If you’re considering getting rats there will be one big question on your mind: Do rats make good pets? Today we’re going to answer that by looking at the pros and cons of keeping rats as pets.
We’ll be answering tricky questions like:
- Can pet rats cause illness?
- Are rats high maintenance?
- Do rats make good pets for kids?
Then we’ll finish off by exploring some of the rat’s many superpowers! But first, let me introduce you to the rat.
Characteristics of the pet (or fancy) rat
Pet rats are all fancy rats (so-called because a group of people who own, breed, take interest in and exhibit a species of animal are called a “Fancy”). There’s nothing fancier about some of them than others!
They belong to the species rattus norvegicus, otherwise known as the brown rat, Norway rat, or ship rat. They are thought to have originated in the temperate regions of Northern China and Mongolia.
Pet rats are thought to have been recently domesticated within the past 200 years. Records show that there were rat fanciers as early as 1850 who supplied the first animals to laboratories.
Rats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at twilight – dawn and dusk. They are physically adapted to this kind of light level and prefer not to be exposed to bright light. In the wild, they usually head for their burrows to sleep during the day.
In common with many prey animals, they have a fierce startle reflex in response to sudden noise, surprise, and even just the smell of a predator. They also have amazing hearing, smell, and other sensory adaptations that help them to avoid being eaten.
Rats are foragers and opportunistic omnivores. The males particularly are also territorial over relatively small areas, foraging up to about 100 feet from their nest to find food. Foraging makes up a lot of their nighttime activity.
Being avid foragers also makes them physically adept explorers who love to run, climb, balance and dig. They will eat anything they know to be safe and have the capacity to seek out foods that will meet their nutritional deficiencies.
Wild rats are intelligent and can be good at solving the problems that arise in their daily lives. This, along with their excellent senses, robust physical abilities and adaptability have made them successful in many locations across the world.
Another adaptive behavior that helps rats survive is neophobia. This means they are wary of new items and food in their environment. It is thought that neophobia in wild rats has increased as humans have tried to trap or poison them.
Good rep versus bad rep
Rats are often subjected to all kinds of prejudice and misconception as people think of them as filthy, aggressive and disease-ridden. Like all wild animals, undomesticated rats can, of course, pick up and spread diseases and parasites, but they really aren’t alone in this.
The “horror” image of a forwardly aggressive animal with wild red eyes and canines is, of course, a fantasy. But repeatedly seeing rats portrayed in a poor light just feeds society’s prejudice.
Thankfully, rats are their own best PR, and as more people keep them as pets, we are beginning to learn that they are, in fact, intelligent, inquisitive, cute, cuddly, and very interesting to be around.
The good: 7 reasons why rats make excellent pets
There are many reasons why rats make excellent pets for both adults and supervised children.
1. Rats are cheerful
Like many animals, rats can suffer from depression (e.g after the death of a friend or when being bullied by a cage-mate), but their default attitude is cheerfulness.
They seem to experience a lot of joy, taking great pleasure in everything from being part of a warm, snuggly pile of rats in a nest to greeting their human at every opportunity.
Unlike hamsters, rats are happy to be woken up at any point during the day and will quickly embrace whatever is going on.
Just remember that startle reflex, and don’t stick your hand in their bed and give them a fright. That’s how rat bites happen because they think you are going to eat them!
2. Rats are highly sociable
Rats need company to such a degree that being housed alone increases their stress levels and their risk of illness.
Because they need company all the time, it’s important that they have rat friends as well as human friends. It would be impossible as a human to give them the time they need.
When living in a cage rats don’t have enough space to maintain a territory, so they swap to a hierarchical system, run by an alpha rat. Most of the time – and especially with related rats – this works well, and the group is peaceful.
Introductions with new rats are possible and can be very quick and easy, but not always. Some rats need time to really bond with each other, while others will never be able to live happily with each other. A lot like humans really!
3. Rats are intelligent
Rats are thought to be more intelligent than dogs. They learn quickly, problem solve, rationalize their decisions, know what they know (and don’t know) and use that knowledge to make choices.
So, whether you want to have a close emotional bond, train your rat to do agility or just have smart, interesting, and (very) interactive companions, rats are an excellent choice.
4. Rats are clean
Contrary to everything you’ve heard, rats are extremely clean animals. They can easily be trained to use a litter pan as a toilet, and they spend about 30 to 40 percent of their waking time grooming!
Most rats never need a bath so long as their cage environment is kept clean. They maintain their own self-care, only requiring a little nail trim and tail clean if you want to show them. Like most of us, they may need a little more help as they age.
