of the world will also make them get used to every day action around them.

 

Q: Where do wild rats live?

A: Wild rats live in burrows consisting of various caves and passages. The different caves are used for different purposes, e.g. there's a 'bedroom', a 'living room', a 'toilet', a 'maternity ward', a 'store room' and so on.

Rat climbing a twig with berries
If I eat one more berry the twig will break... dang!

 

Q: How can I fit out a cage to make a nice home for my rats?

A: Subdivide the cage into two or three floors by screwing pieces of chipboard to the bars. To make the different floors accessible, build in ladders, ropes, baskets, pipes, slides, and cut small holes (ø 3-4cm) through dividing walls and ceilings. The whole 'interior design' should include various corners and hiding places as well as one spacious 'living room'. Provide enough space for grownup rats to stand upright on the levels. Put some layers of paper onto the floor and then one layer of sawdust or scraps of paper(3cm).

Take into account that the cage will have to be rearranged when the rats grow old and are no longer able to climb from one level to the other as easily as before. If that is the case, install carpet-covered ramps for old-aged rats and don't rearrange the cage again after that in order not to confuse elder (maybe blind or paralyzed) rats.

 

Q: Where will they sleep?

A: Choose a sleeping house made of ceramics, wood or plastic like the ones used for guinea-pigs or rabbits. It should provide enough space for two grown-up rats, for rats like cuddling up beside each other in the night. Put the house in a dark quiet corner, but easy to reach when you need to clean it. Up-holster the rats' sleeping place with tissues, scraps of cloth or hay. Don't forget to clean the house regularly and to remove left-overs.

plain little wooden house
Shhht... Don't wake the sleeping house...

 

Q: What about water and feeding bowls?

A: A drinking bottle is okay, but most rats appreciate an additional open water bowl; make sure these bowls are heavy (ceramics), for rats often sit on the rim while eating.
Attach the water bottle to the bars and put the water bowl on the upper floor of the cage to keep the sawdust out. Use one feeding bowl for grain, and a second one for fruits and green fodder. Remember to clean the bowls and especially the bottle thoroughly!

Darra drinking water in his cage
Look, I can sit at the edge of the bowl, drink,
and scratch my head at the same time without-- *splash!* [Darra]

 

Q: I put a drinking bowl in the cage, and the rats mistook it for a toilet! What went wrong?

A: Try not to put the bowl in a corner, they should stand by themselves to be distinguishable from a litter box.

 

Q: What do I feed them?

A: Rats generally eat everything but are mainly vegetarian. They like grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. -> To see more examples please read the "FOOD" checklist.

Young rat sitting on top of a piece of apple
Mami, may I install OS X on my Apple?

 

Q: What can I do to prevent these intelligent animals from getting bored in their cage? (daily exercise etc)

A: You need to prepare a rat-proof room where your rats can get their daily exercise without hurting themselves and without damaging your belongings! Rats will climb on top of wardrobes and tables, gnaw at furniture, electric cables and plants, and tear cushions, books, wallpaper and curtains into pieces, unless you put all those things out of reach, or cover them with wooden boards respectively! (Please read the "SOURCES OF DANGER" checklist). Let them get at least 1-2 hours of exercise a day, in the morning or in the evening. Talk and play with them. Additionally, provide them with different playthings (Please read the "ENTERTAINMENT" checklist).

 

BUYING AND TRANSPORTING RATS

 

Q: Where can I get rats?

A: Pet shops sell rats for a cheap price to snake owners, and for a high price to rodent lovers... Since rats double as inexpensive snake food, they are often inbred and females may be pregnant when you buy them.
The alternative? Get in touch with other rat owners or an animal home in your area: You always will find someone there who will give away "accidental" young rats for free! :-) And these young ones often are tamer because they grew up in direct contact with humans.

 

Q: How old should the rats be when I get them?

