The basics of a good Rat Diet
Rats in the wild eat a widely varied diet, consisting of various grains, seeds, nuts, insects, fruits, vegetables, human food scraps and meat. They are one of the most successful omnivores on the planet and did not become this way by being selective with their food. The general rule is they can eat anything we can, too much of anything isn't a good thing so moderation is key.
The best diet for a pet rat is also quite varied, rich in healthy grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, and some lean meats. The best staple diet for rats is a good quality rat food block or balanced home made dry mix (See below for my home made dry mix recipe, Pet store/commercial mixes are not balanced and usually contain fillers and additives that are not ideal in a rats diet)
Some brands of rat cubes include Cummins, Laucke, Gordons, and Barrastoc. Rats need access to either cubes or a mix at all times. They have a very high metabolic rate in which they process food, so to maintain adequate health they require regular meals.
Fruits vegetables and other treats are best given a few times a week. When fed too many high fat and sugar foods rats can become overweight and this impacts greatly on their health. Their lifespan is short already so any excess pressure on their body is not ideal.
This is the recipe I used to use as a staple diet for my rats before I switched over to Cummins rat cubes. I still use it to this day, but it is instead given as an occasional treat. Many different ingredients can be used in this recipe, I have simply suggested the ones I use. Avoid anything high sugar, salt and trans/saturated fat.
-Tropic-O's (Typically found in the health food isle, they are a more natural alternative to fruit loops, but contain much less sugar and salt)
-Puffed rice (not rice bubbles as they contain too much added sugar and salt)
-Dried goji berries (a healthier alternative to sultanas or other dried fruits)
-Sunflower seeds (the shelled kind are best if you want to avoid mess)
-Puffed Kamut (a type of ancient wheat)
-Special K Cereal
-High quality dog/cat kibble (use sparingly)
As far as other treats go...
Pretty much anything we can eat, rats can eat! Avoid excess amounts of dairy, chocolate, avocado and fried foods.
Housing, what's the best for my rats?
There are a multitude of cages out there for your rats, but there are a few factors which determine the right cage for you and your animals. How much are you willing to spend? How many rats do you want to keep? What type of cage would you prefer? (i.e wire based, wood based, etc.) Are you keeping your cage inside or outside? How much space is there to put the cage?
The first and most popular type of cage among pet rat owners would probably be the Pet One (or similar) cage. It is typically a black/white 3 story wire cage with a pull out tray you can find at 99% of pet stores and will usually set you back from $60 to $120 depending on where you purchase from. It is suitable for around 2-4 rats (depending on how often you clean and the bedding you use) They good for first time rat owners due to their price, size and easy of cleaning.
Another type of cage is a grotto style cage, many people have made these for there rats and with good cause, they can be completely customized, made to suit any decor and space, and aren't too expensive to make for those of us handy with tools, they are good if you have more than 2 rats as well. They are typically easy to clean, the only downside is if they are not laminated properly they can hold smell from urine, and they can be chewed on or even chewed through by some determined rats.
Another type of rat habitat and one that I recommend if you intend on getting more than 2 rats, is a very particular type of cage that is only available from eBay (unless purchased second hand) it is called a Ferret Kingdom. Just type in Ferret Kingdom on eBay, you shall find it. They typically are about $300 new, and the second hand price varies depending on condition and the individual seller.
You can also adapt some types of bird cages to suit rats, such as this one, modified by adding shelves
With any cage, if the shelves are wire, I would recommend covering at least a section of them with linoleum or something similar so that they have a place to get away from the bare wire. Also any bar spacing that is wider than half an inch, most baby rats can escape out of.
Free range set ups
This particular type of set up is not for everyone and doesn't always go as planned. However, this can be quite an enjoyable way to keep rats. The rats really enjoy the level of interaction and changing environment that comes from a free range set up. The lack of a closed cage allows you to customize your design specifically to suit your rats and space, it allows for creativity and imagination when designing your ratty wonderland.
Some examples of successful free range situations are as follows:
This examples shows how you can turn a regular cage into a "free range" cage easily by adding extra room with the addition of hanging baskets.
This example would be a step up from the previous picture, showing the lack of cage entirely and usage of cube storage grids to create a open plan living area for the rats.
This picture shows another way to use cube grids, this time in a double story set up which allows more living space for the rats.
This final example shows a mix between using a cage (for the main living area/litter tray) and a large play area. This works well for females as you can supervise them when out of the cage, but keep them contained if need be when you're not around (although the rats living here are never contained and live unconfined 24/7)
The large wooden play gym is made by Animal Woodworx.
