RAT CARE GUIDE
Rats as Pets
Rats are extremely social and generally friendly animals by nature. They make excellent pets for children especially if brought up being handled gently every day. Rats should be part of the family and have at least 20 minutes out of the cage per day or every other day especially when taming them to become loving pets. I often compare them to dogs in the way they come to you when called, take treats, enjoy fuss and are just generally so, so sociable with people.
Rats as with any animal needs daily maintenance, this includes Feeding, Watering, Checking Health, Handling, Talking to and being given any medications or supplements you might be using. You will also need to clean the entire cage every 7 - 14 days to keep ammonia levels down as not to affect the rat’s respiratory system. We do not keep rats in tanks or glass fronted vivaria or cabinets unless the glass is replaced with mesh, due to poor ventilation, as rats have very sensitive respiratory systems. Cleaning too often can cause rats to scent mark more to compensate so try not to clean them more than once a week.
Rats do bite if scared, hormonal, protecting babies or territorial, but once a biter does by no means mean they are a biter for life. All rats test nibble. It doesn't hurt and it’s just to make sure you aren't food or investigate an item by touch / taste, they just take your finger in their mouth gently, sometimes if expecting food as all rats have poor vision, relying mainly on smell, touch and hearing they may nibble but this isn't aggression. I have personally had many ex biters who have come around lovely with regular handling, kindness and time. It depends very much on the context of the bite, to determine what should be done to combat it. Hormonal rats generally won't calm down no matter how much you handle them.
One thing i will say though is if you feed rats treats through the bars of the cage you are training them to expect food, so any finger put through is fair game! I make a point of only feeding my rats by opening the doors and giving it to them to avoid this common behaviour.
Rats do have a little odour, so if you are not comfortable with their natural ratty scent, either don't get rats or just get 2 (if you really want to) as the smell is greatly reduced based on the number of rats you have, less rats, less odour. Maybe visit a person with pet rats and judge whether the odour is something you can deal with or not before homing some.
Finding Pet Rats
Rats should always be homed as a pair or more, NEVER one rat alone. If a anyone (breeder, pet shop, etc) re-homes single rats they do not have the welfare of the rats at heart (except for circumstances such as similarly aged kits will be paired with single kit, the rat came in alone already and hasn't yet been paired or such reasons as this).
When looking for a pet rat it is important to realise that not all rats are alike health wise. Pet shop and Rescue Rats tend to come with unknown health problems that often crop up later in life due to their poor breeding (in most cases from the commercial pet trade). Ratterys registered with the NFRS are generally a good bet when looking for a pair of young healthy rats but you will almost certainly be expected to go on a waiting list for what will essentially be 'pedigree' or 'show lines' rats which have been bred for countless generations for health, temperament and variety, in that order, health and temperament being more important than variety. BUT NFRS Ratterys and Studs are not regulated at all, so you must be vigilant and look for a good, ethical breeder. Although being an NFRS Stud generally means their rats show well, (they are in good condition, parasite free, friendly and have good body confirmation aswell as being a good example of their variety.)
Variety is normally not as important as health and temperament, but if you have a variety in mind look for a breeder of that particular variety.
Health problems may not be completely absent for the life of the rat even with show lines, but you can be sure if you pick a good line that they will be reduced. Most common health problems in rats occur as they age, respiratory infections, tumours, and abscesses tend to be the most common but most are easily treatable by a vet.
Even so it is best to research the geography (how you are going to collect your rats). It is also a good idea to ask lots of questions if you have them and be prepared to answer lots too as a good breeder of any animal is going to want to make sure their babies go to a good home. Honesty is the best policy.
Good breeders often adopt a closed rattery policy. This is to stop cross contamination from people who have been to pet shops / other breeders and to generally not let unknown people into your rattery to handle rats / poke rats. The breeder’s wishes should be respected and they usually have details of their ethics, rattery and how the babies are raised on their website.
