Rat Basics

Rat Basics – Tips and Ideas – April 2007

Domestic pet rats are very intelligent and clean animals. They can be trained and will adapt to their surroundings very quickly. Pet rats are very social and will be happiest when living with other rats. It is strongly recommended to adopt a minimum of two rats at a time. Rats should be kept only with other rats of the same sex. It is strongly recommended to leave rat breeding to the experts, it is not for amateurs.

DO NOT pick up a rat by its tail; it is very dangerous to the rat. Always use two hands when possible to pick up a rat, one around its torso and one supporting its hind feet. Do not feed rats through the bars in the cage as the rat may get confused and bite a finger near the cage. Always announce yourself to your rat when you want to touch it. Rats have very poor eyesight and may not see you approaching. This also helps to make sure the rat is awake and not startled into biting.


A rat cage needs to take into consideration the amount of rats that will live in it and the size of the rats. It is recommend for wire type cages to make sure the bar spacing, or mesh, of the cage is not too big to easily allow the rats to fit through. The floor of the any cage should be solid all the way across. It is preferred to have shelves be solid, or covered as well to prevent potential damage to the rats’ feet. Ramps can be ladder style or solid.

It is strongly recommended that rats have a minimum of two (2) square feet or living space each in their habitat. This space must be used wisely, too. Rats should be able to stand on their hind legs to their maximum height as well as be able to stretch out to their maximum length. There should be room for food and water bowls, as well as toys and nesting areas.


DO NOT USE PINE OR CEDAR, or any other aromatic wood type shavings that contain phenols. Phenols are the oils that make the shavings smell good. These oils are very unhealthy for small animals in general. They can cause significant issues with rats’ respiratory systems. This can range from infections to scarring of the lungs.

A good commercial product to use is “Carefresh” or similar types of products. Other commercial bedding materials to consider are non-clay based cat litters, as well as paper towels and tissues. Newspaper can be used, but only as a temporary measure.

Ecologically friendly bedding materials to consider are things likes fleece, old cotton clothes, cloth pot holders, etc. Be careful of excessive loose threads, especially with very young rats as they may get tangled up.


A heavy plastic or stoneware type of bowl is suggested for food stuffs. It will help keep the cage tidier if the bowls are not easily tipped over. It is suggested there be at least one medium sized bowl of food for every two rats Rats should have an adequate supply of food at all times. The food bowls should be checked daily to make sure they are full, and any excessive shells and non-edible items removed. Treats should be given in separate bowls, or plates, not mixed with the rats’ regular food bowls. Treats can also be hand fed, of course.

Water should be fresh at all times. A water bottle or water bowl works well for rats. This, of course, depends on the rats too. Some rats will keep a water bowl clear of debris and nesting materials where others will constantly cover the bowl over with whatever is handy making the water bowl unusable. When using water bottles on the other hand it must be taken into consideration the size of the rats.

A common type of water bottle has a metal drinking tube with two ball bearings inside. The larger the bottle the more pressure the water inside pushes on these ball bearings (to stop it from leaking). The more pressure from the inside the more tongue strength the rat (or other small animal) will need to push the ball bearings in and get the water out. If the rat does not use a water bowl well, then make sure an appropriate size water bottle is used to prevent dehydration.

Do not mix anything in with the regular water, bowl or bottle. If a medicine or supplement is recommended to be given in water, use an additional water source. Some rats may stop drinking if they do not like the taste of the water, and it can be very difficult to get them to start again if this happens.


Rats are omnivorous, or in other words, they will eat just about anything. Rats are also “neo-phobic” of new foods, which basically means, they will not eat anything until they know it will not harm them. They will try a tiny nibble, and then if they feel fine afterwards they will eat more.

Decent commercial rat (or rodent) mixes of foods are available. A mix of “block” type foods and “seed” type foods are recommended. Consideration of the protein content needs to be made depending on the sex of the rats. Male rats require less protein than female rats; a good guide is approximately 14% to 20% protein, which can be found on the package labeling.

Fresh fruits and vegetables should be offered daily. Fruits and vegetables that are not eaten by the next day should be removed to prevent spoilage. Some suggestions are ripe bananas, apples (NO apple seeds as they contain poison), plums, celery, lettuce, and carrots (in small amounts).

Common cereals low in sugar and low in sodium make for great additions to the standard diets. Puffed wheat, or puffed rice, are just two ideas.

Foods to avoid: raw dry beans or peanuts, raw sweet potato, green bananas, green potato skins and eyes, wild insects, raw bulk tofu, orange juice (can cause kidney damage in male rats). Also avoid sticky foods like peanut butter and caramels as they can be choking hazards. You can feed a rat most anything you will eat; these are just some exceptions to keep in mind. NO licorice.


Rats can get treats for many things, such as a supplement to their regular diet, or as a reward for good behavior, or training accomplishments.

Although great in the summer heat, a treat that can be served most anytime is frozen peas in a shallow bowl of water. Non-sweetened banana chips, yogurt covered raisins or peanuts, plain bread sticks, dry baked potato, cooked pasta are just some ideas. All things in moderation must be remembered, too.

Every animal is different. Some rats may like the above treats, some may not. Part of keeping rats is learning what they do and do not like, and making sure they are correctly taken care of.

Exercise and Play Time

Rats are very intelligent and need mental exercise as much as physical exercise. Tunnels, igloos, ropes, ladders, blocks, and child or baby safe toys are some ideas, but the most important toy a rat has is their human. Rats need interaction with their owners on a daily basis. It is strongly recommended that there be at least one (1) hour of free range play time in a rat safe environment. This may be a bed, a sofa, a big comfy chair, or an entire room. The important part is the time socializing with the rats.

Exercise wheels should be solid or have very, very small mesh to protect the rats’ feet and more importantly to avoid a rat tail being caught and damaged.


Traveling with rats can be quite easily managed. Most pet supply stores will have or can order small animal carriers. A standard carrier for small dogs or cats may work as well; keeping in mind the openings in the cage mesh is small enough not to have the rat escape.

If the trip will be more than a short ride, it is suggested to bring along some food and water. A good food source is the rodent blocks from the rats’ standard diet and some seedless grapes for “water” on the road.

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2 thoughts on “Rat Basics

  1. Hi guys

    I’m a rat owner in the Uk and a lot of research has been done over here for the best diet for rats. Alison, of the shunamite stud, has come up with a diet that’s been used with enormous sucess and is now adopted as the standard best in fancy rat circles. try google searching ‘Shunamite Rats’ for a link to her site. she also has information on kidney disease, recommended supplements, etc. I know I used her kidney freindly diet on all my babies when the started to get old, and there’s no doubt it prolonged their life and prevented a lot of discomfort.

    Hope that helps!

    Fran (and her rats castor, pollux, mr quick, borden and fallon, wolfgang and edgeware)

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