Rats aren’t the longest lived of animals and sometimes, for whatever reason, a new mom will pass away, and you will be left to care for her orphaned babies. The good news is that you can care for them as long as you know how, and our guide will teach you everything you need to do just that.
How To Care For Orphaned Baby Rats: The Essential Guide includes a quick guide to baby rats, how to handle very young rats (hint: fostering) and how to make fostering work, how to feed older rats and how to mix their feed and then how to wean orphaned rats onto solid food. Finally, we finish with a few tips on how to take care of wild orphaned rats.
About Baby Rats
Rat babies are extremely cute and at a very young age, they’re not all that rat-like. Ignoring the tail, they are about an inch and a half long when they are born, and they have no hair and are completely pink. They are also born blind and deaf with both their eyes and ears sealed.
They quickly darken up over the next week or so and grow some fuzz. By the end of the second week, they open their eyes and ears and start to see the world around them.
It takes until the third week before the fuzz turns into actual fluffy hair. By the fourth, the hair starts to flatten and from then on in – they don’t really alter their appearance very much, but they are still growing.
Baby rats are also a bit like human babies in that they can be somewhat mal-coordinated for the first few weeks of life, this is because their nervous systems will still need to develop somewhat to be fully formed. This changes at around the 3-4 week mark when the nervous system is rounded out.
What To Do With Orphaned Rats Under A Week Old?
You will know if a rat is under a week old because it won’t have any hair on its body and will still be somewhat pink. It’s not impossible to raise an orphaned newborn by hand but we wouldn’t bet on its survival at this stage.
Human beings don’t make great surrogate moms for the littlest of rats and it’s really best if you can find another rat to take over the job of nursing until the rat is a little bit better grown.
Fortunately, rats are very generous about their wet nursing capabilities and they are normally quite happy to foster an orphan as long as that orphan is roughly the same age as their own babies.
This is why most reputable breeders will try and keep two rats on the same cycle of pregnancy – so that if one of them perishes, the other can take over and look after the other’s litter.
If you don’t have a foster mom on hand the only easy way to get one is usually from a “feeder breeder” which sadly means that it will come with its own problems and will be less socialized than most rats are.
How To Make Fostering Work
Once you have located a foster mom, then you need to get her to accept the new baby. There’s a bit of an art to this – you remove mom from her cage and leave her babies in the cage.
Then you add the new baby to the pile of her babies and let them all rub up against each other for a bit. This allows the new baby to pick up the scent of both the mother and the other babies so that it smells like one of the family when mom returns.
If you have a foster mom that you’re going to use that doesn’t have her own babies anymore for any reason, you can take some of her bedding and rub it on your orphan(s). This again helps them to feel like the babies are their offspring rather than a stranger’s.
If you keep them all together in a small cage – you can help to promote the bonding process. Soon, with a bit of luck, mom will be nursing the orphan(s) like her own babies and, in fact, in her mind – they probably are her own babies.
The Three Key Criteria For Raising Orphaned Rats
Sometimes though, you’re just not going to be able to procure a foster mom and when that happens – all you can do is try and raise the babies by hand. You should be prepared for disappointment here because even with your best efforts, it’s possible that some of your orphans won’t make it and that won’t be your fault.
There are three key criteria for keeping baby rats alive and they are warmth, hygiene and food. The first two are reasonably simple to achieve. It’s the feeding process that makes things a bit more complex.
Warmth: How To Keep Your Babies Warm
You should take the orphaned rat and make them a little home. We’ve found that the best way to do this is take a small cardboard box (with high sides – rats can climb even as babies and they can climb well) and place a layer of fleece (or other fabric free of any threads that might get caught on the baby) in the bottom.
Then lay the baby in it. You want to use a cover for the box (but with airholes) and then place a weight on the cover to prevent your baby rat from accidentally mounting an escape.
A baby without fur (and that won’t arrive until week 3, remember) will be cold and it will need an external heat source. We found that a heating pad can be very good, but you must ensure that it won’t automatically switch off after x-period of time, that could kill the baby.
You can also use a light bulb or as a last result, a hot water bottle (or other warm product like the microwave bags) but you need to make sure these aren’t too hot when you put them into use and that you come back and check on them so that they don’t end up going cold.
Heat pads, hot water bottles and light bulbs can accidentally cook a baby if you don’t use them carefully. This is especially true of light bulbs.
Your objective is to keep the temperature between 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 102 degrees Fahrenheit pretty much constantly. Too much higher or lower and the temperature can kill. So, keep a thermometer in the box next to the baby.
Hygiene: How To Keep Your Rats Clean
One thing you might not know about baby rats is that they can’t poop or urinate without a little help. This is normally provided by their mom licking around their genitals and backside – she then ingests their waste and the nest doesn’t become unhygienic.
So, you will need to stimulate your baby rat every time that you want to feed them. They should always urinate, though pooping is optional to some extent – if the baby isn’t pooping once every 3 feeds, something is wrong.