Generally if a rattery has a good reputation they're your best bet. Talk to other ratty people and join some ratty groups on Facebook. Though not all groups are run by knowledgeable people. Fancy Rats UK forum or Rat Care UK fb group are good places to start.
Alternatively go to a rescue and adopt some pet rats that need a loving home for the rest of their lives. As with any rats they may develop health problems later on in life but at least you are not funding backyard breeders or the commercial pet trade.
Choosing your Rats
Take the time to make sure you are getting friendly sociable rats. You will enjoy them so much more if you pick the right rats for you from the start. But even nervous rats can usually be brought round with time and regular handling.
Look for healthy rats which should have bright clear eyes, no discharge from eyes, ears or nose and no scabs or wounds or loss of fur (except for old rats and rex rats, as these sometimes have bald patches naturally), tails should be free from kinks or bumps, they may be nervous of new people but that is natural and most come round to their new owners within a few days.
If a rat is hard to take out of the cage or bites, a more experienced home may be more suitable than a new owner.
Try to make sure that the conditions that the rats are kept in are relatively clean and tidy, obviously someone with many rats is going to have a ratty odour about the place, but all rats should have food and water and bedding should be relatively clean. Spacious cages and lots of toys in cages are a good sign.
Before You Bring your Rats Home
You will need to ensure your rat has an adequate cage, food, bedding and cage furniture before you bring your rats home. It is best for new rats to have their cage in a room of the house that is used the most so they get used to you and your family.
We recommend using the carrier method of introductions in most cases.
First free range the rats you wish to introduce together in a small neutral space like the bath, sofa or bed, make sure you observe them.
Then you should put them all into a small completely empty cage or carrier with only substrate and water bottles, in a room of the house the rats don't usually use. Hamster cages, cat carriers and pod carriers make good first steps depending on the number of rats. Make sure there are two water bottles so everyone has free access to water Feed them after about 12 hours, but scatter the food on the floor of the cage.
If there are fights try to shake, tap the cage or squirt them with plain water to distract them from fighting, only separate if blood is drawn. The more you allow them to sort out their own hierarchy the better. Leave them in this cage for 12-24 hours or until they are consistently sleeping and relaxing together. Don't rush the process it can take hours to weeks.
Transfer them to a slightly larger cage with one level. Same process no cage furniture. Leave them again for as long as it takes for them to sleep together consistently.
If they're good move on to the next step, which is adding one open sleeping area such as a flat hammock. Then the same principle applies, add one piece of furniture at a time once they've settled each time. Eventually you can move them to the clean bare cage that they will be sharing. If it’s a large cage you may need to separate it into two parts and slowly add cage furniture again as above until they are completely settled together. Take your time and do it small step by small step.
Isamu Rats, Carrier Method - http://www.isamurats.co.uk/introducing-rats.html
You rats cage should be big enough to house the number of rats you wish to home and have small enough bar spacing for babies if you are adopting babies. The rat cage calculator can help with cage size vs number of rats.
Each rat should have 1.5 - 2 cubic feet of space in the cage minimum. Tanks are not recommended as they have very poor ventilation that can cause health problems. Always make sure the bar spacing is no more than 1-1.5cm.
Cage Calculator - http://www.ratclub.org/cgi-bin/cage3.cgi
It is important to feed a nutritional and balanced diet. Rat Rations website do many ready-made mixes based on the Shunamite Diet and ingredients to make your own. I personally use the popular Shunamite diet. JR Farms rat mix is good too, but most commercial rat mixes i find a bit lacking in nutrition. I do not recommend nuggets of any kind as the SOLE food source, as they are bland boring and do very little for the rats in terms of mental stimulation and nutrition.
Stelmaria Shunamite Recipe
50% or 4.5 sccops Veg Delight Rabbit or Harrisons Banana Brunch
30% or 3 scoops Rat Rations mix no11a no11b or no 7
10% or 1 scoop Barley Rings
5% or half a scoop lineseed, seed mix low in sunflower seeds or pigeon conditioning seed
5% or half a scoop horse herbs mix, dried veg, dried insects or fish
Based on Shunamite Diet but developed for my own rats. You can now buy what is essentially the same diet on rat rations. Look up the ISA-Mixes under complete diets for rats developed by Isamu Rats..
