I'm too susceptible to children begging.
July 18, 2011 5:20 PM   Subscribe

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to adopt 2 baby rats. What do I need to know that a google search doesn't tell me?

They'll be ready to leave their mother in about 4 weeks apparently (born a week ago). A friend adopted a lonely female rat when they already had a male rat. Now they have 17 baby rats. I don't want 17 baby rats so we'll probably adopt a pair of males.

The male rat has lived with the family for over a year and is still alive, so I'm also following her advice. This is what google and my friend tell me (feel free to tell me google and my friend are wrong):

- I need to get a decent-sized cage (how big?), preferably with different levels and climbing options to keep them entertained, no wire flooring as it can damage their little ratty feet;

- males tend to be more affectionate and mellow than females, and they have less chance of developing health problems like tumours (although spaying also decreases the chance of tumours in both sexes);

- bare minimum of 1 hour playtime/interaction with humans every day;

- eat mostly human-type food within reason (not lots of sugar or fat or artificial junk obviously, but they need protein - meat, rice and vegies are good) and pet-store-bought rat food, and a plentiful supply of fresh water which needs to be changed often because they either paddle or pee in it;

- they like to be in a clean cage, and newspaper can be used as a 'litter box' (a small pile in a corner, or spread all over the base of the cage?)

- they need a very shallow bath or a wipedown with a rat shampoo occasionally to keep them non-stinky.

We don't really have room inside the house for a large cage. Can the cage be kept on the front veranda when they're not interacting with humans (central NSW, Australia, winter right now, temps can drop to -4 Celsius overnight but usually are closer to 0 degrees, in summer we occasionally get 40 Celsius days but probably average low 30's)? If absolutely necessary, I'll find somewhere to keep the cage inside.

And we have a kitty visitor once every day. The neighbours cat meows at the door, comes in and chats with every human, and then leaves. Obviously we won't be letting the cat roam the house when the rats are out of their cage in the house, but are we risking their lives letting the cat near the cage, particularly if the cage is kept outside? Do they get terrified and die of shock, or something equally awful?

Our friend keeps her cage on her veranda, but she lives out of town and has a different climate to us.

Feel free to add anything else I need to know to keep Andy and Ratticus (yes, the kids have already named them) happy and healthy.
posted by malibustacey9999 to Pets & Animals (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Be very careful about what the cage is made out of. I inadvertently killed a pet rat of mine when I kept him in a cage that had a wire mesh on the top. The little guy climbed to the top of the cage, and, when trying to get out, caught his leg in the mesh and caused himself such terrible injury that he died.

You need to clean the cage ALL THE TIME, too. It gets really smelly really quickly.
posted by xingcat at 5:26 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Play with them a lot when they're little to socialize them. When they start peeing on you, put them back in the cage immediately so that they will learn only to pee in the cage, and not on you or your furniture.
posted by Dasein at 5:27 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Prepare for heartbreak. Rats have a lifespan average of 2-3 years. Some people get burned out on rat ownership because you grow to love and bond with an animal, learning their quirks and personality, possibly teaching them tricks, and then before you know it they're gone.

On the other hand, this can be a benefit if you're not looking for the long commitment of a cat or dog, but you still want a cute, cuddly, affectionate, and trainable furball.
posted by mokin at 5:32 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If the internet has taught us anything about rodents, it's that you need to construct elaborate miniature human food for them and take pictures of them eating it.
posted by phunniemee at 5:39 PM on July 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: On the other hand, this can be a benefit if you're not looking for the long commitment of a cat or dog, but you still want a cute, cuddly, affectionate, and trainable furball.

posted by mokin

That is EXACTLY why I finally caved in to the kids pleading for a pet. We've had a dog and a cat, and both pet relationships ended early and badly (dog was given to us, bought from a puppy mill and had major health problems, and the cat was simply demonic). The kids were relieved, I suspect, when both went to pet heaven. I think it would be a good lesson for them in how to grieve healthily if that makes sense.

Son has just turned 10, daughter is about to turn 13, and we've already discussed the relatively short lifespan of rats.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:41 PM on July 18, 2011

You should know that, regardless of your love and enthusiasm for your new pets, some of your visitors will not wish to see or play with them. Please be respectful of this.
posted by mauvest at 5:41 PM on July 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've kept pet rats for many years. In no particular order:

- Having a wire cage is fine, so long as the wire is coated and the spaces between the wires aren't too large or too small. Rats love wire cages because they can climb on the wires.

