Pet rats: your questions answered

Rats are social and affectionate animals who often develop an intense connection to their humans. They are intelligent and can be taught simple tricks or to respond to their names. Contrary to popular belief, they are very clean and easy to keep as pets.

All pet rats originate from laboratory rats who were domesticated during the 1800s. Like dogs and cats, pet rats are nothing like their wild ancestors. More than 100 years of selection in captive breeding have resulted in docile, easy-to-handle, people-oriented animals, highly suited as companion animals. Here follows some of the most asked questions about keeping rats as pets.


1. Are they suitable as pets?

Domesticated (or fancy) rats make fabulous pets for young and old alike. They are intelligent, loving, funny and friendly. They have been said to have the intelligence of a three-year-old child and this is evident to anyone who has pet rats. Their problem-solving abilities, enthusiasm to investigate new things, and keenness to play and learn new things are all clear demonstrations that they are better pets for humans than hamsters and other ‘pocket’ pets. They display an almost human quality and easily learn their names and come when called by their human in the companion animal situation.

2. Which colours do they come in?

The brown-grey colour of wild rats is called agouti and some domestic rats are still seen in this colour. But there are many more colours and patterns available today, including blazed or hooded; pointed (similar to the colours of Siamese cats); and party colours. Apart from colour, there are also breeds with unique physical traits such as dumbo ears (set lower than normal), and hairless or tailless (Manx) rats.

3. Do they smell bad?

Though pet mice and rats have a natural musk to them, their smell should be slight and not unpleasant. The primary cause of strong odours is inadequate or poor cleaning routines. It is important to regularly clean cages, not only to minimise odours but also to keep your pets healthy. Proper maintenance is important, especially if your pets are housed in a glass aquarium where ventilation may not be adequate. Vapours from urine or other waste materials can linger. Wet bedding materials or uneaten fresh foods can encourage the growth of bacteria, mildew and fungus. These conditions can cause respiratory ailments.

Uneaten fresh foods should be removed and dishes and water bottles should be cleaned daily when new food and fresh water are given. Heavily soiled areas should be removed from the bedding material daily. The entire cage, including accessories, should be thoroughly cleaned and the bedding changed once a week. Clean the cage and accessories weekly with hot soapy water to remove any hardened material, and sanitise using mild bleach or disinfecting solutions to kill germs. Thoroughly rinse the cage and accessories and air dry. Make sure the cage and accessories are completely dry before putting everything back.

4. Can rats be tamed?

Yes, rats are very easy to tame, but persistence is key. Try to handle your rat as often as possible so that the two of you can get used to each other, but don’t disturb your pet rat while he is sleeping. Do stop by his cage often to speak calmly to him in a pleasant voice that will calm and reassure him. Use treats such as unsweetened cereal to entice your rat to come to you. If he does not take the treat from your hand, leave it in his cage and soon enough he will warm up to you, the treat giver.

5. What kind of cage is best for them?

The ideal rat cage should be made of powder-coated wire and should measure at least 760 x 450 x 470mm (this size will accommodate five adult male rats or six adult female rats). Wire cages are preferred, as aquariums cause high humidity and a lack of ambient air. The rats’ preferred humidity is 50-70%. Rats need fresh air flowing through their cage to lessen the impact of the smell of ammonia from urine, which will cause respiratory health issues.

Wire cages will also allow the rat to climb, which is a natural behaviour for them. Wire floors in the cage are not suitable as the rat can develop a condition called bumble foot (especially heavy adult males). A rat’s cage environment can be enriched with toys and things to climb on or swing from. Wooden toys made for parrots work perfectly well for rats too.

Text: Laura McKeen and Maureen Price
Other answers appear in the September issue of Animaltalk.

For more information on fancy rats in SA, visit


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