FOOD AND DRINK
The rats’ main food is meat-based 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 the rats have a small amount each day. Carrots, cucumber slices, cabbage, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, apples, pumpkin and plums are also good fruit and veg for rats, albeit in moderation.
Cucumber is usually their favourite – they like to eat the main part of cucumber slices first (see below, click to enlarge), then come back later and eat the remains. Cucumber is also good as it contains a large amount of water.
In addition, a small mineral lick is supplied which the rats lick every now and then to intake extra nutrients.
Occasionally the rats are also given other foods such as tiny amounts of cooked meat (e.g. chicken or pork) and cooked 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 chocolate/milk drops, ‘nibble hearts’ and ‘nibble sticks’. These treats normally include ingredients such as cereals, milk derivatives, cereals and vegetable by-products. They must only have a few treats (like the drops or ‘hearts’) per day and have limited time nibbling any nibble sticks, otherwise they may end up getting plump! Watch Ronnie and Derek eating some nibble sticks 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 (including some treats) and mineral lick (click to enlarge).
A fresh and clean water supply is obviously essential when caring for pet rats and this is provided in the rats’ 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.
Health and Illness
At the age of about 1, Ronnie and Derek weighed approx. 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 once Ronnie and Derek became adults, I ensured I didn’t feed them too much as I don’t want them becoming overweight.
Exercise is obviously the best way to reduce weight, including running up and down the stairs!
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.
Our rats 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 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 our rats 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, Derek 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.
In September 2019, Ronnie 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.
Our rats 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 our rats 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 the 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.
The rats also have two ‘cozy’ tubes which they love to sleep and hide in, 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).
Rats can easily develop respiratory issues, so their bedding must be as dust free as possible, so wood-shavings and similar aren’t suitable. Our rats’ 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 our rats 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, but paper/card seems to be just as effective.
Cage cleaning is an important part of looking after pet rats. Once a week, our rats’ cage is cleaned using a special antibacterial spray designed for cleaning small animal cages, then fully dried. The bedding is also discarded and replaced. The ‘back-2-nature’ bedding, mentioned above, can be discarded with garden waste.
Two cameras are mounted at either end of our rats’ cage. They’re Wansview 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.
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)!
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 was done to Ronnie and Derek, they objected 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.
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 the rats’ house gets hot, so one of them often sleeps elsewhere in the cage.
Although rats don’t benefit from fans in the same way as humans (as they don’t sweat), our rats have 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.