Getting a Rat

Are rats for you? | How Many? | Boys or Girls? | Choosing a rat

Are rats for you?

Rats are extremely intelligent, friendly and social animals that make great pets, but they're not for everyone. Before adopting a rat, examine your lifestyle. Are you able to interact with your rat every day? While they're cage animals, rats need stimulation, and require at least an hour outside of their cage every day. You'll also need to clean their cage at least weekly.

Also keep in mind that although rats are cheap to purchase and relatively cheap to feed, they will most likely require veterinary care in their lifetime. If you're not prepared to pay for medical expenses, please reconsider getting a rat. Just because a rat is inexpensive to purchase, that doesn't mean they don't deserve the best care possible.

How Many?

Always get at least two same sex rats. Rats are social animals and require the companionship of other rats. Even if you are able to have your rat out of the cage several hours a day, there will still be time when it's alone and in need of company, and will want another rat to groom, play and snuggle with. Remember, in the wild rats live in groups. It's their nature, and domestic rats aren't any different.

Two rats (and three and four!) aren't any more difficult to take care of than one, and it's so entertaining to watch them play and interact. Having more than one rat also won't mean they'll bond with you any less. Since they're happy, they will most likely bond with you even more.

Boys or Girls?

Both boys and girls make great pets and have wonderful qualities, although there are a few differences.

Males are generally bigger than females, and more laid back. They can make great laprats and can be very snuggly and always wanting scritches. Males can be more territorial, so try and get rats younger than 4 months if you're introducing them to other rats. Males (especially intact males) do mark their territory more, and also tend to have rougher fur which can have buck grease. Aesthetically a lot of people seem to be put off by their rather large goolies (testicles), but you honestly do get used to them. Intact males also tend to smell a little more than girls, although it's not a bad smell. Many say their boys smell like corn chips. Neutered males have softer fur, no buck grease, less smell and don't mark as much.

Females are smaller and sleeker, and are usually much more active, rarely sitting still. They're great fun to watch and play with. They're much less likely to be content to just sit on your lap. As they grow old, they do slow down, and usually loves scritches and snuggles. They smell fantastic too! Some smell like grape soda, some even smell like flowers. Females are unfortunately also more prone to tumors.

Of course, these are all generalisations. Every rat is different. I've known female rats that have been laprats right from the start, and boys that are always on the go.

Choosing a rat

Once you've decided that rats fit in with your lifestyle, you need to decide where to get them, and you need to know what to look for.

There are really only three types of places to get rats in NZ. Most common are pet stores. With pet stores you usually don't know the history of the rats, and whether they've been handled and socialised from birth. Another common place to get rats is from breeders. Most aren't serious breeders, but if you're lucky you may be able to find one that is breeding for temperament and health, as well as looks and is aware of the rat's genetic history. Finally, less common are rescue rats. Occasionally adult rats are surrendered to SPCAs, or advertised in the paper or online. Please give this option some consideration, as it's very rewarding giving a rat in need a loving home.

There are a few things to look for when deciding on what rats to get. First, make sure the rats are housed in single sex groups. Rats can mate from 5 weeks of age, and you don't want to take one home, only to end up with 16 more babies within 3 weeks. You also want to make sure the rats aren't housed in crowded conditions. If they are, please go elsewhere. You don't want to support a pet store that doesn't treat their rats well.

It's always a good idea to do a health check. Check to see if their fur has a healthy shine, and the rat doesn't have any lumps or scabs. Make sure there isn't any red discharge from the eyes and nose. The red discharge is called porphyrin which can indicate that rat is stressed or ill. Hold the rat up to your ear and listen to it's breathing. If you hear wheezing or grunting, the rat could have a respiratory infection or be suffering from allergies.

Checking for temperament is also important. If you get a rat from a breeder, ask if they've been handled and socialised since birth. Try and avoid a rat that appears afraid and skittish, and squeaks when you pick it up. Also avoid rats that show any signs of aggression. Some rats are playful and outgoing and will run up to you and sniff you, others are shyer. Choose the rat that has the qualities you're looking for. Usually the best pet rat is the one that comes up and chooses you. Of course, there may be one that's afraid and cowering in the corner that you just can't resist. Just keep in mind it will probably require more time and patience to socialise.

When you get your new rats home, put them in their cage and let them explore their new home for a few hours. Most rats will be a little nervous and intimidated by their new surroundings. Let the rats get used to their new home in their own time, and handle them gently. When you do pick up a rat, never ever grab them by their tail. This can be painful for them, and makes them feel unsafe. There is also a risk of degloving, where the skin breaks lose from the tail. Degloving is extremely painful as it exposes the vertebrae of the tail, the skin will not regrow and amputation of the exposes portion of the tail will be required. You should always pick them up by their middle, supporting their feet with your other hand. Offering it treats, as well as carrying the rat around cuddled up in your shirt is also a good way to create a bond with your new rat.


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