2018 was a rough year for the greater rat community. Debbie (founder of the Rat Fan Club) passed away, very suddenly, earlier this year and we just lost Bella (co-founder of The Rat Guide and amazing artist), to liver cancer, right before Christmas. These were two of a handful of mentors/friends/colleagues to me and their passing has really made me stop and think about Rattie Ratz and its place in the rat world. “It takes a village to raise a child” and the same goes for running any sort of endeavor. I could never have built Rattie Ratz on my own and I could never fathom to sustain it on my own either. Rattie Ratz is a labor of love, not only from myself but also from those that volunteer and give it life and purpose. As we transition from 2018 to 2019, I really want to recognize everyone who has worked laboriously to make Rattie Ratz successful.
Rattie Ratz is my baby and the people who have worked so hard to bring it this far are no less than my family. I can hardly believe that I have been doing this for 20+ years now and, with the deaths of two major influences this year, I am forced to contemplate the future of this organization that means so much to me. Unfortunately for me, I don’t know much about what Bella and Debbie had planned or what they wanted to accomplish. Fortunately for me, and others, I have an opportunity to learn from them and spend a bit of quality time speaking to the future of Rattie Ratz and where I would like to see things go, in general, for the rat community.
Every animal needs their champion and, for whatever reason, rats resonated with me and I chose to launch an organization to help them and their human families. I choose to lead by example and I strive to inspire and motivate others to leave this world just a bit better than they found it. To that end, I believe that everyone can make a difference. You may not be able or ready to start a full-blown rescue of your own but consider the animals that you choose to bring into your family and opt to adopt. I know that there are plenty of situations that warrant breeding but please consider adoption as well. Over 20+ years, I have met so many deserving animals that have been dumped into kill shelters through no fault of their own. I believe in the butterfly effect and that your small and positive ripple will spread, grow, and be bigger and better than you think possible.
I believe that there are many paths to the same destination. One person does not know it all and one method is not the only method. Each situation is different. I want to encourage anyone to consider starting their own rescue and making their own impact, but don’t compare yourself to others. You don’t need to be the biggest rescue around or the one that rescues the most number of animals. You need to be the best rescue or rescuer you can be. Even if you are just *one* person rescuing just a few rats at a time, it does make a HUGE difference in the lives of the animals that you are helping. *I* may not be able to make a huge difference in the world but I know I can make a significant impact in the world of a select few. In a world getting larger by the hour, through the internet and social media, stop and take a moment to think on a much smaller scale. Change happens from within and starts with you. Make a choice to help others and contribute to a more positive society.
Join forces because many hands make light work. If you don’t feel comfortable launching your own rescue, join forces with an existing organization. Start a community group first and find like-minded folks to launch an organization with. There is no shame in starting small and growing slowly and responsibly. As a matter of fact, I think that is the best form of growth – controlled. Be responsible and provide your best to the animals in your care. If you bite off more than you can chew or maintain, then you are just contributing to the problem. Abilities are also dynamic and change with time and what else is going on in your life. Be honest with yourself. Set boundaries and stick to them. Know that you are providing quality care to the animals that you are responsible for. If your situation changes and you find yourself unable to maintain quality care, stop taking in new animals and ask for help. To them, you are the world! Give them a world that is worth living in.
Rattie Ratz is a network of foster homes which helps make this organization unique and infinitely scalable. Right now, we are primarily limited by available foster homes. We can only rescue animals that we have room for and, right now, space is limited. I’ve been a primary intake/foster home for 20 years but, sooner or later, my time will end. We have other smaller homes and they are the homes that really make Rattie Ratz possible. In the future, I hope that Rattie Ratz will find other homes to serve as intake/quarantine homes or be able to rent a space exclusively for intake and quarantine. I still feel it is important to maintain the rescued rats in home-like environments and, to that end, I hope more people, even from other areas, will step up to volunteer to keep a cage of foster rats in their home.
