This rat guide is only the most basic information you will need about the fancy of owning rats. The information provided is intended to help new owners decide if a rat is the right pet for them. Please do your research before adopting any pet. Please contact MBLU if you have questions you cannot find the answers to within this website.
The domestic rats raised in USA are from the species Rattus norvegicus, also known as the Norway Rat, Sewer Rat, or Brown Rat. Owning and enjoying rats is known as a "Fancy". So Fancy Rats really is a term used to describe the fancy or enjoyment of owning pet rats and has nothing to do with the looks or variety of the rat. There is no actual kind of rat called a Fancy Rat. Rats are not divided into breeds, but are grouped by varieties. As of Jan 2017, the 7 rat varieties recognized by the AFRMA are Standard, Dumbo, Tailless, Hairless, Rex, Satin, and Bristle Coat. Within these 7 varieties are various colors and patterns that give your rat its individual look. For descriptions of these varieties, please review the AFRMA.org website and click on Rat Standards.
As far as rodents go, rats are by far the smartest and friendliest to humans. A well-socialized rat will jump up on the sides of its cage when you enter the room, begging to be let out for play time or given a treat. Rats are the one rodent that actually enjoys being with people, and can be trained to do simple or complex tasks. Because of their highly social nature, rats require lots of interaction with their owners and other rats. Rats can easily be held or carried, enjoy being pet, and even gently wrestled with. Quality pet rats rarely bite; if they do nip it is most likely because your hands have good smells on them. Rats have very poor eyesight but incredible smelling ability, so often they can mistake fingers for food. It is best to wash your hands before and after handling your rats, but don't use yummy smelling soap.
Male or Female?
Rats should live in groups of two or more with the same gender. Never plan to have a single rat. If your rat is spayed or neutered, opposite sex pairs do well also. MBLU recommends 2+ females or 3+ males per large cage.
Female rats tend to be smaller than males, more active, have softer fur, are usually a bit cleaner and produce less of an odor. Females do best when in groups of 2 or more. Solo females often develop neurotic tendencies or behavioral problems which magically go away with the addition of a rat companion. Female rats are also easier to add new cage mates to at a later date should you decide to extend your rat family. MBLU recommends 2 cubic feet cage space per female rat and 2-6 females per large cage. Female rats are a great choice for first time rat owners because of their passive nature, curious demeanor, willingness to work for food (trainable), and ease of introduction to other rats at all ages.
Males rats are larger, less active (often referred to as couch potatoes), more cuddly, can have coarse fur, have a bit more of an odor, and can be a bit messier. Males have a musk odor, can produce greasy back, tend to dribble, and are usually not as accepting of new comers at a later date. Males may also exhibit aggressive behavior toward each other when they mature between the ages of 4-8 months. MBLU recommends always staring with 3-5 male rats to keeps them in a working community and less likely to be aggressive one on one. Be sure there is enough cage space for multiple male rats! MBLU recommends 3 cubic feet cage space per male rat.
Remember that descriptions above are only generic guidelines and each rat has its own personality! The choice is really up to you on which gender you, as most rats make awesome pets. Both genders can be trained with patience and good treats! Both genders make wonderful pets in the right environment.
What You Need
Before you bring your rats home, you will need a cage suitable for the number of rats you are purchasing. The bigger the better but be sure not to get a cage that is too small. The general rule is that there should be about 2 cubic feet of space per female rat and 3 cubic feet of space per male rat, but the footage can overlap a bit. You will also need an 8oz water bottle placed within reach of the rats. A food dish that is sturdy, chew-resistant, and will not easily tip over (or attaches to the cage) is recommended over just putting food on the floor of the cage. Other items that make great cage additions: bedding, a quality rat food, toys, igloos, tunnels, 12" wheel, and hammocks. Be creative! The more they have to play with, the more enriched they will be!
Your cage should be as large as possible, as rats, especially females, are quite active and love to move around. A wire cage with a metal bottom is best, as it allows maximum ventilation without escape. A cage that sits inside a plastic base or has wire bottom is also usable and works well for rats. The cage walls' bar spacing should be no more than 1/2" wide, as rats can easily fit through anything farther apart. Wire bar length really doesn't matter, but recommended is 1-6" length in horizontal bars. MBLU recommends horizontal bars for easy climbing and is preferred by rats over the vertical bars that restrict climbing (think of climbing a ladder vs a rope). Cages with a plastic base and/or plastic parts are not recommended as they can easily be chewed by your rats. A rat can escape by chewing through a corner of the plastic base within an hour. Not all rats chew, but why take the risk? MBLU recommends Critter Nation cages and MartinsCages, see Links page.
