Rats are lovely, intelligent, and social animals that can make wonderful pets. They are easily tamed, and relatively easy to care for, as well. However, they do require a fair amount of attention and time outside the cage. Being social, rats should be kept in groups, a pair or more of the same sex. Keeping them in groups will make them no less easy to tame, as long as they are handled from a young age regularly. They are curious by nature and enjoy coming out of their cages for play and exploration time, and many owners compare the companionship of a rat to that of a dog. A rat deprived of the opportunity to explore and play will quickly become bored and unhappy.
A large wire cage is best, as it allows that rat some climbing space. It can be quite tall as this allows for the provision of ramps, platforms, and ladders, which will make the cage more enjoyable for the rats. As a minimum, the cage should have 12 by 24 inches of floor space for two smaller rats. Larger is always better. Aquariums are okay, but do not provide optimum ventilation, the litter will have to be cleaned more often.
For litter, wood shavings are fine as long as not cedar or pine, or treated with preservatives. Look for aspen shavings. If you don’t want to use wood shavings any organic absorbent litter can be used, such as recycled paper bedding or litter (CAREFRESH). You will also want to provide some bedding material which the rats will use in their nest box, shredded paper (no ink) or paper towels work well.
A nest box should be provided, a cardboard box makes a good nest boxy, although it may need to be replaced often. Other possibilities include a flowerpot or jar turned on its side, or a section of PVC drainpipe. Rats love to climb, and will make good use of ladders, ropes, hammocks, tunnels, and platforms. Toys should be provided as well, blocks of wood for chewing, cardboard tubes, and toys designed for ferrets or parrots are good choices.
The cage should ideally be placed in a relatively quiet location but still near the social activity in the home. Placing the cage on a table or stand will help the rats feel more secure. The cage should not be placed in direct sunlight or in drafty locations. Limit access to the cage by other household pets, as a rat will understandably feel threatened by a cat or dog hovering outside the cage.
Pelleted or block type diets are available for rat, and are formulated to be nutritionally complete. However, this does not provide variety to the rat, and may be little boring for them. Loose packaged mixes are also available, from which rats are inclined to pick out their favorite bits. Commercial foods should be supplemented with a variety of fresh foods to provide a nutritious yet interesting varied diet such as vegetables, whole grain pastas and bread, brown rice, yogurt, and occasionally low fat cooked meat, mealworms, cheese, seeds and nuts. In addition, treats such as dog biscuits can be given. It is important to keep rats on a high fiber and relatively low fat diet though, so limit high fat foods such as cheese, seeds, and nuts. Rats have a bit of sweet tooth, but resist the temptation to feed sugary foods or junk food.
COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS
This disease is so common, it’s hard to find rats that are free from it. The most common symptoms are sneezing and wheezing, but if the infection is far enough along, it can also cause gasping for breath. Mycoplasma, or mycoplasmosis, is a respiratory infection that is extremely contagious (from rat to rat, not from rat to human), and it is incurable. It can spread by direct contact, though the air, and from your touching an infected rat and then touching a healthy rat. The symptoms can be increased by cigarette smoke, ammonia from dirty cages and vitamin A or E deficiency. Mycoplasma causes a blister effect on the surface of the lungs. It can also cause lung abscesses, emphysema, and infection of the uterus. Rats that have the disease usually act quite normal, besides the sneezing, and will eat will and be otherwise healthy, until the disease is quite advanced.
Tumors and Abscesses
Usually spaying female rats decreases the chance in getting tumors. Male rats are less prone to get them. Tumors can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumors are non-cancerous and can be removed in surgery. The most common tumors found in rats are benign mammary tumors. Keep in mind, though not all lumps are tumors. Some are abscesses. Abscesses, which are under the skin, are infections that are commonly caused by injuries due to another rat. An abscess usually requires treatment with antibiotics.
Runny Eyes or Bloody Nose
Many people become alarmed when they notice that their rat has a bloody nose. Sometimes, if a rat also sneezes, this “blood” will become spread around the cage, often concentrated in the area where he or she sleeps. Never fear, however, because, as I’m sure many will be relieved to hear, this is not blood. In fact, it is porphyrin, from tears! Because the nose and the eyes are connected, watery eyes will often cause the nose to secrete this purplish substance, as well as the eyes. Check the cage and make sure there isn’t anything that could be irritating the yes, especially if only one eye appears to be affected. Other causes could be plugged tear ducts, stress, and infections