Rats (Fancy, Dumbo, Hairless)

Rats (Fancy, Dumbo, Hairless)

Rattus norvegicus

Rats, scientifically known as Rattus norvegicus, are small mammals that are commonly kept as pets. They come in various breeds such as Fancy, Dumbo, and Hairless, each with their own unique characteristics. In this article, we will explore the life span, size, cage requirements, behavior, diet, and care of pet rats.

Life Span

Rats typically have a life span of 2 to 5 years. However, with proper care and a healthy diet, some rats have been known to live even longer.

Average Size

The average size of a rat ranges from 5 to 9 inches in length, excluding the tail. They have compact bodies with small ears and a long, scaly tail.

Cage Temperatures

Rats are adaptable to a wide range of temperatures and can thrive in normal room temperature. They are not affected by the usual temperature fluctuations in a household.

Wild History

Fancy rats, the domesticated brown rats kept as pets, have a history dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe. These rats have been carefully bred for desirable traits, making them distinct from their wild relatives. Physiologically and psychologically, domesticated rats differ from their wild counterparts.

Physical Characteristics

Rats have some interesting physical characteristics. They have poor distance vision and depth perception. However, they can see colors in the ultraviolet spectrum, which are invisible to the human eye. Rats also have a strong sense of smell, which helps them locate food.

Female rats reach puberty as early as two months old and go into heat about once a week. During a heat period, which usually lasts for one day, they can conceive and have a litter of up to 11 babies every 4-5 weeks. Recent research suggests that rats can smell in “stereo” with each nostril working independently, similar to human ears.

Normal Behavior & Interaction

Rats are highly social and engaging creatures. They thrive when living in groups of two or more. It is best to introduce rats to each other at a young age or purchase them from the same cage at a pet store. Rats are extremely intelligent and enjoy being handled and exploring their surroundings. They are known for their acrobatic abilities and should be provided with plenty of toys and playthings.

Male rats do not always get along well with each other, especially if they are not siblings. It is important to select a cage large enough to provide separate living spaces for males. Female rats, on the other hand, generally get along extremely well. It is crucial to avoid keeping males and females together unless you are prepared for them to reproduce rapidly.

Domestic rats are easily tamed with regular handling and interaction. While any animal may bite if it feels threatened, domestic rats are not known for biting. It is recommended to work with your pet rat after dusk since they are nocturnal animals. Place their cage in a location where they can be around the family but protected from direct light, drafts, and excess noise. Ensure the cage is out of reach of dogs and small children to prevent the rats from feeling threatened.


Rats are primarily vegetarians and grain eaters. They can also consume an occasional insect such as crickets or mealworms as a source of protein. It is important to provide a balanced diet to ensure their nutritional needs are met.


Commercially prepared rat diets are available at pet stores and are considered the best option for providing a complete and balanced diet. Plain “rodent block” pellet diets are recommended as they offer all the necessary nutrients. Diets that include seeds and treats may seem more appealing to your pet, but rats tend to pick out the treats and neglect the pellets, leading to potential malnutrition and obesity. Seeds can be offered as occasional treats and for training purposes.

It is essential to replenish the food in the rat’s cage regularly. Rats are known for hoarding food, so it is important to spot clean their cage daily to remove any fresh food that may spoil. Seeds and pellets hidden by the rats should be left undisturbed.

In addition to commercially prepared diets, you can also offer healthy, fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains to your rat in small amounts. However, be cautious not to overfeed these foods, as they can cause diarrhea if given in excessive amounts. Avoid feeding sugary treats such as yogurt drops or honey sticks, as they contain too much sugar and can lead to health issues like diabetes.


If your rat is fed a balanced diet, supplements are not necessary. Providing a nutritionally complete and varied diet should meet all their nutritional requirements.


Clean, fresh, chlorine-free water must always be available to rats. It is crucial to change the water daily. Tap water should be treated to remove chlorine and heavy metals before offering it to your rats. You can use a de-chlorinating treatment available at fish departments or leave an open container of tap water out for at least 24 hours to allow the chlorine to dissipate. Avoid using distilled water, as it lacks essential minerals needed for proper bodily functions.

Recommended Supplies

  • 20-40 gallon sized glass cage with a locking top or similarly sized plastic rat cage with narrow bar spacing
  • Running wheel with a solid running surface (non-solid surfaces can cause injury)
  • Several toys for enrichment
  • Pelleted, timothy-based commercial rat/rodent food and timothy hay
  • One or two hide houses
  • Shredded aspen bedding, “Carefresh,” or newspaper for the bottom of the cage
  • Water bottle for clean drinking water
  • Rat book for reference

Housing & Environment

When housing rats, it is essential to provide them with enough space to run and explore. Contrary to popular belief, rats require a significant amount of space to thrive. Many pet owners make the mistake of choosing the smallest cages, assuming that the size of the pet determines the necessary living space. However, rats love to run and explore, and confining them to a small cage can lead to depression, stress, and physical illness.