My goal has always been to help as many deserving rats as possible and I would love to be able to help their families too. With that in mind, I would love to see funds in place to help families afford to spay/neuter their rats and remove benign but excessively large tumors. I would love to see funds in place to help struggling families get basic medical assistance for their rats. I would love to see funds in place to benefit medical research aimed at helping to find cures for the common ailments that affect pet rats. I would like to see the community unite and really try to help each other to the best that any one of us is able. To help meet this goal, Molly and I kicked off PetRatAdvocates.org in the fall of 2018. The plan is to start small and local and try to grow from there. Ideally, others could start their own local chapters of dedicated and knowledgeable rat folks who are willing to help other rats folks in their local communities and beyond. The internet is great for meeting folks from all over the place but, in urgent situations, it is always nice to have access to a more local group of people who are willing/able to step up and help. Whether it’s rat-sitting while someone is dealing with a personal emergency or helping out with treating an illness or even just listening while someone has a rat-related crisis, these are little things that can contribute a lot.
November is a special month for me because it is my birth month and it also happens to be the month that, I feel, Rattie Ratz was born. In this month, 20 years ago, I got myself some pet rats for my birthday. I had spent a reasonable amount of time researching companion pet options and, at that time in my life, some sort of rodent seemed like the best option and I ended up adopting 3 adult female rats from the Peninsula Humane Society. What began as a “pet project” to document my experience with rats turned into Rattie Ratz and is now a thriving organization dedicated to the rescue and rehoming of deserving pet rats all over Northern California. I am often contacted by people from other areas who would like to launch similar rescue organizations to service domestic pet rats and other animals in their region so I feel it is very apropos to use this month’s blog to discuss giving back and starting your own rat rescue.
I will start off by saying that I will not be sugar coating or glorifying this endeavor in any way. Animal rescue work is hard, emotionally draining, time-consuming, and expensive. If this is truly your passion and something you are meant to do, it will also be exceptionally rewarding and could easily be or become one of the best experiences of your life. Choosing to rescue animals is absolutely a job. Rattie Ratz is an all-volunteer organization and none of us are being paid for the hours that we put into the rescue. This is how Rattie Ratz has always been able to sustain itself and provide for the animals in our care. As a responsible animal rescuer, you need to be able to identify and set your limits and boundaries.
For me, I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that I wanted to start a rat rescue. The idea was planted shortly after getting my first 3 rats and quickly evolved into a mission. In the beginning, it was *just* me. Me, one cage, and 3 adult girls that I rescued from a shelter. Then someone reached out to me directly because they needed to find a new home for their girl. Well, what’s 1 more when I have 3 and girls get along pretty well anyway so, why not? Sure, I’ll take in your girl. Then, someone needed to rehome their boys. That’s ok, I’ll just set up a second space so they stay separate. No problem. Not too long after, I found myself with a room full of rats and someone suggesting that I try to find *other* homes for them. Voila! Rattie Ratz was born.
I still started as an army of one. I was going to college full-time, working part-time, and trying to figure out how I was going to find *other* homes for all these rats. Thankfully, with the internet in full bloom now, it’s MUCH easier to find potential homes but, when I began in 1998, things were a lot different. I worked part-time at Pet Food Express and held informational events and started adoptions through their Redwood City, CA location. Animal adoptions were basically handled on a donation basis and no, the money I raised definitely did NOT sustain the animals in my care. When I began, I was limited by my available space, time, and financial resources since I was basically bankrolling the rescue as a hobby of mine. Soon, I had patrons who couldn’t adopt but wanted to help and would donate money to help pay for the supplies I needed. Eventually, one suggested that I should look into becoming a non-profit so she could deduct her donation from her taxes and she gifted me the Nolo book on how to start a non-profit in California and I set out to make that happen. Finally, in June of 2002, Rattie Ratz was incorporated as a bonafide 501(c)3 organization.
The jagged truth about pursuing a passion like this is that it will, absolutely, cost money and, potentially, quite a bit of it. If you are thinking about starting your own rat rescue, or any animal rescue for that matter, you must accept the brutal fact that you will not be able to save them all. After doing this for 20 years, I feel like many people have to learn this very basic fact the hard way. I know I learned it the hard way. I feel there is a very fine line between being a well-intentioned and responsible animal rescuer and being a well-intentioned and irresponsible rescuer. Knowing your limits, accepting your limits, and sticking to your limits is absolutely paramount. I’ve witnessed rescuers get in way over their heads and the animals suffer. You won’t be able to save them all but the ones that you are able to help will reward you with “happily ever after” experiences.
