Small Animal Species E-mail

Rat

Courtesy of Oxbow Pet Products

Getting to Know your Pet Rat:
When treated with gentle care, domesticated rats are clean, docile, cuddly and easily trained. In general, rats don't bite unless frightened. Their larger size makes them better pets for children than hamsters or mice. Rats are relatively intelligent and social animals that enjoy the company of other rats and humans.

They are usually nocturnal, meaning they sleep during the day and are active at night. However, many rats will adjust their schedules to be awake when their owners are at home to give them attention.

Hooded rats have brown and white or black and white fur, and Sprague-Dawley or Wistar-Lewis rats have white fur. Rats can have other varieties of color.


Fun Facts about Rats:
• Rats can't sweat, so make sure they do not get too hot.
• Rats’ stomachs are the size of half of your thumb.
• Rats can't burp or vomit.
• Average life span: 26 – 40 months (1 – 3 years)
• Maximum reported life span: 56 months (4.5 years)
• Average adult weight for male: 267 – 500 grams (.6 – 1 lb)
• Average adult weight for female: 225 – 325 grams (.5 – .7 lb)
• Gestation period: 21 – 23 days.
• Pups per litter: 6 – 10 pups.
• Optimal weaning age: 21 days
• Approximate daily food consumption of adult: 15 – 20 grams (less than one ounce)
• Approximate daily water consumption of adult: 5 – 8 ml


What you Need to Start:
Large wire cage with solid flooring
Cardboard box to nest and hide in
Litter/bedding
Water bottle
Heavy food bowl
Fortified food pellets
Nesting material
Spaying and Neutering

It is important to get your rat spayed for several reasons. When you spay a female, it immediately reduces the chances of her getting mammary cancer. It is also better to have altered sex rats when it comes to housing. Rats love to be housed in groups. If they are all spayed or neutered, it allows you to cage males and females together, giving them optimum social contact without the problem of babies.


Housing:
Choose a solid-bottom, wire cage large enough for climbing and playing. The cage should be large enough to accommodate feeding supplies, a large exercise wheel, a hiding/nesting box and a tunnel for play.

A bedding of compressed high-fiber wheat straw is best, because it absorbs as much as 300% of its weight in moisture. Choose a 100% biodegradable, dust-free bedding that will not stick to fur. You also can use straw or hay, shredded paper, certain hardwood shavings or composite newspaper pellets.

Avoid shredded paper made from shiny newspaper ads that contain toxic substances. Also avoid cedar and pine shavings—they contain resins that can irritate your pet’s skin, eyes and mucous membranes.

In addition, provide nesting material. Hay, newspaper, paper towels, facial tissue, old mittens or old socks are excellent nesting material for rats.


Exercise:
Rats are intelligent and social animals. They make very good pets. They love to play and can be taught tricks. Make your rat’s home fun and enriching by providing tubes, ropes and tunnels for play. They love to interact with people and enjoy the occasional ride on your shoulder. Rats are natural diggers and it is very common for them to burrow in their surroundings. Providing hay or other nesting materials is great mental enrichment for rats. Hay cakes can be used as toys. They enjoy tossing and carrying them around.


Feeding:
Rats are omnivores, which means they can eat both plant and animal material. Rats are very similar to humans in what they eat and how they eat. All your rat needs is a fortified complete feed and clean water, with an occasional treat to make meals fun. It’s important to feed your rat correctly to keep him or her from getting fat and unhealthy.

Water: First and foremost, all animals need lots of fresh clean water. A water bottle with a sipper tube works better for your rat than a water bowl, because the bowl can be tipped over or contaminated with waste and bedding. However, your rat will chew the sipper tube if too much of it is accessible. Hang the bottle on the outside of the cage, so just the tip of the spout is inside. Change water daily and clean the sipper tube weekly.

