Posted: August 30, 2014, 1:55 a.m. EDT
No, they don’t have ruffles, buttons or bows. The Fancy rat (Rattus norvigicus) comes with the same nose, tail and toes as his wild cousin (Rattus rattus). However, they are as far removed as a poodle is from a wolf. The Norway rat, the species that has been domesticated, was probably kept as a pet about the time man began farming.
With food so easily available, it was inevitable someone would catch and keep a rat as a pet and, voilà, man’s love/hate relationship with the rat began. This first pet probably had brown fur streaked with gray. As mutations, which are common, were discovered, they too were kept and bred. Continued breeding of these mutations led to the "designer” rats of today.
1. How long do rats live?
Rats usually have a life span of two to three years. To me, this is the only drawback of rat ownership. I have had people tell me their rat lived to be 4 or 5, but I haven’t experienced that myself. There are 10 days to a rat year, making your 2-year-old rat 73 in people years.
2. Can my rat live alone?
The cost will be the same for two as for one, so please keep your new best friends in same-sex pairs. Rats are intelligent, and they are social. Rats like to hang out with other rats, and you get twice the fun.
You may be able to give your fuzzy friends a couple hours of playtime during your waking hours, but the long, dark night can be a lonely time if one little rat has to live alone.
3. What do I need to get started?
Before you bring your new rats home, have their habitat prepared. Don’t ever worry about getting a cage that is too big. Except for the supervised playtime with you, your pets spend most of their lives in their house (to you it’s a cage; to them it is their house). You can make it as elaborate as you want, but at least have the basics.
I prefer powder-coated wire over galvanized; powder-coated will not corrode. Rats get more exercise climbing and exploring all the corners, and a cage allows you to hang things like parrot toys and a rattie hammock (your rat’s favorite place to sleep with his buddy). Wire cages should have solid shelves because walking on wire shelves can cause a painful condition called "bumble foot.” Wire shelves may also lead to broken ankles if your buddy catches his back foot in them.
Many people use large aquariums, but I find them harder to handle on cage-cleaning day. Also, the glass doesn’t allow for climbing, wheels or hammocks. If you decide on an aquarium, get a tight cover. A rat is a born escape artist, so have a method to hold the lid tightly without blocking the fresh air. On a hot day, a rattie could die of heat stroke in a glass or plastic aquarium.
You need nontoxic, no-dust bedding. There are several good paper or aspen products available. Softwoods that haven’t been heat-treated contain a chemical called phenol, which can lead to respiratory infections and possible liver damage.
Find a water bottle large enough for a several days’ supply and a good rodent lab-block. Rodent blocks or "rat chow” are a complete balanced diet. Make them available to your pets at all times. A wire feeder allows your pets to free-feed and the blocks will stay clean. Limit treats to fresh or dried fruits, green vegetables and low-sugar cereals. Rats love plain, cooked pasta. They also love nuts, but too much oil from these will lead to obesity and can cause skin problems.
Get a good rat care reference book (there are several available). Choose your vet as you would choose your own doctor. Not all vets are qualified to work with small rodents. You can ask who your hobby breeder uses. Have a vet chosen before an emergency arises.
4. Do rats come in different shapes and colors?
If you are interested in "designer” rats, get ready for a rainbow. You can find Seal Point and Blue Point Siamese, Blue and Russian Blue, Champagne, Beige, Fawn, Platinum, Berkshire, Blazed, Dalmatian, Chocolate, Dove, and Lilac (to name just a few).
Body types include Standard (the rat you are most familiar with), Dumbo (with large, low-set ears), Rex (very curly to velvety), Tailless and even Hairless. (Check website references for pictures.) Some first-time rat owners insist on a unique color or body type, but the seasoned owner knows all rats are special!
5. How do I choose a rat?
If you have a choice of several, watch them interact with each other. You want one that comes to you. If babies have been well-socialized by the breeder, the natural curiosity of the animal will prevail, and your hand will get a thorough "sniff investigation.” The babies may even try to climb your arm to get a better look at their potential new human. Let your ratties choose you.
