Everything You need to know about Planning and Caring for a Pet Rat

by Marissa Prizio

Everything You need to know about Planning and Caring for a Pet Rat Image

Over the course of history, the word rat has become synonymous with filth and disease. However, people who have pet rats know they are so much more than the negative connotation they have obtained. This species of rodent can make a surprisingly suitable companion if you know how to care for them and where to find them.

If you are curious about keeping rats as pets and all they have to offer, then you have come to the right place. This article has been designed to answer all of your pet rat-related questions using reliable resources so you can make educated decisions when it comes to owning and caring for pet rats. You may find this species to be the perfect playful pet for your lifestyle.

What are rats?

According to modern taxonomy, rats are mammals within the order Rodentia and the genus Rattus, which contains over 55 species. This definition of rats can be a bit overwhelming, especially since many of the species recognized as rats are not kept as pets.

Our focus will be placed on a species called Rattus norvegicus (rat·tus norvegi·cus) since it is the most popular species of rat kept as pets. The common names for this species include the Norway rat, the brown rat, or the common rat.

There is a good chance you have heard rats called at least one of these common names before, that is because this species is both widely spread and the stereotypical image of a rat.

Brown Rat Image

Healthy adult Norway rats tend to be 0.33 pounds to a little over half a pound on average. With the tail included, a large adult rat can be over a foot long, reaching a maximum length of around 15.7 inches. Their size clearly separates them from hamsters and gerbils, as does their long hairless tail. 

This tail is often described as being covered by scaly or coarse skin and is used for balance along with its nimble paws. These attributes allow rats to enter and escape a variety of obstacles. They are also known for their ability to learn, which often appears as curiosity and mischievous behaviors in pet rats.

Glossy round eyes, a pointed face, whiskers, round skin-toned ears, and a set of long rodent teeth complete this specie’s iconic appearance. 

Can rats be kept as pets?

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Rats can be kept as pets, and people have done so for many years. Today, most rats within our focus species, Rattus norvegicus, can be categorized into two groups. Rats that are intended to be kept as pets are domesticated, wild rats, on the other hand, are not suitable pets.

What is the difference between a domesticated and a wild rat?

You may be able to identify a common rat, but differentiating the wild and domestic individuals of this species requires a few more key points. A wild brown rat will, as its name suggests, almost always be brown with areas of skin that appear more pink, such as the ears and feet.

Domesticated brown rats can still be brown, but they also come in a variety of fur colors and patterns. Black, white, and even albino color patterns are not uncommon in domesticated rats.

Temperament can also differentiate wild and domestic individuals, but it is not guaranteed since rats can learn to respond to humans based on past experiences. For the most part, domesticated rats are more social with humans and may even seek out human interactions on their own accord if they have known people from a young age.

If they were properly socialized, they will see humans as safe and a source of food. In comparison, wild rats will be more skittish as they were not raised with human contact and often perceive us as a threat.

Rats are not as domesticated as a dog or a cat, but they have been bred in captivity for many years. Captive and selective breeding is one of the most notable differences between domestic and wild rats. This process has allowed for the accentuation of preferred physical and behavioral traits to make rats suitable pets. There are even cases where the traits chosen in captive breeding have produced various appearances within this species.  

Are there different types of domesticated rats?

Unlike a dog or a cat, domesticated rats do not come in different breeds. Instead, the differences within this species that have been selected through breeding are recognized as varieties. Currently, seven varieties are recognized by the American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association.

Baby rats in bowl Image

  • Standard

Standard domesticated rats have a short, smooth, and glossy coat that can come in a variety of colors. Most domesticated rats for sale in pet shops are of this variety which explains why they are called standard. 

  • Rex

A curly short coat, sometimes paired with curled whiskers makes the Rex variety stand out among other pet rats.

  • Tailless

If rat tails creep you out, this variety may be your solution. These rats are naturally tailless due to a genetic abnormality, making them look somewhat like a large hamster.

  • Hairless

Hairless rats are another genetic abnormality that was perpetuated through domestication. A true hairless rat will be completely bald, sometimes they even lack whickers.

  • Satin

These rats are bred for a fur coat that is thinner, silkier, and longer than standard rats. As a result, their fur may seem to shine or sparkle in comparison to standard rats.

  • Dumbo

This is another popular breed amongst pet rat owners. These rats are adored for their large, round, and low-set ears.

  • Bristle Coat

To the untrained eye, this variety of rat may be difficult to discern from a standard variety. Their unique trait is a course wire terrier-like coat of fur. 

