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Mother and kittens

PetRat.Info

Formerly the Pet Rat Information Sheet

Last updated 31 January 2007

COPYRIGHT 1996-2007 A. Robinson and A. Horn, All Rights Reserved.

**Please note that this document is copyright and is intended for publication. This means that the whole document, or parts of it, must not be put on your website without our permission, and that quotations from it must be properly accredited. No part of this document should be considered to be in the public domain.

The Pet Rat Information Sheet is intended as commonsense advice for owners of domestic rats (Rattus norvegicus). It was originally written for people adopting rats from the authors in the UK. The document does not necessarily reflect the advice or policies of any organisations of which we are members. It is offered to a wider audience as a public service, but we cannot be held responsible for your decision to act on any advice contained in it. The authors are not veterinary professionals, and this document is not a substitute for veterinary consultation.

Unfortunately the authors cannot answer individual queries. In the case of serious health matters please contact a vet immediately; local and national rat clubs (see below for more details) will be able to help with more general queries.

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Last updated 31st January 2007

Table of Contents

Introduction

Rats as Pets

Housing

Food

Grooming

Health Problems

Breeding

Where to find out more:

 

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Introduction

The purpose of this leaflet is to help readers keep healthy, happy pet rats. Its main focus is upon animal welfare - what owners can do to give their rats happy lives, and thus make them better pets.

Rats as Pets

Rats are clean, intelligent, affectionate animals which bond to their human companions in much the same way that dogs do, and with the right care should provide a comparable level of companionship. They are the same species as the wild brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, but have been selectively bred for looks and temperament for at least the last century and are now quite different in temperament from their ancestors. They are far less aggressive towards humans and rival rats, and display a number of behavioural differences from wild rats, which have been noted by researchers.

Rats become very attached to their owners, make playful, sensitive pets, and can be taught to come by name and learn a variety of tricks. Unlike many other rodents, however, rats are a fairly high maintenance pet. They need at least an hour's playtime outside their cage every day. Because they are much more intelligent than many other small animals, rats can suffer greatly if not given enough attention, free-range time, and environmental stimulation. While rats are extremely rewarding pets and will repay any attention and affection you give them a thousand fold, they may not be suitable for everyone; if you cannot guarantee to give your rats at least an hour of quality time every day, then perhaps a lower maintenance pet would be more suitable.

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Where to get pet rats

It is best to buy your rats direct from a responsible breeder, for many reasons. A breeder who has only a few litters of baby rats (called 'kittens') at a time should have handled them from an early age, so that they are well socialized. The rats will have been spared the traumatic upheaval of moving to a busy shop at a young age, and so will have suffered less stress. They have had fewer opportunities to catch diseases from other animals. You will be able to meet the parents and relatives of the baby rats, and to check that they are healthy and friendly. A good breeder will be able to give advice after you have taken the rats home, and will usually take her rats back if you have any problems with them.

The best way to find a responsible rat breeder is to contact your local/national rat club and, ideally, ask around before you buy. For example, the UK's National Fancy Rat Society keeps a 'Kitten Register' of baby rats which are well socialized and suitable as pets - send an SAE to NFRS Kitten Register, c/o NFRS, PO Box 24207, London SE9 5ZF for a list.

Buying rats from a pet shop is more of a gamble than buying direct from a breeder. Some pet shops have knowledgeable staff, who handle their rats daily and treat them well. Others may see small livestock as just another commodity to be piled high and sold cheap. Advice from pet shop staff can be unreliable; no qualifications, or even experience, are needed to sell pets or to advise people on their care. Incidentally, the size of a store is no guide to the quality of its advice; some of the large chain 'pet superstores' are notorious for their poor animal care. If you buy rats from a pet shop, look around before choosing a store. Find out where they get their rats from. The best options are stores which take in small numbers of rats at a time from local breeders, or which breed small numbers of their own rats, and give them lots of attention. However, many pet shops purchase their small livestock from pet wholesalers, and this is the worst possible start for an animal. These rats are bred in huge numbers, then transferred to the wholesaler, who sells them on to pet shops. They can suffer great stress, and have lots of opportunities to pick up diseases. In order for the rats to reach the pet shops while they are still small and 'cute', they are often taken from their mothers far too young.

Before you buy from either a breeder or a pet shop, consider whether they meet up to the following standards. Good rat breeders and good pet shops put a lot of time and effort into breeding and socialising pet rats; they will only breed from good quality, healthy, friendly animals and will allow the mother to rest between litters. The babies will have been regularly handled from a young age - before their eyes have opened - and should be confident in human company by the time they are ready to leave home, not hiding away or urinating in fear when they are picked up. They will usually be over six weeks old, and certainly no younger than five weeks; the breeder or pet shop should be able to tell you their date of birth. They will have no problem telling the sexes apart - rats can be easily sexed from a few days' old, with a little practise. They will have kept male and female rats separate from the age of five weeks, because females can become pregnant even at this age. Good breeders and good pet shops will certainly care about the welfare of their animals, and will want to make sure that you have suitable housing and know how to keep rats, before they will let you buy any from them. If they were not concerned that you would look after the rats properly, it might indicate that they did not care about the animals themselves.

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Rat Rescue

Rescue organisations sometimes have rats which need good homes, and your national rat club will be able to put you in touch with members who deal with rescued rats. In the UK, the National Fancy Rat Society is not a rescue organization, but many members take in homeless rats. One of the nice aspects of the rat world is that it does not polarize into those who breed and show, and those who keep rescues - most rat breeders find room for a few homeless rats amongst their prize winners. 'Rescued' rats may have been dumped by owners who did not look after them properly - often by people who bought a breeding pair and then could not cope with the babies. Sometimes they have been seized by animal welfare organizations, either from individuals or from pet shops. If you adopt an adult rat, you will be able to get a rough idea of its health and temperament straight away. Initial shyness may subside as the rat gets used to you. Baby rescued rats are more of a gamble, as it may be hard to find out about the health and temperament of both parents. It can be very rewarding to give a home to an animal which truly needs one, and many rescued rats make great pets. However, we recommend that you do not take on rescued rats until you have kept a couple of friendly, well-socialized rats, after which the rescued rats can benefit from your experience.

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'Rescuing' from pet shops

Imagine this scenario: in a dingy pet shop, staffed by people who apparently could not care less, you find a tank full of rats. Overcrowded, dirty, perhaps with no food or water, some of the rats are obviously sick and many of them are unhappy. No-one cares about these rats because they are 'just snake food'. You buy one of these unfortunate rats, knowing that you have saved it from certain death. Is this 'rescuing'? Many of us have done it, including the authors. However, we do not believe that it does any good, and it's certainly not 'rescuing' in the same way that giving a home to an abandoned rat is truly 'rescuing' it. Once you leave the nasty pet shop, another rat will be sold for snake food in place of the one you bought. The total number of rats sold for snake food will not change, just because the shop sold one as a pet. However, the pet shop staff will note that rats are selling well. They may be encouraged to breed more rats. They will not be encouraged to look after the ones they have better. If you find that a shop is not looking after its livestock properly, and want to improve the welfare of the animals, then write to complain to your local council, for the attention of the environmental health officer. Contact the local animal welfare organisations. Contact the local newspapers. Visit the shop and try explaining politely how they could improve things. If that doesn't work, kick up a fuss. But please, don't buy from them - it will only encourage them. If you want to rescue a rat, see 'rat rescue' above. You can give a home to needy rats, without encouraging irresponsible breeders.

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Before buying rats... please consider whether you can commit yourself to caring for them properly for three years or more. Pets' needs do not change just because their owner gets a new job, or new interests, or will not find time to play with them any more. You cannot assume that you will be able to re-home rats in a year or so, if your interest fades. It is very stressful for an adult rat to have to adjust to a new home and new humans.

