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Rat Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

Overview 

Rattus norvegicus

Despite their reputation for being dirty pests, pet rats are fastidiously clean, intelligent, docile, extremely social and enjoy human interaction. They bond very closely with their pet parents and when socialized properly can make wonderful, sweet pets.

Typical rat appearance & behavior

  • There are many varieties of rats with different coat and eye colors, including white, cinnamon, Sphynx (hairless), Rex (with short, crinkly fur), Dumbo (larger with ears on the sides rather than the tops of their heads) among others
  • Play during the night and rest during the day (nocturnal) but can adjust to pet parents’ schedules
  • Typically enjoy living with one or more other rats. Females generally get along well with other females, and males can live together if introduced when they are young. Males and females housed together will breed, unless the male is neutered or the female is spayed. When rats give birth, average litter size is 12 to 20 babies
  • Need out-of-habitat time daily for play and mental stimulation in an enclosed, supervised, “rat-proofed” area, free of loose wires and other objects that are tempting to chew on
  • Love to run on wheels in their habitat for exercise
  • Enjoy hiding in tubes and other objects and climbing on ladders but will often come out when familiar people come near their habitat
  • Chew on objects to maintain incisor teeth, which grow continuously; must have plenty of wood chew sticks or mineral chews to gnaw on to keep their teeth worn down
  • Incisor teeth are normally yellow due to the presence of iron pigments in them
  • When they are happy, they may grind their teeth

 

Characteristics

Care Difficulty Beginner
Average Life Span Up to 3 years with proper care
Average Adult Size 14-18 inches long, including tail
Diet Omnivore
Minimum Habitat Size 24” L x 24" W x 24” H; 2 cubic feet per rat

Habitat

Habitat size

Provide the largest habitat possible, as rats need approximately 2 cubic feet per rat, making the minimum habitat size 24”x24”x24”. The ideal habitat is constructed of powder-coated wire to provide good ventilation, has a smooth bottom so that legs and feet don’t get caught, a secure screen top and bars that are close together enough to prevent escape. Rats enjoy having multiple levels within their habitats whenever possible. Glass tanks are hard to keep well ventilated, and ammonia fumes from droppings can accumulate and irritate rats’ respiratory tracts, predisposing them to infection. Habitats should be kept off the floor, away from overly curious predatory pets such as cats and dogs, and ideally in an area that is well trafficked, as rats enjoy company.

Building your habitat

Rats acclimate well to average household temperatures of 65 to 80°F. Be cautious of extreme temperature changes. The habitat should never be in direct sunlight or in a drafty area, as rats are prone to both overheating and to chilling.

  • Bedding – 1 to 2 inches of bedding should be placed in the habitat, as rats love to burrow and hide in it. Proper bedding includes commercially available paper-based bedding or crumbled paper bedding. Wood chips are not recommended, as they are indigestible if swallowed and can lead to potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal tract obstruction. Cedar-based products are especially not recommended, as the oils they contain can irritate rats’ skin and respiratory tracts
  • Décor - Rats enjoy hiding, so they should be provided with commercially available hiding boxes and plastic tubes for tunneling, a smooth-sided wheel for running, untreated wooden blocks for chewing and other safe toys for playing with. Many rats also like commercially available hammocks to lounge and sleep in
  • Additional accessories – A small animal playpen can provide additional enrichment opportunities for rats to help keep them physically and mentally stimulated

 

Cleaning your habitat

Habitats should be spot-cleaned daily to remove soiled bedding and discarded food. Habitats should be fully cleaned out at least once a week, or more often as necessary, particularly if there is more than one rat in the habitat.

