Should I get pet rats?
January 24, 2009 11:48 PM   Subscribe

Should I get pet rats? Will they pee all over and eat all my wires and crawl into my walls?

We're (husband and I, no kids) thinking of getting rats or guinea pigs (we're aware of the need to get them in pairs), and of those, I'm leaning toward rats -- specifically, male rats, because I understand they are generally lazier than their female counterparts and more likely to be "lap rats" (that's laP, not laB), which is desirable to me.

I've done a fair bit of research already and will continue to do lots more before we decide. But some of what I'm wondering is kind of hard to gauge from otherwise helpful sites, such as...

- How noisy are they? The cage will probably be in the living room -- are they likely to prove too distracting while we watch a movie?

- I understand they should have at least an hour of "social time" per day. Is it important that this be "run around and roam and play" time, or is "sit on my shoulder or lap while we watch TV time" good? Is the point to bond, or to bond and exercise?

- I understand they are keen on chewing wires and cables (among other things). Rat-proofing the living room is unlikely -- we have speakers (5 plus subwoofer), so quite a bit of speaker wire. Does this mean I shouldn't even sit with them there? Are they (males) likely to jump away from me and beeline to the wires and start gnawing before I can tear my eyes away from Lost?

- Do they urine-mark quite a lot? Is it awful? Am I going to want to put on my crappiest clothes before hanging out with them, and cover the couch in old sheets?

- If urine-marking is a problem and we decide to neuter to try to cut down on it, how much is that likely to cost? (I understand this may be hard to answer. I'm in Albany, NY, for what it's worth.)

- If given a little roam time, are they likely to find some weird hiding place, like under the radiator or in the recliner springs or, somehow, in the walls or something? (We have cats, so just leaving them until they come out on their own probably wouldn't be a wise option.)

- Are they great climbers? If I want to block an area (say, the stairs, or an area where there are lots of wires), how would I do that?

Mostly I'm just unclear/concerned about how much they're going to roam around and get into trouble. Don't get me wrong, I don't ever plan to let them run free unsupervised, but realistically, I might look away briefly, and I'm just not sure how quickly they're going to disappear/electrocute themselves/ruin furniture.

Am I overthinking it? Or is my concern a sign that we should get guinea pigs -- or neither -- instead?

I guess what I'm imagining is that for an hour or more each night, we'll have the rats sitting with us on the couch while we watch TV (in a non-rat-proof living room), and a couple or few times a week we'll also play with them in the spare room (which will be much easier to rat-proof). Is this realistic?
posted by greendress to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I had girl rats, so I don't know about the urine marking or neutering. I think your main question though is about their activity level, and that I would say is active but not hyperactive. They don't run at full clip or jump unless they're running away, so it's not difficult to keep up with them. Mine liked to run up my arm and hide behind my hair with just their face peeking out, and would happily stay there for a while before wandering over to sniff something. If you want them to sit on your lap, give them a blanket or something to hide in, they don't like sitting out exposed much. Your wiring will be okay, and you can tempt them out of hiding places with food pretty easily if they disappear while playing.

However, in your case I would advise against getting rats because of the cats. You will have to keep the rats in a room where the cats aren't ever allowed, the cats will hunt them constantly and the rats will be stressed and panicky when they smell the cats. I lost a pet rat to my parents' Airedale terrier even though I was careful, and cats are much more dangerous as hunters. Please don't tempt fate.
posted by cali at 1:29 AM on January 25, 2009


For reference, I've owned 6-7 rats total (2-3 at any one time).

You know to get a pair, so that's the most important thing. Here are two other things that will help:
Martin's cages The R-695 with powder coating is perfect for 2-3 rats.
Wodent Wheel (you want the large one)

- How noisy are they? The cage will probably be in the living room -- are they likely to prove too distracting while we watch a movie?

Depends on whether they're awake. They're largely nocturnal - you'd never want them in a room people are sleeping in - but they'll wake up and take interest in you if you're around. Most of the noise they make is running in their wheel. By and large I think you'd be okay here.