Rescue organisations have many animals to rehome, from cases of genuine need - for example, where the owner is seriously ill or has become homeless. They really do not need people to dump animals on them when the owner could easily, with a little effort, look after the rats themselves. Here are a selection of very poor excuses : 'my daughter won't clean them out' (so teach her about responsibility!), 'I forgot that I was going to work abroad when I bought them' (i.e. 'I'm bored with them..'), 'I have a new baby and I don't want animals in the house now' (the rats are no danger to the baby, and the baby will love watching them). There are all too many sad cases like these, where owners abandon pets for no good reason.

If you have a genuine reason for not being able to keep your rats, first contact their breeder, then any rat club which you are a member of. If your breeder cannot help, and you are not a member of a rat club, then try an animal rescue organization like the RSPCA.

Please do not dump pets outdoors under the illusion that you are 'setting them free'; domesticated rats brought up in captivity would be terrified in the wild, unable to fend for themselves. Most would either be killed by cats, or starve to death, within days of release.

Handling rats

The more attention you give your new rats when you first get them home, the sooner they will get used to your voice and your smell and begin to make friends with you. Handle your rats as much as possible, whether they seem to like it or not at first -- they will soon learn to enjoy your company. Unless a rat is very nervous or unwell, you cannot give it too much attention or handling. One good way of getting your rats used to you is to let them ride around the house on your shoulder or inside your sweater.

Rats should not be picked up by the tail -- they don't like it, and it can cause injury. It is best to lift your rats by placing one or both hands under the chest, behind the front legs -but be careful not to squeeze.

Rat-Proofing your house

Once your rats are used to you, make sure you know where your rats are while they roam free range, and rat-proof any room that they are let loose in. Rat-proofing requires a little common sense, but need not become a major DIY project. Many rats will scent-mark 'their' territory with tiny drops of urine and you may want to keep a 'rat-blanket' to throw over soft furnishings when the rats are out. Electrical cords that cannot be kept out of reach of small teeth should be covered with aquarium tubing which can be bought cheaply from most pet-shops, or hosepipe; it is easiest to slit the tubing along its length and feed the flex into it. Rats will also chew books, clothes, pencils and other items, and are adept at knocking things over. Breakables and valuable possessions should be put out of harm's reach while your rats are out and about. Make sure that windows and doors are closed, and that there are no possible escape routes. Rats can fit through tiny holes, so you should check for cracks along skirting boards, between floor-boards etc. It is strongly advised that you do not wear shoes while your rats roam free-range. Some house plants can be poisonous (check in a book on houseplants to find out if yours are safe), and rats often enjoy climbing plants and digging in plant pots - so it is probably most sensible to keep plants away from your rats.

Biting and nipping

Biting, out of fear or aggression, is unusual in pet rats. It is not something that you should have to put up with. Here are some of the situations where it may occur, and some possible solutions:

Male rats occasionally become aggressive towards humans and/or other rats at some point between 3-12 months of age, although if this happens it is most common at 4-5 months. The rat becomes 'super macho' if his levels of male hormones are too high. He will puff up his fur, hiss and huff at other rats and people, and may attack or bite cage-mates or his owners. He may also scratch at the floor, rub his sides against hard objects (to leave his scent), and leave trails of scent-marking pee wherever he walks. Normal, happy bucks may also scent-mark like this, but problem rats take it to extremes. If a male rat starts to squeak when you pick him up, or threatens to bite you when he is playing outside the cage, then we recommend that you take action quickly and do not leave it until you get bitten. This condition can usually be cured by having the rat castrated, and his hormonal levels and behaviour will return to normal after a few weeks. Castration also stops excessive scent-marking. A rat whose hormones are driving him to obsessive levels of aggression and sexual frustration is not a happy animal, and we do not think that it is fair to leave him in such a state. If you must have a buck neutered, make sure that you use a vet who has done this operation on rats before: rats have an internal muscular structure unlike that of dogs and cats, and a slightly different procedure must be used (the base of the inguinal canals must be stitched closed). Neutering can cost between 35-75 (prices last checked and updated 01/2007). The National Fancy Rat Society has a list of vets that have experience in dealing with rats.

Female rats sometimes bite when they are pregnant or have babies. This behaviour usually disappears when the babies are weaned. Although such biting is perhaps understandable, most female rats do not bite in these circumstances, so we believe that the biting doe should not be bred from again - she may pass the trait on to her offspring, and also the breeder may avoid handling the babies if she is worried that the mother will savage her. This means that the babies may not be as well socialised as they should be.

Intervening in a rat fight is a common way to get bitten. The rat may think that you are another rodent joining the scrum, and bite in self-defence. To avoid this, break up rat fights by squirting the animals with water from a plant spray, and separate the animals for a few hours until they cool down.

Finger nipping may occur if your rats are used to getting treats through the cage bars. This is not true biting, but merely an accidental nibble. If a finger is poked through the bars too, the rats may nip, mistaking the finger for food. Train your rats to tell the difference, by telling them when food is arriving - eg 'Sweeties!' - or fingers, eg 'Be gentle!'. If this fails, stop feeding treats through the bars; instead, open the cage door to put your hand inside when hand-feeding.

Sometimes a rat crops up which is just nasty. This is rare amongst rats from responsible breeders, but more common when indiscriminate breeding occurs. Not surprisingly, it is particularly common when rats which bite are bred from - the tendency towards bad temperament is often inherited, and may be recessive. This means that breeders need to select for good temperament in every generation, because even friendly rats may have the odd nasty child. Biters should never be bred from, no matter how pretty they are. If a rat continues to bite for more than a few weeks after castration or continued gentle handling, you should consider having the rat put to sleep. This is a difficult decision which no-one apart from the rat's owner can make, but the authors believe that a savage animal, kept permanently in its cage because people are scared to handle it, is not having much of a life. We would rather offer homes to other rats which could enjoy their lives more.

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Does and Bucks

It is very easy to tell the difference between male and female rats. Males have large, prominent testicles which are visible under the tail from well before the age when they are ready to leave their mother. They can draw their testicles up inside them if they are afraid, but will not do this for a long period of time. A good rat breeder or staff at a good pet shop will find it easy to tell which sex baby rats are. If they cannot tell the difference with ease, they should not be selling the animals.

Both male and female rats make great companion animals, although they have different characteristics. Does (females) are smaller, more lithe and more active than Bucks (males). Does have a smoother coat (unless they are rexes, in which case they have a less curly coat); they have almost no discernible smell and rarely scent-mark territory. Approximately once every five days a doe will be in heat for around twelve hours. This usually happens in the evening. You will notice that your doe is in heat by changes in her behaviour: she will be jumpy, skittish, and may perform a mating 'dance' by freezing, arching her back and fluttering her ears if you tickle her haunches. Bucks are larger and more laid-back than does. Their coat is coarser and has a slight musky smell to it. While they are as affectionate as does, they are much lazier, and when left free-range will often curl up in a corner or on your lap. Some bucks scent mark almost everything that they run into -- including their human companions -- but this is not as disgusting as it sounds as the 'scent' is only a few drops of urine and does not smell strongly.

As discussed in 'Biting and Nipping', occasionally male rats may need to be castrated if they become too aggressive. This is not a usual occurrence and should not be confused with the normal rough and tumble of adolescent rats. However, if you own a male rat, you should remember that neutering may become necessary. On the other hand, female rats are much more likely to develop mammary tumours than males, and you may decide to have these surgically removed. When you take on a pet, you have to take on the risk that it may one day need an operation.

