Keep Your Rat in Good Health for Life

Oct 24, 2012

A rat for a pet? You bet! Rattus norvegicus, or the Norway rat, is a wonderful companion. They are very intelligent, gentle, and sometimes just a little mischievous. Though wild rats are considered vermin, their domestic counterpart is a valued household pet, and those who know the domestic rat well will tout their easy nature, and their ease of care.

Basic Biology

At birth, the babies are only 5 g. It takes them about 3 weeks to finish the nursing phase. These newborns will mature with a weight of about 480 g for the male, and 275 g for the female. They live 3 1/2 years on average, and give birth to a litter of about 9 babies after a pregnancy of 3 weeks. They are classed as omnivores,which means that their diet encompasses fruit, vegetables, seeds, and some animal components. Rats are naturally coprophagic, which means that they ingest their own stools. This process actually contributes to normal food processing, and though proper hygiene for housing is important, observing this behavior does not mean that the rat is sick. Commercial rat food pellets are the staple diet. They need about 5 g feed for every 100 g body weight. They like to stash their food around their enclosure, and enjoy the secret stores at their convenience.


Though your couch might be the perfect rat choice for home, a cage that provides a secure enclosure is obviously a safer alternative. Rats like to burrow and dig, and provision of soft bedding to nest in is much appreciated. Inexpensive nesting boxes and cotton fibre fill will provide a safe haven in the enclosure. Some room to climb and run is necessary, and the food and water containers should be somewhat enclosed to prevent soiling into them. Note that rats are able to do Houdini escapes because of their intelligence, so attention should be paid to provision of a very secure enclosure hatch! Breeding pairs are housed together, but the female is removed during pregnancy and nursing.

Behaviour and Handling

One must use caution if the rat is not used to handling since rats can deliver a significant bite. Restraint with an over-the-back hand position, with thumb and forefinger stabilizing the back end of the jaw is ideal. Avoid excessive pressure on the chest cavity. Note that handling by the tail tip only will cause discomfort, and possibly injury. Because the front end is not stabilized, the rat can also turn and bite if they wish!

The rat can be a source of human allergy, particularly due to a protein that is shed into the urine, and sometimes, the saliva proteins are also allergenic. If a caregiver is experiencing symptoms related to allergy, this should be attended to because human allergies can become severe.

Health Considerations

The rat is generally a very healthy species. Probability of health concerns increases with the colony size. Not every veterinary practice accepts rats as patients, so it is important to establish a relationship with a local practice that is comfortable handling this species, so that if a problem should arise, the healthcare team is at your service and ready to help.