Posted: September 13, 2010, 1:40 p.m. EDT
Q: I am the caretaker of a lone 2½-year-old, intact male rat. His brother/cagemate passed away last month. As much as I try to spend time with Barnaby, I know that I can’t come close to providing the kind of comfort and companionship that another rat would give him.
Initially, I didn’t intend to take in any more rats after Barnaby and his brother. If Barnaby were very old, I would not consider adopting a friend for him, just to keep him company during what would probably be the short remainder of his life. However, at 2½, Barnaby has been healthy as a horse, until recently. A couple of months ago, he and his brother had a spat, and the vet and I concluded that Barny must have had a bad fall from the upper level of his cage, because his back legs had suddenly become completely useless. This was not your normal gradual hind leg paralysis that we see in rats. With steroid treatment, Barnaby has been able to walk again, not quite as well as he used to, but well enough to still get into all kinds of mischief. During the time he was struggling with hindleg function, he put on a lot of weight. Now that his back legs are mostly working though, he still doesn’t get much exercise, and I think much of this is to do with not having another rat around to keep him busy.
Bearing in mind that Barnaby is 2½, was never neutered, and doesn’t get around nearly as well as he did in his youth, would you still recommend finding a friend for him? And if so, should I be looking for a younger rat or an older one? I would assume that it’s best to get a boy, but should he be neutered or intact? I think I have read somewhere that it is easier to introduce young rats to older males, but then I worry that a younger rat would outlive Barnaby by quite a long time, and I’d be in the same situation all over again with having a single rattie. I suppose I could live with taking in another pair, in fact part of me would like to very much. Would two young rats be too much for old Barnaby?
I’m feeling bad for my little guy. He’s never been the most social creature, his brother was always the little lap rat. But I can tell he’s lonely. What would you do in this situation?
A: I don't envy your situation with Barnaby. It can be very difficult to decide what's best for our elderly furry friends. If Barnaby was a completely healthy 2½-year-old, male rat, I would suggest that you try pairing him with two very young male rats. This situation offers the youngsters a play companion but still gives the older rat some company. But in this case I'm concerned that the little ones might be a bit too much for Barnaby, and rather than being good companions they could easily turn into little food thieves that would deprive him of much-needed nutrition.
Take this time with Barnaby and give him all the love you can possibly shower on him. Even if he's not the snuggly type, make sure he's offered plenty of human companionship. Bring his cage out to a family area so there's more activity around him — a moderate amount of activity and mental stimulation will be good for him. Give him lots of extra, healthy treats (a little chubbyness at his age is OK), and change out his cage toys so he has new things to explore. And extra bedding, sleeping places and hammocks will help his aging body sleep more comfortably.
With all of this additional attention, you may be surprised to see that Barnaby begins looking forward to it and becomes far more affectionate in return.
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