Rats make excellent pets for both adults and children. They are inexpensive to feed and house, easy to take of, clean, interactive, and fun! Rats form close bonds with their people, have distinct personalities and are much more intelligent than many other species of rodent. The biggest downsides to rats are that they don’t live very long; 2 years seems to be about average for a rat in New Zealand, and that rat-knowledgeable vets can be hard to find. Overall however, rats are wonderful pets.
If you are thinking of getting a pet rat you will need:
- A cage: Powder-coated bird cages work well and can be purchased cheaply second hand. There are also cages designed specifically for rats like the rat starter kit (RSK) cage. Home made cages can work too, though think carefully about how they will be cleaned when you design them and ensure you use non toxic paint and materials.
- Food: A rats diet should be grain based but they can eat almost everything we can eat. Rat food is available from pet shops but better quality food can be purchased for less from the New Zealand Rat Rescue or some rat breeders, and its cheaper again if you make it yourself. It is a good idea to add some lab blocks to your rat’s diet to ensure they are getting all the needed vitamins and minerals.
- Water: Rats can drink from water bottles that hang on the sides of cages as well as from dishes.
- Hamocks/sleeping spots: Rats like a cosy place to sleep. Hammocks are almost always very popular places to nap and can be made at home out fleece or other fabric (be careful of loose threads that could get tangled around your rat). Snoopy Rat Hammocks makes excellent hammocks in a range of styles for a vary reasonable price and commercially made hammocks can be purchased from most pet stores. Sputniks are plastic hanging nests that are extremely popular with many rats (get them from Trademe or the NZ Rat Rescue), and plastic igloos and cardboard boxes make great nests too.
- Toys: Rats enjoy toys they can chew and destroy so homemade toys or parrot toys are best. Wooden blocks are popular as are things that food can be hidden inside of.
New Zealand has quite limited colours and coat types compared to most other countries due to our strict import laws. All of our domestic rats are said to have originated from a small group that were brought over from Australia before the laws changed.
NZ rats most commonly have one of three coat patterns: self, which are all one colour, sometimes with a slightly lighter tummy; berkshire, which are coloured all over except for their white paws, tummy and often the tip of their tails; and hooded, which have a coloured head and shoulders and a coloured band or splotches running down their spine. We also have variegated rats, which are smudgy berkshires; masked, blazed, and head spotted rats, which have white facial markings; and barebacks, which are similar to hooded but with no colour past their shoulders.
Rat coat colours fall into 2 main groups: ticked colours and solid (self) colours. Individual hairs on a ticked rat will have bands of colour giving them a slightly mottled appearance. The darkest ticked colour is agouti (‘wild rat’ colour), followed by cinnamon, argente, fawn, and silver fawn. The self/non-ticked colours are black, mink, buff, dove, and champagne. Pink eyed whites (sometimes called PEWs or albinos) are also common in New Zealand.
All NZ rats have the standard coat type (no rex or hairless) and ears (no dumbo).
Rats aren’t picky eaters, they can have just about everything that we can. It’s almost better to look at foods they can’t eat and then try them on everything else. Things rats should not eat include:
- Anything moldy as mold and bacteria can kill rats
- Apple seeds (they contain cyanide)
- Avocado seeds and skin (these are toxic)
- Beet tops
- Blue Cheese
- Carbonated drinks as rats can’t burp out the gasses
- Green bananas
- Green potato skins and eyes
- Orange and orange juice (in very large quantities it can contribute to cancer in male rats, though it’s OK for females)
- Raw peanuts
- Poppy seeds
A rat’s diet should mostly be made up of grains. Good grains to feed as a base diet include:
- All types of cereals (but check the sugar content and try to pick healthy, low sugar ones)
- Noodles (cooked or raw)
- Pasta (cooked or raw)
Fruit and veggies are also an important part of a rat’s diet. Pretty much all fruit and veggies are fine to feed but particular favourites include:
- Bean sprouts
High protein foods should be fed in moderation as they tend to be fatty and are suspected to lead to the growth of tumors. Tasty protein rich foods include:
- Cooked chicken, preferably without the skin as it is really high in fat
- Chicken bones – these are great for wearing down rat’s teeth
- Lean red meat
- Cheese (but never feed more than a little bit as it will make your ratties extra smelly)
- Avocado flesh (be careful not to let them nibble the skin or seed as these are toxic
Fibrous foods can help lower cholesterol and promote intestinal health and should be feed regularly but not in huge amounts. High fiber foods include:
- Beans (baked beans or soy beans)
- Chick peas
- Oat bran
- Rice bran
Rats love most types of seeds but they shouldn’t be a main ingredient in a rat’s diet as they are high in fat. They’re great for treats and snacks though. Safe seeds include:
- Pine cone seeds
- Flax seeds
Our rats have a constant supply of a cereal/grain mix that we make based on what’s on special at the supermarket or what looks yummy at Bin Inn. Usually it’s cornflakes, rice bubbles, oats, wheatbix, pasta, various seeds and dried fruit with a few ‘treat’ snacks, like sun chocolate drops mixed in. They also have constant access to lab blocks, though they tend not to eat too many of these.
For breakfast they get a bowl of fruit or vegetables – usually frozen veggies as they’re quick and easy. They also enjoy berries, salad greens, chopped apple, pear, and melon of all kinds. The veggies they’re not too keen on include tomatoes, onion, and anything citrus-y, though some rats enjoy these.
