Pet Rats – Rat Care

CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) Pandemic:

Pets, including rats, should be fine as there’s no evidence that the humain strain of coronavirus can pass from humans to animals. This is stated on the UK Government website. There’s more information in this veterinary article.

Rat Care

FOOD AND DRINK

Ronnie and Derek’s main food is Rat Nuggets, which are about 1cm in diameter and contain wheat, maize, oatfeed, chicken, soya bean and meat/bone meal.

As per the maker’s guidance, 30-35g of nuggets are put in their food bowl daily which is enough for both of them, plus a few nuggets are scattered around the cage for them to discover. The nuggets are very nutritious (including vitamins, protein, iron and zinc) and are designed to form 90-95% of their daily diet.

It’s recommended that fruit and vegetables form 5-10% of a rat’s diet, so Ronnie and Derek have a small amount each day. So far they’ve tried carrots, cucumber slices, cabbage, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, apples, pumpkin and plums. Cucumber is clearly their favourite as they go straight for it if other veg is available! Lettuce is also a favourite. I usually wedge fruit or veg into the top of the cage and they enjoy stretching up and pulling it down. They like to eat the main part of cucumber slices first (see below, click  to enlarge), then come back later and eat the remains.

In addition, a small mineral lick is supplied which the rats lick every now and then to intake extra nutrients.

OTHER FOODS

On some days, I reduce the number of nuggets and about 15g of Rat Muesli is added to provide variety and extra nutrients. The Muesli includes dried peas, wheat, maize, soya pellets, sunflower seeds, oats and linseed.

Occasionally they’re also given other foods such as tiny amounts of cooked meat (e.g. chicken or pork) and cooked/raw pasta. Avoid giving rats doughy foods like pizza or bread, as this can cause gagging if they eat it too quickly (see the Health section for more on this). Special rat treats are available, including ‘tropical fruit bakes’ and ‘apple pellets’.

I occasionally give Ronnie and Derek things to nibble on like carrot nibble sticks, honey nibble sticks and dried sweetcorn sticks which are designed for rodents. Watch Ronnie and Derek eating some nibble sticks here.

Pet rats enjoy eating certain herbs, including parsley, basil, oregano and mint. I planted a mint plant and occasionally feed leaves to Ronnie and Derek, although Derek’s a lot keener than Ronnie. The rats smell very fragrant after eating mint! Watch Derek eating mint straight from the plant here and here.

Feeding rats sweet ‘human’ treats, such as biscuits, should be kept to an absolute minimum due to the high sugar content which can apparently lead to diabetes

The image below shows the foods and mineral lick (click to enlarge).

WATER

A fresh and clean water supply is obviously essential when caring for pet rats and this is provided in Ronnie and Derek’s cage using a bottle which is attached to the side of the cage and only releases water when they lick the connected pipe, due to a small ball in the pipe which stops the water pouring out. A small glass tealight holder, fixed to the cage, is also filled daily as a backup supply. They enjoy having the option of lapping up water from this or using the bottle.

Their water consumption seemed low at first when they were getting used to their home, but increased soon after.

Health and Illness

WEIGHT

In January 2020, Ronnie and Derek weighed about 535 – 540g each. This is slightly above the ideal weight for an adult rat, which is approx. 500g. It’s obviously good to feed infant rats well to help them grow, but since Ronnie and Derek have become adults, I ensure I don’t feed them too much as I don’t want them becoming overweight.

As they’re slightly above the optimum weight now though, having previously been virtually bang on 500g each, I’ll slightly reduce the amount of food I feed them and see if it has an effect. Another good method is apparently to scatter dry food around their cage instead of placing it in a food bucket. Exercise is obviously the best way to reduce weight though, including running up the stairs, which Ronnie and Derek like doing!

PORPHYRIN

Pet rats sometimes get a dried, browny-red substance around their nose. It can look like dried blood, but it’s likely to be porphyrin which is a mucus-like substance. It can be a sign of excessive stress or a respiratory infection.

Ronnie and Derek have had porphyrin on their nose sometimes, usually after they’ve felt a bit stressed, for example when they’ve had their nails clipped (as this is something they don’t like much). Porphyrin can also be released due to temporary irritation in the eye caused by something such as a piece of bedding or an eyelash getting in the eye, or maybe an accidental scratch while grooming.

