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By Craig Sernotti

Many people don’t consider rats as possible pets because of their preconceived notions about these animals. However, if given a chance, you will learn that rats are highly intelligent, friendly, and enjoyable small animals who make great pets.

There are many species of rats around the world. Rats are bigger bodied than mice and have a long tail. They are nocturnal and have terrible vision—they rely on their other acute senses for survival. Rats live between two and three years. They are social and do better in groups. If properly handled and handled often, your rat will become tame enough that you can teach him simple tricks. He may even come to recognize you and greet you at his cage’s door, and he may eagerly play with you and crawl all over you.

Is He a Rat or Is He a Mouse?

Rats and mice are both rodents who share similar physical and behavioral characteristics. For the most part, rats are the larger of the two. Rats are also smarter than mice, and wild rats can be more aggressive if cornered than wild mice.

Natural History

Rats have been around as long as humans have existed. They were hunted and eaten by prehistoric humans. The fact that rats aided the spread the bubonic plague in the 1300s—which killed tens of millions of people worldwide and almost a third of the population of Europe alone—did not help their reputation. Through the years, they were considered vicious and unclean. (Feral rats can be, but domestic rats are the exact opposite.)

Rats came from China to Europe and eventually over to the New World. Like mice, they were kept as pets in the 19th century in increasing numbers. Their popularity continues today because they are extremely intelligent, playful, and inexpensive.

Enclosure and Setup

An aquarium with a weighted-down mesh top or a wire-frame cage is ideal for your rat. Many cages sold for pet birds can be used. Rats are active animals who do best in a roomy cage—an enclosure that is 20 inches (50 cm) long by 10 inches (25 m) wide by 12 inches (30 cm) high is the minimum. If you keep more than one rat, you’ll need a bigger cage.

The bedding must be made from a hard wood or recycled paper. Other beddings can cause respiratory or other health problems. Also, the bedding must be several inches deep so that your rat can dig and burrow. Remove and replace dirty bedding as needed.

The cage must also be large enough to fit all the necessary accessories: a food dish, a water bottle, a nest box, and toys. Toys are important because chewing regulates tooth growth—a rat’s teeth grow nonstop throughout his life.


You can find dry mixes available in any pet store that are a perfect food for your rat. These are made of pellets, seeds, grains, and vegetables. You should also offer fresh fruits and vegetables, including carrots, lettuce, apples, bananas, and corn, to provide a healthy, varied diet for your pet. You can also feed him sunflower seeds as a treat.
Your rat must always have access to fresh, clean water.


Despite what some may think, rats are very clean animals who spend most of their waking hours grooming themselves. If you must bathe your rat, use a gentle shampoo and rinse and dry him thoroughly.

Trimming your pet’s nails may be difficult—be sure to have styptic powder on hand to stop bleeding in case you cut too close to the paw. If you are nervous about cutting his nails, a veterinarian can show you the best way.

Health Care and Illness

Preventive care is the best way to keep your rat healthy. If you clean his cage and change his bedding, water, and food regularly, he should live a long, happy life.

Rats can suffer various illnesses, injuries, and infections. A change in behavior is a sure sign that something is wrong. If you think that your rat is hurt or ill, contact a veterinarian immediately.