- I understand they should have at least an hour of "social time" per day. Is it important that this be "run around and roam and play" time, or is "sit on my shoulder or lap while we watch TV time" good? Is the point to bond, or to bond and exercise?

A little of both. If you have a computer desk to let them run around on (and rub the cords with Bitter Apple or some other deterrent) while you browse the web with one eye on them, that can be pretty ideal. They're generally looking more to cuddle - crawl into your sweater sleeve, curl up on your lap, etc, but it helps to have activities for them - a small feeding bowl with water and frozen peas will keep them entertained for a *long* time.

- I understand they are keen on chewing wires and cables (among other things). Rat-proofing the living room is unlikely -- we have speakers (5 plus subwoofer), so quite a bit of speaker wire. Does this mean I shouldn't even sit with them there? Are they (males) likely to jump away from me and beeline to the wires and start gnawing before I can tear my eyes away from Lost?

They're not going to make a beeline for death, but letting them run around unsupervised for more than five minutes is probably a bad idea. If you're even vaguely playing with them/petting them they're not likely to dive for the floor.

- Do they urine-mark quite a lot? Is it awful? Am I going to want to put on my crappiest clothes before hanging out with them, and cover the couch in old sheets?

Depends on a lot of factors: gender, excitement level, personality of the individual rat, etc. If you're letting them run around on a desk for a half hour, it's reasonable to expect that you'll need a wet and a dry paper towel to clean up a few driblets of rat pee, yes. They're not particularly prone to peeing on people that I've found, but if you have an old sweater or cardigan to throw on when playing with them (more to provide them with loose long sleeves than anything), that's probably a good idea - there will probably be the occasional few drops of pee, and there will be some very occasional good-natured chewing on clothing on occasion.

Sheets on the couch would be overkill. Letting them run around freely on the bare upholstery for a minute or two is asking for a small but noticeable stain.

- If urine-marking is a problem and we decide to neuter to try to cut down on it, how much is that likely to cost? (I understand this may be hard to answer. I'm in Albany, NY, for what it's worth.)

Rat surgery at one of the big pet hospitals will run up to $300 or more. My ex once spent $1100 on a single rat.

Your best bet is to find the local, well, nutcase for lack of a better term. In Seattle we found an elderly lady vet who loved rats and did their surgeries for $30-50 a pop. In Boston, Dr. Mertz (aka The Odd Pet Vet), the head of the New England Wildlife Center, still does the occasional rat surgery for $80. This included full anesthesia. Basically: find the local weirdo with a small private practice who's in it for the love.

- If given a little roam time, are they likely to find some weird hiding place, like under the radiator or in the recliner springs or, somehow, in the walls or something? (We have cats, so just leaving them until they come out on their own probably wouldn't be a wise option.)

Oh yes. However! Rats, unlike gerbils, will quickly learn to respond quite rapidly to that most magical of all words: TREAT! Start training association between yogurt drops and "[rat name], TREAT!" from the first day - it will make life a thousand times easier.

- Are they great climbers? If I want to block an area (say, the stairs, or an area where there are lots of wires), how would I do that?

I don't honestly know - we never let ours run around on the ground much. Running around on computer desks and inside my ex's old chewed-up sweater was all ours ever wanted.

Honestly, the problem with rats isn't so much the roaming - they will always come to treats, and they're not 100% focused on suicide. The problem is the maintenance and smell due to urine. Be prepared to change cage litter every five days. Be prepared to give the sides of the cage a quick wipedown with an old sponge every three weeks. Be prepared to keep some newspapers on the ground around the cage - at least a six-inch border in all directions. If you have the cage up against the wall, tape newspaper to that wall in similar fashion. Why? Because they invariably go to the top level of their cage, and pee along one of the outer walls, with the wire mesh below causing it to spatter slightly on its way down.