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Growth and Lifespan

Rats are born after 21-28 days gestation, although the normal term is 22-23 days. Rats have poor eyesight but their senses of hearing and smell are many times more sensitive than ours. Baby rats' eyes open when they are between 13-16 days old, although they can hear and smell a few days after birth. They often start to nibble solid food as soon as their eyes open, but they still need their mother's milk until they are at least four weeks old. As with all mammals, mother's milk is the best food for young rats - they should not be weaned from the mother, or fed milk substitutes/animal formula, without good reason. Their bodies are designed to thrive on rat milk, not cat formula! There is no need to offer soft weaning foods; unlike human babies, young rats have teeth and can gnaw from the moment they start to eat solids. They do not need purees.

Rats normally leave their litter at 6 weeks of age; they are fully weaned from their mother at 4-5 weeks, but benefit greatly from staying with their breeder and being socialised until 6 weeks, since the period from 2-6 weeks of age is a crucial stage in the rat's mental and social development. It is important that rats are allowed to stay with their litter until this age, and the UK's National Fancy Rat Society (NFRS) does not allow baby rats to be sold through its shows or register before they are six weeks old.

Rats usually become fertile between 5-12 weeks of age, but does have been known to get pregnant as young as 3 1/2 weeks. This is only an issue if young does are introduced to older males who can mate with them; their litter brothers will not become fertile until after 5 weeks of age. If litters are not separated by sex at 6 weeks old, some does are likely to be pregnant. We are aware that most rat books say that does do not become fertile until 8 weeks old, but unfortunately, many baby female rats have not read the books, and get pregnant a lot younger than this! Such early pregnancy places a great strain upon the mother and her babies; please don't take the risk.

Rats grow rapidly until they reach 12-14 weeks. After this, the growth slows down but they continue to fill out until they reach six months of age. Adult bucks usually weigh 400-700g, does around 200-500g. As long as a rat has been handled as a youngster, it will bond to you no matter how old it is when you first get it. Rats usually live for around two years, although some make it to three and beyond. A big cage, other rats for company, a healthy diet, and lots of exercise is the best way of making sure that your rats have a long, happy life.

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Rats need company!

Social Life: Rats Need Company

Rats are highly intelligent, social animals, and although they enjoy the companionship of humans, they thrive in - and need - the company of their own species. Although they will usually survive if kept as single pets, pet care is not just a matter of keeping animals alive; rats will have happier and more interesting lives when kept with other rats. Rats should never live alone, and ideally should be kept in groups of two or more of the same sex. It is unfair to deprive any social animal of the company of its own species. Rats enjoy grooming each other, curling up to sleep together, and sometimes even fighting. It is usual for rats to scrap occasionally, especially when they are 'teenagers' between 3 and 6 months old; do not worry about this unless you see serious injuries, as the rats are just establishing a pecking order.

No matter how much time you can spend with your rat, you will never be able to replace the attentions of his own species. A rat's most active time is in the middle if the night, when most rat owners are unlikely to be able to provide their pet with companionship. One fear expressed by potential rat-owners is that if they get more than one rat, the animals will bond together and be less tame as a result. The opposite is usually the case, as solitary rats can easily become clingy, introverted and neurotic. Rats kept in pairs or groups are happier, more confident, and no more difficult to tame. If you want proof of this, go to a rat show or visit someone who keeps a group of rats as pets. You will be able to meet plenty of extrovert, confident rats and their ratty friends. We are not aware of any sound argument for keeping rats alone, but there are many good reasons to let them live in single-sex pairs or groups: two rats are as easy to look after as one, a cage that is big enough for one rat is big enough for a pair, two rats are much happier and live longer than single rats --and they're many times more interesting to watch! Do not worry about a pair of rats producing unwanted babies - rats should be kept in single-sex groups to avoid this, and it is very easy to tell the difference between males and females with a little experience.

It is possible to sex baby rats from birth with practise, and it is hard to confuse does and bucks from four weeks onwards, as by this age the male's testicles have dropped and are clearly apparent. While baby rats are weaned before five weeks of age, they should not leave their same-sex littermates until they are at least six weeks old. Any pet shop or breeder who claims that their baby rats cannot be definitely sexed yet is either selling them far too young, and does not have the animals' best interests at heart, or they know very little about rats. Either way, they should be avoided at all costs.

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Introducing Rats

It is easiest to introduce rats to their companions when they are young (preferably under 10 weeks old). However, even adult rats can be introduced to companions. When introducing adult rats, first clean out the cage thoroughly to remove territorial scents from the resident rat. Dab both rats with perfume or vanilla essence (to disguise their smells) and introduce them on neutral territory, not in a cage which one recognises as its own. There will usually be some fighting for the first few days after they are introduced. This is not usually serious, but to avoid it you may prefer to introduce them gradually, letting them first just sniff each other and then work up to putting them in the same cage over about a week. It is harder to introduce adult male rats to other adult males, and such introductions need to be done over several weeks. It is usually fairly easy to introduce an adult male to a young baby male of 6-10 weeks, although the introduction must be carefully supervised.

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Housing

Unlike rabbits and guinea pigs, domesticated rats are not hardy in cold weather. They must live indoors, preferably in your home, although an enclosed outbuilding could also suffice. For this reason they need a cage rather than just a hutch. Rats kept in an outdoor hutch are at risk of coming into contact with wild rats, and would be lucky to survive a British winter without illness or death from cold. The temperature should not fall below around 45 Degrees F/7Degrees C, and ideally should not rise beyond around 75 Degrees F/ 24 Degrees C. If the cage is sited in a busy part of the home, the rats will enjoy watching their humans passing by, and if part of the cage is at eye-level, you will find that you interact with them more.

Your rats will spend most of their lives in their cage, and because they are such intelligent, active animals, it is a shame to keep them in a small space. There is no such thing as a cage that is 'too big' for pet rats -- giving your animals more space is an easy way to make their lives more interesting. As a bare minimum, the floor-space should be at least 24" long and 12" wide, but we would stress that this is the minimum acceptable cage size and most pet owners want to give their pets more than the minimum. It is really important to check the dimensions of any cage before you buy; it can be hard to guess accurately, and a few inches of space can make a lot of difference to animals as small as rats.

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The Importance of Ventilation

The importance of ventilation is that decomposing droppings and urine give off ammonia. This irritates the respiratory tract, making rats vulnerable to respiratory problems (breathing difficulties). Litter on the cage floor absorbs moisture from droppings, which slows or halts the decomposition process, but some ammonia release is inevitable, even with the best litter. Good ventilation allows ammonia to dissipate in the surrounding air, thus reducing the amount that rats are exposed to in the cage. Ventilation is therefore a very important element in keeping rats healthy, and should be given particular attention whenever a rat suffers from respiratory illness.

Wire cages are by far the best housing for rats. In addition to providing good ventilation they are a ready-made rat climbing-frame, and they allow you to interact with your rats -- you can feed and stroke them through the bars. Rats have keen senses of hearing and of smell; a cage provides extra stimulation as your rats can pick up new smells and sounds which they find interesting. Don't worry about cages being draughty - all that is needed is a warm, sheltered nestbox for a sleeping place.

A cage can be easily converted into a rat adventure playground with a little imaginative use of ropes, ladders, tree branches, shelves, hammocks, and flowerpots attached to the sides. In addition to a minimum of two square feet of floor-space, you should try to get a nice tall cage for your rats: they love to climb, and you can maximise the available space by making shelves. The simplest shelves are melamine boards which can slide between the bars of the cage; they are convenient to remove and can be wiped down. Fer-Plast and other companies make excellent, reasonably priced parrot or cockatiel cages (such as the Fer-Plast Sonia 24" long x 15" wide x 25" high or the Immac Gabbie Dora ) that are suitable for rats. It is worth shopping around, as prices can vary by as much as 100%; animal exhibitions are a great place to get large cages at wholesale prices. Used ads papers (such as LOOT in London) and classified ads are also good places to find cheap cages; make sure that you disinfect and rinse any second-hand cage thoroughly. A hamster cage, no matter how 'large', is not suitable for adult rats: even the three-storey 'hamster-palaces' do not have enough floor space or climbing opportunities.