Toys & Cage Accessories
Rats can have fun with almost anything that can be climbed on, hidden in, or chewed (nothing containing Alfalfa please). Tunnels, houses, running wheels, and hammocks are available online and from pet stores. You can make rat toys yourself out of common household items and clothes. Toys made in USA for parrots are often safe for rats too. Be sure not purchase anything made in China, many rats have died after chewing toys from China. Nothing against the trade, but we can't trust what chemicals or metals are in the Made in China toys. Be Creative! Rats love to chew and tear apart cardboard boxes; most of us have MANY boxes that can be a rat house! Your old T-shirt or Jeans can be cut up to make hammocks, tunnels, hide places, or just warm bedding for the rat's house. Be Creative!!! Have Fun!!
There are many commercially available substrate for rats. Safe bedding include Aspen, CornCob, CareFresh, or other paper-based pet bedding. Most pet bedding will neutralize the ammonia in rat urine, keeping your cage smelling fresh longer! You can also use shredded newspaper, shredded white paper, or bits of fleece or other cloth that can be washed and reused, though these choices do not neutralize the rat urine smell and your cage will need to be cleaned a few times a week if not every day. Pine and cedar wood chips, or scented bedding should NOT be used in cages for rats. Pine and Cedar contain phenols, which can irritate the sensitive respiratory system of a rat, and may cause respiratory infections. MBLU says "if you can't hold it to your nose and breath it for 5 minutes, don't expect your rats to live in it". Often, parasites come in the bedding purchased retail or wholesale. To reduce occurrence of mites/lice/fleas getting to your rats, MBLU recommends you freeze your bedding for 2 weeks before use. Simply fill two 1 gallon ziplock freezer bags, each with 1 weeks bedding need. Refill each weekly as you use it! The first baggie may only be frozen a week, but after that, you are on a 2 week cycle!
Corner Litter Box
Most rats are easily trained to use a corner litter box in their cage. Simply put the corner pan in the corner they have been going to the bathroom most, or in a new cage, pick a corner. Always put a little bit of soiled litter into the pan. I recommend when you clean the cage, clean the corner pan first, wipe out (but don't wash), fill 1 inch of bottom with litter from the cage, then replace cage litter. You can clean the litter box as needed, and the full cage every other week if they use their litter box well. For male rats, put a fist size rock in the middle of the litter pan. This encourages males to scent the rock, somewhat like a dog would spray a tree. Do not clean the rock weekly, let it be yucky!!! When you can't handle it, just rinse off in hot water and put back into the litter box (don't use soap, you want some scent remaining on the rock). Do not use a rock for female rats - females think its gross!
MBLU has fed various foods over the years and has found the Envigo Teklad line to be the best for MBLU rats. The best rat foods are Envigo Teklad 2018, 2016, 2014, and Oxbow Essentials Adult Rat. Do not feed any retail foods that contain alfalfa in any form. NoNo brands with alfalfa includes Oxbow Young Rat and Mouse, Mazuri, Kaytee, etc. Read the ingredients list, if you see the word Alfalfa then put it back. Search online for other foods you can use as safe treats and lists of foods to stay away from. Many rat health issues come from the foods owners provide them. If you feed Envigo Teklad or Oxbow Essentials Adult Rat, you should have a healthier rat that can live 2-3 years.
You can expect your rat to live about 2 years. Occasionally rats will live to 3yr or longer but this is rare. Rats do not need vaccinations. As long as they are healthy there is no reason for them to get regular check-ups with a vet. Know your rat and know when they are showing basic signs of illness. The most common health problems among rats are respiratory infections (usually a mycoplasma flare up caused by stress, poor ventilation, drafts, scented bedding, an unclean cage, or irritants in the air), external parasites such as mites or lice, tumors, stroke, and old age. The likely hood of illness can be decreased by feeding quality rat food, using proper bedding, and keeping and stress free environment. Scabs around the neck are often caused from mites/lice/fleas, not your rats wrestling. Upper Respiratory Illness is often caused by stress in the environment. Be sure to freeze bedding and food to control mites/lice/fleas. Keep your rats out of draft areas and do not let the fan blow directly on them. Most rats remain healthy all of their lives, but a rat that tilts it head (wryneck), develops scabs, sneezes often, makes wet lung noises, or is gasping for air will need immediate medical attention. Should the need arise, a list of recommended veterinarians is on the Links page.
