Arianna's Rat FAQ

RAT CARE Frequently Asked Questions

This FAQ was compiled by Arianna Edson, 1996. Any questions or corrections can be sent to this adress, though no guarantee is made that they will be included when the FAQ is updated. All of the included material is based on the experience and research of the author and her friends, but no guarantee is made for the accuracy of any opinions expressed herein. This FAQ is in no way meant to supersede or replace veterinary advice. This FAQ may be freely reproduced and distributed, as long as nothing is altered, edited, removed or changed; it must be distributed in ist entirety.

Q. Where should I buy a rat?

Q. What should I look for in a rat? How should I pick one?

Q. Should I choose a doe (female) or a buck (male) rat?

Q. How many rats should I have?

Q. I have several rats, and just bought a new one who seems healthy enough,

but how can I make sure the new rat won't pass on any sickness to my old ones?

Q. How do I introduce my new rat to my old one?

Q. Is an aquarium a good cage for a rat?

Q. Is a wire cage a good cage for a rat?

Q. Is a wooden cage good for a rat?

Q. What bedding should I use for my rat's cage?

Q. What should I feed my rat?

Q. What can I give my rats for treats?

Q. Can I put a wheel in the rat's cage?

Q. What are good toys for my rat's cage?

Q. What are signs that my rat is sick?

Q. What causes my rat's sneezing?

Q. I've heard that my rat has mycoplasma. What is it?

Q. How can I tell if my doe rat is in heat?

Q. How long does it take for rats to mate?

Q. How long will my doe gestate (be pregnant)?

Q. How many kittens will she have?

Q. Should I cull the litter?

Q. Can I keep the male with the female when she has the kittens.

Q. Can I keep two does in the same cage with their litters?

Q. How long will they nurse?

Q. When can the mother breed again?

Q. When is sexual maturity?

Q. How long will my rat live?

Q. Where should I buy a rat?

A. There are several places to buy a rat. For the most part, the place that you will find the healthiest rats is from a breeder. Most breeders make sure that sick rats are not bred from, and that they get proper medical care so that they will not spread the sickness to their other rats. It can be difficult to find a breeder in your area, though; check with any local rat/mouse clubs, and ask any pet stores where they get their stock of rats. Often, you can find a breeder that way.

Pet store rats, whether or not they are labeled as "feeder" rats, can also be a source of wonderful, healthy pets. Make sure the cages are clean and the rats are treated humanely before you patronize the store, however. "Rescuing" a rat from the horrible store doesn't do anything to change that store's behavior and policies.

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Q. What should I look for in a rat? How should I pick one?

A. If color is important to you, find a rat that appeals to you aesthetically. But be sure not to base your choice entirely on the rat's pretty appearance; also make sure that the rat is healthy. Signs of a healthy rat are that the rat is active and curious; that the rat's breathing is not audible or labored; that the rat's orifices are clean; that any droppings in the cage are firm and pelleted; that the animal's coat seems shiny and nice; and that there are no visible wounds, scabs or insect infestations. Signs of an unhealthy rat are dull coat and eyes, lethargic or disinterested bearing, aggression, diarrhea, patchy fur or bald spots, wheezy loud breathing, red discharge around the eyes and nose, or visible injuries. If the rat passes all of the above, then take it home!

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Q. Should I choose a doe (female) or a buck (male) rat?

A. Whatever you prefer. Both bucks and doe have their supporters, for various reasons.

Does tend to be smaller, cleaner, and more active. A doe will want to run around the room and play, with you, her cagemates, or anything else she can find. A doe is more destructive, more of a chewer, but also seems to be generally smarter and easier to train. They live in rigid social structures and tend to fight among themselves in a much more vocal manner. They smell better and have softer fur than bucks.

Bucks will be almost twice as large as does. Their hormones cause their skin to secrete an oily substance that gives them a mucky oder and somewhat greasy fur. They tend more toward obese and lazy than does; where a doe will want to play, a buck will sleep in your lap. Unlike other rodents, bucks are happy to live in same-sex groups, and will not kill other males, if they are introduced when one or both are young.

