Rats are clean, intelligent and friendly animals that make great pets for both young and old alike. With an average lifespan of two to three years, they’re not a long-term commitment, but they still require thought before purchasing.
Before adopting a rat, consider whether you’ll be able to interact with your pet on a daily basis. Rats require no less than an hour outside their cage every day, and at least weekly cage cleanings.
Rats can make wonderful pets for children; but are better suited to those over 10 years of age. Children can sometimes lose interest in things quickly, so take this into account before bringing home a pet rat. Ultimately, the care of any animal is the responsibility of the parents, and they should be considered family pets.
While rats are cheap to purchase and relatively inexpensive to feed, they are prone to respiratory infections and tumors later on in life, and will probably need veterinary care at some point. Many owners set up a vet fund, putting a few dollars aside every week to pay for future vet bills. Also keep in mind that vets experienced with rats can sometimes be hard to find. The NZ Ratclub has an excellent vet directory with a list of recommended vets around the country. Visit www.ratclub.org/vets.htm
Rats are social animals that require the company of other rats, so always get at least two same-sex rats. Two rats are no more difficult to care for than one, and having a pair doesn’t mean they’ll bond with you any less. A social rat is a happy rat.
Male or female?
Males are generally bigger and more relaxed. They can make great ‘laprats’ and can be very snugly. Males can mark their territory, and have rougher fur. They also smell a little muskier, although it’s not a bad smell. Neutered males have softer fur, smell less and don’t mark as much.
Females are smaller, sleeker, and are generally more active. They’re great fun to watch and play with, but less likely to sit still. As they grow old, females will slow down and usually love receiving cuddles. Unfortunately, females are also more prone to tumours.
Choosing a rat
Once you’ve decided rats are right for you, there are four main places to get them. Pet stores are the most common source, but they usually don’t have much on the history of their rats. Online auction websites such as TradeMe are another popular place to find rats. You can also buy rats from breeders; try to find one that is breeding for temperament and health first.
The fourth option is a rescue rat from either the SPCA or the NZ Rat Rescue ( www.nzrr.org). Please give this option some consideration – providing a loving home for an abandoned rat is very rewarding.
When buying your pets, first make sure the rats are housed in single-sex groups. Choose a rat that looks inquisitive, healthy and alert. Signs a rat could be ill include a red discharge from the nose or eyes, noisy breathing, listlessness, lumps or scabs and thinning fur. Avoid a rat that appears afraid and skittish, and squeaks when you pick it up. Also avoid rats that show any signs of aggression.
While searching for your pets, you’ll find some are outgoing and will run up to you and sniff you, while others are shy. Choose the rat that has the qualities you’re looking for. Usually the best pet rat is the one that comes up and chooses you.
When you get your new rats home, place them in their cage and leave them to explore their new home for a few hours. Most rats will be a little nervous, so let them get used to their new surroundings in their own time, and handle them gently.
When picking up a rat, never grab it by the tail. This can be painful and makes a rat feel unsafe. There is also a risk of de-gloving, where the skin breaks loose from the tail, which will require veterinary care. You should always pick your pet rats up by their middle, supporting their feet with your other hand.
Rats love to play, and there are lots of fun and inexpensive activities you can share with your pet rats.
Pea fishing is perfect on summer days. Take a fairly flat dish, pour in some lukewarm water, add some frozen peas and place the tray on a flat surface (put a towel underneath in case of spillage). Then introduce your rats and watch them dive for the tasty treats! Some water-loving rats will be bold and jump right in; others may just perch on the side and grab the peas with their paws. Either way, it's great fun for them, and just as much fun for you to watch.
A rat fortress is the perfect place for your rat to play and explore. Tape some small boxes together, cut out a few holes for doors, and add some paper towels, newspaper, scraps of fleece, and a few treats such as yogies, cheerios or pumpkin seeds. Then add rats and let the fun begin!
Often there’s nothing more interesting to a rat than you. Whether it’s climbing down your shirt, shoulder riding, playing chase the hand, or just hanging out, rats love to spend time with you.
Other fun activities and toys include cat feather toys, bird ropes, PVC pipes, empty tissue boxes, nuts in shells, cat crinkle balls or a digging box. Cooked chicken bones are another popular choice with rats, and because they gnaw the bones, there’s no chance of splintering or choking. There are endless ways to keep your rat entertained.
- Housing: a large cage, at least 0.6m² per rat.
- Toys: igloo, hanging hammock, hanging bird toys.
- Bedding: litter, such as aspen shavings, Breeders Celect Litter, shredded paper, paper towels or fleece. Do not use pine or cedar shavings, as both are harmful to rats.
- Food: water bottle, food bowl, lab blocks such as Harlan or Diet 86, or a good-quality, low-protein dog food along with grains, fresh fruit and veggies.
(Avoid seed mixes).
Meeting up with other rat owners
Joining the NZ Ratclub (www.ratclub.org) is the best way to meet other rat lovers. Ratclub is a national club, and will often have casual rat meetings around the country. Adults, children and rats are all welcome!