IN THIS ARTICLE
- Understanding Domestic Rat Breeds
- Types of Domestic Rat Breeds
- Choosing the Right Rat Type for You
- Caring for Your Domestic Rat
- A Lifelong Companion: The Joy of Pet Rats
Though we think of wild rats as a nuisance that needs to be eradicated, domesticated rats are making waves among pet lovers in the United States. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign estimates that over half a million Americans have chosen to welcome rates in their homes ahead of more traditional options, like dogs and cats.
When cared for appropriately, most rat breeds showcase remarkable intelligence, being capable of learning how to sit, fetch, and even jump through hoops on command.
Perhaps you’re thinking of welcoming a rat or two into your life. If that’s the case, you need information. Specifically, you want to know what types of pet rats are out there and what each has to offer to you and your loved ones.
Understanding Domestic Rat Breeds
The first thing to understand about rat breeds is that the word “breed” means something different in the context of rats than it does for dogs or cats.
For a dog or cat, breed refers to a specific lineage of the animal that shares the same general looks and behavior patterns as other members of that lineage. In rats, breed doesn’t refer to rat types. Rather, it tends to refer to physical traits alone – coat type, patterns, and color. Beyond that, the personality of one pet rat may differ greatly from another, even one of the same “breed.”
It’s believed that the domestication of rats started in Asia, primarily Japan, in the 17th century. The practice took a while to spread, reaching Europe in the 1800s before finally becoming somewhat commonplace in America at some point if the mid-19th or early-20th century.
Rat domestication had different purposes. The early Japanese domestication efforts focused on training rats to be pets, much as we see today in the previously mentioned half a million American households that keep them as pets. But by the time the domestication techniques reached Europe, the focus switched to domesticating rats for sport or food. Later efforts utilized selective breeding to breed rats for lab experiments and studies. So, it’s only in more recent times that the purpose of breeding rats has come back to what it was originally – create different types of rats to keep as pets.
Basics of Rat Genetics
Every rat has 42 chromosomes (humans have 46), with each chromosome being a part of a pair, one inherited from the father and another from the mother. Each gene that a rat has includes two alleles, one on each chromosome pair.
You may be getting flashbacks to your high school biology classes at this point. If so, you may remember that alleles are often the source of “mutations” – differences in appearance from the parent. This is where changing coat colors comes in. The alleles the rat inherits from its parents (subject to recombination and mutation) influence the color of its coat.
In the wild, there’s typically little variance in how rats look. Most are agouti, which is a dark chestnut color. Different coats come into play through the selective breeding of the few rats that display mutations, with subsequent breeding resulting in more variance in appearances over time.
As noted above, these differences are often only skin (or fur) deep. As fascinating as rats with a variety of colors may be, these differences don’t affect the rat’s temperament or health. Rat lifespan can vary greatly in rats of the same breed. Personalities are similar in their variance, though it’s not rare to see some breeds display certain common traits.
Types of Domestic Rat Breeds
The various types of pet rats have some commonalities. Almost all have guard hairs, which are tougher hairs that guard the underlying fur against scratches and similar damage. And despite their coat and color differences, each breed has similar physical attributes.
The seven varieties are standard, hairless, satin, rex, dumbo, tailless, and bristle coat. There are also a couple more that are often related to one of the main seven but have differences in some aspects.
When the average person thinks of a pet rat, they’re usually thinking of the wild brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). The standard rat is essentially the “base” version of a domestic rat. They haven’t been selected for fur color but don’t fear humans, making them more suitable for handling.
Standard rats are rarely used as pets and are more commonly reptile feed or laboratory animals. The pet form is commonly known as a “fancy” rat (see below).
Like the famous cartoon elephant that lends the rat its name, the Dumbo rat has huge ears. Located on the side of its head (rather than the top, as in standard rats), the ears make the rat’s head appear larger than it really is.