You do this with a piece of toilet paper which you basically stroke across the area as the mother might lick them. This needs to be done for about 30-40 seconds after each meal.
If you don’t do this – they’re going to die, and it won’t be a pleasant way to go. They’ll basically poison themselves to death.
The poop will be yellow and very soft.
You also need to give them a very gentle massage to stimulate the mother’s licking their coat – which aids digestion and also stimulates their circulation.
Sometimes an orphan will lose its fur. Don’t worry, just wait for it to grow back and it will.
A Warning Sign: Abnormal Noises From Your Orphaned Rat
One very bad sign is if your rat starts to sound like it is making a clicking inside. This is a sign of pneumonia. You must get them some amoxycillin if you want them to live. You should talk to a vet at this point, really.
However, if a vet is not available then you can mix 250mg of amoxycillin into 7.5 ml of formula – you must mix this thoroughly or your may end up with a highly concentrated dose. Then give them a single drop of this every 8 hours for the first 24 hours and then every 12 hours for the next 1-2 weeks until the symptoms are completely gone.
Can You Feed Baby Rats Cow Milk?
We’re often asked if you can feed a baby rat cow’s milk and the answer is a resounding “no”. Cow’s milk does not contain the right balance of nutrients for a rat and it will make them sick or kill them if you provide it as a main source of food.
Now, you can still allow a healthy adult rat a little cow’s milk as a treat every now and again – they do like it, but it’s not for saving orphaned rat with.
What To Feed A Baby Rat?
When you feed baby rats you need to make up some formula to do it with. If you haven’t got any on hand – then you can use an emergency formula of sugar water (1 cup of hot water, ¼ teaspoon of salt and ¾ of sugar). You want to ensure that they’ve fully dissolved before you give it to the rat, and you must throw it out after 8 hours.
The Rat Feeding Formula
Oddly, the best formula for baby rats is human formula milk. They have a fairly similar nutritional profile to us and much more so than with cats or dogs.
Buy a powdered formula based on soy not milk (rats just seem to prefer it that way) and it’s fine that the formula contains iron, every mammal needs iron for healthy blood.
How To Mix The Formula
You have to mix the formula in the right way for them to get used to it – which means gradually making it stronger over time.
This table should explain what needs to be done:
|1||4:1 (2 teaspoons of water to ½ of powder)|
|2||3.5:1 (1 ¾ teaspoons of water to ½ of powder)|
|3||3:1 (1 ½ teaspoons of water to ½ of powder)|
|4||2.5:1 (1 ¼ teaspoons of water to ½ of powder)|
|5||2:1 (1 teaspoon of water to ½ of powder)|
You need to warm the water to around 105 degrees Fahrenheit (this feels hot but is a long way from boiling). Then you mix in the powder and it should end up about 100 degrees. If you are feeding several young ones – you should keep the mix warm at 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a warm cup of water (we use a mug warmer to get this right).
You then give the baby roughly 5% of their body weight of the formula. This is done by weighing the baby in grams then dividing by 20. You then take the result and use it as cubic centimeters of formula in a syringe.
What To Do If The Baby Gets Diarrhea?
If at any point the baby suddenly gets diarrhea or starts to bloat, you want to step back a little on the feeding schedule. Go back to the 2nd feeding and move on from there.
You can tell if a baby is becoming dehydrated if you pinch a little skin on their back. It ought to spring back straight away but if it takes longer than 1 second – dehydration is a real issue and they need more fluids.
How To Feed Your Rats
If you watch newborns, they’re normally nursing every 3 hours or so. That means you should be feeding them on the same schedule for the first week and then every 4 hours or so after that.
You can feed them too often – it interferes with their ability to digest, so please don’t.
The biggest challenge though is getting them to eat at all. You should know that baby rats are really sensitive to the change in the taste of food from mother’s milk to anything else and you’re unlikely to get them to chow down fully for about 24-36 hours.
You have to keep trying though. If you really can’t get them to take anything gently take them at the back of the neck and hold them upright (they wriggle a lot, so be firm but keep it gentle).
Until your rats end up eating out of a dish – they’re not likely to grow very fast. So, keep that in mind.
The Feeding Tube Method
Possibly the easiest method to feed a baby rat is to get some feeding tube from your vet and then fit a small (1 cc should do) syringe to the end of it. This way you can monitor exactly how much you feed the rat – which is important as discussed above.
You pop the tube in their mouth and then very slowly push the syringe down – don’t try and rush this, if their mouth overfills, you’ll end up spilling formula everywhere and you won’t know how much they’ve had.
The Rag And Nipple Method
An alternative method is to take a small piece of cloth and make the corner into a sort of fake nipple. You then dip this “nipple” into some formula and start to drip a little into the baby rat’s mouth.
Hopefully, they will start to suckle on the fake nipple. When they do, you need to add more formula to the nipple just by dripping it on with a small eye dropper. This should be done just inside the baby’s mouth to avoid losing formula.