However, this method of keeping rats should be done with caution. Make sure they cannot get to anything that they can chew or destroy, or be harmed by such as electrical cords or harmful chemicals. Also make sure that if they happen to get onto the floor there is no way for them to reach such things or to escape. Whilst this is not for everyone, if done right it can be one of the best ways to keep rats.
Different types of Bedding
Bedding is material used to keep the cage clean, to absorb urine and smell, and to keep your rat warm and comfortable. There are quite a few types of bedding out there but find the one that works best for you and your rats. Good beddings are ones that will not irritate ratty lungs, are easy to replace, long lasting, smell pleasant, and not too expensive. Things such as Breeders Choice Pellets, Breeders Choice Shavings, Newspaper, or Chaff work well. You can either use the bedding throughout the entire solid bottom of the cage, or use it in something like a litter tray if you wish to train your rats to use one.
Breeders Choice Recycled Paper Pellets
Toys and Entertainment
First of all, the best toy a rat can have is another rat. Rats are extremely social creatures and need at least 1 other same sex rat for company. In the wild rats live in extremely large colonies, often consisting of 50-100 or more rats in one colony.
There are many toys available for rats in various places such as online stores, local pet stores, and at home. Common things that can be found around the house like toilet paper tubes, crumpled up paper, empty garden pots, empty tissue boxes. Basically anything that can be climbed, hidden in, shredded, tossed around, etc. Are great for rats. PVC piping commonly found at Bunnings is also a great addition to any cage. Check out Dapper.com.au for great cheap toy ideas.
Most bird toys are great for rats like wooden chews, rope rings, and plastic chains. Avoid anything made of latex or rubber as these pose choking hazards.
Hammocks are loved and appreciated by most ratties. They can be made out of old clothes or bought from sellers or places like eBay. Ratties love sleeping, hiding in, and chewing them. Old clothes that you no longer have use for can be recycled and used as bedding and hammocks for your ratties. Second hand pillow cases from op shops also make brilliant hammocks.
Some common questions and answers about rats are located here. If you have a particular question or problem and would like assistance, please don't hesitate to contact me and I will help in any way I can.
Q: How long will my pet rat live?
The average lifespan of a pet rat is between 1.5 and 2.5 years. However, genetics and husbandry will ultimately determine how long your pets live. Animals bred from healthy parents will generally live longer than those bred from weak and sickly animals, and animals fed a healthy diet and kept in a clean environment will live longer than those not fed a proper diet and kept in a dirty environment.
Q: Is there any difference between a male and female rat as a pet?
Both sexes make wonderful pets. Females are smaller and quite a bit more active than males, they are usually not as willing to sit still. On the other hand, males are normally happier sitting on your lap and having you scratch their head, they are typically lazier and more inclined to cuddling. They also have slight musky odor to their coats. There are exceptions to both of these though. The best advice I can offer is to meet several rats of both genders and decide which would suit you and your lifestyle better.
Q: What kind of toys can I put in my rat cage?
Wheels are a favorite of most rat owners and can be introduced at any age, but best results are achieved by acquainting the rat with one while it is very young. A rat that is a runner most often remains a runner for life and will spend a great deal of time doing so. Females are more inclined to be runners than males. The best kind of wheel is one that is solid plastic, not with metal spaced bars as the rats tail and feet can get caught in between the bars and they can injure themselves.
PVC pipes make excellent tunnels. Also check out bird toys such as ladders and nut rings. Ferret tents, hammocks, swings and tunnels are usually popular, but they can be expensive and often made of cloth so the rats can chew them up. Large cotton ropes made for birds can be strung across wire cages. Some rats will also use things like crunched up bits of paper, and cat tinkle balls. You can hide some treats in spots around the cage, or wrap them up in some tissues and let the rats have a lot of fun ripping open the package to get to the yummy treats inside. Let your imagination run wild!
Q: What are some of the signs I can look out for to be able to tell if my rat is sick?
Excessive sneezing is sometimes a sign of illness. Lethargy, loss of appetite and loss of weight, dull coat, puffy appearance, loud or raspy breathing and labored breathing are all signs of respiratory illness and are a very good indication that your rat needs treatment.
Red discharge (porphryin) around the eyes and nose is sometimes a sign that your rat is ill, but can also be present simply due to stress or an irritant such as dust. The harderian gland, which lies behind the rat’s eyeball, secretes a red liquid known as porphyrin, it lubricates the eye and eyelids. This secretion sometimes gives the appearance of blood, but contains little or no blood.