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Q. How many rats should I have?

A. Rats are very social animals. In the wild, they live in huge colonies, so it makes sense that they are so easy to train and enjoy human attention so much. But since we cannot be with them every minute, it is best that they have a companion to play with while you are not there. Pick two or three rats, ideally from the same litter, of the same sex. Make sure they are the same gender - at 4 weeks, a males testes drop, and males have very large genitals, so it should be easy to tell if you pick up and examine each rat. The ideal number is 2-5, depending on the amount of room in your cage.

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Q. I have several rats, and just bought a new one who seems healthy enough, but how can I make sure the new rat won't pass on any sickness to my old ones?

A. Quarantine any new rats for at least two weeks. House the rat in a separate cage, in a separate room of the house. Wash your hands thoroughly with a disinfectant or germicidal soap between handlings of either cage. Make sure the rats don't come in contact with each other, or litter from the other's cage. Watch the new rats for any signs of illness, or medicate with antibiotics any sickness they may already have. When you are satisfied with their health, it is probably safe to introduce them.

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Q. How do I introduce my new rat to my old one?

A. Whether or not you can introduce a new rat to old ones depends a lot on the personalities of the rats involved. Most rats are social; some simply dislike other rats, or dislike certain rats while tolerating others. Your best bet is to keep them in separate cages next to each other, where they can smell, see and hear each other without touching.

After a week or so of that, they can move on to supervised playtime in a neutral area. If they fight, then separate them again, but keep trying - don't give up that they may learn to get along. The rats will often rise up on their hind legs and "box" with their front paws, then one may flip the other over on its back and seem to bite the other's belly. One rat may pin another and aggressively sniff the other's genitals. This may frighten or upset the submissive rat, but it will not hurt them - unless there is a serious fight, with lots of biting, jumping around and yelling, it's best to let these fights play themselves out. The rats are establishing who will be "in charge" of the cage.

Once they are playing nicely on neutral ground, decide which of the two cages you want to use. Scrub it out thoroughly, and fill it with new bedding, but add a handful of old bedding from both cages, so it smells like "home" to both of them. Leave this cage open and free to be entered during playtime. If both can go in and out together without fighting, then consider them well introduced and let them stay together. This may take a month or two to accomplish - or it may only take 1 week.

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Q. Is an aquarium a good cage for a rat?

A. Yes and no. An aquarium protects a rat from drafts, is fairly cheap and easy to find, and it is easy to view your pet inside one. However, it has bad air flow, tends to be hotter and more humid than other cages, are heavy, and need to have special tops purchased or built so that the rat cannot escape. They also do not offer levels of running and climbing space that can be found in other types of cages. The minimum size of aquarium that is acceptable for one or two males, or two to three females, is a 20 long. More rats will need a bigger cage. Aquariums need to be cleaned at least once a week, using any kind of bedding, and need to be scrubbed thoroughly to prevent ammonia buildup.

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Q. Is a wire cage a good cage for a rat?

A. It depends on the wire. The wire should be powder-coated, and not galvanized. The floor should be a solid pan, and not wire. The outside of the cage should be made of wires no wider than 1/2". The shelves should either be solid plastic, or 1/4"x1/4" wire. All in all, wire cages provide easier access to multiple levels, easier means of hanging and securing toys and hammocks, better ventilation, and easier means of escape-proofing than aquariums. Like qquariums, they should be wiped down with disinfectant when cleaned.

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Q. Is a wooden cage good for a rat?

A. No. Urine will soak into the wood, causing it to rot, swell, andemit ammonia vapors. It may splinter and pierce the rat's feet. The rat may chew through. All in all, wooden cages and cage floors are a no-no.

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Q. What bedding should I use for my rat's cage?

A. Pine, cedar, spruce and other softwoods are very bad. They contain a toxic phenol oil which is what makes them smell so nice. Unfortunately, it also breaks down the liver and respiratory system of your pet. They are the easiest bedding to find - avoid them like the plague.