Whatever you do, don’t just drip food into the rat’s mouth. It will mean that the rat ends up swallowing air and while this may sound silly – that can be fatal. Rats aren’t able to belch like humans. The only cure for trapped air is to put a needle through the body, into the stomach and draw it out. You need a vet for that – don’t try it yourself.
Once you’ve mixed formula, it can be stored in a refrigerator for a maximum of 24 hours. You should only ever heat formula if you’re going to use it and you should throw it away once feeding is over.
We prefer to heat the formula by suspending it in a hot water bath. We know people who try to microwave it but it’s very easy to overheat it like that.
Always test it on your arm before feeding the rat with it. It should feel warm but never too hot.
Gagging May Not Be Gagging In Baby Rats
Baby rats can sometimes look like they’re gagging when they’re being fed. This isn’t always an accurate picture of what’s really happening, though. In fact, they may just be moving their mouths around as they would when they suck on a mother’s nipple. If this is the cases, he/she will probably happily suck milk directly from a dropper.
The Dangers Of Aspiration?
It’s fairly common knowledge that certain rodents (think squirrels) when fed by hand tend to inhale their food and this is called “aspiration”. It’s very dangerous and can lead to the newborn choking, damaging their lungs or dying.
The good news? Baby rats don’t seem to do this. It’s not impossible, mind you, but it is very unlikely. This makes them easier to rear by hand than other rodents – even if it’s still not the easiest job in the world.
Having said this, a rat can end up snorting formula in their noses. You’ll know when they do because it pours right back out again. Just wipe it away with a tissue if this happens – it’s not dangerous but you don’t want to leave them covered in formula, either. Once it’s cleared up, they should be happy to nurse again.
Changing From The Nipple To Feeding From A Dish
When their eyes have been open (which happens around the end of week 2) for 3 days, they’re ready to start scoffing some formula from a dish.
You need a tiny dish for this (we like to use the lid from a bottle) and to secure it to the ground to stop the babies from upending it.
To begin this, you put a full dish in after the babies have eaten. This means they can investigate and work out what it is without diving in hungry and snorting it.
Over a day or two, you want to increase this kind of feeding to 3-4 times a day. They should also be able to eliminate by themselves by now. You can stop overnight feeding once they eat for 4 times a day and then bottle feeding.
Then over the next two weeks, you can start to offer a little bit of solids.
How To Wean Your Orphaned Baby Rats
Weaning a rat is easy. At the end of 4 weeks when the rat has been off the bottle and eating some solids, you move them and another baby into a cage of their own. You provide a water bottle and rat food. Congratulations – if you all made it this far, you’re an excellent substitute mom for rats.
Tips For Dealing With Orphaned Wild Rats
Our final tips are for when you’re handling orphaned wild rats. These are a little more challenging to care for than pet rats will be.
Will I Get Diseases?
Probably not. It’s likely that any disease which would affect you would kill your baby rat. However, you should practice good hygiene all the same. Wash your hands in warm soapy water before playing with the rat and once you’ve finished before touching your face.
Get Ready To Release Them
The best practice with orphaned wild rats is to raise them to release them. It’s very hard to make them into a good pet and it takes a huge amount of extra work. It’s really not worth it.
This is especially true if the rat is a roof rat rather than the Norway rat. They just can’t socialize well at all and are likely to remain jittery and skittish around you forever.
If You Must Keep Them: Handling Is Essential
If you’re going to ignore us and keep the rat anyway – keep handling it all the time. If you have a litter, we really do mean all the time. Wild rats in a litter unless constantly handled by you will bond with each other instead.
If You Must Keep Them: They Need Company
Even more so than with pet rats, wild rats need company and you really must bring it a companion rat (if there are no litter mates available) at the age of about 4 weeks. Do not leave it later than this or the wild rat will almost certainly attack a pet rat instead of bonding with it.
When To Release Your Wild Rats
Wild rats should be released at the age of 6 weeks or so. There’s no need to separate them by sex as they won’t hit maturity until 12 weeks.
Roof rats should be released near water where there are plenty of trees to climb. Norway rats just need water – they don’t care about trees.
To prepare them for release – make sure you’re offering them the kind of food they would eat in the wild from 4-6 weeks or they won’t know what to forage when you let them go.
How To Release Your Wild Rats
Make a nest box for your rats. Each rat should have its own. This is a small box with a door on one end. You give them this at about the age of 3 weeks. They learn to hide in this box and make it home.
Then when you release them, you put the nest box in another box (to stop the rat from getting out in transit) and then place the nest box in some bushes. Leave a little food in the box to tide the rat over as it learns to forage. It’s very easy.
You can release your rats at any time of day. In fact, daylight is probably safest as they have more predators around at night.
We honestly hope that you never need to put the learning in our “How To Care For Orphaned Baby Rats: The Essential Guide” into use. However, we hope that you now feel prepared to raise orphaned baby rats if you have to.
With a little love and care and a lot of attention to detail, you can significantly improve the chances of an orphaned rat living to adulthood.