A: Young rats should be at least 4 weeks old, better would be 6; for if they get separated from their mother to early they might become physically and mentally ill. Apart from that, you can get elder rats at any age, they will become tame as well.

 

Q: How can I tell the rat I choose is healthy?

A: Check for the following:

  • The eyes must be clear and free of infections.
  • The anus must be clean.
  • The rat's fur must be smooth, never matted, and without any bold spots or tiny vermin.
  • A healthy rat is curious and shows interest in her human visitor.

 

Q: How can I be sure they really gave me a m/m or f/f couple?

A: To play it save, take them to a vet immediately after getting them. E.g. if you bought them at a pet shop, let the salesman assure you in writing that he'll exchange the animals in case they turn out to be ill or a 'mixed-couple' (If you don't have anything in writing, he won't do it!).

 

Q: I've got this old bird/hamster cage, can I use it to take the rats home?

A: Yes, you can, if it's big enough for them. If you don't have a suitable old cage at hand, you should get yourself a pet container, you will need it sooner or later to take the rats to a vet or holiday etc. Remember that closed (plastic) transport boxes heat up in the sun, if you have the choice prefer a cage-like box with bars. Put some layers of paper, tissues and sawdust inside, offer the rats water during transport, and prevent them from draught. Don't transport them in a cardboard box with airholes, the rats will bite their way through in no time! In winter, put a hot waterbottle in a flat box a put the container on top; provide the rat with a warming towel for a nest.

 

 

THE FIRST DAYS

 

Q: What are the "Do"s and "Don't"s for the first day(s) after I got myself rats?

Right after coming home...
Don't put the rats in the cage at once: They will hide and refuse to show any time soon.Sit down for a few minutes, let them climb from the box to your lap to let them get used to your smell (please don't wear any perfume). Keep them gently from escaping, and talk in a low voice. Occupy yourself with them a bit until they have calmed down. If they fall asleep in your lap or in your sleeve, let them - it's a good sign they begin to trust you!
After a while, let them climb over into their cage and give them some water and food and let them explore their new home.
During the first weeks...
Don't hurry them, don't try to pet or grab them yet! Avoid any loud noises (door bell, telephone etc) or bright lights -- when startled, they may jump away in any direction without looking.Gain their trust slowly step by step -- e.g. offer them a "save nest" by folding your hands to form a cave, or let them sneak underneath your sweater or inside your sleeve. (rats like caves)
Note:
Some people tame rats solely with food, e.g. letting them lick yoghurt from their fingers - don't rely on this trick too much, or else the rats will consider you nothing but a big "snack machine". Rats sometimes try to nibble at your fingers in a friendly way - don't startle, just let them; if they try to bite you slightly to see how you react, tell them "no", but don't start them by moving your hand away too fast.

 

Q: How can I tame my rats?

A: I made up the following "method" to tame my rats:

Rats are curious, but suspicious, and don't dare to step on new ground before their experience tells them "Nothing happened the last 10 times, so next time I could try one step further..." Two of my rats even slept in the feeding bowl during their fist week, because they didn't dare to leave the cage level they were on. ;-)

The main point while taming rats is: Do a lot of harmless Nothing (like just sitting on the floor, or "coincidentally" brushing slightly against them, etc) to make them gain the experience that "All the fuss humans do may be strange, still it never turned out to be dangerous". Train actions like grabbing them in tiny steps, in order to let them slowly get used to those "strange things" happening. NOTE: This will take a few weeks, be patient!

Concrete examples for this method are:

  • Even if they don't leave the cage voluntarily, leave the doors open for a while each day, so they learn that there ARE doors and there IS a room outside the cage.
  • Regularly do something calm near the cage (read a book, eat an apple, etc), sooner or later curiosity will take over and they dare to take a few steps out of the cage, each time a few steps more. Don't drag them out, this phase may last a week or two.
  • Then finally, while they dare to wander about in the room, just sit on the floor, and "coincidentally" brush your hands against them, talk to them, but don't try to grab them yet -- just be there. This way they learn that you are "part of the furniture", and "statistically" you are harmless in 99% of the cases.
  • Merely in a few cases actually try to cover them with your hands, like a little cave, and if they get nervous and try to escape, let them. This way they learn that being enclosed by hands does not do any harm.
  • Only after they can stand your hands touching them, try to hold them with your hands now and then for a few seconds, each time a few seconds longer; don't lift them up yet. Wait until they remain calm enough in your hands, and if so, lift them only a few centimeters at first -- and so on.