Pet rats should be keep inside to protect them from the weather, predators, and possible toxic materials such as weed spray or poisonous plants. They need about 2 cubic feet of space per rat. You can use a cage calculator (like this one on the RatClubNZ site) to see how many rats would be comfortable in any cage. There are a range of cages suitable for rats that are available in New Zealand:
Critter Nation/Ferret Kingdom: This is probably the best rat cage on the market. It’s a great size for 2-6 rats, it’s high quality, and the big double doors make it easy to clean. The major downside is it’s not sold in New Zealand pet stores, and second hand ones are very hard to come by. If you don’t mind waiting a while there is a Facebook group (Ferret Kingdoms to NZ) that imports them a couple of times per year.
Rat Starter Kit (RSK) cages: These are designed specifically for rats and come with levels and an easily cleaned base tray. It is relatively easy to join two cages together to double the space, though one cage is usually big enough for a pair of rats. Their smaller size and light weight materials make them easy to move around and take outside for a hose down every now and then.
Large Bird cages: There are several types of good solid parrot cages that can have levels added to them easily and are a good size of a small group of rats. Look for ones that have big doors that will allow you to get the larger ratty accessories in and out easily and make them easier to clean.
Plastic Based Cages: There are quite a few types of cages made from a deep plastic tray with a metal bar upper attached. These are especially good for older rats when they start to slow down and can’t climb as well as they once did. They are also really easy to clean and there’s less of a problem with bits of chewed food and litter falling out onto the carpet. Double check the bar spacing if you get one of these cages as many are designed for rabbits and guinea pigs which means the bar spacing is too wide for most rats.
- Trademe PetSaver Bird Cage (the $159.95 one)
- Avi One cages (604 and 604T)
- Ferret Kingdom/Critter Nation cages
- Ferplast Mary cages (or similar)
- Rat starter kit (RSK) cages
Things to avoid
- Round bird cages
- Fish tanks
- Cages with rust
- Widely spaced bars that a rat might squeeze through
Approach handling a rat similarly to to how you would approach handling a cat. If the rat doesn’t know you, don’t expect it to be 100% comfortable with you picking it up (of course there are some exceptions to this – some rats just love everyone). If your fingers are tense and you squeeze it, expect it to try to wiggle away. If you are nervous and jumpy, expect the rat to be nervous and jumpy too.
With new rats, the best thing to do after they’ve come to live with you is spend some time with your hands in their cage, letting them sniff you, climb on your arms, and get used to you being around. Try gently scooping them up with two hands and letting them jump off. This will teach them that being picked up doesn’t lead to anything they don’t like. Once they are happy to come up to you every time you open their cage, try using your hand scoop to get them out and let them run round on a raised surface while you sit with them (couches work well for this). Wear something cosy that they can scramble around in, or lay a blanket over your knee that they can crawl under.
Once you have befriend a rat it will usually be excited for you to pick it up for snuggles. One way to do this is to wrap one hand round its middle just behind its shoulders, with your fingers meeting underneath, and slide your other hand under its back legs. Alternatively, the scoop method, where you scoop the rat into two cupped hands, is great for rats that aren’t likely to want to jump away. Rats should never be picked up by the tail as this can cause the skin of the tail to tear off the bone. This is called ‘degloving’ and most often happens at the tip of the tail when it’s pulled with force. If you must, you can hold a rat by the base of its tail as long as its body is supported and its not dangling.
Each individual rat’s behaviour will vary according to its personality, but generally rats are inquisitive, active, and sociable. Young rats are usually particularly active, and will play with each other much like puppies do. Wrestling, chasing, and play fighting is common and only very rarely ends in any sort of injury. Babies will sometimes play in the same way with their people and will chase and battle with hands. As rats get older they usually calm down. Male rats are usually more cuddly than females and enjoy scratches and snoozing on their owners. Females tend to stay more active, but will often check in with their owners periodically for a quick pat before running off on another adventure.
Common rat behaviours include:
- Boggling: This is when a rat vibrates its eyes, causing them to bulge in and out rapidly. It looks strange, but usually indicates pleasure or contentment.
- Bruxing: This behaviour is often seen in conjunction with boggling, when a rat is particularly happy. It involves the rat softly grinding its teeth together and creates a rasping sound. Sometimes stressed rats will exhibit this behaviour, though it is usually more of a chatter combined with an alert or aggressive pose.
- Sidling/crab walking: This is when a rat inches sideways with it’s back arched. It is an aggressive or threatening behaviour, usually displayed by a dominant rat.
- Boxing: Boxing rats will stand on their hind legs and paw at each other. This is usually a defensive behaviour used to keep an aggressive rat from biting.
- Food Stashing: Some rats will move food from their bowls and hide it in piles around their cages.
- Ear Wiggling: Female rats in heat will display distinctive ear vibrations when touched, while holding their bodies tense and still. They often also hop rapidly with pauses in between each jump. Females come into heat every 5 days and will usually remain in heat for up to one day.
- Head swaying: Pink eyed rats sometimes sway from side to side to compensate for poor vision.
- Squeaking: Squeaking is usually heard when a rat feels threatened in some way. Most commonly a rat will squeak when a dominant rat is showing aggressive behaviour toward it. Some rats will squeak when picked up to indicate displeasure or discomfort.
Rats are intelligent creatures and can be trained similarly to dogs. If you offer your rat a treat every time you say it’s name it will quickly learn to come when called. More complex tricks can be taught using the clicker training method, using a distinct sound to let the rat know when it has performed the desired behaviour.