CHOKING OR GAGGING

On a couple of occasions, Ronnie and Derek have gagged slightly after eating food quickly. It’s usually happened when they’ve been fed a treat which they found a bit more difficult to swallow, such as slightly stodgy food like bread. I now don’t give them such foods due to the potential for gagging.

It may appear at first that the rat is choking and their breathing may make a slight ‘hooting’ noise, but if they’re still breathing fine then they’re probably gagging due to eating too quickly. Although rats can’t vomit, some of the food may come back up out of their mouth. It’s considered best to leave a rat for around 30 minutes and let any stuck food work its way out. If it shows no signs of moving then a vet visit is likely required.

When it happened to Ronnie and Derek, I checked they were breathing fine and intervened by gently and very carefully rubbing the neck to help break the food down, plus I slowly put drops of water in the mouth which they swallowed – this also helped shift the food.

CYANOSIS AND BLUE TESTICLES

In April 2019, recently suddenly suffered from cyanosis and his scrotum/testicles were slightly grey/blue/purple as a result, as well as having hypothermia and appearing generally ill (lack of appetite, hunched back and lethargy). He was taken to the vet who hadn’t experienced such a young and otherwise healthy rat be presented in this way. Derek started to improve after being warmed up and it turned out to just be a temporary issue. More about this can be read in this post.

TAIL INJURY

In September 2019, started squeaking loudly when he moved in any way that caused his tail to move upwards. It seemed the source of the pain was at the base of the tail where it joins his back.

I took him to the vet and, as there were no other symptoms (he was eating, drinking, defecating and urinating normally and had no loss of energy), the vet was satisfied there were no major problems and that the tail may have been slightly injured, possibly during a play-fight with Derek, and it’d cure itself. Something similar happened to Ronnie’s tail a few months before (but obviously to a much lesser extent in terms of pain) and that cured itself within about 10 days.

The vet prescribed Metacam to Ronnie, an anti-inflammatory and painkiller which is primarily used for dogs. I initially gave the daily dose of medicine in the morning so it’d be in his body while he was sleeping and would assist the healing, but this meant it wore off by the time he was active at night, so I started giving it to him in the evening instead to cover his active hours to ensure he had as little pain as possible during his tail’s recovery.

If your rat seems unwell, ensure you take him/her to a vet as soon as you can so you can get them checked.

CAGE

Ronnie and Derek live in a Savic Plaza cage, which measures 100cm (W) x 50cm (L) x 50cm (D) and is designed for two adult rats. The cage came with a plastic ‘mezzanine’ floor, accessible by a ramp, which is their main feeding area. It also included a built-in running wheel, metal food bowl and water bottle.

It’s important that rats have somewhere dark and cosy to retreat to, so Ronnie and Derek have a wooden rat house which is a floor-less wooden box with a hole for them to enter through, with a removable lid.

In order to keep them entertained, which is important as rats are intelligent and can get bored, a number of other things were added to Ronnie and Derek’s cage: ‘lookout shelves’ to provide extra levels; ‘coconut shell’ hideouts with ladders; a bamboo suspension bridge; two freely-hanging tiny metal food buckets; and wooden carrot toys for gnawing. Watch a video of Ronnie swinging in one of the coconut shells here. Nowadays they tend not to use the shells as they’re a bit too big for them! They originally had a running wheel but I removed it as they didn’t use it.

I recently put in two ‘cozy’ tubes which they love to sleep and hide in. They were purchased from Silver’s Rattery Etsy shop and are made from leftover pieces of fabric. See photos of them in this blog post.

Rats naturally gnaw at things so wooden toys are a good choice, but ensure they’re designed for small mammals to avoid varnished/painted surfaces which could be harmful. Similarly, things like soft or plastic toys shouldn’t be left in their cage as they would likely get chewed. They’ve been good with their tubes and haven’t nibbled at them though!

Most of the items described above are visible in the photos below (click to enlarge).

