I have owned several pet rats over the years and I often get asked if rats make good family pets. When we’re looking to welcome a new pet into the family it’s important to consider which traits we admire most in our animal companions. So, do rats make good pets?
Rats make for excellent pets for adults and young children. Pet rats bond closely with their owners and they enjoy being played with, they are far more affectionate than most people realize. Rats however require daily interaction and time out of their cage to keep them fit and healthy, mentally, and physically.
Pet rats make for wonderful pets, however, as with any pet, there is some really important information you should know before you go out and buy a pair of pet rats. Read on for more in-depth knowledge regarding the ins and outs of keeping rats as pets.
Lifestyle and Commitment When Owning a Pet Rat
Pet rats are fairly independent creatures but they still require care and attention. Being nocturnal, pet rats are likely to spend the day asleep while their caretakers are at school or work, often rousing themselves once their family comes home at the end of the day. This is a great thing about keeping pet rats: they’re likely going to augment their nap schedules to be able to spend more time with you.
Due to their small size, pet rats are also good for people who don’t have a lot of space to spare for a pet. It’s important to ensure due diligence is taken when selecting a cage for a pair of furry friends (safety and adequate space are key), but it’s much easier to find a cage with ample space for pet rats that can be placed in the living room than to make room for larger pets or those which require aquarium setups.
Though cage furniture such as wheels can prove noisy, this noise can’t compare to barking or the sounds of animals racing around upstairs. Due to this, pet rats are suitable for apartment living as they won’t bother your neighbors!
Unfortunately, pet rats are notorious chewers and are more than happy to test teeth on anything in their reach. Baseboards, sweaters, jeans, carpet, shoes, furniture…you name it, a rat will chew it. If rats are left to free roam, ensure that wires and other electronics have been properly safeguarded.
Remember, rats are flexible creatures that specialize in getting into impossible spaces, so take this job seriously. When placing the cage, make sure no curtains or laundry falls within reach, as a pet rat will gladly chew holes through these, too.
All pets require commitment, but that will vary from one pet to another depending on how congruent your lifestyle is to their needs. Many refer to rats as perfect starter pets, however, this can be misleading. It’s not because rats are particularly good pets for children or exceptionally low maintenance, but that, unfortunately, rats only tend to live 2 to 3 years.
Now, this can be positive for people looking for a short-term pet, but it also means we don’t get a lot of time with our cherished friends.
Despite their short lifespan, rats require much more attention than other small pets. If there’s no time to connect with your pet daily, then it’s a good idea to avoid adopting rats.
Affordability of Pet Rats
In comparison to pets such as cats and dogs, rats are considerably cheaper to adopt and maintain. Typically, the largest expense a new owner will incur is the price of the cage (and, yes, it is worth it). On a monthly basis, keeping rats will cost much less than other common household pets, averaging roughly $5 to $10 for bedding and food.
However, pet rats do require vet care and it’s encouraged to have female rats spayed to help prevent the growth of tumors (this is usually done before the rat reaches 1 year of age). Even still, these procedures are less expensive for a pet rat than a cat or dog.
On the other hand, pet rats are susceptible to upper respiratory infections that can be fatal. If your rat is showing signs of illness like coughing, wheezing, lethargic, cloudy eyes or you have noticed they are not showing interest in their food, toys or playing with their cage mates then you must seek veterinary attention immediately. The vet will prescribe a course of oral antibiotics for you to administer daily.
Vet bills can mount up so I would suggest setting aside $100 or $200 for emergency vet visits to be on the safe side.
Health and Wellness
Contrary to popular belief, pet rats are less inclined to introduce bacteria and pathogens into the household than cats or dogs! The rats we adopt today are bred to be healthier and more resilient than the wild variety and aren’t known for transmitting viruses and parasites. Additionally, pet rats are amongst the sturdiest of rodents available for adoption!
Pet rats are also fastidious creatures who spend more time a day grooming themselves than a cat. You can find out more about pet rats hygiene here in another article I wrote.
