Throughout history rats have had a bad public image as vermin and carriers of disease. They do however make great pets!
Domesticated rats, specifically Fancy Rats, are clean, tame, easy to handle and highly intelligent; they will even learn to respond to their own names. In other words they can make rewarding pets, being suitable for anyone from the age of six, (with supervision for the rat's care in the case of young children), upwards.
Fancy Rats are widely available nowadays, thanks to their growing popularity as pets and show rats. Fancy Rats are bred in over fifty colour and marking varieties, such as albino, silver Siamese (like the cat) blue and chocolate. They also come in many variegated markings, some others curly fur (the rex), there are variations like the Dumbo (with larger ears) and a hairless variety – not to everyone’s taste and also requiring special care.
Cross breeding turns up a number of ‘mongrel’ rat varieties which may not be suitable for showing but which can be perfectly suitable as ordinary pets.
Rats are naturally sociable, gregarious and enjoy company. Keeping two rats of the same sex together is the ideal combination. Rats also seem happy to adapt to their owner’s lifestyles, and will become more active when humans are about.
There are a variety of rat cages on the market, the best ones are part metal or plastic and part glass, as tall as is practicable for your available space, because rats are athletic and enjoy climbing. Definitely a cage should be high enough to allow a rat to stand on its hind legs (which they often do). These energetic creatures enjoy being off the floor and climbing around, so little platforms inside the cage should be installed. Swings and ropes suspended from the cage roof/lid will also be popular. Many rats enjoy a hammock and there are different designs available.
The floor of the cage should be covered with wood shavings and shredded cardboard and while bedding isn’t necessary, shredded paper makes a good bed for your pet rat.
Your rat's staple diet should consist of a dry mix of corn, flaked maize, crushed peas and special biscuit and pellets. Do not overdose your rat on protein by allowing its diet to be too rich in peanuts or sunflower seeds, or it could get spots and sores from this and this condition is quite common in pet rats. If in doubt there are many brands of commercial food including hypoallergenic ranges and diets for older rats.
Rats enjoy toys and there are many on the market and cardboard tubes, plastic tunnels, swings, wicker and rush houses are all entertaining to your rat.
Rats become fertile at 5 weeks of age. Female rats go on ‘heat’ every four to five days. If you want her to breed, you can either introduce a male only when she is in heat or you can allow the two to share a cage until it is clear that the female has fallen pregnant (do watch in either case to check that the two rats are compatible and do not fight each other). The presence of an intact male rat may bring the female into heat. It is a good idea to allow the rats have space in the cage to escape each other during this time, as breeding courtship can be violent with the rats attacking each other in some, though not all, cases. Gestation takes about 22 days. At about 2 years old the female rat will be infertile.