Q: What is mycoplasma?
Mycoplasma pneumonia, commonly referred to as Myco, is actually an organism that all rats in the general pet population carry and is the cause of the majority of respiratory problems in pet rats, this organism is carried in the upper respiratory system.
It is practically impossible to avoid in today's rat population and is not curable, all rat enthusiasts and vets alike are trying to figure out why it is so prevalent today, we know much more about rats and their care than we ever have, and we care for them better than ever, but still this problem is so ridiculously common it is the bane of all rat lovers. It cannot be transmitted to humans.
Stress or other illness can weaken a rats immune system, causing the rat to be more susceptible to respiratory infection, if you leave symptoms untreated for long periods of time, it can lead to pneumonia or other secondary infections.
Most of the time symptoms can be controlled by a course of antibiotics administered by a vet. Commonly used antibiotics are Baytril (Enrotril), Vibravet (Doxycycline), Psittavet, and Gentamicin.
It is important to maintain a healthy cage environment to keep stress to a minimum.
Symptoms of a respiratory infection
I recommend you check out this page, it has videos that show sounds rats made when in affected by respiratory related problems. It is very helpful in determining the severity of the infection.
The symptoms of the upper respiratory disease, which involve the nasal passages and middle ears, can include sneezing, sniffling, occasional squinting, rough hair coat, and porphyrin staining around the eyes and nose. If the inner ear becomes involved, head tilt can also occur.
As the disease progresses, it will enter the lungs. If exacerbated by bacterial infections, viral infections, or ammonia, symptoms may include lethargy, rough hair coat, hunched posture, porphyrin staining, chattering, weight loss, labored breathing, and eventually death.
Good husbandry, breeding from healthy rats and early treatment are the only things we can do to fight this deadly disease at this time. Someday, maybe we'll be lucky enough to have a drug company develop an effective vaccine. We can only hope until that day. In the meantime, we are just trying to treat rats in the best way possible, and only breed from the most resistant rats possible, evidently, respiratory problems are impossible to avoid.
Q: I just noticed blood coming from the vagina of my one-year old rat for the first time. Do female rats have periods?
No, female rats do not menstruate, if your female rat is bleeding vaginally then something is wrong and you need to get her to a vet. Vaginal bleeding can be a symptom of a uterine tumor, genital mycoplasmosis, a urinary tract infection, a miscarriage, or the beginning of labor. If you can eliminate a miscarriage or labor from this list, and if after antibiotics have been given to rid her of any infection she is still bleeding, then the only treatment left is to have her spayed.
Spaying will eliminate the problem altogether and may extend her life. Be sure to find a competent vet to perform the surgery. It should cost in the neighborhood of $65 to $150 for the entire procedure. Also make sure that your vet gives you post surgical antibiotics to prevent possible infection. Remember, this surgery involves going into the body cavity and should not be decided upon without considering the risks. If she is a young rat, the benefits will probably outweigh the risks, but if she is very old it may be best to let her live out her life in peace.
Q: My rat sways back and forth while standing still. Is something wrong with him?
Rats have poor eyesight and this movement is often used to detect motion. It is more common with pink-eyed rats. This is nothing to worry about, although it is an interesting behavior to watch.
Q: My rat is scratching and has scabs on his face and shoulders. Does he have mites?
Scabs on the skin are often a sign of an external parasite. It is best to treat rats with a spot on treatment such as revolution or Ivermectin to eliminate any chance of parasites. This will also worm the rats. Sprays and powders from pet shops are often ineffective and more damaging to the rat than helpful, they should be avoided. Other causes of scabs and/or itching can be a fungal skin infection or possibly an immune system problem. If the rat has been parasite treated and is still showing signs of scabs, it is best to take the rat to a vet for further diagnosis/treatment.
Q: Are their any benefits to de-sexing my rat?
There are both benefits and risks involved with spaying a female rat and neutering a male rat. The obvious benefit for both sexes is that they no longer have reproductive organs that can sometimes cause health problems later in life.
With female rats, removing the reproductive organs will lessen their chances for developing mammary tumors, and definitely makes it impossible for her to get pregnant. The risks, on the other hand, are greater than a male having the same surgery, as this is a major surgical procedure which should be done while the rat is young (for the most benefit). The vet must go into the body cavity to perform the operation. General anesthesia must be used and can be considered a risk in itself, as any animal could die while under its effects (including humans).
