Have you ever thought of keeping a rat? Most people would probably admit an aversion to the idea, thinking that the animal is vicious and dirty. They could scarcely be more mistaken. The tame rat differs from the wild animal about as much as the domestic dog differs from the wolf. This is not the ramblings of an enthusiast but something that has been scientifically attested.
Tame rats are docile, very clean bodily and in their habits, and come in a variety of pretty colours, rivalling other rodents. The fact that they are larger than gerbils or mice is an advantage. It means that they can be handled more easily and can withstand being handled for longer periods before becoming tired. They will eat more food than a smaller pet but not that much more and, since the food is cheap, this aspect is not a problem. Properly handled, rats have no vicious tendency to bite and, in fact, become attached to people who care for them.
The usual precautions should be taken in buying. Is wise to buy a young rather than an old animal. Youngsters about six to eight weeks old are ideal although animals up to six months of age make good pets. Always choose a rat which is bright of eye, sleek of coat and agile in movement. Single rats make good pets although a pair is more fun. A male and female is the best combination, unless you do not wish to breed, in which case a pair of either males or females will live together quite happily.
Sexing of rats is easy. In the female, the two vents are close together just in front of the tail, whereas, in the male, the two vents are sited further apart and are separated by an obvious pouch containing the testes. Ask the pet shop assistant to demonstrate the difference if you have difficulty.
There are a very large number of different species of rat but the tame rat is descended from the grey or Norway rat. These originated in central Asia (probably in the region of Lake Baikel) and spread rapidly across Europe. The rat was apparently domesticated about 1850. The first white (albino) specimens were noticed about this time. By 1900, rat breeding and exhibiting was a popular pastime, in company with guinea-pigs and rabbits. Unfortunately, the animal has since declined in popularity. There are “fashions” in pet keeping and the rat is one of those which has gone out of fashion (for the moment at least).
To allow for the larger size of the rat, a fairly big cage should be purchased. A cage measuring about 24in. By 12in. By 12in. High should be taken as the mallest size recommendable. This size would accommodate either a single animal or a pair but not more. A breeding pair could do with a large cage unless the male is removed on each occasion that the mother has young. Clean, dry sawdust should be used as an absorbent floor covering and woodwool or meadow hay for bedding. Plenty of bedding should be given, for rats desire privacy and make rather large untidy nests, heaping the material in one corner mostly with an entrance at the side.
Cleaning out should be done regularly once a wet,. The rats may be allowed to run free or placed in a cardboard or wooden box while this is in progress. All damp sawdust should be removed, together with such uneaten food as may be lying around. A half inch layer of sawdust should be sprinkled evenly over the floor. The nest should be lifted out bodily and replaced intact as far as possible. All damp ‘bedding should be discarded of course, but it is wise to return a little dry bedding so that the rats can return to familiar surroundings (this seems important to the animal).
Water should always be available to the animals in the form of a standard water bottle. Where there is a choice of sizes, the larger should be chosen. This should be affixed to the cage so that the drinking spout is within easy reach of the animals. Always ensure that the bottle is regularly filled and cleaned to prevent the formation of green slime
It is a mistake to think that rats will eat anything. Wild rats do but these have little choice. The basic diet should consist of cereals of most kinds; dry biscuits or meal, rabbit pellets and hamster food are all suitable. Mixed grains, oats and wheat may also be fed. End slices of bread and scraps (either white or brown) should be saved. These may be fed as they are or dried or baked in the oven. If fed hard in this way, it helps to maintain the teeth of the rat in good condition. Small pieces of apple and pear, as well as carrot and swede, are often acceptable. Sunflower seeds are usually quickly gobbled up and may be fed sparingly. Feeding may be done once a day unless you like to spend more time with your pets. It is important to feed regularly at the same time each day. Animals come to depend upon this sort of careful attention.
Rats may be left unattended for short periods while the family is on holiday provided some thought is given to their needs. The advice given for mice should be followed. The two important items is that the pets have a good store of dry food which will not deteriorate and that the drinking water is adequate. A second drinking bottle may have to be purchased but this is preferable to the rats running short of water. If it is possible to take the rats with you on holiday, then, of course, the emotional problem of leaving one’s pets behind does not arise. This can often be a practical solution where the cage is small and you are making the journey by car.
Tame rats are naturally docile but young animals (and adults very often) may be nervous of strangers. This is part of the survival mechanism of all animals. The young rat has to learn that you mean him no harm. This he will quickly do, provided you are gentle and considerate. Avoid sudden movements which might startle him. Have him out of the cage on a table and allow him to explore of his own accord. Offer tit-bits of food held in the fingers and, later, placed in the palm of your hand. Most rats cannot resist the temptation of a quick nibble. Soon he will become accustomed to being fondled.
A rat may be picked up by either of two methods. One is to grasp him by the base of the tail, firmly but not tightly, and lift him smoothly before he has a chance to grab anything. The animal can then be placed wherever you wish. However, do not suspend him in the air for any length of time. If you want to hold him for a time, place him on the sleeve of your forearm. This will take the weight off his tail. Never hold the tip of the tail since it is easy to peel off the skin and cause the poor animal unnecessary distress.