•Check that their coats all look shiny and even. You don’t want to see excessive scratching or scabs; this could mean mites.
•Look for pink mucus around their eyes and nose. This is not blood; it is porphyrin (a protein-based pigment). If a rat has runny eyes or a runny nose, the mucus turns pink and resembles blood. It is not blood, but it is the sign of a respiratory problem.
•Are they all active and running around the cage? This is what baby rats do. If you see a ratlett lagging behind or notice labored breathing, there may be a respiratory problem in the colony.
6. Should I get boys or girls?
All right, you know you want rats, you probably have a color preference, and you know you want at least two. Now, do you want boys or girls?
Males will grow to be larger, sometimes up to 2 pounds. Their fur will become coarser as they go through puberty. After the initial "puppy stage,” an adult male usually makes the best lap rat. A male will usually be more laid back and content to watch TV with you as you scratch behind his ears.
If you want a perpetual motion machine, get a female. While Robert usually remains in "neutral” most of the time, Roberta is always on "fast forward.” Females give "Girls just wanna have fun” a whole new meaning. Girls inspect and explore; they love to steal and hide stuff. Keep Roberta’s running shoes handy. Maybe that’s how she keeps her petite 1-pound figure.
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Rats enjoy interacting with people, and many will try to "groom" owners or happily perch on a shoulder.
7. How often should I clean the cage?
Your nose knows. The size of your cage and the number of rats you have will determine how often you clean. For two rats, once a week is usually sufficient if your cage is large enough.
An aquarium will need cleaning more often. A powder-coated cage washes easily with a spray cleaner. Avoid abrasive cleansers. Be certain you rinse thoroughly because your rattie will sniff and sample every new smell. Use new bedding, a new cardboard hiding box and a clean hammock. Never allow ammonia to develop because it damages their lungs. If you can smell ammonia, you have waited too long.
Because they live in the bedding, keep it clean. Daily cleaning of the solid shelves will keep them free of urine or leftover food. If you keep their home tidy, your furballs will never have an odor. Please remember that your rats can’t clean their own cages. They can only be as clean as you allow them to be.
8. Should I give my rat a bath?
I can’t say this often enough: Rats are very clean animals and bathe themselves and each other at least seven times a day. They bathe during and after playtime. If they don’t do a good job cleaning their tail, you can use a little hand lotion on the tail and gently wipe the lotion off with a soft terry towel. Usually your rat will finish the job by licking, so don’t use perfumed lotions.
There might be an occasion when your rat needs a water bath, but it would be very rare. If you must, use a mild baby shampoo, and don’t let your critter catch a chill. Gently hand dry in a large terry towel. Don’t use a hairdryer — the hot setting is too hot and the cool too cold for their sensitive skin.
9. What is that grinding thing rats do with their teeth?
Rats don’t usually make noises. They don’t bark, meow or purr, but when rats are truly contented, they brux. Bruxing is a little grinding sound and motion they do with their teeth when they are happy. It would be like your cat purring. Sometimes they do it while you are holding them, sometimes when they are being groomed, and sometimes just lying in their hammock looking out at you. Once in a while as they brux, their eyes make a "popping” motion. This is normal.
10. Do rats bite?
Even when frightened, rats do not commonly bite. First line of defense for a frightened rat is to hide. They also tend to dribble and poop when frightened. Your rats do not have good eyesight, so expect them to examine your fingers for treats every time you put your hand in their house. If you have just finished something good and haven’t washed your hands, your buddies will probably try to lick your fingers clean for you. Don’t mistake a taste or nibble for a bite.
If you have a pregnant female or nursing mother, it is not unusual for her to give what we call a "tooth” warning. Because your rats can’t talk, if you become annoying, and your rat cannot hide from you — and you persist — your rat may set her teeth on you, but not press down. This is your animal’s way of saying, "You really need to stop that. If you persist, the next time I might not be so nice about it.”