- They don't need an hour of playtime a day; so long as you're keeping at least 2 of them together, they can amuse themselves a bit. They would certainly appreciate an hour of playtime a day though.

- Why not get 3 or 4 instead of 2? They're not expensive to feed, and the more the merrier (for them).

- It's probably too cold in the winter to keep them outside. I wouldn't do it.

- Cats' attitudes to pet rats vary. I've seen cats that hated the rats and wouldn't go near them, and I've seen other cats that would scheme day and night to break into that cage. Brief visits by the cat are probably no problem.

- Don't use newspaper as litter! You'll have to change it every day, and it doesn't absorb odors at all. Instead, use a wire cage with a plastic-tray bottom, and put one to two inches of wooden shavings (such as aspen) in the bottom (of the entire cage, not just one corner). You can buy shavings at pet stores. Cages like these. Cleaning is simple; you take the rats out to a safe place to play, then detach the top, empty the tray, scub it with soap and water, and refill it with shavings. You only need to do this once a week, maybe slightly less frequently depending on cage size.

- They can eat people food, like table scraps, but should be fed rat blocks as well for proper nutrition. Don't feed them things like sugar or cake or chocolate, or things that are really fatty as it will give them the runs and probably isn't good for them.

- Make sure they always have water, always.

- You don't need to bathe the rats. They bathe themselves. However, they may enjoy a bath. Some rats don't like water. I wouldn't use soap on them under any circumstances.
posted by Maximian at 5:42 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: The cage, cage contents, and litter. My girlfriend has generally been caring for two rats at any given point in time. The cage we had was about a meter and a half long by a meter deep by a meter tall. It had multiple levels accessible by ramps. It had two little "castles" or "huts" in it, with bedding (felt from the haberdashery is really good for rats, they love it), food bowls, their water thingy (don't use a bowl, they'll just knock it over, you need one of those dispenser things), and a few toys and wooden chews for them to play with. We lined the bottom with kitty litter, of the recycled paper type. You DON'T want to use sawdust or clay or anything fine as it will give the ratties sneezing fits. DON'T use newspaper except as a very short-term measure as they will widdle all over it and then get bumblefoot. We used to use Breeder's Choice and it worked very well.

(Ratties love to poop and pee EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME, so be aware of that. It isn't their fault, they aren't doing it to annoy you, it's just their thing.)

Interaction and playtime. Rats, at least the rats I have been around, are VERY affectionate and VERY playful. They like a LOT of attention. The "bare minimum of 1 hour playtime/interaction" is a good starting point, but make sure they are in a place where they can see and hear you, as they like to know you are around.

Food. They need their special rat food and the rats we had also enjoyed baby food, especially baby cereal such as as Farex. Rats need to chew on stuff to wear their teeth down, otherwise their teeth will literally grow up into their skulls and brains, and ours tended to enjoy chewing material such as bedding, and power cords. They won't eat it, they'll just chew through it. The rubbery coating is irresistible to them, so be a sport and give them a few cords to nom on.

Bathtime. The ratties I had experience with HATED bathtime and got very skritchy and scratchy and climby. Have someone to help you if you can. Make sure the water is nice and warm. Baby shampoo and an old toothbrush works quite well, but still, try not to get it in their eyes or ears or mouth or nose. Make sure you rinse and dry them THOROUGHLY. Rats are very prone to both the cold, and to skin problems. "Occasionally" is about right, I think we washed the boys about once a month.

Your ratties will freeze to death outside in this weather. You need to have them inside and, ideally, have a heater for them. You could get some heat pads for them if you like, those little heat bean bag things, but chances are they'll chew through them so make sure it's grain or whatever inside. Keep them warm, that's a priority. Sorry, that's just the way it is.

Another good thing to remember is that rats are VERY light-sensitive. They hate bright lights because they see in ultraviolet (http://www.ratbehavior.org/RatVision.htm - Rat Behaviour is an awesome resource btw and you should bookmark it immediately). It would be really cool and they sure would appreciate it if you had an old blanket that you could drape over their cage when needed, so it's nice and dark and cosy and safe for them.

Our rats were okay with our cats and in fact the cats were generally terrified of them, but all rats and cats are different so be extra vigilant when your kitty visitor is around. The rats might get a bit freaked out but if you use that blanket I mentioned, and if they have their little huts and castles inside the cage, they should feel safe enough.

