How to keep pet rats – 10 tips from a ratty lover!

how to keep pet rats


Fancy something eclectic? Here’s a guide to all things ratty, from horrible histories (rat-baiting and fancy rats in ribbons and Queen Victoria, oh my!) to how to look after one.

Rats are wonderful little creatures. They are intelligent and inquisitive. Sadly the little guys possess an awful reputation- remember the bubonic plague? All you have to do is mention the word “rat” among your friends and an array of responses will ensue. Some people have a genuine phobia of the wee critters, and recoil at the thought of being in the same room as a rat. But sometimes… sometimes… there will be that one person who thinks: Hmmm. Maybe these little creatures aren’t as bad as everybody says…

I do understand that a fear of rats is a genuine phobia which can be very deep-rooted. If you dislike rats, I wholly respect that. I am writing this article to speak to the curious ones; those who find rats endearing and might consider having rats as pets. Of course, I’m also writing for the people who just fancy an eclectic rat-related little read on Mooky…

Horrible Histories… Fancy rats and rat-baiting, oh my!

Rats have been domesticated as pets for far shorter a time period than cats and dogs… but still for much longer than you might think. Pet rats are commonly called “fancy rats.” They were first bred from the common brown rat (species name Rattus norvegicus) in the 18th or 19th century in England. The original purpose of their domestication was so that they could be used in blood sports. Rat-baiting was very popular. It involved filling a small arena with the animals and then placing bets on how long it would take a single terrier to kill all of them. Quite a violent pastime to engage oneself in, but this trend didn’t last past the turn of the 19th century.

Fancy rats soon became trendy pets to have. Those who originally bred rats for blood sports began to breed them to sell as pets to whoever could afford them. It was common to see rats donning bows and ribbons, and sometimes they were kept on short leashes by their owners. In fact, one notable keeper of fancy rats is known to be Queen Victoria…

Fancy rats and wild brown rats are the same species, but consider how many generations of them (a rat’s lifespan is commonly 2-5 years) have been selectively bred in the last century or so. With this in mind, it’s no great suprise there are some notable differences in colouring, behaviour and lifespan. Pet rats come in many different colours, due to the processes of selective breeding. Some notable colours include agouti colouring, blue colouring and the famous hooded rat – so called because it looks like they’re wearing a tiny hood. While wild rats do exhibit colour mutations these are quite rare, and wild rats are usually brown. Pet rats are much more comfortable around humans, as you would imagine. Wild rats are not susceptible to humans at all. They will run and hide if there is even a possibility humans are nearby! Also, a pet rat will live longer than its wild counterpart- it’s all to do with the sheer cushiness of being a pet.

How to look after rats as pets

I first fell in love with ratties when I bought two for my boyfriend (he called them Vic and Bob). Naturally, I’ve picked up a few important tips along the way. Here are a few to get you going:

1. When picking rats as pets it is best to keep two or more.

They are very sociable animals and will get lonely if they are solitary. Even if you can afford your pet rat hours upon hours of attention, you will not compare to a member of their own species.

2. Get a same gender group.

So… all males or all females. They are very easy to sex. Males have large, prominent testicles under their tail up the top. If you go to a pet shop or somewhere that cannot sex rats, go somewhere else!

3. When picking out the rats you want, make sure they look healthy and happy.

Ask as many questions as you like about them – this is important stuff.

4. Try to purchase them from a breeder.

Their living conditions will be less traumatic, and you will be able to communicate directly with the person who bred them. Ask to see the mother and father if you wish. Rescue rats are also a good option if you can come by them, though it is generally considered that you should not rescue rats until you have good experience prior to rescue with keeping rats. This is because rescue rats can be tricky or temperamental.

5. Buy the cage before you buy the rats.

Make a nice space for it in a warm location in your humble abode. Pet rats are not very hardy creatures and will not do well in the cold. It’s not a good idea to keep them outside.

6. Buy your other supplies while you’re buying the cage too.

You’re in the pet shop so you may as well! Wood chippings or other suitable rodent bedding (sawdust irritates their delicate lungs), rodent mix food, a wee bowl, a wee water bottle… you can also buy little toys to place in their cage. Things that suit a hamster or guinea pig will suit a rat. Rats love climbing, so consider putting small branches, twigs or whatever they could climb on in their cage. Replace organic stuff regularly as it rots!

7. Make sure your house is rat-proof before you purchase/rescue your new pets.

Make sure cables are securely tucked away, make sure any cracks in the skirting board are stuffed, and remember to put away anything you value if you are letting them out of their cage to play. They love chewing!

8. Once you’ve brought your furry friends home to your home, socialise with them as much as possible.

Handle them and play with them every single day for at least an hour. This is very important!

9. Have a small house for your rats placed somewhere cosy in their cage.

This could be something like a small cardboard box stuffed with shredded paper. You can buy little wooden or plastic houses in pet shops too. The choice is entirely yours.

10. Change the bedding in your pet’s cage once a week.

Pick up droppings and dispose of them every second day to keep the cage fresh and clean.

Although rats are considered disease-ridden animals by many, this couldn’t be further from the truth. They groom themselves meticulously, several times daily. It’s actually quite amusing to watch the little guys bathe themselves! It is true that rats have the potential to carry the species of bacteria which causes plague (note: It’s actually the fleas living on rats which carry the disease). However it is extremely rare nowadays, particularly in the Western world. Also, keep in mind any risk of the animals carrying disease minimizes greatly if they are domesticated. Despite this fact, some states in the US and some countries will not allow a person to keep rats as pets. If you are considering keeping rats and are unsure, check beforehand.

Rats… bless their little scampering feet. They get so much bad press and they just don’t deserve it. Rats are interesting, intelligent and also – despite popular belief – innocuous. Still not convinced? Get mooky tips on choosing the perfect pet for you.