Some sources refer to rats as incontinent – but this isn’t true. Rats have full control of their bladder and are used in lab experiments that explore bladder emptying.
They may, however, leave small droplets of (sterile) urine on your skin as they crawl over you. It is a marking behavior and is usually only seen in rats who are high in the hierarchy.
There are two illnesses that pet rats can pass to humans and two that humans can pass to rats. Rats can catch ringworm and staph infections from humans. They can also contract Bordetella (kennel cough) from dogs, which is almost always lethal to rats.
Humans can get rat-bite fever and hantavirus from pet rats, both of which rarely arise as a problem within the rat fancy. This could be due to some natural immunity in humans.
Both illnesses usually show as cold or flu-like symptoms in the few people who show signs of illness, however very rarely they are actually very serious diseases, which require hospital treatment.
5. Rats are affectionate
It’s clear that rats form a strong bond with their human(s) and show a preference towards them over a stranger. They demonstrate affection in ways that are meaningful to us like licking, grooming, and snuggling.
Rats also have a ‘purr’ like behavior which is called bruxing. They do this either when they are very content or very upset (when they are trying to comfort themselves).
The teeth are ground together causing a series of clicky, grinding noises, which are often accompanied by eye “boggles” because the jaw muscles run behind the eyes and rhythmically push them forwards and back as they contract.
Young rats tend to be very active and while affectionate and interactive, are unlikely to stay still for cuddles. This will come for most rats as they age if you don’t force them to be still when they don’t want to be.
6. Rats are interesting
Even in their cage, rats are interesting and fun. They are playful gymnasts who are very interactive with their environment. It is satisfying to make toys and foragers for your rats, because they usually appreciate it, spending time trying to work out what an object will do.
The more you give your rats to do, the more practiced they get at problem-solving and the more they will engage with the things around them.
If you give your rats the opportunity to express their natural behaviors they will do so with abandon. Watching a rat dig with gusto – using their whole body – is a joyful thing.
Rats also have a great sense of humor and fun. They will inspect your ears, are fascinated by piercings, will use you as a climbing frame or steal your food when you’re not looking. If you tickle your rats they enjoy it and will likely giggle at a pitch too high to hear without a bat detector.
7. Rats are low to medium maintenance
Anyone getting a new pet will want to know if they will end up being high maintenance. Once you have your rats and have put in the energy needed to get them settled and used to you, caring for them in the long term is moderately easy.
You’ll need to:
- clean them out regularly,
- provide them with interesting toys and foraging items in the cage,
- give them a great diet including fresh food,
- provide time out of the cage each day,
- give them regular time and attention,
- keep a regular check on their health.
The bad: 7 reasons why having pet rats needs careful consideration
Of course, as with any pet, there are less attractive aspects to sharing your life with pet rats. So, let’s examine what they are.
1. Rats can be expensive to care for properly
Despite being a small pet, rats don’t come cheap. To give them the life they deserve and space to express their natural behaviors you will need to spend some money.
Some of the items you need to consider are:
- A large cage.
- Cage furniture like ropes, hammocks, a nesting box, litter pans, perches, a digging box and a big 14 to 16-inch wheel (anything smaller is no good for a rat).
- Toys and foragers.
- A carrier or small hamster cage for containment, vet visits, and such like.
- A basic first aid kit.
Some of these items – like toys and hammocks – will need to be replaced over your rats’ lifespan. However, you can save some money by making some items yourself or repurposing items you already own.
Even high priced items, like cages, can be sourced second hand in online auctions and garage sales.
The other cost you should expect when owning any pet (and rats are no exception) is veterinary bills. Most rats will need veterinary care at some point over their lives, and some – especially those with respiratory illness – will need repeated interventions.
2. Rats are short-lived but have massive attachment potential
Because of their big personalities and ability to make affectionate connections with humans, it’s easy to become extremely attached to your rats. An average lifespan of less than 2.5 years is so short, and this means that keeping rats over time means dealing with repeated painful losses.
For some people, this is too big of a down-side to continue to keep rats. Others find it easier if they always introduce new babies to their group as the resident rats head towards their second birthday.
This can keep the focus on the natural cycle of life rather than just focusing on loss. However, it shouldn’t be underestimated how distressing saying goodbye to a much-loved rattie friend can be. Most of us feel that the joy is well worth the pain.
3. Rats are neophobic prey animals
A domesticated rat’s nature is significantly determined by genes and parenting, including the amount of stress the mother was under when pregnant. Anxious rats produce anxious rats.