Rats have pecking orders and if they are boys they may tussle from time to time. When you're snuggling and playing with them, have a bit of a comb through their fur to see if there are any injuries. If they are, medicated honey balm/cream/unguent is a good thing to use. They're pretty tough but not indestructible and some can be prone to infections.

I'm making them sound like a lot of work, which I guess they are in a way, but rats are honestly really adorable critters, very loving and affectionate (in general), very smart, can be quite cheeky and have HEAPS of personality. I really dig rats but make sure you keep your eye on them and be responsible and give them the love they need. Awesome little critters, and it's good of you to adopt these two, but encourage your friend to separate the boys and the girls.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:46 PM on July 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also seconding everyone's advice above.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:47 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Forgot to mention about the water supply: use a hanging plastic bottle designed for rodents. A bowl of water generally won't work because they'll spill it, bury it, or foul it. These bottles cost about US$5 each. You hang it from the wires so that the spout is low enough for them to reach. In the summer you should use two bottles during hot weather to ensure that they don't run out while you're away.

(on preview, tumid dahlia mentioned this too)
posted by Maximian at 5:49 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: (Oh, and if you get the Farex, which I recommend you do [give it a whirl at least], get the cereal type, not the rice type, and mix a tiny little dash of honey in there for an explosively decadent treat your ratties will absolutely adore. Not too much water, make sure it's got a good chunky texture. It's got all sorts of vitamins and minerals in it that are good for rats too. They also love peas and corn from the can.)
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:50 PM on July 18, 2011

(I also meant medical honey, not medicated honey, when talking about wound treatment, but hopefully you won't have to deal with that anyway! Also, for clarification, I guess I agree with Maximian that you shouldn't strictly need to bathe them, and if you do, DEFINITELY don't use soap, use special gentle rodent shampoo or special gentle baby shampoo [if you can't get the rodent stuff], and only a tiny little bit.)
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:57 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Rat Behavior is a fantastically obsessive site about rats. tumid dahlia did mention it in the middle of her comment, but I'd hate for it to be overlooked.
posted by zamboni at 6:26 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Rats are wonderful pets. My sister and I had 3 pairs (all female) and they were all sweet, smart, personable creatures. From what I understood, female rats got along better in pairs than males. Each lived about 3 years, even the one that developed mammary tumors. They do love to chew, but the worst damage they did was to bedclothes or items that were too near their cage. We gave them chicken bones to wear down their teeth. We used cedar or pine shavings as bedding.

We kept one pair of rats outdoors in a rabbit hutch (with rabbits) and found they smelled a lot more animally than the pairs kept inside and just looked scruffier. The indoor rats got baths now and then, but most of the time they kept themselves very clean and didn't need it.

All our rats were petrified at the smell/sight of a cat. They became very alert and skittish. The cats were fascinated with the rats and would watch them for hours and hours if we let them. It was best to keep the rats in a room with a closed door. Once the rats escaped from the cage and the cat brought one of them downstairs in his mouth and dropped it near where we were watching TV as if to say, 'hey, do something with this.' The rat was absolutely terrified but unhurt. That was the most exciting interaction we had, but we were careful about keeping them separated for the most part.

Lots of good info from the others here.
posted by griselda at 6:26 PM on July 18, 2011

tumid dahlia did mention it in the middle of her comment

Hey now.
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:28 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: We have a cage similar to this for our two male ratties and really like it- it's pretty easy to clean, solid platforms, and they loooove scaling up the bars of the cage. The 3 different doors help in wrangling them when we want to get them out (although they love coming out!) We use recycled paper bedding, changed frequently. Our ratties have a bottle of water on the side of the cage, not a dish of it, because they spend more time knocking it over than drinking it.

I would definitely not keep them outside, that's way too cold for them to be comfortable. Our cage doesn't take up too much space inside and as long as it's cleaned frequently, there's no smell. We use rat wipes on them if they're looking particularly grody, but they're pretty good at cleaning themselves. One of them doesn't clean himself often, but his brother usually takes care of that for us (which is adorable).

Our ratties get lab blocks every day and a special treat every other day/every few days- we have a mixture that we made of things like organic "cheerios", sunflower seeds, unroasted soy nuts, wheat germ, dry pasta, rice cereal, etc that we mix with baby food (check the ingredients carefully- we buy the natural stuff that's just fruit or veggies and water) and they go CRAZY for it. They can also have chocolate in VERY small amounts- ours get a chip a week, it's supposed to help prevent respiratory infections.