So…you want to give back to your local community and start a rat rescue in your area. I would highly suggest starting small and focus on iterative and controlled growth so things don’t escalate out of control. This is how I started and, if I were to do it all again, I would do it the same way. Start by taking in needy animals. Take care of them religiously and begin to figure out where your limits and boundaries are. The biggest limitation, at least here in the bay area, is space. I rent and space out here is insanely expensive. Even if time and finances weren’t other limitations, there is only so much space available. I feel it is very important to maintain animals in a kind and loving, home-like environment. This is why Rattie Ratz operates from a network of foster homes. We don’t have a central facility for the rescue. One, that would be cost-prohibitive and two, my intention was to start a rescue, not an institutionalized animal shelter.
My goal was to rescue animals in need and provide loving, home-based care until they could be properly placed in another permanent home. We are all rescue foster homes so I don’t intend or expect our care and spaces to be the same as what we would expect from our adopters *but* I do intend for each and every animal in our care to have adequate space and comfort. Depending on your situation, you may choose to have a certain brand/model of cage but, over the years, I have used A LOT of different set-ups and have come to the definitive conclusion that Critter Nation cages from Midwest are the best and most versatile cages for anyone wanting to pursue rat rescue. You should absolutely upgrade to the stainless steel replacement pans from Bass Equipment Supply as well. I know that is a costly upgrade but it is well worth the initial investment for the long haul.
I am one person and I am the primary intake home for the Rattie Ratz foster network. I won’t go into detail about what that is exactly but I have 3 triple Critter Nations in operation right now. I am lucky enough to have a very talented domestic partner who has done some major modifications to my current spaces but, even without the modifications that I am blessed to have, 3 triple nations can easily be divided into a total of 12 spaces measuring about 1’ tall by 3’ wide by 2’ deep. That’s a 6 sq ft space. For permanent homes, more space is always better and preferred but, when running a rescue operation, you try to make the most of what you have. That being said, my bare minimum is 1 sq ft per rat so, in an emergency situation, I could potentially fit 6 rats in each of the 12 spaces and that’s 72 rats!! Now, please don’t misunderstand me, this is NOT my recommendation. This is a possibility in an emergency situation.
More typically, we have 2 sq ft per rat so each space would hold 3 rats for a total of 36 rats – that’s still quite a few rats for one person to care for an maintain especially when you consider that practically all of our volunteers (myself included) have full-time jobs in addition to the volunteer work that we do for Rattie Ratz. I also choose to keep my spaces as uniform as possible with easy to clean accessories like glass water bottles, ceramic or stainless steel food bowls, pelleted paper bedding, a plastic space pod, a hanging chew toy, and possibly something like a hammock depending on the time I have to do laundry. For an individual person with a full-time job, I wouldn’t suggest any more than what I have set up because I know how much work that is!
When I was a stay-home mom, I had a lot more time to maintain the rescue animals but I also had a very nicely converted 1 car garage and 2-4 regular volunteers who would come to the garage to help maintain the animals on a regular basis. This was WAY before the advent of Critter Nations and we were using Martin’s Cages (which are still great options) and, at our peak, we easily had 300+ rats in our care. Would I go back and do that again? Maybe, but, probably not. The converted garage was nice and home-like with insulated sheetrock walls, a ceiling, electrical, water, a window, the garage door, and cheap carpet BUT, it was still a garage. It’s not where the family lived or even hung out. People would be there to maintain the animals and perform adoptions and intakes but, in the sense of daily socialization, it was definitely not a home-like environment.
Right now, I have my room with the rats, my sewing space, and a few others things. It’s a modest room and the 3 nations reside on one wall. I’ve absolutely maximized the space to be able to accommodate as many rats as I can but I still set limits. I don’t allow extra or overflow cages because that is a very slippery slope. IF I break that boundary and have an extra cage, it MUST stay in that room because my partner set the boundary of rats only being in my room and I appreciate my relationship enough to adhere to that limitation. Limitations and boundaries are the absolute most important consideration when you choose to pursue animal rescue. You don’t want to get in over your head and force the animals in your care to suffer. You don’t want to get to that borderline hoarder status where you have so many animals in your care and not enough volunteers/resources/etc to maintain them all the way they should be maintained. You don’t want to gain a reputation for being “that crazy rat rescue person.”
