17 Things You Should Know Before Owning Rats

Rats have a pretty poor reputation, leading to many people misunderstanding these creatures. However, this has begun to change and more and more people are accepting of keeping domesticated rats as pets. What things should you know before owning rats, and will these little rodents be a good pet for your home?

For starters, they’re much smaller than most other pets and are less inclined to make a ton of noise, leading them to be a popular consideration for those living in apartments. Pet rats are incredibly smart and affectionate and can learn many tricks, making them interesting to spend time around. Finally, rats form deep bonds with their cagemates and owners, meaning love and affection goes both ways in this relationship!

There’s a lot to discover before deciding to adopt a pair of rats, so read on for more considerations and information regarding these sweet, little rodents.

Purchase Your Rats From Breeders

You should be cautious about purchasing rats from pet shops. It’s an unfortunate fact that many pet shops get their rats from less-than-stellar sources and they are normally bred in rodent farms.

Rodent farms breed rats in pretty poor conditions and mothers tend not to get any break between litters which leads to stress and exhaustion. There is a lack of human interaction, healthy food, or enrichment for the rats. These breeding conditions can mean health or genetic issues, or other unwanted problems on top of the poor welfare for the animals.

Reputable breeders focus on the health of their animals and will handle the rats from the time they’re born to the time they’re adopted, meaning these rats will be very social and more comfortable around humans. These breeders take care of nurturing their rats and will be able to provide a plethora of information to the new rat owner.

Many animal shelters have adoptable rats, too, and many locations will already have bonded pairs of rats ready to go to a new home. Animal shelters usually neuter their rats to prevent them from breeding, so this could be a good place to search for rats who have already been fixed!

Always Adopt Rats in Pairs or Groups

Rats should never be kept alone as they require the company of their kind to keep them happy and healthy. A lone rat is much more likely to be lethargic and sick. With a pair, both rats will be able to live their lives to the fullest. For more information on why rats need to live in pairs or groups follow this link.

Same-sex pairs are advised when keeping rats to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.

In fact, a good way to check whether or not a pet shop or adoption center is committed to proper animal care is to see what their policy is for adopting rats. If the shop in question allows single rats to be adopted to live alone, it’s a good idea to avoid adopting pet rats from them!

The Differences Between Male and Female Rats

There are differences between males and females that affect their behavior. In general, females are smaller and more energetic, while males are a bit larger and more cuddly. Males also tend to smell slightly muskier, and females (if left intact) will go into heat every four or five days.

It’s possible to spay or neuter pet rats. This procedure has many health and behavioral benefits (lower chance of getting tumors, less unwanted hormonal behavior), and should be considered for those wishing to bring rats into their home.

Can You Litter Training Your Rat

Pet rats can be litter trained quite easily! Rats will typically elect to use one small area of their cage for bathroom business. Placing a litterbox over this area and tossing in some soiled bedding should be enough of a hint to get the rat to use their new litterbox.

Ensure the bedding substrate in the rest of the cage is different than that of the litterbox, otherwise, this could cause some confusion. However, steer clear of using cat litter or other clumping clay litters as these can cause severe respiratory illnesses amongst rats. Pellet bedding is one of the best options for litter tray usage because it’s able to absorb a lot and help reduce bad odors.

If you witness your rat using the litterbox, reward them with a treat! Positive reinforcement is the key to training rats!

Rats Are Extremely Intelligent

Despite their diminutive size, rats are natural students and are capable of learning just as much as most dogs! Rats have exceptional mental faculties, allowing them to comprehend complex emotions and figure out difficult puzzles. The African Giant Pouched rat is used to detect landmines in Cambodia and they are helping to save lives.

As such, there’s a wide array of tricks one can teach a rat, such as:

  • How to recognize their name
  • Come when called
  • Stand up, tall and straight
  • Shake a paw
  • Clap their paws together
  • Spin around in a circle

While rats learn these tricks differently and certainly don’t train the same way as a dog, rats are still able to boast a fairly large trick repertoire! In time, it’s possible that a rat could learn to do a relay course, so it’s important not to underestimate what a rat can comprehend!

If you are interested in seeing how intelligent rats are why not read our latest article with 14 videos funny videos?

Pet Rats will Scent Mark (pee)

A behavior where the rat deposits small droplets of urine around their environment; also known as marking. Rats mark everything from their bed to their food and even each other! While this behavior can be reduced, it will never disappear, so it’s a good idea to come to terms with it before adopting a pair of rats!

It’s important to understand that this trait doesn’t mean rats are dirty or that they will smell a lot. Due to their own diligence, rats have great hygiene, but they have to rely on us to clean their cage. Unpleasant smells will be kept at bay so long as the caretaker is responsible.

For a deeper explanation and understanding of why rats scent mark head over to our detailed post here.

Rats Playfighting Is Normal

Being as playful as they are, it’s not uncommon to see rats playfight with their cagemates. Playfighting is used to show acts of dominance within their social hierarchy and also playing.

Once you’ve become accustomed to how this looks, it will likely be less shocking than the first time. Rats can be pretty convincing to the untrained eye, so it’s easy to mistake a playfight as something more nefarious or dangerous. If there’s no blood then there’s no foul.

Here are my rats Rocky tackling Moet to the ground as they free-roam, they love to chase each other around and roll all over the floor, it’s actually quite entertaining to watch.

If you are concerned with your rats fighting please read our article titled Are They Fighting Or Playing? Understanding Pet Rats

Rats Are Nocturnal

Pet rats are naturally nocturnal animals, meaning they will be asleep most of the day when their owners are away. Luckily for us, rats quickly learn when we’re available to give them attention, and they’ll gladly set their alarms to be awake when their owners come home.