I think cat/rat interactions depend on your animals. We have a cat and a kitten- the kitten will not go near them, the cat is simultaneously terrified and fascinated by them. I think the rats have fun torturing the cat- she goes and sits by their cage and they just run back and forth and watch her. There's never been any kind of disruption between them.

Enjoy your new pets- rats grow on you quickly!
posted by kro at 7:00 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: You must also provide them with appropriately-sized teddy bears.
posted by Glinn at 7:14 PM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's the link to my question when I was considering getting rats (I did, three males). Here's a photo of their cage set-up. As mentioned in my thread, Goosemoose was an invaluable resource.

- good food: Mazuri or Harlan Lab Blocks (I couldn't find Mazuri locally, so purchased Harlan through the internet
- good bedding: CareFresh (do NOT use cedar or other aromatic wood bedding)
- get a SOLID running wheel (rat toes can get caught in wire)
- keep them indoors (they're very susceptible to temperatures both hot and cold)
- wire cages are fine as long as they're kept clean with some solid surfaces to rest their paws (squares of tile or linoleum are great and easy to clean)
- my cage is a Martin's 695 w/powder coating (it is big enough for five rats, but the more room the better - three rats had lots of room)

My rats lived 1.5 years and almost two years. They were rescues, not from breeders who breed for longevity.

Feel free to MeMail or eMail me with any questions. Good luck!
posted by deborah at 7:42 PM on July 18, 2011

my friend had a pet rat. because it was a lone pet, it didn't need to be spayed. his balls were enormous, and it was kind of gross. So you might spay anyway (besides, if one escapes, that'll keep the wild population down, too.)
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:46 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Learn from my mistakes as a Dumb, Unprepared Rat Grandmother:

Do not skimp on the cage. Make sure you get one designed for rats or large rodents. My daughter's rat chewed through the plastic hamster cage we bought for her. The cage was also much too small.

Don't put the cage too close to any curtains that you would like to keep nice. Daughter's rat pulled some lightweight curtains into her cage, but in a way that we didn't really notice until she'd already chewed them and peed all over them.

Learn (and obviously make sure the kids know) the proper way to pick up and handle a rat. Do not pick one up by the tail. Especially do not try to grab a rat by its tail to keep it from diving into the couch cushions. You may end up with a degloving injury, which is nasty and painful and can result in serious infections.

Find out which vets in your area treat rats, and find out if they have emergency hours. Do this before everyone in the house, including the rat, is running around in a panic because the rat has sustained a nasty painful injury.

Good luck with your new friends. I loved my GrandRat, and I wish they live dlonger than a year r two.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:47 PM on July 18, 2011

Google rat hammocks. They love fleecy pocket hammock beds to lounge in. Lots of people make and sell them (often to benefit animal rescue.) Get a few so you can rotate them out for laundering. Also, vinegar cleans a cage up nicely without danger of harmful residue.
posted by Lou Stuells at 10:12 PM on July 18, 2011

Oh god I said felt didn't I? I meant fleece, fleece.
posted by tumid dahlia at 10:50 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Rats are great little pets! Congratulations; you have years of cuteness & fun to look forward to.

To add to (or counter) what's been said above:

- wire cages: perfectly fine, in my experience. They love climbing up the walls, or doing little chinups & hanging from the ceilings.

- pooing & peeing: they normally only poo in one place, ie their cage. They're a bit like cats in that way - there's a designated toilet. Peeing, on the other hand, is something they do naturally to lay down scent trails, because their eyesight isn't all that great. It'll just be tiny little dabs, really nothing to worry about. I've never heard the suggestion above about training them out of it, but maybe it works?

- they LOVE creamed corn as a snack. LOVE LOVE LOVE it. Also happy to lick beer off your fingertip, or drink it out of a bottle cap.

- you can carry them around all over the place on your shoulder, like a pirate's parrot. They'll also dive down your neck & hang out inside your cloting, especially in the neat little ledge of sleeve beneath your armpit. Occasionally, they'll scurry to the end of long sleeves, to take a peek out at your wrist. I used to take mine to law classes like this; they were very well behaved.

- reconsider keeping them outside if you live in the far outback like you do. The snakes will consider them dinner, and might conspire to bite them through the cage bars.