Are rats dirty? 

Rats in cage Image


Contrary to popular belief, not all rats are sewer creatures that carry deadly diseases. If rats are provided the necessary resources, care, and space they can keep themselves very clean. Like most social animals, rats spend plenty of time grooming themselves and even spend time grooming each other. 

A healthy rat, as verified by a veterinarian, that is kept in a clean enclosure and well cared for is unlikely to spread disease. This is especially true if individuals who are in contact with domesticated rats wash their hands after any contact. Since this level of sanitation is suggested when interacting with most animals, it isn’t too difficult to maintain.

Rats have a tendency to keep defecation and urination to one area of their enclosure. This helps contain any mess and makes it easier to keep their enclosure clean. Some people even litterbox train their rats to make it easier to contain and clean their messes. This also helps keep their bedding clean.

The spread of disease through rats is a concern when rats have been taken in from the wild, harbor parasites, or come with other illnesses that have not been treated by a veterinarian. Rat bites can also be a source of disease, but a well-socialized rat that is respectfully interacted with is unlikely to bite.    

What do I need to care for a pet rat?

Rats can survive on their own in the wild, but pet rats require care from their owners. Keeping rats as pets requires the provision of shelter, companionship, and enrichment. How you decide to provide for these needs is entirely up to you, but each should meet specific criteria.

White rat in cage Image

  • Enclosure/Cage

Climbing, playing, hiding, and escaping are talents most pet rats share. The cage you chose for your rats should provide them plenty of space to engage in natural behaviors and be active while being secure enough to prevent unwanted escapes. 

Most rat enclosures look fairly similar to a large bird cage. This is because the mesh cage allows for plenty of fresh air and light to enter the enclosure. 

The bottom of the cage and any additional levels of flooring should be solid, as mesh floors can hurt rats' feet. Smooth flooring also makes it easier to regularly clean your pet’s enclosure and change out their bedding.

  • Shelter

Shelter extends beyond the cage and includes smaller hideouts and cozy sleeping places where your pet can retreat when they are tired or stressed. Bedding materials that are pet rat safe should also be provided so your rats can engage in natural nesting behaviors for maximum comfort. 

  • Companionship

Rats love to socialize, and while a properly socialized rat may love spending time playing with humans they do best with a companion of their own species. You will also want to choose your rats by gender or consider getting them fixed to provide companionship without the risk of unwanted offspring. 

Rats naturally live and thrive as social animals, but it is important to ensure that the cage you provide for your rats has plenty of space for them to be active.

  • Enrichment 

Intelligence requires entertainment, which is exactly why rats do best when they are provided plenty of enrichment opportunities. Enrichment can be anything from a new chew toy to a new snack, or even an old paper towel tube. The goal is to keep them engaged with their surroundings by creating novel changes that benefit their well-being.

Enriched rats will likely be healthier, especially if they are given plenty of toys intended to satisfy their natural need to chew. They will also be less likely to find their own means of entertainment by chewing or playing with things that weren't meant for them. 

What do pet rats eat?

Rat with treats Image

Wild rats may have a digestive tract capable of eating wild plants and dumpster diving for trash, but pet rats cannot, and should be fed a balanced diet. Many pet shops carry balanced rodent food pellets, some of which are designed to meet the specific needs of a domesticated rat. Seed mixes are another food source directed at rats in most pet shops, but veterinarians warn that such mixes should only be offered as treats.

Rats, like most other mammals, are prone to obesity and other nutrition-related health concerns. Seed mixes are high in fats and carbohydrates, which can lead to obesity if they are fed too often.

Carbohydrate-rich food and obesity have both been shown to shorten a rat’s lifespan. Nutritionally balanced pellet diets supplemented with fresh fruits and veggies are considered to be one of the best options for feeding domesticated rats.

How long do rats live?

These energetic, curious, and intelligent creatures have a surprisingly short lifespan. Most rats have an average lifespan of two to three years, and this lifespan can be shortened by improper care.

Rats are extremely susceptible to respiratory diseases within their species. These diseases are not uncommon in large domestic rat breeding operations. Even if rats are not kept in crowded conditions they can still experience respiratory issues if their habitat is dirty or dusty materials pollute their air.

If you are looking to maximize the potential of a pet rat’s life span, a reliable source, veterinary care, balanced nutrition, and proper husbandry are crucial.

Do rats require veterinary care?