Rats are more prone to sleeping in four-hour increments, before getting up to eat, play, and use the bathroom, but this is likely to change depending on what activities are normal for your household.

Rats Are Clean Animals

Despite a misleading reputation that indicates dirtiness, rats are actually very clean! Pet rats take personal hygiene seriously, spending more time per day grooming themselves than common house cats! Grooming is so essential that it’s even a social behavior; groups of rats (also known as a mischief of rats) will groom one another as a bonding exercise.

Rats also bring fewer bacteria into the home than a regular cat or dog and are less likely to transmit viruses and parasites to us. This is due to generations of focused breeding to improve the health of rats!

Rat Have a Relatively Short Lifespan and Medical Needs

Unfortunately, rats don’t have a very long time to spend with us. A healthy rat will only be able to achieve 2 to 3 years before passing on. During this time, it’s likely for rats to come down with colds or other illnesses, so it’s necessary to also have a vet in mind when bringing home pet rats.

While rats don’t require vaccinations, it’s still important to take them to the vet for a checkup once a year. As rats age, they should be seeing the vet twice a year to keep their health in line.

Vets will check the feces of the rat for any parasites and will be able to provide information and help to decide whether or not to neuter the rat.

Cage Requirements – Rats Need Space

Although they are small, pet rats still need a decent place to call home. Each rat should be allotted about 2.5 cubic feet of space, you can use this cage calculator here from the fancyratforum. A metal cage is the most common option as it’s easy to clean and provides plenty of ventilation for the pet rats. Horizontal bars will also make it easier for your rats to climb.

Aquariums have been used before, but it’s much harder to ensure the appropriate amount of airflow is being exchanged so must be avoided at all cost.

It’s also important that the cage is chew-proof and escape-proof and that the bars aren’t too far apart that a rat could get their curious head stuck. Wire floors should be avoided as rats may scrape their feet or develop sore spots known as Bumblefoot.

Any cage intended for rats will need to be tall with plenty of levels to allow your rats to climb and explore, sleeping dens and/or hammocks and plenty of safe toys. Avoid things that could cause injury, such as wire exercise wheels, as these spell doom for delicate rat tails and their feet. Always get a solid base wheel at least 11inch in diameter.

It’s important to clean the cage weekly to prevent any buildup of soiled bedding or nasty smells. Warm water and dish soap work well to loosen up debris before rinsing everything with plain white vinegar and water.

Avoid Cedar and Pine Bedding

Ignore the majority of the bedding found on pet store shelves. Cedar and pine, although common bedding materials, are toxic to rats and will cause a slew of respiratory issues, skin sensitivity problems, and more.

Instead, aspen bedding is a safer alternative, and using Timothy hay as nesting material is safe and enjoyable for the pet rats.

Rats Love to Chew

It’s possible for the front teeth of a rat to grow up to 5 inches every year! Needless to say, the rat must do something to maintain their dental health: chew.

Pet rats will gnaw on just about anything that makes their teeth feel good, so it’s important to consider what’s in their reach! Be sure to provide toys and safe cage furniture that will enable the rats to look after their teeth – watch out for edible pet homes, these tend to contain alfalfa which your rat can’t digest.

Pet Rats Require Mental Stimulation and Social Interaction

Being as brainy as they are, it’s no wonder rats require a lot to keep them entertained! A rat must have access to playthings throughout their day. Sprinkling food across their cage is a good way to encourage their natural instinct to forage. Rats are also very fond of tunnels and other furniture that allows them a place to hide and snooze.

Teaching pet rats tricks is another way to exercise their minds, and will help to form a bond between rat and owner, too!

Security and Personal Time

Nobody likes being bothered all the time or being stuck in the middle of the rush, so be sure that there’s someplace for your pet rats to relax. Providing sleeping dens is one thing, but ensure the cage hasn’t been placed in a drafty location or right next to the heater. The cage should be kept up off the floor, as well.

Rat Tears Are Red?

Many rat owners can recall the first time they thought they saw their rat crying blood. Talk about stressful!

Luckily, this isn’t blood, it’s a substance called porphyrin. There’s a gland behind the eyes in rats called the Harderian gland, and this is what secretes the red substance. During times of stress, more porphyrin is secreted and causes the red or pink buildup in a rats’ eyes.

Typically, this substance is groomed away regularly, and we are none the wiser. However, an anxious or stressed rat won’t groom themselves as effectively, resulting in a noticeable buildup of red around the eyes and nose. This could be a sign of an infection or some other health issue, you should consider consulting a veterinarian if you have noticed a change in their behavior.

Rats Can’t Vomit

You read that correctly, rats are unable to vomit. Whether their stomach muscles lack the strength to expel its contents or the neural communication in the brainstem lacks the necessary complexity to coordinate such a task, rats are entirely unable to vomit.

However, leave it to these intelligent creatures to figure out a way of processing toxins once they’ve been ingested. Rats can consume bits of clay that, once in their digestive system, will bind to the toxins and be excreted normally, thus allowing the save passage of toxins through a rats’ system!


There’s a lot to know about rats that isn’t common knowledge. Pet rats are quirky critters with distinct personalities, and they deserve to be understood just as our cats and dogs have been. Rats make wonderful pets, are fairly easy to care for, inexpensive, clean, and they are known for being quite affectionate once they’ve warmed up to their owners!

Rats are creatures, turned pets, that can teach us a lot. From particular social interactions to multiplex emotional comprehension, pet rats are just as curious about us as we are about them.

Darren Black

I'm Darren Black, the owner, and author of AnimalKnowhow.com. I am from Scotland, United Kingdom and passionate about sharing useful information and tips about properly caring for an animal's wellbeing.

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