I’ve seen horrible situations where well-intentioned rescuers go beyond what they can handle and the resulting situation is depressing and devastating. Overcrowding, rampant illness, plenty of death, and sometimes worse. Rescue work is full of heart-wrenching situations and some very difficult decisions. It is not all peachy keen. Rescue work is a labor of love that can definitely be as gut-wrenching as it is rewarding. It is *not* for everyone. Limits and boundaries are your friends! For a hot minute, Rattie Ratz expanded to also try to help mice and hamsters and I quickly realized that those animals were not for us. We quickly reverted back to focusing exclusively on domestic pet rats and I, for one, haven’t looked back.
I have a lot of admiration and respect for organizations that can provide aid to a more varied and diverse number of species but, for Rattie Ratz, I feel specializing was the best choice. Specializing in rats has given us a wealth of very specific experience with rats and, with that very specialized experience, we are in the best position to really support and empower our adopters. Rattie Ratz isn’t just a rescue organization, we’re an organization that mentors, enables, and empowers people to be the best rat parents they can be. I know I founded this organization but it’s really all of the dedicated volunteers over the last 2 decades that have nurtured and developed this organization into what it is today. I am exceptionally proud of everything that we have accomplished and appreciative of all the individuals who have helped along the way to make Rattie Ratz such an amazing organization.
If you want to start a rat rescue in your area, I very much encourage you to do so! Give it thought and consideration. Be honest with yourself about your limits and boundaries. The great thing about being a rescue is that you can be as big or as small as you want to be. In this circumstance, bigger is not always better! Consider the animals and do what is best for them. Consider emergency situations, like fire, and whether you would be able to safely and effectively relocate all the animals in your care. Think about your own mortality and whether systems and processes are in place for the animals in your care in the event that you aren’t able to return to care for them. Think about your financial resources and your ability to provide proper medical care. I feel the goal of an independent animal rescue or rescuer should be to provide assistance to as many animals as you can in a well-maintained, safe, and healthy manner. If you are acting responsibly and properly caring for all the animals you have committed to rescue, people will be inspired and will want to help you. This has been my experience and I hope it helps others who may be inspired to start rescue organizations of their own.
We’re already down to the last quarter of the year and I can’t believe the time has gone by so quickly! I recall high school when a year seemed to take forever, and now, it just flies by. I guess we are having fun – right?!?
For October, I’ve decided to share some of my thoughts on some very common myths that seem to come up regularly while dealing with the general population. I definitely don’t have time to cover all the crazy things that I’ve heard over the years but I will cover some that I hear often and tend to make me cringe.
Rats are rats are rats… – FALSE!
OK. This is probably the misconception that bothers me the most. There are plenty of people who truly believe that all rats are the same and created equally horrifying or deserving depending on what side of the myth you happen to be on. Your mileage may vary but I’ve been rescuing rats long enough to know that they are definitely not created equal by any stretch of the imagination. With a combination of nature and nurture, rats cover a huge spectrum of characters. Domestic rats, regardless of their personality, will not survive if released into the wild. They simply do not have the nature for that! Wild rats, on the other hand, if found very young and raised in a nurturing domestic environment, can be safely raised in captivity. To be honest, I have never done this myself but I am aware of plenty of rat folks who have and, although the wildies are never quite as tame as domestic rats, they typically do ok. Within the domestic rat population, we have pet rats, lab rats, and feeder rats and this is where nurture can make a huge difference in temperament and character. Pet rats that have been properly nurtured will make excellent companions. Lab rats, despite not being nurtured to be companion rats, can definitely be rehabilitated to make excellent companions as well because they are generally handled on a fairly regular basis. It’s obviously not the same as the way people handle their companion pet rats but the handling can make all the difference. This final thought might get me into some trouble but I will actually go out on a limb and admit that I lump feeder rats and hoarder rats into the same group. These are both typically mass-produced, on purpose or on accident, but the bottom line is that they typically don’t get proper handling or nurturing. I’ve rescued plenty of rats from feeder bins and hoarding situations and rats from these situations are not for everyone. With time and patience and proper nurturing, some can become better companions but others are simply too traumatized to really recover. Despite all of this, I feel that rats are a lot like people. They all come with their own personality and character and the most important take away from this myth is that, regardless of how “wild” your domestic rat may seem, it will *never* be wild enough to survive in the wild! Please, do not ever release any domestic rat into the wild to fend for itself.