The second and better method is to slide one hand under the rat’s belly and to lift him bodily. A fully tame rat will accept this mode of handling with scarcely any fuss or bother. He may emit a series of squeaks and chuckling noises but this means little unless you are accidentally hurting him. If you cannot manage with one hand, pick him up gently with both, placing one on each side of the body and sliding the fingers under the tummy. Two hands are usually required to pass a rat through a narrow opening, such as the door of some cages. The hands should hold the animal’s feet close to the body otherwise there is risk of these catching on the sides or the animal may cling instinctively to the wire.
Rats are prolific breeders and it is advisable to enquire if your friends would be interested in a youngster or two before attempting to breed. Should you wish to breed, the best way is to have a male and female living together continuously. A pair will produce a litter about once a month or a little longer. There is no need to separate the male when the mother rat is due to have her litter. The only advantage of removing the male is that the frequency of litters is reduced. It may be noticed that the male is not allowed in the nest for about two weeks after the birth of young. This is normal behaviour and is nothing to worry about. After a while, he will be back in the nest, helping to keep the baby ratlings warm.
The females will breed very early in life, from about two months of age. However, many breeders wait until the female has reached about three months. There is no need for breeding pairs to be caged together from an early age, although this is the simplest method. Normally, it is easy to determine if the female is pregnant. Her tummy will swell and her movements appear ungainly. Pregnancy lasts about 21 to 23 days and the litter may consist of any number from four to twelve young. The average litter, however, is about six or seven. It is unwise to allow the mother to suckle a very large litter. The strain upon her is great, she may become thin and poorly, and the young do not grow properly. If you can bring yourself to do so, reduce the litter to about eight young.
A pregnant female should not be handled any more than absolutely necessary. This advice also applies for about a week after the birth of a litter. Ensure that plenty of nesting material is available to the mother to-be. Her appetite will increase, so be prepared to give her more food. Bread, soaked in milk, is a special treat for nursing females and they seem to enjoy it immensely. If a number of small pieces are placed in the cage in a saucer, for example, the mother rat will snatch up each piece and carry it off to the nest. Later she will sit in the nest and munch the soaked bread whenever she feels hungry. The youngsters, as soon as they are old enough to start eating for themselves, will also help themselves to the tasty meal.
As with most rodents, the babies are born naked, blind and pink. Within a few days (according to colour variety), the skin darkens and the first coat appears. The eyes open about the tenth or twelfth day and it is not long before the young rat is venturing from the nest. By two weeks of age, the first solid food is being taken and by three weeks of age, the young are able to look after themselves. If the male has been living with the mother, the youngsters should be weaned promptly at three weeks, just previous to the expected arrival of the next litter. If the male has not been with the mother, weaning may be deferred for another week.
Unless you are short of cages, there is no point in leaving the young with their mother beyond four weeks. The youngsters will be big and fully capable of looking after themselves. The sexes should be separated at weaning or shortly afterwards, or the young females will be producing litters of their own before one is ready to deal with them.
One of the fascinations of rats is the variety of colours which are known. Beginners to rat keeping, in fact, are often pleasantly surprised to learn of the many pretty colours which can be obtained. Not all of these may be readily found in pet shops. Pet shops cannot stock all of the colours all of the time and, in addition to this, some of the colours are uncommon. The rarer colours, as a rule, can only be obtained from specialist breeders.
The most well known variety is certainly the albino with pink eyes and pure white fur. However, the most popular variety is the hooded, so called because the coat is white except for coloured head and spinal stripe of coloured fur extending from the head (the hood) to the tail. The ideal hooded rat should have a continuous stripe down the back but, in the majority, the stripe is broken up; and some individuals may not have any stripe at all. This variation makes no difference to the animal as a pet. The hood may be of a variety of colours : agouti-grey, black, chocolate, blue, red and cream. The first four colours possess black eyes while the red and cream have ruby eyes.
The curiously named “Irish” variety is coloured except for a variable white patch on the chest and belly. The colours of the Irish are the same as those of the hooded. The black form is the most distinctive and most commonly seen.
Other colours include the grey agouti, which is the wild coloured rat but perfectly tame. The self black, chocolate and blue are interesting colours. The red is an exceptionally attractive rat. The coat is sandy orange and the eyes are bright ruby-red. The cream is a paler version of the red, with reddish-pink eyes.
Shows for rats are infrequent nowadays. However, these are usually held in conjunction with shows for other small pets and anyone who wishes to exhibit should keep a close watch for show announcements. If classes for rats fail to appear, it is a good idea to write to the people who stage shows and propose that at least one class for rats be included.
The rat is a robust animal and rarely becomes sick, as long as he receives sensible attention. However, the animal can fall ill to most of the ailments described for mice, with similar symptoms and recommended treatment. The point to remember with small rodents is that they are difficult to medicate and, when they are unwell, the best policy is to make sure that they are kept warm and tempt them to eat by offering food which you know they are fond of.
A disease which is more common in rats than in mice is infection of the middle ear. The head is held on one side and, if allowed freedom, the affected animal often runs in a curve instead of a straight line. Should the rat fall over, it may have trouble in righting itself. In advanced cases, there is the added complication of a nasal discharge or snuffles. The disease is extremely difficult to treat and, if the rat is distressed, it is kinder for it to be painlessly destroyed.