Rats are intelligent, affectionate, social creatures that live well together in same-sex or neutered pairs. They enjoy being handled and bond closely to their owners. Rats live, on average, 2-3 years. They are generally nocturnal (active at night), so evening is the best time to play with them.
The more they are handled, the calmer and tamer they will be. They love to explore and investigate their surroundings and should be provided with climbing toys, exercise wheels (not made from wire in which they can get caught and injured), and hiding tubes. Wooden chew sticks and cardboard should be offered to help keep their continuously growing incisor (front) teeth ground down.
Rats should be housed in as large a cage as possible: no less than 14”x24”x12”. Overcrowding should be avoided, as rats will often injure each other when too many are housed together in small cages. Cages should be escape proof and made from easily cleanable material. The best cage for good ventilation is one with a plastic bottom and coated-wire sides and top. Floors should be solid and made from plastic or metal to prevent sores from developing on the soles of the feet.
Commercially available recycled paper bedding and newspaper are suitable bedding for rats and should be maintained at least a quarter inch thick to enable burrowing. Bedding material should be changed at least once a week. Wood shavings are not recommended, as they are dusty, breed bacteria and mold and are indigestible if consumed. Rats should be provided with a hide box or hammock for sleeping and should be kept at 65-80°F. Cages should be kept away from heating ducts and air conditioners, so that rats do not get overheated or chilled.
Care must be taken to ensure adequate cage cleanliness and ventilation, so that ammonia from urine does not accumulate, predisposing rats to respiratory infection. Rats also should never be exposed to airborne toxins such as cigarette smoke. Rats should be allowed out of their cages daily to exercise but should never be left unsupervised, as they may chew electric cords, plants, or paint; suffer traumatic falls; or become injured by predatory pets, such as cats and dogs, or by small children. Likewise, they should be monitored around smaller pets such as hamsters, mice, gerbils, and birds, which they can kill.
Rats are omnivores − they eat both plant and animal matter. Rats should be fed free-choice commercially available pelleted diets designed specifically for rats. Feeding all-seed diets or seed-pellet combinations is not recommended, as most small rodents will select out the high-fat seeds, ignoring the more nutritious pellets. This leads to obesity, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and other nutritional problems, such as osteoporosis.
Supplemental vegetables and fruit also should be offered in small quantities. Adequate chance to exercise should be allowed to prevent obesity. Rats also should be provided with fresh water daily from a sipper bottle.
Rats should be examined annually by an exotic animal veterinarian. They should receive full physical examinations, including a thorough check of their teeth, weight, respiratory tract, and breast tissue, as all rats are prone to respiratory infection, and females (and some males) frequently develop breast (mammary) tumors.
Their stool should be checked for parasites, and their diet should be reviewed. Proper preventative medicine can help deter future problems and promote the lifelong health of your pet rat.