It isn't hard to have a rat or two for a wonderful pet for you or even for your young child. They are lots better than hamsters for children because they like human interaction, are intelligent, playful, and they like being out of the cage. Preparing for and then owning a rat is actually fairly simple, but it does take a little bit of knowledge and work.
It should be noted that the average life span for a pet rat is 2-3 years. Some live as long as five years, but for the most part they have a fairly short life span. This is the only hard thing about owning a rat; they aren't around nearly as long as one would like, and with them loving everyone in the family so much, this is sometimes a hard loss. They are truly wonderful pets.
Prepare for their arrival. You will need a number of things before bringing your rat home. Some of them are easier to find than others and there are a few choices.
- Cage -- One of the most important decisions that you will ever make is the cage. There are lots of options, but when choosing your cage you should keep in mind a few things.
There should be lots of space. Rats love to play, run, and do things inside and outside their cage. You want to give them a solid bottom (which is safe for their feet) and a shelf or two. A wheel is a good idea as well, especially if you have females who are more likely to love running on a wheel. The more space that you have, the better.
It is also important that you don't have wide-spaced bars; if the rat can fit his or her head through, the rest of their bodies will follow (amazingly no matter how fat they seem!). 1/2" to 3/4" is best and 1" bars (standard on Guinea pig cages and the like) are too big for many rats, especially young ones.
- Bedding -- Bedding is something that is debated among rat owners. There are many options and what you use is ultimately up to you.
Cedar is known to cause lung issues and many worry that this is also true of pine. The concern is that the scented oils of both wood shavings can cause problems with liver function and metabolism, and even cause cancer. Newspaper is not a good idea because of all the ink in the paper.
As alternatives, many available products are made from recycled paper materials and often come in pellet form, which is more expensive and doesn't have the cleanest scent, but tends to be very absorbent.
Pellets can be less comfortable for rats, so some people put a layer of aspen shavings over the pellets -- a great method, since aspen is safe for rats, but not as absorbent as the pellets.
Lastly, products like Eco-Straw and Critter Country are actually pellets made from wheat and straw, and are super-absorbent and biodegradable.
Change the bedding more often with some of the less absorbent or less odor-controlling bedding (or litter train your rat!). You will want a nice amount of fresh bedding for your new arrival.
- Food -- Food is another thing many breeders and rat owners argue about. You can buy a deluxe mix which, in my opinion, is best. It has some seeds and nuts, but is primarily grain. There are also usually dried fruits and veggies in it. It will also contain pressed, grayish-brown blocks -- these are rat block, and are good for the rat. It is also a good idea to feed your pet some fruits and vegetables from the table as well.
- Water -- You should have a water bottle for fresh water. Many pet stores will sell water dishes as well, but rats will play in their water and get it dirty fairly quickly. They may also drag food and bedding into it, and then they no longer have fresh water. This makes the water bottle a much better option.
- Toys -- You can get a wheel, a hammock, and other great toys that your rat(s) will love. You can even add some parrot and/or ferret toys.
You should either get these before your rats or at the same time as you are getting your rat.
Setup. Setup for a rat cage is fairly simple. You just add about 1-2" of bedding to the bottom of the cage. You will want a location for food, but this doesn't have to be a container. You can attach the water bottle and toys to the sides of the cage. Add shelves, hammocks, and even wheels to the sides and throughout the cage for a fun place. Move things around occasionally as part of stimulating your rats. Having this done before you get rats can make things smoother because you can bring them home and introduce them to their new home fully furnished.
Buying your rat(s). Most rat owners will tell you to never own a single rat. They should be kept in pairs or groups because rats are really social animals. I have owned two single rats and a few kept in pairs and groups. Single rats can and do get depressed (some more than others). They also seem more inclined to be antisocial with people as well as with other rats. However, there are some single rats that do incredibly well by themselves. I would suggest that you highly consider getting two. If you are worried about two not bonding with you as well, this is definitely a myth; as pack animals they love people and will love you whether there is one of them or one hundred of them.
NOTE: If you do get two, make sure that you know you are getting two boys or two girls. Boys are easy to identify after about four weeks, but before that they are hard to identify. If buying from a breeder, they should be able to tell. However, the pet store probably won't be able to.
To sex a baby you will want to gently turn it on its back in your hands (it probably won't really like this), place one finger on each side of the genital area and gently press down. Boys will have a penis that comes out. This is only something that has to be done if the rat is really small. If it is already pretty good size, then the balls of a male rat will hang down. A male and female couple can produce (and often do) over 100 babies in a single year, so stick with boys or girls, not boys and girls.
Care. Rats are fairly easy to take care of. Change their bedding once a week. Give fresh water regularly. Feed once a day and give treats of fresh fruits and vegetables (remove remains after an hour or so because they will eat rotten food and can get sick from it). You should also get them out for at least an hour a day to play. They love games and will learn hide and seek (much like a toddler: "Oh my! There you are!") They will also play "I'm Gonna Get You!" where the game is centered around you picking them up. Most will easily shoulder train and will enjoy going places with you.
Rats make great pets and are a lot of fun. I took my first rat to my Sunday School class of three and four year olds every now and again. She loved it and the kids loved it even more. My mom's rat loves my 21 month old son. They have been buddies since he was about 8 months old. Pet rats are wonderful with other rats, people of all ages and, in many cases, cats as well. I had three rats that stayed with my brother's two cats for a while; they would play with the cats through the bars and loved them (even when they were out!). You should always supervise rats with other pets and with young kids (accidents do happen), but they make great family pets. After the initial expense of cage and pet, they are inexpensive to care for and wonderfully lovable.