Fer-Plast Sonia cockatiel cage, with melamine shelves and hanging flowerpots..

Photo of bird cage adapted for rats

Wire cage floors

Some wire cages made especially for ferrets, chinchillas, or laboratory use, have wire floors with a pan below to catch droppings. These wire floors can be dangerous for rats; they may trap feet, and can also cause, or aggravate, a condition called bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis). This leads to severe irritation and swelling of the hocks, and cannot usually be cured.

Research shows that ammonia levels remain many times higher in cages with wire floors than in those with solid floors plus litter. ('Differences in the microenvironment of a polycarbonate caging system: bedding vs raised wire floors' by Raynor, Steinhagen & Hamm, Laboratory Animals Vol 17, pp85-89)

In any case, there is no advantage to having wire floors. A litter is still needed beneath the wire floor, to absorb urine and stop smells. The study above found that when litter was placed beneath the wire floors, the ammonia level was approximately halved - but still remained many times higher than that in cages with solid floors. This is probably because the movement of the animals mixes waste products with litter, thus drying them out more effectively.

Cages with wire floors are not even any easier to clean, as droppings get stuck to the wire. If you do buy a cage with a wire floor, remove the wire floor and set the cage in the litter tray. Wire shelves can be easily covered with off-cuts of linoleum, cardboard or carpet, which can be replaced when dirty.

An aquarium can be an option if, for some reason, a cage is not suitable or available. Aquaria offer less climbing opportunities, but this can be overcome with a little imagination and the use of some of the items listed above. However, aquaria have poor ventilation. The warm, humid, still air of an aquarium allows ammonia to build up rapidly, so it is important to make sure that the lid allows plenty of air to circulate. The lid should be composed entirely of wire mesh, perhaps on a home-made wooden frame. A fan close to the tank will help. Fish tank hoods and vivarium lids, or wooden lids with a few drilled holes, do not encourage air movement. Tanks must be cleaned out more often than cages, to remove droppings and control ammonia levels. Tanks do have the advantage of keeping the rats bedding, food etc. in their home and away from your furniture and carpets, and they provide extra security for rats who live in cat-owning households (although make sure that the lid is cat-proof!).

Plastic rabbit or cavy cages are sometimes used for rats. They all have thick plastic base trays, but the top half may be either all wire, or else clear plastic, containing a wire top door. Cages with a raised wire top half include the Ferplast Cavia range. These offer good ventilation and climbing opportunities. Shelves and toys can be attached to the wire on the sides. The larger versions allow lots of floorspace - sometimes 3 feet long or more - and they make good rat homes. Cages of the second type include the Savic Rody and Ferplast Duna, a large (approx. 30" x 19" x 23") plastic tank with clear plastic top half. These cages offer limited climbing opportunities and poor ventilation, but are extremely easy to clean (they can be taken apart). While the Duna is super as a nursery for baby rats as it is secure and draught-proof, it should only be used for adults when there are no other feasible options. Determined chewers make short work of them.

Rabbit hutches are sometimes used by fanciers who keep their rats in outdoor sheds. In such cases hutches provide extra protection against the elements, as well as a readily defensible space, as all the walls barring the front are solid: this is similar to the type of space that rats would choose to nest in in the wild. As with all housing for rats, it is imperative that the hutches are generously sized and that climbing and play opportunities are afforded. Many fanciers find that a non-toxic paint (like yacht varnish) applied to the inside of hutches will extend their lifespan. Chewed holes can be repaired with ceramic tiles.

In addition to a cage, your rats will need a nestbox. This is a place to hide or sleep in which allows the rats to feel secure, and to build a warm nest. A nest box can be improvised from many objects: a small empty cardboard box, a large clean empty jar, or a small bucket laid on its side.

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Rat Toys

Baby rats enjoy playing with toys and each other, whilst adult rats tend to use toys for sleeping in or on and reserve their play for humans or other rats. All sorts of objects can be useful for both purposes - some ideas are lengths of plastic drainpipe, large drainpipe connectors, lengths of wide drainage pipe, large glass jars, cardboard boxes, and old clothes. Small toys intended for hamsters or gerbils are good for baby rats. Some rats will run on wheels, but usually they are not interested in them -- probably because they are too intelligent. Wheels with spokes are dangerous -- legs, tails, or even heads can be damaged in them as one tries to jump on while another is running. Toys intended for ferrets and parrots are generally safe and suitable for rats.

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Litter and Bedding

Litter is placed in the cage to absorb moisture from urine and droppings. By drying out droppings, it stops them decomposing and hence smelling. Bedding is used in the nestbox to make a comfortable bed, and also to absorb urine.

Wood shavings are the most commonly available litter sold to line the bottom of small animal cages. Many people feel that wood shavings are not an ideal litter for rats, because they give off essential oils and can be very dusty. However good quality wood shavings (as opposed to sawdust) can provide an excellent bedding for rats. Despite common misconceptions, there is no evidence that the most common forms of wood shavings (usually pine or spruce in the UK -- a white or pale yellow wood) cause any damage to rat health: studies have failed to find any connection between respiratory ailments and use of ordinary shavings. In fact, the rats kept on shavings in one study actually lived longer than those not exposed to moderate amounts of aromatic oils!

However, red cedar shavings, shavings or paper bedding treated with extra aromatic oils or other chemicals (often sold as deodorising beddings), shavings or paper bedding that is especially dusty, as well as sawdust (which is dusty by its nature) should all be avoided: large amounts of aromatic oils and dust can irritate rats' respiratory tracts.

For those who would rather not use wood shavings, there are now many alternatives to wood shavings available in the UK. It is advisable to make sure that any alternative litter is not toxic if ingested: recycled paper beddings are probably the safest, although these may be as dusty as wood products, and it is important to ensure that they have not been treated with aromatic oils (even "natural" ones) or chemicals to improve their deodorising properties. The authors have used Bio-Catolet - a cat litter made from pellets of recycled paper. Sterile and dust-free, this litter is many times more absorbent than wood-shavings, and is much better at controlling odour. Although on a weight-for-weight basis it is more expensive than wood shavings, Bio-Catolet is far more efficient: you use much less and change it less often than wood (for example, once rather than twice weekly for an average-sized cage containing two females). Because of its efficiency Bio-Catolet is good value for money. It can be found in large branches of ASDA, Sainsburys, and Tescos nationwide, or ask your local pet shop to order it for you.

In a pinch, shredded paper-towels can be a safe stop-gap until you buy more litter. Normal cat litter -- even the dust-free kind --is not appropriate for rats: the dust and clay can harm their health.

Bedding - shredded paper bedding from a pet shop is fine, although your rats will enjoy ripping up paper towels even more. Newspaper can be used as bedding, provided that it is printed with non-toxic ink. You can find out by telephoning the printer; if the ink is safe, the main disadvantage is that it may stain the rats' coats. Straw or hay does little to absorb liquid or eliminate odour, although some rats and humans like it. One of the authors had a rat who blinded herself in one eye on a sharp hay stalk, but such accidents are probably rare.

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Food

Like people, rats are omnivores. They fare best on fresh wholesome foods: wholegrain (brown) rice, vegetables, grains (wheat, barley, oats, millet), wholemeal bread, etc. and some animal protein. High protein puppy food is useful as a supplement to help build up young rats (up to 10-12 weeks), and normal to low protein dry dog food is a good component of a healthy diet. Ideally, an adult rat should be fed some whole-grains, some vegetables, and some protein (lean meat scraps, dog food or mealworms) every day. This can be supplemented with a bowl of 'rodent mix' as a snack food.