Being a prey animal who is also anxious about things that are new or unknown can obviously produce a watchful, nervous individual. Domestication has to a large extent bred away from this, leaving pet rats much less anxious by nature.
However, not all rats are equal, and rats sourced from a reputable breeder who is breeding for great temperament (amongst other positive traits) are likely to be more robust in this regard.
Rats from pet shops are usually bred in huge rodent farms (who breed rodents for snake food), and they are likely to be more anxious and slower to tame. This is something to consider, particularly if there will be children involved in the care of your rats.
Most rat bites are received because rats are startled or feel under threat for some reason. So, having a less anxious nature is a benefit in that regard. In context I have owned hundreds of rats over many years and have only been bitten a few times – almost always this was my fault.
Most rats, regardless of their source, will become tame and affectionate, but some will need extra help to reach this point. Rats from breeders have generally been well handled and require less work to get them settled – and calm about handling – in their new home.
4. Rats cages can smell
Rat cages can generate quite a smell (primarily from loose droppings or urine) under certain conditions, which include:
- small cages,
- paper-lined trays,
- uncovered floors or shelves,
- fleece covered floors and shelves,
- high protein diets,
- high vegetable diets (vegetables are great, just not more than a tablespoon or so per rat).
A good deep layer of absorbent substrate plus litter pans, with regular changes of paper bedding and cloth hammocks, will make a massive difference to smell.
5. Rats are highly sociable
Why is this a problem? It isn’t as such, but sociability brings with it:
All of these can cause unrest within a social group. Most rats will have the odd squabble, but social stress is a huge problem to rats causing lack of sleep, anorexia, redirected aggression towards humans, hiding away and PTSD.
Incoming rats though accepted as babies can cause squabbles as young adults under the influence of hormonal changes. Groups should be managed so that no rat is left living alone, yet all are able to live peacefully.
6. Rats are prone to certain illnesses
A well-bred rat who has been well fed from the time he was conceived will often be physically robust and live a healthy life into old age. However, rats do tend to be prone to a variety of illnesses. These include:
- non-cancerous tumors,
- kidney disease (and associated hind leg weakness),
- respiratory illness,
- pituitary tumors,
- womb infections.
These diseases tend to be more prevalent where their lifetime diet has not included fresh plants, fruit, and seeds. So, rats from rodent farms may not do as well.
For example, in the UK, respiratory illness is much less common in well-bred rats than those from pet shop origin.
7. Rats need protection from predators
Pet rats can still have major predator-induced stress. Keeping rats in proximity to cats, ferrets, and even snakes can cause stress and distress.
If you already own a cat and your house smells of the cat (which it will to a rat), you may need to house your rats in a room the cats don’t go into in order to let them settle.
They will eventually get habituated to the smell, so long as you don’t allow the cats to torment them. Habituation requires exposure without associated stress – the smell itself is stressful enough.
Also, note that rats are predators too! They have been known to hunt and kill pet birds and mice. It’s important in multi-species households to ensure everyone is safe and calm.
The wonderful: 10 reasons why pet rats are amazing
- Whiskers – their whiskers can move in different directions all at the same time and are as sensitive to pressure as our human fingertips!
- Food selection – rats can select food items based on which nutrients their bodies need through changes in taste.
- Smell – if you think dogs have super smelling powers, think again. Rats are thought to have the ability to scent odors well beyond the capacity of the dog.
- Cognition – rats are one of the few animals proven to show regret and learn from a reward they didn’t get as well as one they did. Rats can reason and deduce.
- Empathy – rats have been found to show (what appears to be) empathy, not only to their friends but to strangers in distress.
- Eyes – although their vision is very different from ours, it is extremely functional. They can see urine trails, even in the semi-dark, and they can look in two directions at once by moving their eyes independently.
- Music – rats respond to music in much the same way as people and classical music (especially with high tones) has been shown to decrease stress, pain, and blood pressure, while increasing immune system health, wound healing and capacity for learning.
- Fitness – rats are good (but not great) jumpers but they excel at climbing and balancing. They use their tail to help them balance.
- Sleep – rats can be completely asleep but have one (or both) eyes open.
- Fasting – like humans, fasting can help to keep a rat healthy and long-lived, extending lifespan by up to 80%. No rat should be fed adlib unless they are nursing babies or under 5 weeks old.
To conclude, for many people, rats do make excellent pets and can be wonderful, affectionate, companion animals. However, (like all species) they do have potential issues that may make them unsuitable for some people in some situations. We hope we have given you the help you need to decide whether rats are for you.