An ideal cage size for one to two rats is a 20-gallon glass tank, but a 40-gallon tank is even better and can accommodate up to four rats. Wire-sided rat cages are also suitable as long as they are sufficiently large. Guinea pig and rabbit cages can be used as long as the bar spacing is close enough to prevent the rats from escaping. Rats have the ability to flatten their bodies and squeeze through small spaces, approximately the size of a half-dollar coin, so it is vital to ensure the cage is escape-proof.

Inside the cage, provide several hide houses for your rats. These hide houses serve as their main ‘bedrooms’ and provide a sense of security. Depending on the cage size and the number of rats, it is recommended to provide two to three hide houses. Rats do not typically relieve themselves inside the hide houses or nests, so it is unnecessary to disturb them daily. Cleaning the hide houses can be done during more intensive bi-weekly cleaning sessions.

A water bottle must be available at all times, filled with clean water and refilled daily. It is crucial to clean the inside of the water bottle thoroughly during more intensive cage cleaning sessions every week. Water bottles can become slimy inside, harboring harmful bacteria. To clean, use a mild bleach solution (1 part bleach: 32 parts water), making sure to rinse the bottle thoroughly to remove any bleach residue. Attach the water bottle to the outside of the cage to prevent the rats from chewing on it. Check the straw daily for any blockages to ensure your pets always have access to fresh water. If attaching the bottle to the outside of the cage is not possible, a metal water bottle guard can be purchased to prevent the rats from accessing it.

For bedding, it is recommended to use aspen bedding or soft recycled newspaper bedding such as “Carefresh.” These options are safe and do not cause allergic reactions or respiratory distress in rats. Provide enough bedding so that your rats can tunnel and burrow underneath it comfortably. Spot clean the cage daily by removing any soiled portions of the bedding.

Rats require a variety of toys for mental stimulation and to wear down their constantly growing teeth. Chewing toys, such as wooden small mammal toys, hide houses, wheels, cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes, and dried untreated fruit tree branches, are excellent options. Rats need to chew constantly to keep their teeth in check, so providing appropriate chewing toys is essential. Purchase toys made specifically for pets, as they are generally made of pet-safe materials.

For maintenance, spot cleaning should be done daily. This involves removing any soiled substrate, cleaning the water bowl thoroughly, and wiping the glass clean. Every week, the entire cage should undergo a more intensive cleaning process. Start by cleaning the cage and its furniture with a weak dilution of mild dishwashing liquid in warm water. Rinse off the soap, then clean the cage and furniture again with a solution of vinegar and water (1:8) or bleach and warm water (1:32). Rinse everything thoroughly with plain water to remove any traces of soap or bleach before reintroducing your rats to their clean enclosure. It is important to note that vinegar and bleach should never be mixed together as it creates a toxic solution.

It is unnecessary to clean or bathe your rats as they are extremely neat animals and groom themselves regularly. If you notice that your rat is not grooming itself, it may be a sign of illness, and you should consult an exotic pet veterinarian for advice.

Healthy rats exhibit certain physical characteristics. They have a rounded, full body with smooth and even fur, free of bald patches. The nostrils, under-tail area, under-chin area, ears, and eyes should be clear and free of any discharge. The fur should not be damp or stained in any way. Healthy rats have bright eyes and even, well-aligned teeth without any staining around the chin. Their breathing should be even and not labored, without any wheezing or gurgling sounds. Healthy rats are active and energetic, although they are nocturnal and may nap during the day.

Regular physical exams with an exotic pet veterinarian are recommended for small mammals like rats. By seeing a vet regularly, common conditions that could afflict your pet can be caught and treated early. Early detection and treatment can prevent these conditions from worsening or becoming fatal.

In conclusion, rats make wonderful pets for those who are willing to provide them with proper care and attention. With a suitable cage, a balanced diet, and regular interaction, rats can live happy and healthy lives. If you are considering getting a pet rat, be sure to do your research and consult with a veterinarian to ensure that you can provide the best possible care for these intelligent and social creatures.

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©2012 Evan J. Reed DVM and Dawn M. Trainor-Scalise Courtesy of: Specialized Care for Avian & Exotic Pets In conjunction with Pet Supplies Plus 10882 Main Street, Clarence, NY 14031 Ph (716) 759-0144 www.buffalobirdnerd.com