Aspen or other hardwood shavings can be used, as they do not contain phenol oils. Paper products, such as Yesterday's News, Bio-Flush and Cellu-dri, may be used. Sani-Chips are small, sterilized bits of aspen shaving that are especially absorbent.

Corn cob bedding is non-toxic, and fine to use in wire cages, but not aquariums- when it gets damp, it tends to begin growing mold; you need to change corncob more often than other beddings.

I personally recommend that you go out and find a store that carries, or will order, CareFresh for you. This is the best bedding I have found - it is extremely absorbent of both odor and waste matter, soft, fluffy, sterilized, environmentally friendly, non-toxic. It is most economical to buy in a 50qt bag.

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Q. What should I feed my rat?

A. "Lab blocks" or Rat & Mouse pellets are completely nutritionally formulated for a rat's needs. However, some brands are better than others - we recommend using the Kaytee blocks and avoiding the L-M ones. Mix in a bag of grain mix - hamster seed mix is good - making sure that the seeds are not cobwebby, infested, and are fresh and sealed in an airtight bag. To that you can add a bag of Kaytee Exact Hamster Mix if you wish, and/or a small amount (less than 1/4 the mix) of Iams Minichunks dog food. I have found this mix to work very well in keeping my rats healthy, happy and fed. Rats need a diet low in protein and fat, and high in carbohydrates.

To your rat's diet, experiment adding fruit and vegetables to it. They need the fresh food as much as the others - it provides vitamins and minerals. Crucifers, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts have a chemical in them which helps prevent tumors in rats. My rats especially like broccoli, oranges, grapes, garbanzo beans, popcorn, white rice, and tomatoes.

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Q. What can I give my rats for treats?

A. Rats love table scraps, but try to avoid giving them too often. They are likely very high in fat and protein. Chicken bones are ok to give to rats - they gnaw the bone and will not choke on it like a dog. Fruits and veggies make good treats, as do specially-made treats like honey sticks and yogurt drops. My rats always go nuts for banana chips, but don't feed them often, as they are fried in coconut oil!

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Q. Can I put a wheel in the rat's cage?

A. Only if you can find a solid, sheet-metal wheel. Wire wheels aredangerous to rats, as it can break or even amputate tails or feet that get snagged in the wire, and they can cause bleeding foot callouses.

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Q. What are good toys for my rat's cage?

A. Wooden bird ladders, either as a ladder or hung horizontally as a platform. White PVC pipes are cheap, easy to wash, and rats love to hide in them! Solid sheet-metal wheels. Ferret hammocks, spongie-jumpers, and hide-aways are good, but expensive - they're not that hard to make yourself, however. Whiffle balls are sometimes fun. Wooden and chain climbing hangers made for large parrots.

NOTE: your rat will chew through and eventually destroy all of these that are not metal. Be prepared for it - it's natural instinct, and they can't help it, but they will love the toy as long as they have it!

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Q. What are signs that my rat is sick?

A. Red or black discharge around the eyes and nose is the easiest, most common sign. Rats have a red pigment called porphyrin in their mucus membranes, so although their snot may look like it's bloody, it's really not. If the rat sneezes excessively is another sign. The rat looks lethargic, quits eating, coat gets dull, or has loud, labored-sounding breathing are all signs that the rat is ill and needs to go to the vet. The most common illness that rats get is respiratory infections.

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Q. What causes my rat's sneezing?

A. Several things could be causing it. If you're using wood chips, the rat could be allergic to them, or the dust of the chips could be irritating. If they are on clay-based litter, the dust could also be irritating them.. Sometimes when the weather changes suddenly, or if the rat is under a lot of stress, it will begin sneezing. If none of these is true for your rat, then it probably has a respiratory infection and needs to see a vet.

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Q. I've heard that my rat has mycoplasma. What is it?

A. Mycoplasma is an infection which all rats are born with. It is neither a virus, nor a bacteria. It will sometimes respond to antibiotics, but they will not cure the infection, only lessen ist effects. Mycoplasma is the main cause of rat respiratory infections; if left unchecked, it can cause CNS problems (central nervous system,) pneumonia, and permanent lung scarring and damage. Be sure to continue any antibiotic your vet prescribes for the full amount of time, as a small dosage may result in the infection becoming immune to that particular antibiotic.