Neutering male rats is most often done to allow the male to live with female rats or to stop aggressive behavior, since testicular cancer is not common in rats. While this procedure is not as invasive as spaying a female rat, it should still be considered dangerous, as general anesthesia is required and post operative infection resulting in abscesses is quite common. After any surgical procedure, you should always be sure your vet sends your rat home with the appropriate post operative care instructions.
Q: When my rat is sitting with me, sometimes her head shivers slightly and she makes funny noises with her teeth as if chewing on something, but she's not eating. Is this "teeth grinding"? Is it similar to cat purring?
Yes, this is teeth grinding or "bruxing". This means the rat is content and happy. Although this behavior can be exhibited in times of stress and anger (such as during or after a rat fight). It is often accompanied by "boggling" which is where the rat jiggles it's eyes as it is grinding its teeth.
*I highly recommend you consider breeding only if you are committed to bettering the fancy rat population, not because they are "cute", because you want to experience the miracle of birth, because you want to make money, or because you want lots of pretty rats in different colors.*
Q: How can you tell when a female rat is in season?
It happens every three to five days, mostly in the evening hours, for twelve hours at a time. You will quite often see the other females in the cage trying to mount the female in season. If you look at her vaginal opening, it will be open, moist, and kind of purplish in color. If you touch her hind quarters, she will stretch out, putting her nose and rear end in the air, arch her back downwards, and vibrate her ears.
Q: What are the recommended breeding ages (upper and lower) for rats?
Female rats can get pregnant as early 5-8 weeks of age but they really should not be bred until they are at least 4-5 months. The best age is around 6 months depending on the size of the female. If they are not bred between the ages of 6 months and 12 months, then they should not be bred at all as it is too risky and will most likely cause injury to the female and her babies and may even result in death. It is best to let a female have no more than 3 litters in her lifetime, as it is very draining on a female to carry and raise a litter of pups.
Males can mate with females from as young as 5-8 weeks in some cases, but are ideally bred at a minimum of 6-8 months. The reason to wait is that males do not go through there final hormonal changes till between the ages of 6-12 months. It is in this time that they may turn into an alpha aggressive male. In which case you would not breed them at all, and ideally have them neutered to reduce testosterone.
Breeding healthy and friendly pet rats, takes a lot of time, money, and dedication overall. Should you think you can take on such a gargantuan task, it is best to contact an experienced breeder, or well known rat club/society. Get as much information as you can. Even experienced breeders of many years, still learn new things everyday.
Q: How long is the gestation period for rats?
21 to 23 days. She will not begin to show her pregnancy until the end of the second week, and will not be interested in nest building until the day before or the day she gives birth.
Q: Does my pregnant or nursing rat need any special care?
Pregnancy and nursing require a lot of nutrients. Cooked grains, eggs, legumes and fresh veggies are great. Be sure she also has plenty of her normal diet, and water available at all times. Other high energy supplements such as Ensure (powdered milk formula for adult people, used in hospitals etc.) Nutrigel (commonly sold at pet stores and vets) and Farax (baby rice meal).
Q: What is the average size litter?
The average size litter is around 8-12, but numbers from 1 to 22 are possible. Although the female usually only has 12 nipples, she can care for many babies as long as she is getting the proper nutrition. Most females with very large litters will separate the babies into two piles and will alternate feeding each group. Finding homes for the highest possible number of babies should be something you consider before you decide to pair the mother and father.
Q: Can I keep the male in with the female when she has her babies?
It is not recommended. The female will go into season within 24 hours of giving birth and can become pregnant again right away. It is not healthy for her to be pregnant and nursing a litter at the same time. It is recommended that the female be given a rest period of at least a month between pregnancies and litter rearing to restore her body to full strength.
Q: Can I keep two females together while one or both has babies?
This is not recommended. Although some females will share the responsibilities of raising their families without any problems, there are other females who will steal babies and try to nurse them herself. These females most often will not let the other mother get near her babies.
Q: When should the babies be weaned/separated?
The babies should be left with the mother for a minimum of four weeks, when they about 5 weeks they should be separated, males from females. You can leave the mother with the female babies as long as you wish.
Q: Do male rats become impotent or infertile with age?
Some males that have been known to breed lose their ability to impregnate the female as they age. This can be due to several causes such as hind leg degeneration, illness or just old age. If a male has not been used for breeding while young, he will sometimes not be interested in breeding at all. It is rare but females have been known to be barren. Also females can with age, become infertile, but it is not recommended at any age to place a female rat with males if you think she won't get pregnant, nature can find a way, and it is just not worth the risk of an accidental pregnancy.
If you have any other questions that are not listed on this page, please feel free to email or call me and I will help you out as best I can.