Rats spread the “Black Death…” – FALSE
Yes! This is another one that I hear all the time and I am sick of it. Rats did not spread the bubonic plague, one of the worst pandemics in human history. It does tend to be more commonly known that fleas are believed to have been the primary transmission vector. It was long thought that these fleas preferred rat hosts, which is part of why people mistakenly blame rats but, in a recent study, it is actually being suggested that the plague was transmitted via fleas and lice that prefer human hosts! Regardless, those of us who know rats know that fleas really don’t tend to bother the rats. I mean, seriously, who typically complains about their pets having fleas?? Whether the fleas that transmitted the plague preferred people, dogs, cats, or rats, the plague was absolutely devastating and spread by fleas.
Rats are dirty and their tails are gross… – MIXED
At the very least, rats are definitely not dirty! They clean themselves regularly, just like cats. If you find a dirty rat, it’s because their living environment is dirty, not because they are dirty. Obviously, as rats age, they need help to keep themselves clean and that’s where people come in and need to lend a helping hand. With regard to their tails, well, I guess that is technically subjective. Did you know that their tails are made up of individual scales that shed one scale at a time in order to keep their tails nice and clean? I, for one, think it’s interesting that the part of the rat that looks most human is the part that people generally think is gross. I think rats’ tails are fascinating! Rats don’t sweat and they don’t pant to cool themselves down, they use their tails. Their tails are also needed for their balance and agility. There is such a thing as manx rats but, I really think that people should understand the function of the tail and see it as almost a third hand. There have been SO many times where a third hand would have come in *very* useful! Why did evolution feel the need to remove our tails?!?
Rats *need* to chew stuff… – FALSE
Yes, it is true that rats’ teeth are constantly growing. According to ratbehavior.org, “the eruption rate (the rate of growth) of the rat’s incisors is very high: the adult rat’s upper incisors grow on average about 2.2 mm per week (0.31-0.32 mm per day), and the lower incisors grow about 2.8 mm per week (0.4 mm per day) (Addison and Appleton 1915).” So, yeah, it’s no surprise that rats like to chew on things but they don’t actually *have* to. Quite often, rats will sit around and grind their own teeth. It IS important to monitor your rats’ teeth because there are situations that will make the teeth grow at different rates and they may need to be artificially trimmed but, in general, rats are able to keep their teeth in check by gnawing and bruxing. For entertainment and environmental enrichment, I would definitely suggest making sure that your rats have things to chew on but it is a misnomer that things to gnaw on are necessary for dental health.
Rats don’t make good pets for kids… – FALSE
On the contrary, rats make excellent pets for children and many other types of people and situations! For a little while, Rattie Ratz expanded to include rescue services for mice and hamsters because they are also not well represented in the animal rescue world. Ultimately, we decided to return to just rescuing rats and part of that decision was because of families with children! Many parents seem to think that mice and hamsters make better pets for children and I have to say that I *strongly* disagree. In my experience, mice are basically mammalian fish, they are great to set up in a tank and look at but they are typically very fast and not particularly cuddly with people. Hamsters are much more likely to bite than a rat because they are strictly nocturnal and don’t want the kids waking them up after school! Rats are *very* smart and typically *very* social. Rats are technically diurnal, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn but they are also well known for learning and adapting to their human’s schedule. Rats, like dogs, typically want to be out and about with you whenever you are available and they want to interact with their human companion for mutual cuddles. For people who are interested in dog-like qualities but aren’t ready for the 10+ year commitment, a few pet rats are the perfect compromise!