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Q. How can I tell if my doe rat is in heat?

A. A doe in heat will be jumpier and more skittery than usual, as a general rule. Does go into heat about every 4 days and stay there for about 10 hours; it usually starts between 9-12 at night. You may see her cagemates mounting her frequently, and you will see her arch her hind end up for them. If you scratch her rump, she may arch her back, tilt up her hind end, and wiggle her ears frantically. Her vaginal opening may gape open, may be darker colored, and may discharge a clear fluid. Female rats DO NOT have menstrual periods, so if your doe bleeds vaginally, something is wrong and she needs to see a vet immediately! Vaginal bleeding is usually a sign of a uterine tumor, a urinary infection, a miscarriage or the beginning of labor.

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Q. How long does it take for rats to mate?

A. A buck only needs 2 seconds to successfully mate with a doe in heat. TWO! However, he only successfully ejaculates 1 out of every 5 times. But since he can repeat this maneuver several times a minute, best to keep males and females STRICTLY apart unless you're planning to breed them!

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Q. How long will my doe gestate (be pregnant)?

A. 21-23 days. She will begin frantically building a nest when her last few hours are upon her, and will usually bear her kittens within a few hours.

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Q. How many kittens will she have?

A. 12 is the average, but litters as small as one and as large as 22 have been reported on the Internet Rat Digest. The male-female ratio is 52% males, 48% females.

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Q. Should I cull the litter?

A. My answer is no. A mother rat is an amazing creature, and can care for her babies. Though she only has 12 nipples, she can care for more. If you feel that one doe cannot care for all her kittens, your options are to

  1. cull the ones who you don't want to keep,
  2. foster some kittens onto a doe with a smaller litter,
  3. handraise the kittens, or
  4. find someone who fosters orphaned babies (through the DNR) and ask them to foster your kittens.

I've has a doe raise 14 of her own kittens, while another doe raised 2 of hers and 10 of her own. All turned out beautifully.

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Q. Can I keep the male with the female when she has the kittens.

A. Not recommended. Within 36 hours of giving birth to her litter, the doe goes into heat again. If the male is there, she may become pregnant while still nursing her last litter. This is a huge strain on her body resources. Also, a new mother may be very protective for the first few days, and may injure the male.

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Q. Can I keep two does in the same cage with their litters?

A. Not recommended. The mothers will often fight over the babies, stealing them from one another, or fighting each other for dominance and injuring the babies in the process. If one doe steals the larger number of babies, she may not be able to nurse them all and some may die. It's also best to keep does and their kittens in an aquarium rather than a wire cage, to protect from drafts and escapes.

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Q. How long will they nurse?

A. A litter may be separated form their mother at 3 weeks if it is absolutely necessary, but it is recommended to leave them with their mother for 5. They turn out bigger, healthier, and calmer. At 5 you MUST remove the males from the litters (at 4 weeks they should be very obvious!) or they may impregnate their mother or sisters.

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Q. When can the mother breed again?

A. Given 3 weeks to gestate, 5 weeks to nurse, and a month to recover, the entire breeding process should take about 3 months. A responsible breeder never breeds a female more than 1 year old, as the chances of death for mother and kittens rises steeply after 1 year. If the doe has not been bred by 8 months, she should not be, because her hips will have become fused and it will be more difficult for her to eject her kittens. A responsible breeder will only get 2-4 litters from any 1 doe.

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Q. When is sexual maturity?

A. For females, 4-6 weeks, for males, 3-5 weeks. A female should not be made to bear her first litter until she is 3 months old. Kittens will continue to grow rapidly until 3 months of age, at which time they will slow down considerably. They reach full growth at 1 year, with the males sometimes twice as big as the females. Females should weigh 8-12 oz, males 15-20oz.

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Q. How long will my rat live?

A. The average lifespan is 2-3 years, leaning more towards two. However, rats have been reported to live up to 6 years, though they are indeed rarities!

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