Isamu Rats, Diet Info - http://www.isamurats.co.uk/options-for-dry-mixes.html
Most rat owners give their rats extras as well as their dry mix, including fresh veg and salad, baby food, cat food, pasta, rice, couscous, leftover bones, fish, meat, anything really, as they can eat almost anything we can, but male rats shouldn't be given citrus fruit as it can cause cancer. Generally my rule of thumb is if its high in sugar, fat, salt or spices i tend to avoid it.
Babies, Nursing mums and ill or elderly rats often need extra protein, so some of the above like baby food, and cat food.
We recommend scatter feeding (mixing the food into deep bedding in the bottom of the cage or in a dig box, or feeding via parrot foraging toys. This helps keep the rats mentally stimulated and forces them to use their brain/body to work for the food. You want to make it a little bit harder for them to feed than just leaving an overflowing bowl in the cage.
We also recommend feeding 10-20g of food per day per rat in the cage (depending on age, size etc), this stop them from becoming lazy, over weight and stops them from becoming bored. I give babies up to 14 weeks free access to food, but still scatter feed and use foraging toys.
For most rat owners wood shavings are associated with respiratory infections, this is a myth, UK kiln dried, dust extract shavings for horses are a good option. Personally i prefer Aubiose bedding which can be purchased from rat rations website. I have also used teabag bedding for their nest and finacard or similar cardboard bedding.
I use hay in their igloos sometimes, but the nesting material bedding from finacard is also a good bet. Many different rat safe beddings can be found on the rat rations website too.
Finacard Bedding - http://www.finacard-uk.com/
Rats should have at least 2 places to snuggle up and hide in such as the Rody igloo, or similar small pet house, but they must be big enough for rats, so i usually get the Rody Guinea Pig plastic igloos and put some bedding or pieces of cloth in there for them to sleep on.
You may also like to add tubes (home made or bought) but many cages come with some shelves and tubes. If there are long drops in your cage adding shelves can help add more floor space and prevent falls.
Large plastic shelves often get used as a toilet by rats, increasing the ratty smell. I always put a corner litter tray on all my corner shelves or remove shelves all together to prevent this.
Hammocks are loved by rats and are available from ebay, petshops or from hammocks makers such as snugglefuzzies cage accesories in a wide variety of fabrics, types and colours and are my personal choice as they are well made. Hammocks are also handy as you can arrange them so there are no long drops in the cage or use them as levels or shelves instead of plastic ones.
Hammocks - http://www.snugglefuzzies.co.uk
There are More Hammock Makers in the links section.
All cage furniture is susceptible to chewing as rats chew just about anything as their teeth are constantly growing, but providing them with things they can chew such as dog biscuits, dog chews or hard rodent chews with help limit them to chewing mainly edible treats and not their cage furniture. Boys tend to chew less than girls in my opinion.
You can make 'toys' for rats using cardboard tubes, boxes, scrunched up newspaper or other safe household items. Wood safe for rats is usually fruit tree wood, you can add branches to their cage.
Then of course each cage needs at least one food bowl and one water bottle. Some owners choose to scatter feed or provide more bowls throughout the cage, neither is right or wrong but there can be benefits to the rats enrichment and scavenging behaviour if food is hidden in the bedding as with scatter feeding or made hard to reach so the rats really have to work for it.
We recommend having at least one wheel in your cage to give rats the opportunity to run. But they must be appropriately sized, 12" wheels are ok for babies temporarily, but you may want to buy the final sized wheel from the start to save you replacing it later on. We recommend a minimum of 14" for does and 16" for bucks. The very best wheels are available from Tic Tac Wheels. We use these ourselves and cannot recommend their metal wheels enough, they are the only truly silent wheels and last forever.