Beyond the ears, there’s not much to separate the Dumbo rat from its standard counterpart. Both have smooth coats that fluff up when they’re uncomfortable. And despite what some rat fanciers say about these rats living longer, both generally have the same lifespan of about two years. Color-wise, the rat is usually black or agouti, again with the occasional example of albinism in rare cases. They’re typically docile, though their parentage can influence their personalities.
The name says it all with the hairless rat – they have almost no hair. The only semblance of hair tends to form around the rat’s mouth and cheeks, almost making it look like the rat is growing a little beard. A pink fink will adore the rat, though, because its lack of hair means it has an attention-grabbing pink appearance. The same goes for those with pet allergies. After all, no hair means fewer things to aggravate your allergy, making the hairless rat more suitable for someone who might otherwise not be able to keep pets.
Unfortunately, the lack of a coat can make the hairless rat more susceptible to illnesses. They need constant warmth to make up for the lack of a coat. Eye infections can also be a problem due to the rat’s limited number of eyelashes.
Thankfully, a rex rat isn’t some long-lost miniature descendant of the famous Tyrannosaurus. Instead, it’s part of a selection of “rex” pets (which includes rabbits and cats) that have crinkly fur that almost ripples like waves across its body. Even the whiskers can take on this crinkled effect, though that’s not the case for all Rex rats.
Rex rats can grow to about 11 inches long, with their tails almost matching that, though typically being a couple of inches shorter than the body. They have color varieties, with the typical agouti often replaced by black, cream, silver, grey, or even blue. Rex rats can learn a few simple tricks and usually have a curious nature. But be wary of eye infections and hair loss as they age.
Fancy by name and by nature, a fancy rat (sometimes called standard rat) is the result of selective breeding of domesticated rats. They often match them in size (a body of about 6-8 inches and a tail of similar size) though that can also vary based on the breeding methods used. Color and coat types also vary widely, again due to breeding, though the rats retain the intelligence and social nature of their standard counterparts.
That intelligence breeds curiosity, making them creatures that require plenty of stimulation. That can come in the form of playing with their human and learning (or performing) tricks. Think of them as a standard rat with a twist and you have the gist of what a fancy rat offers.
A satin rat is one of the types of pet rats that tell you most of what you need to know in their name. They have a gorgeous shiny coat, with a sleek feel that matches satin itself. They often have a fawn or agouti coloring, though this appears richer on a satin rat than a standard one due to the length of the former’s fur. Selective breeding can lead to other coat colorings and markings.
Thankfully, this interesting coat doesn’t require special care, as the rat is capable of maintaining it on its own. And the same social and intelligence you see in standard rats apply here, meaning satin rats thrive in environments where they get plenty of attention and interactive play.
Genetic mutation lies behind the interesting appearance of the tailless rat, which either has no tail or a shorter tail than its standard contemporaries. But beyond that unique aspect, their color, body size, and fur can vary, with breeding techniques again playing a part. For instance, breeding a Dumbo rat with a tailless rat could lead to a rat that both lacks a tail and has large ears on the side of its head.
The lack of a tail doesn’t hold these rats back in terms of interactions with their pet owners. They’re smart and curious, thriving in social environments or when challenged with interactive play. But they do have some specific needs. Rats use their tails as balancing tools, so the lack of a tail leads to more falls. Single-level cages are recommended to reduce risk. You’ll also need to take care with changing temperatures, as a tailless rat doesn’t regulate its body temperature well, more particularly when it’s hot.
Where other types of rats vary in color, the topaz rat always has a warm fawn or golden-brown coat. But beyond that, its body shape and physical attributes can vary greatly, with some matching standard rat sizes and others being larger. Again, selective breeding comes into play here.
With topaz rats, we see the most obvious example of how the “breed” designation differs in rats. A rat may be topaz and standard, or topaz and Dumbo, meaning its personality varies depending on parentage as much as the care it receives. Standard rat care usually applies, assuming the rat is simply a fancy rat with topaz coloring.
