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Rats! Just the very mention of their name is enough to send some people running for the hills. Yet to lots of us, they are adorable, affectionate, cute and entertaining. Rats are intelligent and lively creatures, and make great pets for both children and adults. There are many different species of rodent, and the Fancy Rat- the most common pet rat- is just one of them. The kind of rats that live in the wild and are much maligned in popular culture as vicious spreaders of plague and disease are a totally different species entirely. Here is a little more information on Fancy Rats for prospective future keepers.
Rats are social animals, and in the wild live in large extend family groupings. When keeping a pet rat in captivity, you should keep at least two, and preferably a social group of three or four to ensure that they are happy. Remember that if you keep mixed sex groups, however, you will very likely end up with babies! While tame rats also generally enjoy interaction and playing with people and can become very attached to their owners, attention from the owner cannot make up for the societal structure a group of rats will find in each other. They play and wrestle together, sleep piled up in nests, groom each other and keep each other entertained. Pet rats generally live for two to three years, sometimes longer, and it is recommended to try and buy a group of young rats of around the same age as an already bonded group in order to minimise fighting upon introduction to each other.
When choosing a cage for your pet rats, buy the largest one you can afford. As a minimum, you should allow two cubic feet of space per rat. Rats are very active at night, and enjoy running around, playing and entertaining themselves. The bars of the cage should be close enough together to prevent escape, but far enough apart to avoid trapping their paws. Rats love to climb and play, so securely placed bars at different levels, shelves, tubes and rat- safe toys should be included in the set up. It's also very important that the cage be well ventilated, as rat urine is very high in ammonia. For this reason, enclosed glass and plastic tanks are not suitable for housing pet rats. You should provide a hammock or two for sleeping, and small nesting box. The bottom of the cage should be lined with newspaper, soft towels, or a paper based rat bedding or cat litter. Other types of cat litter such as wood chips, grit or clay based products are not suitable- neither are products such as hay and straw. You will also need a bowl for their food, and a water bottle attached to the cage within easy reach.
Your rats should be fed a good quality food sold specifically for the nutritional needs of you pets. Hamster or gerbil food is not appropriate to feed to rats, as they have different nutritional requirements. You can also have a go at mixing or making your own rat food at home, using a combination of wholegrain rice, wheat, millet, barley, oats, and vegetables. Rats are omnivores; this means that they eat both meat and vegetables. Rats enjoy being fed scraps of lean raw meat, dog food and even mealworms. You should take care that your rats are not receiving too much protein in their diet, as this can lead to health problems. There are many different ways to buy or make food for pet rats- do your research, and find out which method you prefer and which works best for your rats. Remember to make sure that clean fresh water is available to your rats at all times.
You should handle and play with each of your rats on a daily basis in order to keep them tame. You should aim to be able to play with them for an hour or more a day, and for no less than half an hour. Rats are delicate creatures, and need handling with care to avoid injury or fright. Never pick up a rat by the tail- lift them up using a scooping action and support the body of your pet at all times. Generally rats very much enjoy climbing their people and will much prefer running around on you than being held in your hands! Tame rats do not generally bite or nip, although female rats will sometimes bite defensively when they are pregnant or have babies. Aggression from male rats is occasionally seen, often accompanied by scent marking, both of which are generally cured by castration. Also be careful of being bitten or nipped by accident if feeding treats by hand, particularly through the bars of the cage.
You will need to remove droppings, spilled food or water and any damp bedding on a daily basis and thoroughly clean out the cage at least once a week. Remove all bedding from the cage and wash it, clean the inside of the cage and any equipment with an animal friendly disinfectant, and replace any paper or other disposable substrate. Check the general health and condition of your rats daily when you handle them, and be on the alert for any signs of illness or injury, a well as unexplained fluctuations in weight. Rats love to investigate and run around outside of the cage, so if you can provide for this by letting them lose in a safe and secure rat- proofed room without trailing wires or cables or any holes they could escape into, then all the better.
Keeping rats can be incredibly rewarding for both the owner and the pet when done properly and with care. Remember that as with any animal, keeping rats involves a daily commitment to their health and wellbeing throughout the duration of their lives. Before you decide if keeping pet rats is for you, make sure that you are prepared to put in the time and effort required to keep them happy, healthy and safe for as long as they might live.
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