- if you squash a cockroach, throw it into the cage & watch the ratties gobble it up! nom nom nom white gunk inside nom. on second thoughts, don't do this unless you have a high squeamishness threshold.

- "stands out like dogs' balls" will fade into absurdity once you've had full-grown male rats.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:44 PM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Also, definitely get the biggest cage you can! You can think outside of the "box", and build instead of purchase if money is a concern. Some of the awesome gigantic cages can be anywhere from fifty to a few hundred bucks, making you much more likely to get something smaller for thirty at a pet store. BUT! I made a cage for my sugar gliders (small squirrel-like animals) for about thirty dollars worth of materials from Home Depot. And it was custom fitted for the corner of my house (cuz I made it!) and really big but pretty. There are lots of plans available online. It's a good idea to look at them because someone else has already considered where to put perches/hang hammocks/stash hidey-holes, so you don't have to worry about forgetting something. But you can add on any features you think would be cool..tunnels, observable nesting boxes, etc. Good luck! Rats are really great little animals!
posted by troublewithwolves at 12:19 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Spectacular advice, thank you all. I'm awaiting a return phone call from the local vet about the cost of spaying/neutering (and now I've learned the difference - I thought spaying covered both genders!).

I'm exploring cage options while having heart attacks at the price.

The kids and I have talked more about we can and cannot do with our little ratty friends. I have relayed and explained your advice.

Your suggestions and advice have been so helpful... I think I might get an extra one for me too. Why should kids have all the fun??? But I regret suggesting Ratticus already, now I have to come up with a new cool name for mine.

On preview, I'm pretty handy, troublewithwolves, and I'm kinda excited by the idea of building our very own custom-built rat kingdom. Look out Bunnings (local hardware store), here I come.

Will award best answers and favourites soon, upon deliberation. You guys rock.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 12:27 AM on July 19, 2011

But I regret suggesting Ratticus already, now I have to come up with a new cool name for mine.

posted by UbuRoivas at 12:33 AM on July 19, 2011

I don't know if this has been covered, but I just wanted to say - you can train baby rats to know their names and come when called. Mine did. It was the most awesome thing ever.

And as an FYI, if you let them roam free inside they'll chew everything. And mine climbed the chimney and got covered in soot and I had to wash them, which they did not appreciate.

They're fantastic pets tho, I still miss my rats
posted by stillnocturnal at 5:35 AM on July 19, 2011

Re: spaying/neutering -- I've never fixed a single rat in 10 years of rat-keeping. There's no need, so long as you're not mixing genders. Females' heat cycles are harmless, and the males are fine too (I have two groups of rats right now, separated by gender). Is there a particular reason you want to fix them? Rats aren't hard to sex once they're old enough, if you're concerned that one of your males might in actuality be a female...
posted by Maximian at 6:41 AM on July 19, 2011

Fixing rats cuts down on hormone-driven things like tumour development.
posted by batmonkey at 10:35 AM on July 19, 2011

Love, love, love your rat-names. The larger the cage the better. They love to climb. They love to explore. God, did we love our pet rats. Unfortunately, our beagles hated them. (The short lifespan thing is never fun either.) Enjoy your wonderful new pets!
posted by blucevalo at 11:56 AM on July 19, 2011

I would strongly recommend against spaying or neutering the rats provided they are both the same sex. Most vets are useless and will kill them.
posted by tumid dahlia at 4:18 PM on July 19, 2011

Best answer: Another recommendation: don't use pine shavings. Pine wood has phenols in it that can exacerbate a problem that rats are sort of prone to -- take a look at Breathing Problems in Mice & Rats.

Enjoy, we've had 97 rats over the past ten years ... mostly rescues.
posted by dwbrant at 1:39 PM on July 20, 2011

Response by poster: We're now adopting 3 females. I'm searching for a nice big cage with ramps and levels and whatnot, and if I can't get one in time I'll build one.

I'm weighing up desexing. I have confidence in our local vet, and she said she'll cut (ha ha) us a deal if we all of them done on the one day (AU$50 each instead of AU$100 each). She also made a point of telling me a lot of stuff that y'all have told me about feeding, safe cage environments, socialising early, etc. But I don't want to put our new ratty friends under any extress stress... yeah, still deciding.

Anyone ever read Play Little Victims? I think my rat - despite not being a mouse - will be called Ratmus.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:40 AM on July 21, 2011

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