RuTh's RuThLEss HomEpAgE
fAcTs - Pet Rats
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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...
A: Since the 1960s.
A: Answer yourself the following questions:
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.
-> You can also read the short summary about rats' features, abilities and character
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.
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.
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:
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.
A: Pet rats --all of them descendants of lab rats-- most often die of cancer after 2 years, maximum 3.
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.
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.
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) ;-)
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Q: I want to get myself a rat, will it be okay if I already own ...
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.
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...
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.
A: No, hamsters are rogue animals and won't get along with rats (they do not even get along with other hamsters...). See mice.
A: No, rabbits in general don't mix with rats either, for they might hunt the rats. See mice.
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.
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
A: Better not, rats might bite if younger kids accidentally drop them or happen to scare them otherwise.
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.
-> For a short summary please read the "CAGE AND EQUIPMENT" checklist
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A: Try not to put the bowl in a corner, they should stand by themselves to be distinguishable from a litter box.
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.
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).
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.
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.
A: Check for the following:
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!).
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.
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:
A: Rats learn quickly to get used to regular actions:
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.
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...
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.
-> You can also read a short "DEALING WITH RATS" summary
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.
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.
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"!
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.... ;-)
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.]
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
A: If the rat is aching and suffering, it is better for her to ask the vet to put her to sleep.