 

Q: How do I get a not yet tame rat back into the cage when he does not let me catch him?

A: Rats learn quickly to get used to regular actions:
I always feed my rats their 1st food ration every morning, and every evening I let them have a little exercise in the room before dinner. Until the evening they should just have emptied their bowl (if not, you gave them too much).
Okay, they run around and explore the room, but after an hour or so they get hungry. Then they come back and accusingly stare into their empty feeding bowl... That's a good moment to pour the 2nd half of their daily ration in such a ceremonial way that every hungry rat in the room follows the smell back to the cage -- then you close the doors behind them for today.
This way they don't get punished for "staying out late", but they get rewarded for being home in time. Positive side effect: If there should be visitors coming over, and you should need the roaming rats to sneak back into their cage a.s.a.p., just the sound of the food being poured in the feeding bowl then can make them rush back in and check whether it's time for dinner!

 

rat sitting on a man's hand
Now, do I make this human scream by
just slipping into his sleeve and tickle him, or should I
unexpectedly jump to his shoulder and nibble at his ears... ?

Q: My family etc want to make friends with my rats, too; will it be okay if all of them join me?

A: No, please ask the others to wait until the rats gained confidence to one person (you). During the first days, they should not try to pet them, either; other animals are better kept away first. If the rats' 'master' is to be a child, an adult may be present to assist while the child is getting familiar with his/her new pets.

 

Q: How long will it take until my rats are tame?

A: Rats usually become really tame within 3 weeks, some sooner, some later.

During these weeks they learn that humans and their new surroundings are not dangerous to them. That's why you should not cram the cage with hiding places at first - the sleeping house is enough. This "forces" the rats to go out into the "open" to find food. This way they gather experience, they realize that they are not in danger even outside the sleeping house, and they get used to the presence of humans and every day noises. Then after a few days, as soon as they move around freely in the cage during their waking time, leave open the cage door some time and watch whether they dare to leave the cage on their own to get some exercise...

 

Q: My rat is still scared of me, are there any more tricks to make her accept my presence?

A: Hmmm. I heard of a trick... a) Rats distinguish between friend and foe by smell. b) Familiar rats always stay close together in order to "mix" their smells. The trick is to put an old sock or sweater of yours into the rats' cage next to their sleeping place. This piece of clothes ought to bear your smell (not perfume smell!), and it ought to be dispensable, since the rats are supposed to tear it into pieces to pad their nest after they have lost suspiciousness. The following days, you will smell a bit more familiar to the rats with a bit of luck!

However rats are individual beings, and as with humans there can be rats who tend to be more suspicious, more anxious or more rogue than others. Be patient with those rats who are scared of being touched, maybe they had bad experience with humans before. But also an at first less cuddly rat can be a lovely pet to watch! Just play it slow, and every day, while the rat is having her playtime in the room, just sit or lie calmly on the floor - and hopefully your "chicken" rat will take interest in this "friendly human climbing toy" after some time.

 

 

EVERYDAY LIFE

 

-> You can also read a short "DEALING WITH RATS" summary

 

Q: Okay, I think the rats got used to me. What do I do next?

A: Already on the second day you can let your rats get a bit of exercise in your room (Please read the "SOURCES OF DANGER" checklist!), if they seem calm enough. Talk to them in a soft voice while they are discovering their new surroundings, but allow them to go back into their cage whenever they feel like it. If they don't seem scared by you but still don't dare leaving their cage at all after some days, try to lure them out slowly and gently.