Debbie Ducommun of the Rat Fan Club has devised an excellent recipe for rat health food that appears to boost immune reaction and general health, see the Rat Fan Club (below) for details. Debbie is a vegetarian herself, but she found it impossible to formulate a vegetarian diet for rats which would fulfil all of their nutritional requirements. If you want your rats to thrive, they should have small amounts of animal protein. The simplest way of providing this is via a few dog biscuits.

While such home-made nutritionally complete diets are ideal and are strongly recommended, it is also possible to give your rat a well-balanced diet using pet-shop mixes as a base. There are several specialty rat foods on the market, but the only one that the authors know has been fully researched from a nutritional point of view is Burgess Supa-Rat. Most rats will eat all of this food, which makes it nutritionally complete for the average rat. However nursing mothers and kittens will still need supplements to add protein and extra calories to their diet. Reggie Rat made by Supreme Pet Foods also claims to be specially formulated with the nutritional needs of rats in mind. In theory it is a complete food, but a) we have yet to meet the rat which will eat all of the mix, particularly the pellets, and the diet cannot be 'complete' if rats only eat part of it, and b)your rats will always appreciate healthy fresh snacks as treats. As it is quite high in fat and protein, restrict amounts of Reggie Rat for rats which put on weight easily. A less rich option is a good quality rabbit food like Burgess Supa Rabbit or Burgess Supa Natural (no pellets), supplemented with fresh vegetables, some animal protein (mealworms, lean meat or dog biscuit), and the odd cooked meat bone (chicken bones are fine -- the rats just crunch them up) or natural yoghurt to provide extra calcium. This is what the authors' use. A "complete rat food" in the form of extruded pellets is has been released by Burgess but the authors have not reviewed this product. See below for more on "all-in-one" foods.

If you feed a grain mix, like Reggie Rat or rabbit mix, give just a small amount at a time. Most rats will pick out their favourite pieces first, but they will not get a balanced diet if they only eat their favourite part of the mix. Do not give any more food until all of the first lot has been eaten, except for the empty grain husks, and the pellets. These pellets are made of alfalfa, and they mainly add bulk to the diet. Most rats would rather starve than eat them; don't worry, as they are not essential. It is better for rats to get their fibre from fresh fruit or veg anyway. We would not feed 'mono-diets' such as complete blocks of rodent food as a sole food. Such diets are boring, depriving rats of the fun of rummaging through their food and eating the tastiest bits first. However "complete foods" in the form of extruded pellets guarantee that rats are getting all of their vital nutrients, and as such can be an important part of a healthy mixed diet - e.g. mix a quality grain mixture and extruded pellets in a 50/50 ratio for the dry element of your rats' diet.

The following foods can be used as treats/supplements to the regular diet: fruit (apples, cherries, grapes, banana etc.), vegetables (broccoli, potatoes, peas, carrot etc.), cooked liver, kidney, or other low-fat meat, cooked bones, cooked pulses (cooked Soya protein may reduce the risk of cancer), live yoghurt, sunflower seeds (an exceptional source of B vitamins), wholemeal pasta and bread, brown rice, unsweetened breakfast cereals, and the occasional capsule of cod-liver or garlic oil. Table scraps will be eaten with relish, but try to avoid feeding fatty or sugary scraps. Carbonated drinks should never be given to rats as they cannot burp, and the build-up of gasses in the stomach from fizzy drinks could be fatal. Bear in mind that dietary fat has been linked to tumours in rats, and keep fatty foods like peanuts and sunflower seeds as treats. Moderation is advised in all things - the diet should not be made up of just one main ingredient. For example, some people worry that too much maize (sweetcorn, or just 'corn' in the USA) could be harmful, although small amounts are enjoyed.

Fresh water should be available at all times, preferably in a gravity (ball-valve) bottle which will keep the water clean. Water should be changed daily, and the bottle should be scrubbed out once a week. If using a plastic bottle, it is a good idea to thoroughly clean or replace it every few months, to prevent excessive bacteria and algae building up. The problem with giving water in bowls rather than bottles is that rats tend to dump litter in the bowls, or knock them over. However, most rats prefer drinking from a bowl, and like to wash themselves with the water - so they do appreciate being given a bowl from time to time. Sick or elderly rats may find it hard to drink from a bottle, so a low bowl should be provided to encourage them to drink. You will have to clean the cage more often, but it will help to prevent the rat suffering from dehydration. Vitamin supplements should be added to food rather than to drinking water -most make the water taste horrible, and may discourage your rats from drinking. In any case, healthy rats fed a healthy, well-balanced diet should not need to have vitamin supplements.

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Grooming

Rats are extremely clean creatures, spending almost a third of their waking life grooming. As such, it is rarely necessary to bathe rats, with the exception of light-coated varieties which may need the occasional stain-removal session if you wish to show them. If you decide that your rat needs bathing, make sure that you use a shampoo formulated for animals - a kitten or puppy shampoo is best - as human shampoo can irritate their skin.

Some rats do not clean their tails thoroughly and can develop dark stains or patches on their tails. If you wish to clean your rat's tail you can do so with an old, soft toothbrush and either a gentle soap / animal shampoo, or bicarbonate of soda. Wet the tail and apply the soap / shampoo / soda. Very gently stroke the rat's tail with the dampened toothbrush, or rubbing with your fingers, brushing away from the body towards the tip of the tail. Do not brush your rat's tail roughly as this can damage or even remove the delicate skin on the tail, and can be very painful for her.

Some rat owners like to have their pets' nails trimmed regularly. This can be quite difficult and for the first time it is helpful to visit a vet or an experienced rat owner - a show can be a great opportunity for this - and ask them to show you how to do it. Styptic powder (anti-bleeding) is a useful thing to keep on hand if you intend to cut your rats' nails as accidentally nicking the vein inside the nail can cause serious blood loss. Putting a large (cleaned) stone or brick in your rats' cage for them to climb on can also wear down their nails.

Changing the bedding (tissues, kitchen towel, etc.) in your rats' cage every few days will prevent them from becoming too smelly. If you change the bedding daily you may find that your rats' cage becomes smellier: rats can become insecure when "their" smell is removed, and may ramp up urination in order to mark their territory. This is particularly true in cages of bucks. Leaving a few bits of smelly bedding in with the new bedding can help to reassure your rats. Likewise, it can sometimes be helpful to sprinkle a little of the dirty substrate (shavings/Bio-Catolet etc.) back into cage after it has been cleaned so that it smells like "home" to its occupants. It is also a good idea to give your rats a bowl of water every now and again, as mentioned above, so that they can wash themselves. In the summer they will enjoy paddling to cool down; a heavy crockery dog or cat bowl works well for this.

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Health Problems

The full range of health problems that your rat may encounter during its lifetime clearly can not be addressed in a leaflet of this length, and what follows should by no means be considered a substitute for veterinary care. A good vet who is experienced in dealing with rats is invaluable, and it is a good idea to find one before a potential problem arises. The National Fancy Rat Society also keeps a register of recommended vets all over the UK. Outside the UK, your local rat club may be able to recommend a vet.

Veterinary care for rats need not be expensive - we have been charged between 12-18 per visit (2007 prices) at various clinics, and often two rats can be included in the cost of one consultation. Most vets charge the same prices to operate on rats as for cats; this is a generous gesture, as it is harder for them to operate on smaller animals - surgery is more fiddly. In fact, many vets actually make a loss from operations on small pets - but still do them out of interest. A charity such as the PDSA or Blue Cross can provide free or cheap veterinary care if you are on a low income, but many private veterinary clinics will also try to help if you explain your circumstances to them.

For more detailed information on healthcare, and particularly on post-operative care, we recommend the Rat Healthcare booklet by Debbie Ducommun (reviewed under 'Books').

If one of your rats appears to be unwell, a vet should be consulted as soon as possible. Although rats are hardy little creatures, they can go into decline very quickly, and by putting off seeing a vet you may be reducing their chances of survival.