BEDDING

Rats can easily develop respiratory issues, so their bedding must be as dust free as possible, so wood-shavings and similar aren’t suitable. Ronnie and Derek’s cage has ‘back-2-nature’ small animal bedding, which is made of recycled paper and aids elimination of any faeces/urine odour. The bedding is cheaper when bought in bulk from online pet shops.

Pet rats like to have card as a ‘nesting‘ material in their house, such as card from toilet roll tubes or packaging, and Ronnie and Derek are given new card or paper every few days. I leave it outside their house and they pull it inside (watch a video of Derek doing this here). You can also buy special soft bedding from pet shops for this purpose – I tried this once but Ronnie and Derek prefer the card.

CAGE CLEANING

Cage cleaning is an important part of looking after pet rats. Once a week, Ronnie and Derek’s cage is cleaned using a special antibacterial spray designed for cleaning small animal cages, then fully dried. The bedding is also discarded and replaced. While this is happening, Ronnie and Derek are put in a small, transparent carrying box designed for small animals. The ‘back-2-nature’ bedding, mentioned above, can be discarded with garden waste.

CAMERAS

Two cameras are mounted at either end of Ronnie and Derek’s cage. They’re Wansview K2 IP cameras, costing about £25 each, which connect to the internet via Wifi and can be viewed remotely in a browser or a phone app. As they’re HD and have night-vision, they provide a good, clear image of what the rats are up to at all times of day. They can also be set to record at certain times.

REGULAR CARE

SHAMPOOING

Rats are very clean animals and spend a lot of their time cleaning and grooming (watch a video of Ronnie grooming here). However, if they get dirty and need cleaning, you can buy specialist small animal shampoo from pet shops and clean them using your bathroom sink with some shallow, tepid water. The photos below shows Ronnie and Derek after being shampooed (click to enlarge)!

They must be dry before returning to the cage – they can be dried using a towel and a hairdryer set on a low heat/speed setting. Ronnie has been washed and his favourite part was being dried!

CLIPPING NAILS (CLAWS)

Rats’ nails (technically claws) usually wear down naturally, but may remain rather sharp which is unpleasant when they walk on you! Clipping nails is possible but you have to be very careful when cutting, using small nail clippers, ensuring you don’t cut into the ‘quick’ and only trim the nail. It’s best done by two people – one to hold the rat and one to clip.

When this has been done to Ronnie and Derek, they object by squeaking and screeching – not because they’re in pain, but just because they don’t like being held very still.

Some small pieces of concrete and a brick have been added to their cage, in places where they walk the most, to help wear down their nails (see images below – click to enlarge). Using something like sandpaper as a floor covering for this is not suitable as the rats could graze their feet and get infections.

HOT AND COLD WEATHER

The best room temperature for rats is considered to be about 18C to 27C (65F to 80F), which matches common living room temperature throughout the year. Rats control their body temperature by using their tail – if they’re too hot, blood from their body is circulated through their tail, where it cools down as the tail’s cooler due to the lack of fur covering. If they’re cold, then the blood circulating through the tail is reduced and they can also wrap their tail around them to help trap heat in their body.

During hot weather, the inside of Ronnie and Derek’s house gets hot, so one of them (usually Derek) often sleeps elsewhere in the cage.

Although rats don’t benefit from fans in the same way as humans (as they don’t sweat), Ronnie and Derek appreciated the cooling effect of a fan which had an ice pack attached to it and was blowing on their cage. See a video of this, as well as other photos of coping in the heat, in this post.

They were also given some ice cubes to eat during hot weather, and an old jam jar with cool water and ice was put in their cage. Supervised explorations in the garden is another thing they appreciated.

During the winter, to ensure the rats don’t get too cold during the night when the heating in the house is at a low level, I place a small oil-filled radiator in front of their cage which provides a bit of extra warmth in the cage. It’s set to a low thermostat level and is on a timer so it only operates for short periods at a time.

All content hosted on this website, including text and visual materials, is Copyright © David Watts 2019 - 2020. It cannot be reproduced in any form without the prior permission of the copyright holder. All information provided on this website is based on experience of caring for Ronnie and Derek. Whilst the information will hopefully be useful to those interested in caring for rats, it must not be treated as a defintive care guide. If in doubt regarding the health and well-being of your rat(s), be safe by contacting your vet.

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