Your rats can’t call you when they need you, so if your rat is hurt or caught someplace, you may hear a squeal or screech in proportion to the amount of pain he is in. If your rat is in serious pain, you may get a nip as you try to extricate him from his entanglement, but this is not common.
If you are kind to your rat buddies, you will never feel the pangs of fangs. If you have a male that has only become aggressive as he enters adolescence, neutering usually does the trick, and he becomes a "good citizen” once again.
11. Why would anyone want to go to a rat show?
The competition of the show teaches good sportsmanship to children and adults alike. There are special youth classes for children. The shows can be a valuable learning tool that prepares youngsters for the competition of life in general. Think of it as an FFA or 4H for city kids. Many people would love to show dogs or cats but just don’t have the money or the room that larger animals require. The rat does not require a large area and yet is available in many colors and types.
12. Are rats smart?
Rats are of equal intelligence with dogs and need stimulation. You will be their favorite toy, but when you aren’t there, they need boxes for hiding and shredding, wheels for running, tubes for hide-and-seek, rope to climb, a hammock to sleep in and ladders to reach the uppermost corner of the cage.
Change the toys occasionally. The hardware store has large PVC pipe pieces that can be used for rat mazes. Yard sales are a cheap source of wonderful toys. Be sure you pick items that are nontoxic. Without toys, your rat will become bored. You can rotate toys each time you clean the cage. However, if you have females, always provide a large wheel.
13. Do rats get sick?
Rats are adaptable, but they are not hearty animals. High temperatures will cause heat stroke because ratties cannot sweat. Cold temperatures or ammonia from a dirty cage can cause respiratory problems. Pink or red staining around the eyes and nose is not a sign of bleeding; it means your rat has a runny nose. If your rat is sneezing, wheezing, showing signs of labored breathing or poor appetite, not drinking, losing weight and looking lethargic, he probably has a lung problem. Take a trip to the vet as soon as possible at any indication of illness.
Females become more prone to mammary tumors as they age; these tumors are extremely rare among males. Spaying is said to prevent mammary tumors in females, but that is major surgery for your little girl. It is expensive and painful, and we lack solid evidence that spaying actually works. I personally prefer to have a tumor removed if one actually occurs.
If your buddies are scratching themselves to the point of scabs, it may mean their diet needs adjusting. Your rats do not need sugars, dairy, too much protein or fats.
If it is not diet, it may mean your ratties have mites. Again, check with your vet or breeder for medication. These mites will not live on humans and are easily treated. If you practice good rattie hygiene, provide rattie health food, don’t keep the room too cold or too hot, you should have healthy roommates.
14. What if my rats fight?
If you get rats from the same litter, you’ll probably never have a problem. But just as all siblings have occasional disagreements, your rats may argue over who gets the biggest piece of cracker.
You may hear a squeak if one gets a little enthusiastic while grooming the other. Again, on the rare occasion an adolescent male gets a little aggressive, neuter! Young males recover quickly, and the fighting stops. There may be infrequent jockeying for alpha status, but they seem to work things out without mishap.
Don’t mistake normal playful behavior of young rats for fighting. They will wrestle, tumble, hop and chase each other endlessly. Then, they will all fall in a soft heap to sleep.
15. Can I teach my rats tricks?
Rats love to play, and play is part of the training process. Several natural behaviors can be reinforced. Rats have an attention span of about 10 seconds, so don’t insist on too much progress in one training session. Keep the sessions short to avoid frustration for both you and your pets, and keep the rewards tiny (rats have small tummies and fill up quickly).
Your rats will come when called. Use their name as you give them a treat to reinforce name recognition. There are several good books that can help you in the training process. Please, do not put your rat in a hamster ball. The rat will overheat and does not like being confined.
This article originally appeared in the 2004 issue of Critters USA magazine.
Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
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