Preening their fur becomes a hobby, a daily ritual, to ensure no grime remains. Keeping tidy is very important to rats, so much so that social grooming is used to bond with other rats and even caretakers.
However, pet rats are well-known for one behavior in particular which can be frustrating or off-putting for some owner: marking. Rats deposit small droplets of urine which they use to make notes of their environment and communicate with fellow rats.
Pet rats will mark cage furniture, walking paths, their bed, your bed, the floor, each other, and even you. While some things can be done to reduce marking behaviors, nothing will remove this trait fully so it’s important to bear this in mind.
Rats Are Intelligent and Fun Pets
Rats are supremely intelligent creatures that are capable of understanding complex emotions. Despite their diminutive size, rats are brainy and easily just as clever (if not more) than your average dog! This intelligence makes them an easily trainable pet, and rats can learn many tricks as a result.
A few common tricks to teach a pet rat are to come when called, shake a paw, jump, and even fetch! Training rats, like most other animals, requires positive reinforcement. Pet rats are reasonably food-motivated individuals, so using bits of treats to reward them for a job well done will have them looking forward to performing their tricks.
Providing toys for pet rats is a necessary responsibility, and the type should vary to maximize their intrigue. Forage boxes or balls can help a rat earn their food through a fun game.
Multi-level cages that include (safe) climbing opportunities are another way to enhance a rat’s home. Not only do these activities provide valuable exercise for their brain, but also their bodies, keeping pet rats lean and limber for longer!
However, pet rats need a lot of mental stimulation and can get bored very easily as a result of their superior intelligence. It’s also possible for pet rats to outsmart their caretakers. Trying to stay one step ahead of a creature who always seems to think outside the box can be challenging or downright frustrating to some.
Rats are Friendly and Social Pets
The pet rats we bring home today have not only been bred to be healthier, but friendlier and tamer, too. Pet rats are naturally curious, outgoing creatures. Once they’ve established a home base (their cage), they take to exploration with glee, learning about the world through up-close interactions.
Being as social as they are, rats make friends easily and are open to forming new friendships whenever possible. Pet rats are sweet, lovable companions whose naturally observant nature makes it easier for them to tune into their owners’ moods. This is a characteristic backed by science; studies have found that rats exhibit empathy for their kin. A rat would rather go without treats if it meant a cagemate didn’t have to undergo something unpleasant.
The combination of gentle understanding and a genuine pursuit of fellowship means this small rodent holds themselves accountable for their actions. This trait is much appreciated as it means our furry friends are less inclined to bite as other small pets such as hamsters.
It’s often said that no two rats are the same, and there’s no better place to observe this fact than in the personality department. Diverse dispositions span across the species and make getting to know these small rodents particularly intriguing. While one rat may be bombastic and assertive, the next may hesitate and evaluate, preferring to keep to the sidelines.
Pet rats are also known for having a rambunctious side. It’s common to see cagemates wrestling and tussling around to exert their dominance. The goal of these shenanigans is to pin their opponent, thereby winning the match. The loser will be (comically) groomed by the winner. Don’t be alarmed if short, small squeaks emanate from their tomfoolery, pet rats can be quite vocal when they’re excited and playful!
However, if you planned to only adopt one rat, think again. Pet rats have very high social requirements and must have a partner at all times. If this warning goes unheard, expect to witness a depressed, lethargic, and unhealthy pet. Reputable adoption shelters and breeders won’t allow a rat to be adopted into a home where they will remain alone.
Same-sex pairs, or groups, are the safest bet. Rats are capable of generating a lot of offspring in a short amount of time, so be sure to properly identify the gender of the pair before agreeing to make them cagemates. Most pet rat owners would agree that female rats are more playful and energetic, whereas the males are more cuddly and relaxed.
Another important consideration is where to go to adopt pet rats. It’s a general rule to avoid pet shops, as they often receive their animals through dubious methods, and numerous health problems are sure to follow. It’s also not uncommon to purchase rats from a pet store only to find that they weren’t separated before sexual maturity set in and that pregnancy has occurred.