If you're looking for cute maintenance-free rodents (who are unfortunately a lot less affectionate) - look into gerbils.
posted by Ryvar at 2:15 AM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, Ryvar's answer is pretty comprehensive - I'll just say based on my two (female) rats, I agree with pretty much everything he says. A few additions:

- Are they great climbers? If I want to block an area (say, the stairs, or an area where there are lots of wires), how would I do that?

We do let our rats run around on the floor quite a bit, and they are rather excellent climbers. They can't get up sheer walls or anything, but they're pretty adventurous in all three dimensions.

Re: Urine,

When they were younger, our rats did tend to dribble a bit, mostly after they'd been out for a while and were getting hyper, but honestly female rat pee is quite innocuous - it doesn't smell, and as far as I can tell doesn't really leave a mark.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:20 AM on January 25, 2009


I want to emphasize that a lot depends on the individual rat and how tamed/social it is.
My sister had a wonderful female rat who snuggled and was a constant companion, riding on her shoulder. That rat died at a ripe old age (for rats) and my sister took in a pair of male rats who were hyper-aggressive and actively attacked her at every opportunity, leaving many deep bites on her feet and hands. She returned them to the shop where she'd got them, and got another female rat. This one is not aggressive but is very skittish rather than affectionate, though entertaining to observe as a pet.

Both rats and cats are so sensitive to scent that I would imagine combining them in the house would be stressful for everyone.
posted by egret at 10:40 AM on January 25, 2009


Two more things:
a) I should have mentioned that my experiences are all based off of female rats, and
b) I *highly* recommend that you get your rats from a local breeder, and not a store. The health and temperament differences are substantial.
posted by Ryvar at 11:08 AM on January 25, 2009


My old roommate kept rats for a while. For a while we had a cat and a rat at the same time. The rat was a super-friendly critter who couldn't imagine that everybody in the world wasn't his buddy. As a result, he had the cat completely intimidated because he never showed any fear and the cat didn't know how to deal with that.

That was also the last rat we ever had, because he was so loving that it broke all our hearts when he died. The problem with rats is that they just don't live very long. If you get attached to a pet, it sucks to have it only live for 2-3 years.
posted by tdismukes at 11:09 AM on January 25, 2009


However, in your case I would advise against getting rats because of the cats. You will have to keep the rats in a room where the cats aren't ever allowed, the cats will hunt them constantly and the rats will be stressed and panicky when they smell the cats. I lost a pet rat to my parents' Airedale terrier even though I was careful, and cats are much more dangerous as hunters. Please don't tempt fate.

We actually had a rats vs. cats thread just last week; the conclusions were somewhat different.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:10 AM on January 25, 2009


Thanks for the answers so far!

I've quite a bit of reading about cats and rats (including the thread linked above as well as an older AskMefi thread), and I'm not too concerned about that. Overall it seems most people don't find it to be a problem. I'll never leave the rats free and unsupervised with the cats, but I suspect I'll be able to have the rats out with us without the cats trying to eat them. (If I'm wrong, we can shut the cats upstairs, out of the room, etc. during rat play-time.) Knowing my cats, I bet they'll be terrified of the rats at first; the older one will probably adjust to indifference, and the younger one I could see either being scared of them forever, or wanting to be (friendly) playmates. (In which case we will supervise carefully to ensure no one gets hurt.)
posted by greendress at 2:46 PM on January 25, 2009


Male rats are stinkier than females, and tend to fight one another unless they've been neutered. We always got female rats for those reasons.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:43 AM on January 26, 2009


Followup: We adopted two males from a local rescue, who had already neutered them. They're adjusting well, and have never yet peed on us or our furniture (though there was a little fear-pooping the first couple of days) or eaten any wires. I was pretty spot-on about the cats -- the older one was mildly fearful at first and is now indifferent; the younger one was absolutely terrified for a while and is now alternately mildly curious (sniffing noses through the cage) and still a little scared (particularly when they're out of the cage). The rats seem pretty indifferent to the cats.
posted by greendress at 4:30 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


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