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Surgery

Any surgical operation carries a risk that the animal will not survive the anaesthetic, but modern inhalant anaesthetics are far safer than the older-style injectables. Try to find a vet who uses Isoflurane anaesthetic - it is very safe for small mammals, complications are extremely rare, and they recover quickly from it. Vets who have used it rave about it, and the authors would not risk having any other anaesthetic used on their rats.

There is no need to starve rats before an operation, as they cannot vomit. Starving the rat puts it under extra stress, and may delay recovery.

After an operation, rats often try to remove their stitches. You can stop this by applying Johnson's Anti-Peck (sold to stop caged birds pecking themselves or others) or Bitter Bite (a repellent product similar to bitter apple, but more effective and marketed for dogs and cats) over and around the wound. Elizabethan collars should be avoided - they can be very distressing for rats. Many people recommend using a length of surgical stocking/stockinet to cover the whole of the rat's body, cutting out holes for legs.

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A few common symptoms of rat ailments are:

General Signs of Illness: the animal is hunched up, lethargic, coat staring (fluffed up and messy), uninterested in food or attention. Eyes may be half closed and breathing may appear laboured. If your rat shows these symptoms, or others that worry you, consult a vet.

Red Discharge Around the Eyes and/or Nose: Not an ailment in itself, but a symptom of distress. Rats' mucus is stained red with a pigment called porphyrin (indeed, the mucus is commonly referred to as porphyrin). This discharge may be present if your rat is ill or simply stressed (as, for example, from moving house). Observe the animal carefully, and if it appears unwell or if the discharge continues for more than a few days, consult a vet.

Head-weaving is often seen in rats with pink or red eyes. The rat will usually stand still and weave its head from side to side for a while. This is perfectly normal; all rats are short-sighted (although they can sense movement from some distance, they can only focus for a few feet), but any animal with pink or red eyes has worse eyesight than those with dark eyes. Moving the head from side to side helps the rat to judge distances and the depth of objects by making them appear to move. This should not be considered a fault or problem - rats sense smells, sounds and movement (by feeling vibrations on the floor) much more acutely than humans, and can cope perfectly well with limited eyesight. Note that there is a different, unrelated condition called head tilt or wry-neck, where the rat holds its head on one side permanently. This can be caused by a inner-ear infection, or a brain tumour; it needs urgent veterinary attention.

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Sneezing/Wheezing/Noisy Breathing: Often the sign of a respiratory infection. Virtually all pet rats are infected with an organism called mycoplasma which inhabits their respiratory system. Many rats carry mycoplasma without appearing to suffer any illness, while others are not able to carry the infection unharmed. These rats will usually start to sneeze as young adults; they then develop some damage to the respiratory tract (lungs, windpipe, etc.) which makes it easier for bacteria to enter and cause an infection. This is usually what has happened when a rat starts to wheeze, and if a great deal of damage is caused to the respiratory tract, the rat may develop emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia and lung abscesses.

Although sneezing is not necessarily a sign of serious illness (most rats sneeze at some point in their lives), a rat that sneezes frequently and for an extended period should be observed for any other signs of illness. If your rat's breathing appears laboured, wheezy, or has a rattley sound, consult a vet immediately. When treated early, secondary respiratory infections can often be kept at bay with a strong course of antibiotics (see Antibiotic Therapy).

While sneezing or snuffling may be the result of the irritation of the respiratory tract from dust and phenol oils if the rat is kept on shavings, often a rat with noisy breathing is suffering from a secondary infection in the upper respiratory tract. These infections often sound far more serious that they are, and we have had some success treating them ourselves without antibiotics, as discussed below under 'Home Remedies'. These approaches have helped our animals, but we would stress that your pet's health is your responsibility. If you are in any doubt about which approach to take, you should talk to your vet.

A rat which shows a tendency to succumb to infection should never be bred from, as the tendency towards respiratory illness is partly hereditary. This means it is likely that offspring and resulting generations will have weakened immune systems. It is important to obtain rats from breeders who select for healthy animals; a persistent sneezer, or a rat which wheezes, should not be bred from.

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Tumours: Some rats develop tumours as they get older. Female rats are more likely to develop tumours than males, and rats fed on a high-fat diet are also more at risk. The most common form are benign mammary tumours, which start off as a small, pea-like lump and grow steadily. They can occur in the rats' groin or armpit, along her side or on her back; rats have mammary tissue in unexpected places. They do not usually cause any distress until they either seriously impede the rat's movement or start to ulcerate and become sore, or outgrow their blood supply and become gangrenous.

If your rat develops a tumour then you can either have it surgically removed, or to have her put to sleep when she becomes unhappy. You do not need to put her to sleep as soon as a tumour appears - she may have many months of happy life ahead of her before it starts to hurt, and as the rat's owner you will be the best person to decide when she is no longer enjoying life. If you decide to have the tumour removed and it is benign, the operation is relatively simple and need not be stressful for the rat if she is otherwise healthy. The cost of tumour removal depends on teh complexity of the operation, and can cost from around 35 to 125 (2007 prices) and, again, it is helpful to find a vet with experience in this area. However, bear in mind that a rat who is prone to tumours may well develop others after a first tumour is removed. This does not mean that it is not worth having the operation done - the rat could well gain at least an extra 3 or 4 months of life, which is comparable to 6-8 years for a human - but you need to take into account her overall health and your vet's opinion as to whether the tumour can be operated on. It is easier to remove tumours while they are still small.

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Skin Irritation:

Usually seen with scabs caused by excessive scratching. Caused either by infestation with parasites such as mites, which may not be visible to the naked eye, or by a dietary problem.

Diet-related skin problems may be caused by an allergy to peanuts or certain other types of protein-rich foods, or an adverse reaction to artificial additives in processed pet food. The usual culprits include peanuts, some brands of dog food, the brightly coloured biscuit often found in rodent mix, and for some animals apparently sunflower seeds.

Before, or as well as, treating for parasites, remove the foods listed above from your rat's diet, clip the back toenails, and treat existing skin abrasions or scabs with an antiseptic ointment. Not all rats will react the same way to the same foods - it may take time to find which ingredient is responsible. A useful way to eliminate the problem is to put your rats on a home-made fresh diet, containing no chemical additives. After 10 days of an altered diet (either very low protein or preservative - free), all signs of irritation and scratching should have disappeared; if they remain, contact your vet to consider other options.

The most effective treatment for mites (both the common fur mite, and rat mange mite) is Ivermectin, sold in the UK as 'Ivomec', and available only from your vet. This liquid can be painted onto the rat's ears, and absorbed through the skin, or it can be injected. Rats may develop a bad reaction to the injection, so it is better to apply it to the skin - discuss this with your vet, as some prefer to inject, so they can be sure that the rat gets the full dose. Ivomec is given every two weeks until the problem clears - usually two or three doses.

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Obesity: Fat Rats. One of the best ways that you can ensure that your rats lead long healthy lives is to make sure that they do not get fat. Fat rats live shorter lives, are prone to tumours, are more susceptible to infection, and less likely to recover from surgery. Does should be sleek and lean, and bucks muscular; neither should feel soft and squashy, nor should they feel bony. Like people, rats often enjoy foods that are bad for them, and like children, rats will often choose fatty or sweet foods over healthy ones. It is up to you to make sure that your rats eat healthily, and you may find it better to save treats for hand-feeding after your rats have eaten their healthy food. A healthy balanced diet, regular exercise (at least an hour outside the cage every day), and large, clean living conditions will insure that your rats' lives are lived to the fullest.

