Are you looking for a unique pet that is easy and fun? Look no further than the fancy rat.
Rats have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. While most people think of rats as nuisances, this could not be farther from the truth. Fancy rats, unlike their wild counterparts, are very docile and tidy creatures. Allergy to rats is very uncommon, making them a great option for families that cannot have a cat or a dog.
A Brief History
Fancy rats are a domesticated version of the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). People began to fancy these domestic rats, around 1900. Today they come in a variety of coat colors, from solid black to the “Berkshire” (colored top, white belly), Siamese (like the cat’s coloring) to spotted or “Dalmatian.” Their hair tends to be short, dense and straight but curly varieties are out there. Don’t want hair? Hairless fancy rats are also available from specialty breeders.
Body Length: 9-11 inches Tail: 7-9 inches
Average Weight: 400g (0.8 pound) for females, 500g (1.1 pound) for males
Sexual Maturity: 10-12 weeks of age – males a little earlier than females
Lifespan: 18-36 months
Rats are very social creatures, both with their human “pet parents” and with each other. Experts recommend having a pair of rats instead of just one- they keep each other company and this helps to keep behavioral problems at bay. A pair of young males (called bucks) can live together quite well, but expect some quarreling at first as they determine who will be ‘alpha’. Does (females) or bucks are best introduced as a pair before 10 weeks of age.
Fun and Games
There are many ways to have fun with your pet rat. You may want to keep it simple and low-key – holding them, stroking them and let them perch on your shoulder while you read a book. Others like a little more activity and invest hours in building mazes and mini obstacle courses – complete with a tasty treat at the end.
If you feel like playing in the dirt – your rats will too! Take a large plastic storage container and fill it with a few inches of organic soil (no fertilizers!). Plant organic wheat grass seed and allow it to sprout. Once it has sprouted, your rats will love digging in the dirt and munching on the grass. After they get sufficiently dirty, a swim in the bathtub and a massage with a soap-free pet shampoo is enjoyable.
Pet rats spend a lot of time in their cages. In order to combat boredom, it is important to put fun bedding, blocks to chew on, pet-store cotton, hanging pieces of leather or rope in their cage. Some with even carry around little stuffed animals and pull out their stuffing. Cardboard toilet paper or paper towel tubes are always a favorite – many use them as “fun tunnels” and for chewing.
Taking Care of the Rat’s Nest
Rats can live quite comfortably in a large cage, roughly 24 inches x 12 inches x 12-15 inches tall for a pair. A solid plastic floor is ideal, covered in bedding. Wire or grated floors are not recommended, as they can cause their little feet to get stuck!
They love to burrow and build nests out of soft materials. Soft wood shavings, cardboard shavings, shredded paper or hay is ideal. The bedding should be completely changed out 1-2 times weekly. The area the rats live in must be well-ventilated and at a constant temperature, free of drafts or direct sun.
Pro Tip: Avoid bedding that contains fragrances or dyes – these can irritate your rat’s skin, eyes and may dye their fur a funny color!
Rats are omnivores and enjoy eating a variety of foods. “Rat chow” or a commercially prepared rat diet should be fed along with fresh vegetables and fruits. Like us, they are also prone to obesity – overfeeding is common. Rats are also much like us in that they enjoy sweet and salty foods. Don’t overindulge but your rat can enjoy a piece of cake or a salty potato chip every now and again. Water should be provided at all times and changed daily.
Rats are very curious and enjoy roaming around the house but this must be done under close supervision, as they are notorious for gnawing on furniture and wiring.
Health and Veterinary Care
Rats are pretty healthy creatures but it is good to keep a close eye on their health. Most health problems are husbandry-related, such as respiratory problems from bedding that is too dusty or skin infections if their bedding stays soiled for too long. A poor diet can also contribute to skin disease and dental problems.
Malocclusion, or teeth that don’t meet properly, is often caused by an improper diet. If your rat does not eat well, have a veterinarian check the teeth.
Cuts and bites from their partner can cause abscesses. Some rats can develop tumors under their skin and sometimes this is mistaken for an abscess. It is important to have any swelling on your rat’s body checked by a veterinarian, as dangerous cancers can occur.
Rats are proliferative breeders. If you wish to have a buck and a doe together, they can be surgically sterilized (spayed/neutered) to prevent unwanted litters. Female rats can also become quite grumpy when they are “in heat” – which happens every 4 days. Males that are not neutered can be more aggressive towards other rats and can “scent mark” by leaving small drops of urine where they walk. Spaying and neutering can certainly help to reduce these unwanted behaviors.
Did you know?: There are also health benefits to spaying your doe. Females that undergo a spay procedure (called an ovariohysterectomy) have a greatly reduced risk of developing estrogen-fueled tumors, such as mammary cancer, compared to those that are not spayed. Uterine cancer is completely eliminated as both the ovaries and the uterus are removed in the spay procedure. Pituitary tumors are less common in spayed rats compared to their intact counterparts. If you are interested in spaying or neutering your rat, seek out an exotics veterinarian.
The next time you, your partner or your child is interested in a new pet – consider the fancy rat. The experience will be a memorable one!
National Fancy Rat Society: http://www.nfrs.org/
Spaying or Neutering Your Rat: http://www.northstarrescue.org/pet-care-information/pet-rat-care/107-spaying-neutering-rats
Merck Veterinary Manual: http://www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/exotic_and_laboratory_animals/rodents/mice_and_rats_as_pets.html