Complete, life-staged kibble: Look for a packaged, complete rat food designed especially for adult rats, with a balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Proper food will improve the longevity of your pet without causing life-threatening obesity. Some rat foods have easy-to-follow tables on the package, showing feeding guidelines. Rats can have a wider variety of foods than many small pets. Rats also can have small amounts (about one tablespoon a day) of fruits, vegetables and other foods to supplement fortified packaged food—berries, bananas, raisins/grapes, melon, prune/plum, apples, broccoli, greens, corn, squash, peas, carrots, liver/oysters and beans are examples. Feed greens, such as romaine, bib and red leaf lettuces. You can add tomatoes, parsley and cilantro for added variety.

Avoid foods that contain seeds because, contrary to popular belief, seeds are unhealthy. They have a high fat content and poor nutritional balance. Rats can’t burp, so avoid gas forming vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower. Offer a variety of hays as a behavior stimulator. Rats might avoid strange foods, so if you need to change your pet’s diet it’s important to gradually covert to the new feed over the space of one or two weeks. Gradually changing food for any reason helps avoid digestive upset.

Clean dishes daily and discard any leftover food.

Rats are like humans in that they might eat when they are bored. As a result, they are prone to obesity. In spite of what most people think, rats do not always need food in the food dish.

Treats: Just as with humans, there is more to your pet’s meals than the basics. Eating should be fun! The main function of a treat should be to encourage interaction between you and your rat. Treats are also a wonderful training aid. To keep rats busy and entertained, a few raisins can be hidden in hay left out in the cage or stuffed in a paper towel roll. Burrowing in, tunneling through and playing with hay also keeps them busy. Hay is a snack that will not cause obesity. Grass hays such as timothy, brome, orchard, and oat are the best.

Treats also help you bond with your pet. However, it’s tempting to feed too many treats, because pets like them so much. Avoid feeding so many treats that your pet refuses basic foods. Treats should make up no more than 5% of the total diet.

Offer pre-packaged treats that are all-natural and low in sugar, with no artificial additives. Do not use yogurt drops, fruits, nuts, seeds or granola sticks—they have too much sugar and fat. Foods such as pretzels, cookies, and cereals are high in calories and starch, and they can lead to intestinal bloat.

As with any new food, be sure to introduce new treats slowly to avoid upsetting your rat’s stomach and causing diarrhea.


Rat Troubleshooting:
Conflict between rats- Spayed and neutered male and female rats can be housed together because fighting rarely occurs between adults. However, males might bother the young, and females might fight among themselves after they have given birth. To avoid fighting in these cases, separate rats temporarily into two different cages.

Respiratory problems: Rats are particularly prone to respiratory problems, so caging that provides adequate ventilation is essential. Wire cages with plastic bottoms are ideal. Aquarium tanks provide less ventilation and are not recommended for pet rats. Ammonia buildup from urine can cause or exacerbate respiratory problems in rats, so any cage should be cleaned at least twice a week.

General health- Regular visits to the vet are vital to keeping your rat healthy. If you see any signs of digestive upset, diarrhea, slobbers, dental problems or other abnormal behaviors, call the vet for advice.


What you Probably Didn’t Know About Rats:
Rats are natural burrowers, and it is very common for domesticated rats to burrow in their surroundings. Rats are also very active and like to explore. Keep this in mind when designing your rat's cage environment, which should be large enough to accommodate a large exercise wheel, a hide box and a tunnel for play. Providing "cage furniture" satisfies a rat's inquisitive nature and innate tunneling behavior.

In general, rats don’t bite unless frightened.

References:
1. Bauck L, Bihun C. Basic anatomy, physiology, husbandry, and clinical techniques [of small rodents]. In: Quesenberry K, Hillyer E, eds: Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. Philadelphia, PA, WB Saunders, 1997, 291-306.

2. Johnson-Delaney C: Small rodents: rats. Exotic Companion Medicine Handbook, Lake Worth, FL, Zoological Education Network, 1996.