If you like the feel of a hairbrush on your skin, the bristle coat rat is an excellent choice. It has coarser hair than its standard equivalent, with that hair being both denser and standing on end. They look similar to how a standard rat looks when it fuzzes up due to discomfort. But that bristled appearance is expected in these types of pet rats.
A bristle coat rat’s personality can vary greatly, with some being warm and sociable while others are standoffish and more independent. Thankfully, their coats need no special care. Standard approaches to rat care apply with the bristle coat rat.
Manx rat is often a pseudonym for the tailless rat, with both either having an extremely short tail or lacking one altogether. But “Manx” may also be used to refer to rex rats, so pay attention to what you’re actually getting with this type of rat.
Assuming it’s the type that lacks a tail, the same balance and temperature control issues apply as in tailless rats. One-story cages are a must, as are measures to ensure the rat isn’t subjected to extreme climates. Beyond that, Manx rats are social creatures that love playing.
Choosing the Right Rat Type for You
The right breed of rat for you is dependent on your own personality and preferences. The first consideration is the amount of time you can dedicate to your pet rat. Many are social creatures, meaning they’re at their best when interacting with their human. If you’re not around much, look for a more independent rat that’s okay with minimal interaction.
Rat care is also a factor. Some breeds, such as the hairless rat, need special temperature controls and may require more trips to the vet because they lack protection against infections and the elements. But standard rats, and most other breeds, have fewer care considerations, often being okay for most of their lives with standard rat supplies and food.
Finally, remember that allergies play a role in your decision. If fur triggers your allergies, most types of pet rats are off the table for you. But you may find a companion in a hairless rat because it’s less likely to have you rushing to the anti-histamines. Ultimately, the best approach is to spend some time with your prospective pet rat before choosing whether to adopt it. Figure out of the rat’s needs and your lifestyle align.
Caring for Your Domestic Rat
Most types of pet rats require standard care – a clean rat cage, regular social interaction, mental stimulation in the form of games, and the right diet. The latter can be a challenge, as it’s often hard to find specific rat food in stores. Variety is the spice of life for rats. They’re omnivores who’ll happily chow down on most fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains.
But there are some foods to avoid. As much as rats may love sugary snacks, they can cause health problems later in life so avoid feeding them sugar. Other harmful foods include grapes, raisins, citrus fruits, and walnuts can also be harmful. Speak to a vet to determine the ideal diet for your rat breed.
Specific breeds also require special care, such as hairless rats that need temperature-controlled environments and regular trips to the vet. Tailless rats have balance issues. For them, single-level cages are ideal.
Speaking of cages, don’t underestimate the importance of choosing a good cage, such as those on offer at Quality Cages. The right cage ensures the rat is safe in its adopted home and offers enough space for your rat to exercise and play.
A Lifelong Companion: The Joy of Pet Rats
There are a wide variety of pet rats, each with their own care requirements and traits. But regardless of the breed you choose, you’ll get a curious little companion to match your lifestyle. Proper care is always a priority, of course. As a pet owner, understanding the specific needs your rat has ensures it enjoys a healthy and happy life. And keeping your home stocked with the right rat supplies means you bring as much joy to your pet as it brings to you.
As for where to get supplies, Quality Cage is your main port of call if you need a home for your pet rat. Our single and multi-level cages offer the space, stimulation, and protection your rat needs. Check out our online store today to see our range of rat products.
What is the best type of rat for a pet?
There is no “best” type of pet rat, only the rat that works best for you. Many prefer standard rats because they have minimal care requirements. But those that need a little extra help, like hairless or rex rats, often make great pets as long as you dedicate time to them.
What breed is my pet rat?
Breed depends on several factors, such as type of coat, coloring, and some physical characteristics.
What are the common pet rat types?
The common types of pet rats are fancy, dumbo, hairless, tailless, and rex rats.
What is the smallest kind of pet rat?
Tailless and Manx rats are often the smallest due to their lack of tails, though it’s possible to find dwarf rats that are up to 75% shorter than standard rats.