Of course, there is so much more to say about pet rats but I think covering my top 5 myths is a good place to wrap it up. If you’re interested in learning more about domestic pet rats, Rattie Ratz’s Rat Primer is a great place to start. We also have a list of great resources to help get you started on your new adventure with rats.
It’s already back to school time and that means it’s the perfect opportunity to spend some time discussing animals in the classroom. I am a mother of 2 children, ages 11 and 15. Historically, I was raised around animals in the classroom being referred to as “classroom animals” or “classroom pets” and I’ve made it a mini mission to educate, advocate, and promote “Teacher’s Pets” as opposed to “classroom” anything.
I think animals in the classroom can be extremely positive and beneficial. Children, who may not otherwise be exposed to animals, for whatever reason, can get some experiences with animals in their classes at school. Animals in the classroom can offer a number of opportunities for lessons in empathy, responsibility, respect, biology, and more, but teacher’s pets are ultimately the teacher’s companion animal and the teacher’s responsibility which is what distinguishes teachers’ pets from classroom animals. The key difference in these two situations is responsibility, and that is one of the primary reasons why teachers will bring animals into the classroom to begin with. It’s an effort to teach the kids in the class about responsibility and taking care of another living being.
I strongly believe that, in order to teach responsibility, it needs to be demonstrated and this why I respect teacher’s pets. Teachers who care for a pet and choose to bring their pet into the classroom to share with the kids are being responsible. This is their companion animal. The kids in the classroom are assisting with the care of this animal but it is not the classroom’s responsibility – it is the teacher’s. Animals need stability just like children and, to that end, teacher’s pets are *not* sent home with different families every weekend. They go home with the teacher. These animals may live in the classroom during the week or go home with the teacher every night. They definitely go home with the teacher for the weekends. If the teacher needs a pet sitter for a weekend or holiday, then maybe they will work out with one of the families in the classroom to watch the animal(s) but the ultimate responsibility is with the teacher.
If you are a teacher who incorporates, or is thinking about incorporating, animals into the classroom, or a parent with a child in a classroom that has animals, please think twice about what exactly is being modeled for the kids. Is someONE actually responsible for that animal? Are the animals being properly maintained and provided for? Are the animals safe and secure? As a parent, I want my children to respect life in all its forms and I want to promote responsible animal care and maintenance. I believe it is the responsibility of the teacher to evaluate these aspects before choosing to incorporate animals into their classroom and I believe it is the responsibility of the parents to be aware of what is happening in the classroom and voice any concerns that they may have.
Animals need care and stability and I believe that behavior needs to be modeled. Teachers and parents model and children mimic. As a responsible model, take a moment to think about your behavior. Children may not always listen to what you say but they are always watching what you do and actions will usually speak louder than words anyway. Demonstrate and lead by example. Show children how to be responsible and respectful of pets and animals and we’ll be able to raise a generation of youth that cares.
Well, my kids started school last week and that meant fighting horrendous lines with, literally, everyone and their mom. Looking for school supplies got me thinking about what the best resources are for domestic pet rats! In this digital and online day and age, content is increasingly voluminous and seems to be constantly changing. Over the last 20 years, that has always been the case but there are a few stand out resources that I would like to share with you this month. I will point out that there is a wealth of knowledge and information ALL over the internet and I am just highlighting a small handful of my *personal* favorites.
Of course, I am going to refer you right back to Rattie Ratz! Our rescue organization developed a short “rat primer” to help our potential adopters. We try to keep updated every few years and this is a wonderful place to start for complete beginners. We are a San Francisco/Bay Area based, non-profit animal rescue organization dedicated exclusively to domestic pet rats and their families. Our all-volunteer organization has several folks who are very knowledgeable and we love sharing information with the general public. We also maintain our Friends of Rattie Ratz community where we encourage folks to engage with us, ask questions, and share stories. We refer potential adopters to the primer to get great foundational information that they can build on. I know there are a ton of other great sites, videos, and more out there and most of us who’ve been doing this for a while will have some very strong opinions so, just remember that everyone is at a different point on the learning and experience curve. At Rattie Ratz, our focus is to help rats and educate the community in the most non-judgmental way possible. Our goal is to educate, empower, and enable people who want to bring pet rats into their families.
