The domestic rat, Rattus norvegicus, is also known as the Norway rat, although it has no connection to Norway. In fact, they originated from Asia and were domesticated in the 17th century. Through selective breeding, there are many varieties of rats with varied colors, temperaments and disease resistance.
Rats as Pets
Domestic rats can make great pets, if handled gently. They are quiet, clean, and easily trained. They are omnivores, usually nocturnal and burrowers. They will often escape their cages but, usually return to them. Humans can develop allergies to rat dander and urine.
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Rats can be kept in cages made of wire or plastic. The wire is usually a special rat mesh to prevent broken limbs and escape. Bedding can consist of shaving, sawdust, paper, wood chips or ground corn cobs but the softer, dust-free bedding id preferred. Rats do like to burrow, so the bedding should be deep enough to allow this. Bedding should be changed as often as necessary and at least 1-3 times/week.
Rats are social and do best in group situations, they are not highly territorial and several males and females can be kept in a spacious cage together. I recommend neutering the males in these situations or keeping animals of one sex only.
Rats do enjoy toys, but the toys must be safe and not easily destroyed. Hiding places, multi-level climbing structures and easily cleaned mazes make rat life more fun.
Temperatures should be kept between 65°F and 80°F. Temperature should be kept as constant as possible, rats do not do well with large variations of temperature over a short period of time.
If your rat is one of the albino types, lighting must be kept low to avoid damage to the eyes (retina). In fact, all rats seem to enjoy low light situations (must be their burrow heritage).
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Food and Water
Rats should be fed a clean, fresh diet of rat chow and water, both available at all times. The food should have an adequate amount of protein and energy, 20-27% is satisfactory, and should not be a mixture of bags of accidentally opened or spilled foods (this is a common practice at some feed stores, they throw all the spilled food in a barrel and call it rat food). Rats are very cautious feeders and usually avoid strange food. They test a small sample of it and wait to see if it makes them sick, then they eat a little bigger amount and wait. This helps them survive in the wild but makes it difficult for you to change food for your rat. Stick with good quality rat chow. Many people can and do train their rats to accept treats (Oreo cookies, potato chips, etc.) but this is not really healthy for them. If you must give treats, try to make them only 10-20% of the diet.
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Domestic rats may live 3-4 years but this depends on the strain. Some strains do not live more than 1-1 1/2 years. Male rats tend to mature slowly and may not reach full growth until they are 2 years old.
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Handling and Medical Care
Rats who have been gently handled rarely bite and are easy to hold. Rats will bite if they are startled or hurt, so avoid these situations if possible. The tail skin will tear very easily so do not pick the rat up by the tip of the tail. If the tail must be used, use the base of the tail. Rats do not like to be upside down and will struggle to right themselves.
The most common subcutaneous mass (just under the skin) in the rat is the mammary tumor. These can occur anywhere on the body, and may occur in male rats as well. For some strains, this is a benign condition, in others it is deadly. Many older female rats die young because of these tumors. They can be surgically removed, but more usually grow. If they are small and do not interfere with movement, they can be left in place.
Low humidity, below 20%, may lead to tail necrosis (death), a condition known as ring tail because a ring of dead tissue forms on the tail. This condition occurs mostly in young rats and humidity around 50% prevents it.
Rats are susceptible to a variety of respiratory infections causes include environmental, viruses and bacterial. Keeping the cage clean is most important.
Rats do have tears that appear red, but this is not blood!
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