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Bleeding from vulva:

Rats do not have menstrual periods. Bleeding from the vulva may occur without problems during labour, or sometimes apparently when a doe is miscarrying her litter (normally the babies are reabsorbed inside her). However, if the doe is not pregnant, then she may be suffering either from an infection of the uterus, or uterine tumours of some form (eg fibroids). Your vet may recommend antibiotics; if the problem does not clear up, spaying would cure it - but remember that this is a major operation, and very stressful for the rat.

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In hot weather it is important to protect rats from heat exhaustion and dehydration. rats regulate their temperature mainly through the tail and foot-pads, so if you provide a bowl of cold water a hot rat can cool herself down by paddling in it. A fan placed near to the cage will provide a cooling breeze. You can also give your rats frozen vegetables (e.g. peas) as ice-lollies, and ice cubes can be added to their water-dish. Make sure that the cage is not in direct sunlight in hot weather.

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Antibiotic Therapy

While antibiotics can be a useful tool to fight bacterial infection in rats, they should never be used without the instruction of a vet. Microbiologists and vets who specialise in rat care have noted more frequent and severe outbreaks of bacterial infections among pet rats in recent years. Over-use of antibiotics in animal medicine is thought to have contributed greatly to the cases of antibiotic-resistant bacteria now in evidence. Every time an antibiotic is used there is a risk that it will encourage the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which threatens humans and animals worldwide.

Another disadvantage of using antibiotics is that there is evidence suggesting that, in the long run, they harm the health of the patient. This is partly because antibiotics destroy bacteria that live in the animal's gut, and which help make some vitamins and minerals which the body needs. It is therefore a good idea to feed some sort of pro-biotic supplement during and after a course of antibiotics. If you do decide to use antibiotics they should be given only when prescribed by a vet who has examined the animal.

A rat which shows a tendency to succumb to infection should never be bred from, as the tendency towards respiratory illness is partly hereditary, and it is likely that offspring and resulting generations will have weakened immune systems. It is important to obtain rats from breeders who select for healthy animals; a persistent sneezer, or a rat which wheezes, should not be bred from.

If antibiotics must be used, it is important that the entire course is used up, otherwise the malignant organism being treated may return in a stronger, antibiotic-resistant form. Experts vary in their opinion of the best way to administer antibiotics; some believe that they should be given for at least a week after all symptoms disappear. Others, worried about the damage that antibiotics can do to the natural bacterial balance in a rat's body, suggest a cycle of ten days on the medicine followed by a rest period of five days off. This is repeated two or three times, with the rat fed live yoghurt and/or pro-biotic supplements during the five days 'off' to replenish gut flora and minimise damage to the immune system. In some cases of respiratory disease, your vet may advise two courses of different antibiotics --one following the other -- to combat the primary and secondary infections respectively.

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Home remedies that we have used as alternatives to antibiotics:

Echinacea (pronounced ek-in-ay-shah)- a herb that appears to boost immune response in many species including humans and rats. Recent controlled studies at Exeter University found that it appeared to reduce the risk of infections in humans by 10-20% - not a massive amount, but this could make the difference between contracting a serious illness, or fighting it off. A few drops of echinacea tincture (more effective than tablets) can be added to the drinking water of sick rats; a few drops of honey can be added too disguise the taste. As the body quickly develops a tolerance for echinacea, it is not recommended that you use it for more than three weeks at a time. Alternatively, you can give it to the sick animal for one week out of four. Echinacea is available from health food shops, or by mail order in the UK from Neal's Yard Remedies (tel. 0161 831 7875).

Feed the rat garlic in whatever form you can - raw is best, crushed into soft food, or as capsules.

A pro-biotic supplement can also be used to boost a rat's immunity when it is run-down, unwell, or stressed (as from travelling), and may help prevent serious illnesses. Rats can be given a pro-biotic supplement throughout their lives without it doing them any harm. Entrodex, manufactured by the Vydex Animal Health (tel. 01222 578578), also contains vitamins and electrolytes: it can be added to the drinking water one or two days a week for healthy animals, or every day for ailing or elderly rats. Live yoghurt (containing beneficial bacterial cultures) is also a useful supplement; however the cultures that it contains are largely destroyed by intestinal juices before they are able to have any noticeable effect. For this reason, specialised pro-biotic products like Entrodex which specifically target the intestine and are able to withstand gastric acidity for long enough to colonise the gut and multiply, are more effective. The manufacturers of Entrodex can supply a free booklet which explains this, and includes results of trials of the product.

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Breeding

Rats should be kept in single-sex groups; if you keep un-neutered males and females together, they could produce a litter of 8-18 babies every 3-4 weeks for at least a year, leaving the mother exhausted and the babies undernourished. Baby rats often become fertile after 5 weeks of age, so males and females must be kept separate after this time. Where a mating is planned, it is easier to reintroduce the male to his male cage-mates if he is only allowed to stay with the female for a short time - he can be left with her for an evening when she is in heat, or perhaps overnight. A pregnant doe can be left with her (female) cagemates until a few days before she is due to give birth.

We do not recommend that you leave a male and female together after mating. Although male rats make good fathers, a buck that has lived with a female for any length of time can be difficult to reintroduce to his male companions. Furthermore, does go into heat -- the post partum oestrus -- within hours of giving birth. If you leave the male rat in with the mother she may get pregnant immediately after giving birth and her health and that of her offspring will be greatly compromised as she tries to suckle one liter while another grows in her belly.

Does should be separated from their cage mates when they look heavily pregnant, or at around 20 days' gestation if you know the date of mating. They should be given privacy, lots of nesting material, and a secure, dark nestbox such as a cardboard box. Complications are rare when the doe is left to labour alone, but there is hard evidence that animals subjected to close observation and disturbance in labour are more likely to have difficulty. In general, leave well alone; the doe will deliver her babies and tidy them up without any help. If a baby is born dead or deformed, she may eat it - and again, she should be left alone to get on with this. However, if you find that the doe has been straining for more than 3-4 hours without producing a baby, or if she appears distressed, call a vet.

Rats do not generally respond well to hormonal stimulation with oxytocin, according to experts we have asked. If serious difficulties occur in labour, a caesarean operation may be the only solution. It is highly unlikely that any baby rats delivered this way will survive outside a sterile laboratory. The mother will not usually be able to nurse them, but if you try to hand-rear them from birth they will not have received any colostrum and will generally die. It is probably kinder- to you and the baby rats- not to try.

Before breeding from your rats, please consider carefully whether you will be able to find suitable homes for a large litter. Pet shops will not always be able to take unwanted babies off your hands, and if you are at all concerned for the welfare of your baby rats then you should only offer them to a pet shop if it has an excellent reputation, and the staff are knowledgeable. Many pet shops sell rats as food for snakes (called 'feeders' or 'feeder rats', but they are just ordinary domesticated rats) - but the best will only sell them as pets. You may well have great difficulty finding good homes, and could end up having to keep the whole litter. Before breeding, it may help to consider whether the rats in question have any special characteristic which you want to see passed on. Whatever their looks, they must be healthy and friendly - but unless they are also particularly attractive and extrovert, are other people going to want their babies?

If you do decide to breed, we strongly recommend reading the chapters on breeding and rearing rats in Nick Mays' 'The Proper Care of Fancy Rats', and if possible contacting the breeder of your own rats for advice. It is a basic requirement that both parents are friendly and healthy -- there are large hereditary aspects to the temperament and functioning of the immune system, so rats which are aggressive or sickly are likely to produce babies which share these characteristics. The female should be at least 4 months old so that she has had time to mature. If a female has not bred a litter by the age of 8 months then there is a risk that she will have difficulty giving birth, but if she has produced a litter before this age then she may be bred from until she is around a year old, providing that she is healthy and in good condition.

The mother must be left with her kittens until they are fully weaned at 4-5 weeks, but they will not be ready to go to new homes until about a week after weaning (in order for the breeder to make sure that the babies are well handled, healthy, and of good temperament). To preserve the health and condition of the mother she should be allowed a rest of at least a month after weaning one litter of kittens before she is mated to produce another.