 

Q: How do I pick up a rat?

A: Take the rat with one hand below her stomach, right behind the forelegs, and put your thump around her back. If necessary, support her hindquarters with the other hand. Never grab a rat by the end of her tail, this may hurt her seriously! Kids can carry rats by clasping them gently to their chest with both hands.

Young rats tend to hop away a bit the second you try to grab them... Then they look at you like "If you wanna catch thin air I of course don't want to be in your way!". But don't be shy, you can gain their trust by petting their backs, so they don't start associating your hand with being grabbed only.

 

Q: How much exercise do my rats need?

A: Let them play outside their cage as often as possible, at least 1-2 hours a day. The best time is the early morning or evening. However let them spend their nights in the cage, or they might gnaw at your furniture. Carrying them in your sleeve etc does not count as "exercise"!

 

Q: Do rats always need supervision while they are outside their cage?

A: Yes, it is recommended to stay in the room, for they might get caught somewhere or cause damage to furniture. Rats are able to jump up the bed, or climb up in the space between wall and furniture or heating easily, so keep an eye on where they are, especially in case they might fall. For additional information, please read the "SOURCES OF DANGER" checklist.

Be aware that rats tend to unexpectedly show up on top of the bookshelf next to your delicious looking favorite novel, or you suddenly discover them inside a cushion -- um, nest -- padded with pieces of your university diploma and parts of your dinner jacket...

Rats also steal! They like to carry around cool looking objects and have their own concept of finding a much better place where they ought to belong. There are reported thefts of objects as different as cookies, ballpens, socks, diskettes and chocolate Santaclauses. Funny fact: Rats jump like kangaroos when carrying bigger objects in their mouths.... ;-)

 

Q: How do I keep my rats from gnawing at chair legs and tearing my wallpaper and cushions into pieces?

A: Rats need to sharpen their teeth by gnawing at wood, and cushions seem to them a perfect nesting place, and paper seems a perfect nesting material - it's their natural behavior and they can't be "retrained" not to do it. When you find them getting too interested in a chair leg or cushion, tell them "no" and take them away; then give them something different to distract them, e.g. a piece of wood or hard bread, or a piece of cotton or linnen cloth.

In tougher cases like electric cables you can try the ultimate method: Dip the cables into hot (chili...) sauce.... (not VERY HOT, just hot). But if you do that, make sure your rats have access to fresh water! [And don't mix up the bottles. I tried sweet-and-sour-sauce once. They pondered for one second about the cable's taste. Then they loved it.]

 

Q: Can I teach the rats? Will it work to scold them to show them they did something wrong?

A: No, it doesn't work like with dogs, they won't understand the connection between your getting mad and what they just did, because from their point of view their actions seem completely legal. Shouting at them will more likely scare them and they will bite. When they do something you don't like, just tell them "no" in a serious tone of voice, and put them someplace else in the room to distract them, for example to their playground, where they are allowed to do what they want. Teaching will work best the other way round: Reward them whenever they did something right! (e.g. put bits of their favorite food in places where it's okay to hang around)

 

Q: How can I try to house-train my rats?

A: Rats can't be house-trained in the way dogs or cats can be. Try training them by taking the rat away whenever you find her up to defecate into your room and put her into a prepared litter box filled with paper and sawdust. Place this little box at a fixed spot where the rats can find it again. If the rats chose a certain corner of their cage for their toilet, put another little litter box into that corner. If they didn't choose one, place the litter box into any corner and show them what it is meant for by sweeping together their feces into that corner. Do that for a couple of weeks to find whether they learn to mainly use these certain spots as a toilet, but there are rats who will never be house-trained.

 

Q: Can I take the rats with me when I go for a walk?