To clean the habitat:

  • Move rat(s) to a secure temporary habitat
  • Remove all décor and scrub habitat and décor with a small animal habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution
  • Rinse habitat and furnishings until there is no habitat cleaner or bleach smell detectable
  • When habitat and décor have dried completely, place décor back into habitat before placing the rat back into the habitat

Feeding 

What to feed 

A well-balanced rat diet consists of:

  • High-quality, commercially available pelleted rat food or lab blocks 
  • Limited amounts of grains, vegetables and fruits daily
  • Clean, fresh water in a water bottle, changed daily

Things to remember when feeding your rat:

  • Fresh food and water should always be available
  • A limited amount of grains (such as dry cereal or cooked pasta), vegetables, fruits, Timothy hay or treats can be given daily but should not exceed 10% of their total diet
  • Vegetables and fruits not eaten within 10 hours should be discarded
  • Do not feed chocolate, caffeine or alcohol, as these can be toxic and cause serious illness or death. Avoid high-sugar and high-fat treats, as rats are very prone to obesity

Care

  • Rats are fastidious groomers, so they typically stay clean and rarely need baths, but they can be spot-cleaned with a damp washcloth or unscented baby wipes, if needed
  • While rats are generally friendly once they become acclimated, they may be skittish at first and need to be handled a few minutes each day while receiving small treats to help socialize them. Ultimately, they will look forward to and seek out handling

Where to buy

Rats are available for purchase at your local Petco location. Please call ahead to check availability.

Supplies

Habitat mates 

Rats can be kept in same-sex pairs if raised together. Male and female rats can be housed together if the male is neutered or the female is spayed. Different types of small animals should not be housed together.

Health 

Signs of a healthy rat

  • Active, alert and sociable
  • Eats, drinks and passes stool regularly
  • Eyes, nose and mouth free of discharge
  • Breathing is unlabored
  • Body is well muscled and pet walks normally
  • Fur is clean and well groomed, without patches of loss or thinning hair 
  • Skin is smooth without swellings, scabs or lesions

Red flags (If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian.)

  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Abnormal hair loss or thinning
  • Diarrhea or dirty bottom
  • Distressed breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Discharge from eyes, nose or mouth
  • Skin lesions, scabs, swelling or itching
  • Overgrown teeth
  • Difficulty chewing food 
  • Lameness while walking

 

Common rat health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health Issue Diarrhea Symptoms or Causes Loose stool; can be caused by poor diet, stress, GI parasites, bacterial or viral infection, unclean housing or other illness Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian to determine cause and treatment.
Health Issue Dental problems/malocclusion Symptoms or CausesSalivation, dropping food, weight loss, swellings on jaw, overgrown or maloccluded teeth. Suggested Action Consult a veterinarian to have teeth trimmed regularly.
Health Issue Respiratory disease Symptoms or Causes Sneezing, cough, red-colored discharge from eyes and nose, labored breathing, weight loss, decreased appetite. May be due to bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic infection or irritant fumes from unclean habitat. Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian.
Health IssueSkin parasites (mites, lice, fleas) Symptoms or CausesSores or scabs on skin, itchy skin, restlessness, decreased appetite, weight loss. Usually more than one rat is affected. Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian.
Health IssueMammary tumors Symptoms or CausesOne or more slow-growing masses or swellings in skin over chest, armpits, abdomen, groin. Suggested ActionConsult a veterinarian.

FAQs

  • How long to rats live? Rats can live up to two to three years with proper care.
  • What do rats eat? Rats eat commercially available pelleted rat food or lab blocks, with small amounts of vegetables, fruits and grains. 
  • What’s the best way to take care of a rat? Feed them a commercially available rat diet with smaller amounts of vegetables, fruits and grain. Provide them with a well-ventilated habitat with paper-based bedding and wooden chew toys and a wheel to run in, and socialize them by holding them daily. 
  • Where can I buy a pet rat? Petco stores carry pet rats. Call your local location ahead of time to ensure availability.
  • How big do fancy rats get? Rats can grow up to 14 to 18 inches long, including their tail.
  • What supplies do you need for a pet rat? An appropriately sized habitat, paper-based bedding, a water bottle, a food bowl, commercially available rat diet, wooden toys to chew on, a wheel to run in, a hide box and other habitat décor.

Additional care sheets

Notes & sources 

Ask a Pet Care Center employee about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all small animals are potential carriers of infectious diseases such as lymphocytic choriomeningitis, rat bite fever and salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your small animal or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease. Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing or caring for small animals and should consider having a pet other than a small animal.

Go to the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about small animals and disease.

 

The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.