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Where to Find Out More:

Books about Rats

There are numerous books about rats in print at the moment, but several are desperately inaccurate. Any book on pet care will have both good and bad points; publishers generally do not require authors to have their work reviewed by experts before the book is printed, so it is easy for inaccuracies to creep in, and for controversial opinions to be presented as hard-and-fast facts. This means that it helps to read as much as possible, and to talk to experienced rat owners, to get all views - rather than treating one book as your ultimate guide. A more extensive booklist is available from the NFRS (and on its website), but here are some of the better ones.

The National Fancy Rat Society Handbook - The Exhibition Rat

This comprehensive work on keeping, breeding and showing fancy rats has been rewritten and is available from the NFRS as part of the new membership pack - details are published in Pro-Rat-a and on its Website.

The Proper Care of Fancy Rats by Nick Mays

An excellent guide to the history of the rat fancy, and a must for anyone considering showing and breeding fancy rats. Contains many colour photographs. Useful, but this book was written some time ago, and so not all varieties of rat are listed. The health section is outdated. 256 pages, hardback, pub. TFH (1993), ISBN 0-86622-340-1, 10.95

Rat Health Care by Debbie Ducommun

Debbie Ducommun is the founder of California's Rat Fan Club, and this publication is now in its 9th edition and contains a wealth of first-hand knowledge of rats and their ailments. Includes guides to possible causes of symptoms, first aid, nursing care, and a health food diet for rats. Some of the content is controversial, eg spaying female rats is recommended to prevent tumours, but other authorities on rat healthcare maintain that spaying is a major, invasive, operation for such a small animal whilst tumour removal is a minor procedure. Discuss with your vet and perhaps an experienced rat breeder before deciding on any course of action recommended by the book if you are uncertain. 32 large pages, softback, pub. The Rat Fan Club (1995-2003), no ISBN. Available in the UK from National Fancy Rat Society Sales for 4.00 including P&P. See http://www.nfrs.org/sales.html for details

Rats! By Debbie Ducommun (Not yet fully reviewed)

Lots of useful, original thought, and original photos. As with the healthcare book, some very controversial opinions regarding, eg, surgery and ageing, but highly informative & great fun. Pub. Bowtie Press (1988) ISBN 1-889540-05-6 $16.95 (not on general sale in UK yet)

The Rat by Ginger Cardinal, from the series An owner's guide to a happy, healthy pet

Focuses on the practical aspects - eg suggested 'house rules' for children helping to care for rats. There is a guide to American varieties, but some colour names are different to those in the UK (eg their Beige is our Buff). The book also shows Hairless and Tailless rats, which are not shown in the UK as these deformities are linked with health problems. Considerable confusion in the health chapter, eg regarding respiratory illness, and uterine problems - consult a more reliable source in this area. The chapters on 'Understanding your rat' and 'Training tips and tricks' are good - includes a guide to rat body language and 'The Meaning of Squeaking'! Pub. Howell Book House (1998) ISBN 0-876054289, 8.99

A. Robinson & A. Horn 1998-2007, all rights reserved. Top

Rats on the Internet

There is a wealth of rat-related information on the internet. The National Fancy Rat Society can be found at http://www.nfrs.org/ and its site is well worth a visit. The Rat and Mouse Club of America has a very well-presented site, with lots of information, at http://www.rmca.org . It has links to dozens of other rat pages, and to rat clubs worldwide. Another way to find WWW pages containing ratty information is to use a search-engine (like Yahoo! or Infoseek) and type in the word "rat" or "rats".

The Rats Mailing List is an e-mail discussion group that provides a forum for the members of the list to discuss all manner of thing pertaining to rat care and ownership. Although some serious matters about health and husbandry are discussed, the majority of the 30-50 daily postings that you will receive from the list if you subscribe, will be anecdotal stories about 'cute' or amusing things that members of the list's pet rats have done. The Rats List is great for those who enjoy chatting about the joys of rat ownership. To subscribe send an e-mail (with the subject line blank) to rats-request@lists.best.com with the message body containing the word "info" on one line and "end" on the next. You will then be sent a message containing information on how to subscribe and list protocol. Two Usenet newsgroups that have a lot of rat-related postings are rec.pets and alt.pets.rodents.

A caution regarding internet rat-related sources: Although many interesting and informative discussions take place on the internet, bear in mind that you shouldn't believe everything you read, and that although some of the posters may have a lot of knowledge and experience, many of the 'experts' have limited experience. While you may learn a lot from such resources, it is best not to rely on information gained from newsgroups, mailing lists or other internet sources unless you are certain that the author is knowledgeable and trustworthy. If in doubt, contact your vet, the National Fancy Rat Society, or an experienced rat-owner/breeder with your query.

A. Robinson & A. Horn 1998-2007, all rights reserved. Top

Rat Clubs

It is hard to find accurate information about rat care and health because rats have only become popular pets in recent years. Joining a club or society is the best way to find out how to care for your rats, and to keep up to date with the latest developments in rat husbandry. Clubs can also help you get the most out of your pet rats by giving advice on socialising them and so on. There are many other excellent rat clubs worldwide, and we do not have space to list them all here. Overseas readers on the internet will find links and information at the RMCA. The authors have been members of the clubs below, and can recommend them to readers in the UK.

The National Fancy Rat Society is a must for rat owners in the UK. It can be a great help to both the pet owner and those who are interested in showing or breeding rats. It runs regular shows throughout the country, has a bi-monthly journal (Pro-Rat-A) which gives down-to-earth, reliable advice on pet care, and experts in the Society are available to help with any queries that you might have. For membership details send an SAE to the Membership Co-ordinator (address below).

The National Fancy Rat Society also runs a kitten register (for finding or selling rat-kittens), which is available to all enquireres, and has a register of recommended rat-friendly vets, which is for members only.

National Fancy Rat Society, PO Box 24207, London SE9 5ZF

Homepage: http://www.nfrs.org/

Email: enquiries@nfrs.org

The London and Southern Counties Mouse and Rat Club is affiliated to the NFRS and the National Mouse Club. It holds a Rat and Mouse show on the first Saturday of most months at the Fourth Enfield Scout HQ, Gordon Road, Enfield, London (nearest BR Station: Enfield Town). London and Southern Counties Mouse and Rat Club, Albert Collins, 29 Stortford Road, Hoddesdon EN11 0AH

Homepage: http://www.miceandrats.com/

Email: lscmrc@miceandrats.com

The Rat Fan Club is an American organisation dedicated to the care of pet rats. It has several members in the UK (you can pay by credit-card) . Every monthly Rat Report newsletter features games to play with your rats, toys to make for them, and tricks to teach them. Attitudes towards other aspects of animal care can differ significantly from those in the UK, but it is still highly informative. The Rat Fan Club, 857 Lindo Lane, Chico, CA 95973, USA

Homepage: http://www.ratfanclub.org/

Email: ratlady@sunset.net

The Rat and Mouse Club of America (RMCA) is another American club which focusses on keeping rats as pets, and on rescuing rats, but it also holds shows. It publishes a magazine wth articles on pet-keeping, showing and breeding, and lovely pictures. It has a strong Internet presence, as noted above.

Homepage: http://www.rmca.org


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The following email addresses are for press and copyright contact reasons only. The authors regret that they cannot reply to individual enquiries and encourage readers with queries to consult a local vet (for health matters) or a rat organisation (like the National Fancy Rat Society in the UK) Email: petratinfo@black**abcde**staff.co.uk (please remove the asterisks and everything between them before sending email) or angela@home**abcde**birth.org.uk (please remove the asterisks and everything between them before sending email)

Last updated: 31 January 2007