A: It's no problem to go for a short walk with your rats sitting in your jacket's pocket, or on your shoulder, or inside your sleeves, if you are certain they are tame and trust you! They won't feel any urge to escape, unless they get scared by something. Don't put them under stress by carrying them through unfamiliar surroundings for hours; choose a quiet place to go, without any sudden noises or panicky passers-by (don't take them to school, to discos, or down-town). Be forbearing with your fellowmen who don't like rats! Don't annoy the rats by dragging them along the whole day when they would have preferred to sleep in their nest.

rat being petted on a man's arm
Blaapp. See? Now you squashed me flat with your big hand.
But I'd consider forgiving you if you give me one more of those drops...

 

WHAT DO I DO WITH MY PET RATS WHEN I'M ON HOLIDAY/ IN HOSPITAL etc?

 

Q: While I'm on holiday, I'm gonna let the rats stay at home and I told my friend (etc) to care for them, will that be okay?

A: Yes, if this friend is reliable and likes rats, that's the best solution. Let the rats and your friend get to know each other well before you leave and explain to him/her in detail how to treat the rats right (let him/her read this FAQ).

 

Q: What do I do if I don't have a friend who wants to take care of my rats at home?

A: Try to have them looked after by a private person who keeps rats, or somebody from the animal home or pet shop. In this case it might happen that --if you stay away longer-- the animals do not recognize you at once when you're back, due to the unfamiliar surroundings they've been living in.

 

Q: Why not take them with me?

A: It depends on where you are going to stay. Hotel owners don't allow pets in their rooms, let alone rats. But if you are staying in your own private holiday cottage/apartment etc and you find an uncomplicated way to take the rats there (e.g. by car) then it's up to you whether you want to take them with you.

 

 

HEALTH AND HYGIENE

 

Q: How can I prevent illnesses?

A: Rats generally are quite resistant to illnesses. Support their health by providing healthy and varied food, a clean cage, a warm place to sleep (away from draught!), a sunbath now and then, "sophisticated" entertainment and enough room to live and play.

 

Q: How often do I need to clean the cage etc?

A: Food and water bowls need to be rinsed out with hot water daily. Check the sleeping house once a day to remove possible left-overs or excrements; rinse it out once or twice a week and refill it with fresh tissues, hay etc. Clean the cage (bars, too) with hot water and exchange the saw-dust and the layers of paper for new ones every 3 days. Exchanging the saw-dust more often will keep the rats from getting used to using one certain spot as a toilet! Clean the rats' playthings whenever necessary. Don't use chemical cleansers, but hot water; you may add soap or vinegar if necessary.

 

Q: What are typical symptoms of an illness?

A: Diarrhea; bold spots or matted fur; coughing, sneezing or groaning; tumors (cancer); apathy or lacking interest in food, playing and running around; biting when being petted (rat might be aching); impaired balance; if the rat reacts as if you were a stranger or her behavior has remarkably changed otherwise.

For more detailed information on symptoms, causes and measures please read the health check list!

 

Q: Do I always have to take the rats to a veterinarian when they become ill, or will they recover without any intervention?

A: If the rat's health does not improve after 1 day, it's definitely better to take her to a vet. If a rat younger than 6-month-old is concerned, take her to a vet at once. Get in touch with different vets first to ask whether they've got experience with rats. Don't try to treat your rats with some medicine you've got at home without consulting a vet!

-> see also: TRANSPORTING rats.

 

Q: Is it true that most rats die of cancer?

A: Yes, pet rats are descendants of lab rats that have been bred for years in order to study cancer. Usually, the first tumors appear at the legs and the flanks. Those can be removed surgically by a vet, but this will prolong the rat's life only for a short time. Rats suffering from cancer will lead a normal life at first, only at an advanced stage they'll start losing weight and interest in their surroundings, then they'll die.

 

Q: What do I do if my rat is seriously ill/ injured and aching, but the vet says he can't cure her?

A: If the rat is aching and suffering, it is better for her to ask the vet to put her to sleep.

a rat's skull
Um. Something is going terrible wrong here...

 
   
2008.08.26

http://www.ruthless.zathras.de/