Rats are intelligent and relatively easy to keep, and although they like to sleep during the day, they are not fully nocturnal, so make good pets for older children. There are a variety of types, including the Dumbo rats (which have particularly large ears, placed on the side), and they live for about 2-3 years. Contrary to what some people say, dumbos can live happily with other rats, and introductions to existing rats are possible with care.
It is important that you get your rats used to you and to being handled. It is best also to buy a small animal carrier for taking rats to the vet, or elsewhere. If you use a cardboard box, you risk a loose rat!
As they require lots of exercise and stimulation, they need a large multi-level cage especially designed for rats and they should be kept in same-sex pairs or groups because they are very sociable. A nesting box or secluded sleeping area is necessary and the floor of the cage should have a deep layer of shredded paper or other suitable litter. The enclosure should be in a draught-free area, away from extremes of temperature and there should be plenty of toys available to keep the rats amused and to keep their teeth worn down by chewing. Some rats, particularly does, are prone to gnaw the base of plastic cages.
There are complete diets available, such as rat nuggets, but feeding a variety of different foods is also an option, provided the diet is well-balanced. Rats will eat fruit and vegetables and some cooked protein such as eggs or chicken, but all these should only be given in small amounts. Rats drink quite a lot, so need a large water bottle, and the drinking water should be changed daily.
It is relatively easy to determine if a pet rat is suffering ill-health as it will tend to hunch-up, suck in its sides, hide away and be less active. There may be obvious weight loss, and also a reddish discharge from the eyes and nose. Some of the more common diseases are listed below.
- Fractures: If a rat is accidentally dropped or becomes trapped, eg in the door of its cage, it can sustain a broken leg or tail. Limbs are very small and delicate, making internal fixation a surgical challenge. In consequence, conservative treatment or amputation are usually offered, and rats can often cope well with the loss of a limb.
- Gastrointestinal upsets: Diarrhoea is usually due to a change in diet, such as too much rich food or the introduction of a different type of food. Other causes include bacterial disease (eg. Salmonella) and worms. Some diseases pose a threat to human health, so veterinary advice should be sought.
- Kidney problems: This is another disease seen in older rats, characterised by increased thirst, increased urination, and weight loss. Sadly there is no real cure at present, but the condition can be managed, with veterinary help, and the introduction of a low protein diet.
- Mammary tumours: A high percentage of female rats develop mammary tumours in old age. Providing the rat is otherwise well and the tumour is not too large, surgery can be undertaken. Most mammary tumours are benign, meaning they do not endanger the life of the pet or spread to involve other organs, so they can be left without treatment. However, they tend to grow to be very large and can then cause problems.
- Mouth, teeth: An inherited malformation of the jaw or a diet low in fibre can cause the front teeth to wear abnormally. Signs of dental problems include difficulty eating (and hence weight loss) and staining of the face with saliva often pinkish.
- Nervous disorders: Rats can develop a head tilt ('torticollis') or a stroke. A problem in the brain or ear can cause the rat to circle round continuously. Steroids can help all of these disorders sometimes, but it depends on the individual case.
- Respiratory disease: This is quite common in rats as they get older, but may also be seen in younger rats due to the irritant effect of ammonia (in the urine) on the lungs and related tissues. Regular cage cleaning, especially of the toilet area, will keep the ammonia levels low. In other cases, respiratory problems are viral in origin, with secondary bacterial infection occurring, so antibiotics may be useful.
- Skin complaints: Skin irritation, hair loss, and secondary infection can all be caused by mange mites. Effective mange treatment can be prescribed by your vet. Abscesses of the skin can also occur, usually as a result of a bite from another rat or some form of trauma. Antibiotics are required in most cases, plus cleaning with a salt solution, and, occasionally, lancing.
If you own rats, it is a good idea to join the (free) Fancy Rats forum, and the National Fancy Rat Society (which has an annual subscription), where you can glean a lot of advice on all aspects of rat care, including socialising your new rat, introductions, and links to other useful websites.