Different Rat Breeds to Own as a Pet
The most common species of rat kept as a pet is known as the fancy rat (Rattus norvegicus domestica), originally domesticated from the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). The name originates from the concept of animal fancy and began to take root in 18th and 19th century Europe.
Pet rats come in a wide array of coat colors, patterns, and markings, resulting from generations of selective breeding. As such, there is no differentiation in the breed as there’s no such thing as individual breeds of rats; fancy rats are a subspecies.
Instead, characterization is left to what can be perceived visually of the rat in question. Color, coat type, markings, and body type are all basic considerations when describing a rat. Eye color may also be referenced when noting visual specifics.
The original, wild brown rats sported an agouti coloring, meaning each strand of hair had three tones. Agouti coloring can still be found in fancy rat populations today, but there are also solid colorations that originated from black rat traits. There are many coat colors available, and can range anywhere from cinnamon to lilac!
Normal, or standard, is the most common coat type found in pet rats, with a close second being the rex; a distinct curliness is found in the body fur and whiskers. Velveteen is a particularly soft variation of rex. Satin, or silk, varieties have supremely soft, fine fur. Harley is a coat type defined by long, straight hairs.
Finally, there’s the hairless variety, which is not ideal as a pet due to their distinctively poor health and a myriad of genetic issues.
Patterns have emerged in coat colors and can help identify different rats. When participating in fancy rat pet shows, markings have specific terminology and rating scales, however, our pet rat varieties are rarely bred to these standards.
The most common marking types are:
- Irish (or English Irish)
- Dalmation (or Spotted)
The Manx rat gets its’ namesake from the Manx cat, as both animals are tailless due to a genetic mutation (though not necessarily the same mutation).
The Dumbo rat has characteristically large, round ears that tend to droop to either side of the rat’s head.
For the uninitiated, this is a lot of information to digest in a single sitting. Let’s organize and briefly review what’s been discussed above.
Pros of Pet Rats
- Quieter than other pets
- Less known to bring disease and pathogens into the home than cats or dogs
- Maintains high levels of personal hygiene
- Able to learn a multitude of tricks
- Natural social butterflies
- Friendlier and more outgoing than other small pets
- Loyal and caring of their cagemates and caretakers
- Each rat has a distinct personality
Cons of Pet Rats
- Short lifespan
- Excessive chewers
- Require more attention than other small pets
- May develop health issues like an upper respiratory infection
- Marking behaviors are nearly unavoidable
- Require high amounts of mental stimulation
- Must be adopted in groups no smaller than two
Rats make wonderful pets for those who accommodate their needs and enjoy the friendship they offer. A quick-witted, loyal, loving companion that will be a cherished friend by your side, though only for a few meager years.
Pet rats display their kind hearts to the world and can teach us much about compassion and camaraderie. Their popularity has continued to grow and it’s likely due to this that rats have been able to redeem themselves.
Years of ignorance and skepticism has left the rat’s reputation tarnished, unfairly so. The rats we welcome into our homes today are as different from their wild ancestors as a house cat is to a lion. Generations of selective breeding have given us the gentler, friendlier temperaments with the additional benefit of reducing their ability to spread disease.
Thanks to this selective breeding, pet rats have emerged with all new coat colors and markings to add visual interest and variety to the species.
If you’re looking for a pet, a rat could brighten the home and bring some warmth into your heart. With each passing day, pet rats grow closer and closer to their caretakers and form stable, unbreakable bonds with those whom they love.
Can you litter train a pet rat? Yes, pet rats are fairly easy to litter train because they will typically choose a specific area in their cage to use as an elimination area. Putting a litter box atop this spot and tossing in some soiled bedding or droppings will help encourage pet rats to use the litter box as a designated toilet space.
Why do pet rats lick their owners? Pet rats will sometimes lick their caretakers as a method of showing affection! Grooming is a social behavior and rats take great joy in tidying up their cagemates and extending this care to their owners.
Do rats get along with other household pets? While most pets learn to get along nicely once they’ve been properly introduced, pet rats wouldn’t be the best suggestion for homes with other pets, such as cats or dogs, as they do best amongst other rats.