Tictac Wheels, The best silent wheels for rats - http://www.tictacwheels.co.uk/
Enrichment & Active Cage Layouts
Enrichment can be anything that makes a rats life more exciting day to day. Anything that causes them to exhibit natural behaviours and breaks the boredom and monotony of daily life as a caged pet.
A handful of hay to eat, play in and use as bedding, cardboard boxes or newspaper to rustle around in and chew, a seeded box of dirt to dig in and eat the plants you've seeded in it (make sure they're safe and edible plants), a bowl of water with peas or sweetcorn in it so the rats can go pea fishing, home-made toys or chews can all be forms of enrichment.
Rats should be able to exhibit normal behaviours at all times, these include -
- Digging (deep bedding or a dig box filled with any number of different beddings or pet safe soil such as eco earth)
- Foraging for food (deep bedding and scatter feeding allow this, as do parrot foraging toys)
- Climbing (ropes, ledges, branches etc)
- Balancing (ropes and branches etc)
- Running (an appropriately sized wheel, where the rat's back is STRAIGHT when running)
- Jumping (ledges and spaced out steps and ropes etc)
- Gnawing (chew toys, wood, lava ledges etc)
- Nest building (extra bedding and sources of bedding material in the cage such and whole toilet rolls, boxed of tissues etc)
- Sleeping (comfy places to sleep such as boxes, igloos, hammocks etc)
Variety is the spice of life, so mix it up as much as you can so the rats are kept entertained by new and exciting things to explore, chew, forage
Use your imagination and as long as it’s safe for rats there's no reason why you shouldn't try it.
It's also a good idea to have an active cage layout in your cage at all times. You can change this weekly/fortnightly to keep your rats on their toes. Here are some examples. The more space filled with climbing things etc the better.
Article on Enricment for Rats - http://shunamiterats.co.uk/2017/08/08/enrichment-for-rats/
Pictures of Active Cage Layouts - http://www.stelmariarats.co.uk/active-cage-layouts-pictures.html
All Rats need regular handling and time out of the cage to be lovely sociable pets. You should never grab a rat by its tail unless it’s an emergency like the rat is trying to escape and might endanger itself. The preferred way to pick up rats is by grasping them around behind their front legs, supporting their body with your other hand. If you're gentle and kind with handling and interacting with your rats they will learn to trust you more easily.
When letting your rats out for the first few times I would recommend putting them down your fleece or jumper for first few days / weeks so they get used to you and see you as a safe place to run to when they get spooked. This can help enormously when trying to catch them later on, and helps them bond to you.
When letting them have a 'free range' out of the cage it's best to find an area they can run around in without the fear of getting lost down any small gaps and where they are not able to chew anything like wires as rats tend to find wires irresistible. I use my bed, i have found that unless there's something that they can jump on to next to the bed, they won’t risk jumping off the bed straight onto the floor as its too high, so they will happily run around on the bed and play. I put a thick blanket cover over the bed to protect it from pees and poops and some boxes and tubes on the bed for them to play in. Bathrooms are often used too as they tend not to have any wires and the floor is easily cleaned. A safe 'rat proofed' room can also work well.
Bribery with treats can also work wonders for taming down your rats, just don't feed them through the bars of the cage otherwise you'll get the rats into the bad habit of biting anything that comes through the bars of the cage.
Here we will cover the most common health problems, but first and foremost this is no substitute for going to a knowledgeable vet.
PLEASE BE AWARE OF THE RISKS OF ZOONOTIC DISEASES BEFORE YOU DECIDE TO TAKE ANY RATS ON AS PETS. THIS IS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT FOR THE ELDERLY, PREGNANT OR IMMUNO-COMPROMISED.
Rats can carry Hanta Virus, Leptosporosis, Rat Bite Fever & Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis which can be transferred to humans.
CLICK HERE FOR GOV.UK HYGIENE LEAFLET
They can also carry Parvovirus, Sendai Virus, and SDAV which can be transfered to existing rats or other pets, depending on the species.