Excerpt: ‘Dwarf Rats’ by Debbi J. Neeham, 2005
The spontaneous dwarf rat (SDR) was found in a laboratory colony of Sprague Dawley rats in 1977. It is a recessive mutation that causes them to have reduced GH or Growth Hormone which causes them to be up 40-75% smaller than their normal-sized counterparts, and in fact, a little larger than some fancy English mice. Dwarf rats have been found to be resistant to some cancers, as scientists have studied the effect of chemically induced cancer on dwarf rats and found dwarfs do not develop cancerous tumors like typically sized rats due to their lack of Growth Hormone. That is great news for those whom keep rats in the rat fancy!
Please see the following pages for more info on dwarf rats!
Atlantas Rattery: https://www.atlantisrattery.com/dwarf-rats.html
MAC Rattery: https://macrattery.weebly.com/the-dwarf-rat.html
Evolution Rattery: https://www.evolutionrattery.com/blog/varieties-part-two-dwarfs-do-they-come-from-munchkin-land
There are some diseases that can be transferred from rodents to humans. Known diseases are: Seoul Virus, Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome, Leptospirosis, Rat Bite Fever, and Salmonellosis. Be aware of these diseases but do not be afraid of them. The best prevention is practicing proper hygiene (wash arms/body after handling any pets), keeping cages cleaned regularly, and being aware of signs and symptoms of the diseases. If you ever visit your doctor, always mention you have pet rodents, it could make a difference in their diagnoses. The CDC has a list of diseases directly transmitted to humans by rodents: https://www.cdc.gov/rodents/diseases/direct.html or here for Seoul Virus CDC MidWest investigation updates: https://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/outbreaks/seoul-virus/index.html and Seoul virus info here: https://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/outbreaks/seoul-virus/faqs-seoul-virus.html
Got My Rats Home, Now What?
MBLU recommends you have a cage setup and awaiting the arrival of your new rats. Put the rats in the cage when you get home and let them explore around for an hour or so in their new environment. Remember, this is a very scary day for the rats! They have left everything they know behind and are moved into a new house in a new environment where they have all new smells, sounds, and sights. After about an hour, take out one rat and handle them on your person for about 20min, then put that rat away and take out another rat. Handling the rats for about 20-30min at a time, with 1-2 hours in cage between handling, will get them used to you and you used to them. Be sure to take the rats out multiple times daily! The first week MBLU recommends you handle the rats on your person, in your hands, shoulder, chest, etc. This allows for bonding between rat and humans. In this time, rats are learning that you are the safe zone. If you let them run around the house the first week, they won't know where a safe place is and will run to the deepest darkest place they can find. Sometimes this 'dark safe place' is not a safe place at all! Hopefully, after a couple weeks of being handled by you in their new home environment, they will run to you if they are scared.
If you have problems getting the rats to come out of the cage in the first few weeks, MBLU recommends you get a small box, like a Kleenex box, that can easily go in and out of the cage door. Guide the rats into the box (don't chase or scare them into it), remove the box from the cage, remove rats from box or dump box into your lap. This allows for everyone to have a safe way to remove rats from the cage without teaching them to run away from you (remember, they haven't learned to trust you just yet..it takes some time for them to adjust to new people. All rats are different, some get it right away but others could take some extra time.
As the rats get used to you and their new environment, you can handle them longer and longer. After a few months, you can have them out indefinitely as long as they have access to food and water!
Another Great Source of Rat Information
MBLU is not affiliated with the Rat Guru, I only provide these links for you to learn more about owning pet rats.
I have found "The Rat Guru" with the following YouTube and Facebook group to be a great source of Rat related Information!
YouTube: Rattiepedia | The Ultimate Guide to Pet Rats
Facebook Group: All Things Pet Rats
As Always, if you have any questions or concerns after reading through this website, please contact MBLU!
tip: Click on the Facebook logo in upper right corner of each page to join the Facebook group for Misty Blue Rattery!
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updated: Jul 2019