Rat Tales

Have you ever considered a rascally rat as a pet? Rats make fascinating buddies.

They are social, gentle creatures and cost very little to purchase. They are easy to maintain and as they have a short lifespan, they are not a long-term commitment like dogs and cats - but they are addictive.

How long do rats live?

On average, rats live for 2½ to 3½ years, although some have been known to live for more than four years.

What type of housing do rats need?

A quality rodent residence should be made of strong material that will resist attempts by the rat to chew through it. Non-porous materials, such as plastic or metal, are ideal and walls and fittings should not be coated with toxic paint that the rat might ingest. Mesh cages are suitable but they must have solid floors.

Rats must be kept cool as they cannot shed heat easily. High temperatures are lethal, therefore they need good ventilation. Cages need to be escape-proof with tight-fitting lids or doors.

Aquaria are often used because rascally rats cannot climb their walls. However, they don’t allow effective ventilation and this can be a significant problem.

What bedding should I use?

Wood chips are commonly used for bedding, though unscented varieties are preferable to avoid respiratory problems. Certain cat litters such as paper-based litters (Breeder’s Choice) or wood pellets (Oz-Pet Animal Litter) may be suitable for rats, but check with the manufacturer to be completely sure.

Whatever the bedding used, it should be absorbent, non-toxic, dust-free and be changed regularly to prevent smell and to promote hygiene. Two to three bedding changes per week are normally needed.

What do I feed my rat?

Rats are omnivores and will eat almost anything. However, to prevent nutritional deficiencies, commercially available balanced rat pellets are ideal. Rats will eat about five grams of balanced pellets per 100 grams of bodyweight. Pellets can be supplemented with lucerne hay, well-washed fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts to provide a break from boredom. Hard foods cater for the rats’ needs to gnaw.

For an occasional treat, your rat will love gourmet treats such as fresh grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches. Just don’t kiss him afterwards! Water must be available continually and this is usually provided via sipper tubes. The tubes can easily become blocked with dirt and should be checked regularly.

What diseases can affect rats?

Rats suffer from a variety of diseases. Respiratory conditions are common, especially mycoplasmosis. With this condition, rats develop a nasal discharge and are breathless. Mycoplasmosis is almost impossible to eliminate but can often be controlled with antibiotics. The disease is more common in cages contaminated with high ammonia levels. As ammonia comes from stale urine, cleanliness is vital. Viruses are also a common cause of respiratory disease.

Rats may also suffer from various intestinal diseases.

Mammary tumours and kidney disease often affect older rats.

Do rats spread disease?

Contrary to popular belief, rats do not commonly spread disease. Plague is a well-known disease that is spread by infected rat fleas passing from rats to man. Epidemics of Plague were recorded in China in 224 BC. The disease occurred in huge pandemics that, in the Middle Ages, destroyed entire populations of cities. However, you don’t have to worry about any prospective pet rat causing Plague in your family!

Some people are allergic to rat dander and to rat urine and rat bites are sometimes a problem, but otherwise, diseases are rarely spread from pet rats to humans.

Aren't rats smelly?

Rats are naturally tidy and spend hours grooming themselves. They will keep their bed clean and often learn to use a specific area as their toilet. They are much less smelly than mice and odour is only a problem if their cage is not cleaned.

What are rats like as pets?

Rats are friendly and curious animals and have stronger personalities than mice. They are very inquisitive and quite social.

What toys can a rat play with?

Watching rats play is part of the fun. To add the ‘whoopee’ factor to their lifestyle, visit the hardware store and buy PVC pipes and connectors. Your rodent buddies will love to explore these and will rest and sleep in them too. Toilet rolls and plastic butter containers make good cubbies for rats. Visit your pet show and you will find a fascinating range of modular tunnels, jungle gyms, hammock beds and other happy rat toys.

Are rats easy to breed?

Rats are too easy to breed and if a rat owner is not careful, a pair of romantic rats can produce hordes of offspring with litters of more than ten being common. A doe takes about three weeks to produce pups after mating and she will be fertile again twenty-four hours after giving birth. For this reason, a pregnant female should be separated from her beaus before her pups are born.

Lastly - don’t forget them. Mice, rats and, for that matter, any animals that are confined to a cage are totally at your mercy. As they don’t bark or meow for food, they are sometimes forgotten in the busy lives that we all lead nowadays. Like all pets, they are a responsibility - but well worth consideration.

Photo used with permission from The Dapper Rat

By Dr Cam Day BVSc - Last updated 16 November 2012

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