(This is why quarantine from an unknown or disreputable source is reccomended)
Mites & Lice
Mites are invisible to the naked eye, you only tend to notice them when small scabs form around the rat's neck and ears. Easily treated with over the counter Ivermectin or Selamectin Based 'Spot On' treatments for small pets. Mites are endemic in the Rat population meaning that they all carry them, but only need treating if a flare up occurs, which is indicated by the small scabs discussed earlier. With mites only the rat with the flare up needs to be treated.
Lice are small reddish or whiteish bugs found in the fur and are easily treated in the same way as mites, however all rats that have been in contact with any rat with lice must be treated.
Contrary to popular advice, one treatment is enough to rid rats of both these parasites. Neither lice nor mites can survive very long off the host creature, so unless you are inclined, you don't need to boil or wash bedding etc.
Are very common and can be aggravated by dusty bedding, poor ventilation and excess ammonia in the cage if they are not cleaned regularly. Antibiotics are generally prescribed, sometimes a steroid for persistent or severe cases.
Are pus filled lumps usually originating from a scratch or wound, and can get huge if left untreated. Vets will prescribe an antibiotic and drain the abscess usually, it should be cleaned out daily with an antiseptic solution until healed. Draining can be extremely painful for the rat so unless you are very experienced seek veterinary attention and don't drain them yourselves.
Are lumps which usually have to be removed in surgery by a vet. When you have a rat with a tumour (most rats only develop tumours later in life) you have to weigh up the pros and cons of getting them operated on, consider the age of the rat and if the tumour is affecting normal behaviour. It may be prudent to spay females that develop mammary tumours at the same time as lump removal as they can be hormone driven.
If the rat is over 2 years old some people will want to leave the tumour alone as they are already fairly old and/or frail and operating wouldn't be fair on the rat. Best to let them live out their days in peace without the trauma of an operation. But if the rat is young and fit enough, and the tumour is affecting movement etc, then surgery should be considered to improve the life of the rat.
There are two exceptions to this:
Pituitary Gland Tumour - Which isn't visible to the naked eye as it is inside the brain, but usual symptoms include, ataxia, dizzyness, balance problems, head tilting or eye bulging, circling, aggression and eventual death. It is treatable, but its more a case of keeping the rat comfortable and pain free until the time comes for them to be euthanized.
Zymbal's Gland Tumour - Which usually present as an abscess near the ear or on the jaw line of the rat, these are always eventually fatal, so it's best to just give the rat a comfortable life free of pain until you feel they are ready to go, then have them euthanized.
If on maturation (at around 8-10 months of age) you have a male who is too aggressive to other rats or people, cannot be safely mixed with his cage mates, and is young enough to go through surgery, Castration is recommended as it will greatly improve the rats quality of life, Sperm dies after 10 days. Castrated males become docile and soft after a 'cooling down' period of 3-16 weeks depending on the individual and can then be safely mixed with their original group of boys or some girls without the fear of unwanted pregnancy.
Bleeding or pus discharge from the vagina of female rats. This is a serious condition that can be managed with antibiotics in some cases, but most need a spay to cure them of it. It is when the uterus becomes inflamed and infected and is fatal if left untreated. Seek veterinary attention straight away.
(c) Claire Louise Boddy 03/06/2013-17, Stelmaria Rattery.
THIS IS JUST A BASIC CARE GUIDE. HERE ARE SOME LINKS TO MORE IN DEPTH ARTICLES.
http://www.isamurats.co.uk/ - Jemma Fettes
http://www.shadowrat.com/rats/home.html - Ziggy Coxon
http://www.dapper.com.au/articles.htm - Robyn Arthur
http://shunamiterats.co.uk/ - Alison Campbell
http://www.nfrs.org/ - National Fancy Rat Society
Please can all our adopters, friends and boarders leave a review on our fb page, now that reviews are enabled on it please?! https://www.facebook.com/stelmariarats/
Please can all our adopters, friends and boarders leave a review on our fb page, now that reviews are enabled on it please?! https://www.facebook.com/stelmariarats/