White rats on shelf in cage Image

Just like any other pet, rats do require veterinary care. Domesticated rats may be categorized as pets, but in the field of veterinary medicine, they are often referred to as exotic or pocket pets. This means you will have to find a veterinarian who specializes in rats.

The value of visiting a qualified veterinarian can be noted in your rat’s first appointment. At this time, the veterinarian scans for any signs of disease or parasites that could be transferred to you or any other pet rats you have at home. Identifying and treating issues early on can make life a lot easier for you and may even save your rat’s life.

Rats do not require vaccinations, but yearly checkups are a great way to catch any health issues early on. You may also require a veterinarian to neuter male rats you wish to have as pets. This procedure prevents unwanted pregnancies if you also have female rats, it eliminates the risk of male rats getting testicular cancer, and reduces undesirable dominating behaviors. 

Female rats can also be spayed, but the risk for complications tends to be higher and they already have less territorial behaviors than males. 

Where can I find a pet rat?

There are plenty of options when it comes to finding a pet rat, the difficulty comes in finding a reliable option. The origin of your pet can have a serious impact on their health and sociability with humans, so it is worth some consideration.

White rat looking out of cage door Image

  • Pet Stores

Rats at many pet shops are kept and sold as feeding stock for large reptiles. Some stores may specialize in rats and carry one of the carefully bred variations discussed in a prior section. Other stores may breed them in bulk and not socialize them with humans at a young age, so be warry of rats that look lethargic or otherwise ill.
  • Rescues

Rescues take in all sorts of species, including rats. Check the shelters in your area and look up rescues that specialize in rats. These animals may not be as young as the ones you find in a pet store, but they may also already be socialized. There are plenty of domesticated rats looking for a new home, so adoption is worth the effort.

  • Online

Picking out any pet online can be treacherous, especially if you are searching sites like eBay, Facebook marketplace, etc. It is hard to guarantee the health and wellbeing of these animals, so be cautious. 

  • Breeders

With a bit of searching and references from reliable sources, like veterinarians or pet rat-focused organizations, you can find reputable breeders. This may take some work, but for individuals looking for any of the rarer varieties of domesticated rats discussed earlier, like a rex or dumbo, it is worth the effort.

What are the downsides to having a pet rat?

Having rats as pets can be a lot of fun, but it is also a lot of work and is not without its downsides.

White rats in sweater sleeve Image

For most people, a major disappointment with pet rats is their lifespan. These charismatic creatures can bring you a lot of joy over the course of their life, but it is a very short life and they age rather fast. Knowing you only have two to three years with your pet can be distressing, especially if you or your family members were unaware of their short lifespan.

Rats are serious chewers. They have to continuously chew to wear down their teeth to a comfortable length, but sometimes all this chewing can be a problem. Ensuring your pet has a constant supply of rat-friendly chew toys is crucial and they must be supervised when outside of their cage. It only takes a few minutes for an unsupervised rat to ruin the trim of your curtains or the leg of a wooden chair.

Socialization is very important for rats. Unsocialized rats do not always do well with people and even well-socialized animals may be stressed by children. Most domesticated rats will happily play with humans, but rats truly thrive when they have a rat companion they get along with. This need for companionship means most of your rat expenses will be doubled, and while these little rodents may eat less than a dog or cat, their care is not free. Bedding, toys, and food are recurring costs when you care for rodents.

If curiosity and mischief upset you more than they entertain you, rats may not be your ideal pet. These little guys are intelligent and curious which is a recipe for escape and adventures. Rats are mostly active at night, so most of this mischief may happen while you are asleep. Make sure you have a secure rat cage and prepare yourself, most rats will happily steal a bite of your food if they are afforded the opportunity.

In Conclusion

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Be sure to weigh all of the pros and cons of rat ownership before welcoming these curious critters into your family. If you decide pet rats are the companions that suit you, proper preparation, a comfy cage, and all of the knowledge you gathered here will help to ensure that your transition to pet rat parent goes as smoothly as possible!

- https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/neutering-in-rats
- https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/petcare/selecting-pet-rodent
- https://now.tufts.edu/2020/01/13/five-things-know-about-rats
- http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Rattus_norveg
- https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/blog/rat-fact-sheet/
- https://www.afrma.org/fancyrm.htm

Author: Marissa Prizio
Marissa is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a degree in Bio Medical Pre-Veterinary Medicine. During her education, she enjoyed classes that ranged from scientific research to storytelling. Now, she blend those skills with her work experience in animal care to create written educational content for pet owners.


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