For medical, while you are still new to domestic pet rats, I would *definitely* encourage you to find an excellent exotic vet and have your rats seen and treated by a medical professional. Regardless of your situation, experience, and knowledge, you should absolutely have a knowledgeable vet resource. Make sure you find this resource BEFORE you *need* them! The last thing you need is to be startled awake at 3am and realize that your rat needs prompt medical attention and you don’t know where to turn! We have people contact the rescue all the time with medical needs and questions and, although we want to try to work with you and help you, you still need a vet!
For those of you who are getting more knowledge and experience with rats and want to try tackling the basic medical care on your own, I have a printed version of The Rat Health Care Booklet with my medical supplies. I also highly recommend the Rat Guide as an amazing, online, medical/health resource that is regularly updated. In addition to these, I would suggest local networking. Find and join a local network of like-minded rat folks. Online/Facebook networks are great too because there are usually people on them from all over so, no matter what time you post, you will likely get responses from someone but I will also say that online networks are much more judgmental, which I find unfortunate. Still, if you have an urgent issue and need anecdotal advice, these online networks can be a great resource. Although Debbie passed away earlier this year, The Rat Fan Club is still being maintained and is typically a great place to seek medical opinions.
I’m actually not huge into publications but, if you enjoy monthly news, photos, and fun stuff, I would unconditionally refer you to It’s a Rat’s World Magazine. I don’t know how long they’ve been publishing for but their content, photos, and layout are fantastic and definitely worth considering if that is something you are looking for.
I touched on networks with reference to getting medical advice and opinions and I would say that clubs fall into a similar vein. Back when I started Rattie Ratz, rat meetups and social events were a normal occurrence. Unfortunately, there were viral outbreaks and lots of people were negatively affected and many of those social activities completely ceased (at least in our area). Now, a lot of these groups have virtual clubs on Facebook. Bay Area Rat and Mouse Club of America (BARMCA) has an online presence that is actively maintained by Molly, who also volunteers for Rattie Ratz. For our local followers, I know we have also started Pet Rat Advocates which will ultimately aim to bring more in-real-life, rat/animal-free, social events/gatherings back to the Bay Area, CA. If a local group meets in your area, I would encourage you to join OR, if one doesn’t meet in your area, then maybe that is an opportunity to create something for others like you!!
Shopping and Supplies:
Being the proud proprietor of The Rat Shop, I’d love to invite and encourage everyone to shop there but I also realize that I, for the most part, only sell Teklad Rodent Diets. I do have an organic grain mix as well but I have a hard time keeping up with making it consistently enough to keep it available. I apologize for that.
I will say that I take shopping and buying supplies *very* seriously and this is one area where I have exceptionally strong opinions. I believe that each and every person’s purchasing choices directly impact rats and their communities. I passionately promote patronizing supply shops that DO NOT stock/sell animals. In our area, we have Pet Food Express which is an amazing chain for quality supplies. Pet Food Express also hosts their annual Bay Area Pet Fair, which, coincidentally, is happening September 15-16, 2018! They do a lot to support and enable local animal rescues and welfare agencies and they often have a great selection of products that work well for rats. Another option is to give your patronage to local mom-and-pop stores. There are some wonderful locally owned stores that do not sell live animals. One example of a local pet shop doing it right is For Other Living Things in Sunnyvale, CA where they also promote adoption and work with local rescues to hold adoption events as an alternative to purchasing stock pets at a chain store. If you are buying local, please, take an extra moment and find a quality supply shop that doesn’t stock animals.
If you are buying online, I would encourage you to take a moment to consider what kind of business you want to support. Big box vs small business, feeder breeder vs rat rescuer, mass-produced vs handcrafted. I distribute Teklad Rodent Diet on Amazon. Many people don’t realize that, when you click that “add to cart” button, you are buying from whichever seller is the cheapest. That means that the reptile business that is able to buy lots of Teklad because they use it for their feeder rats may have that “buy box” and you just supported a business that likely condones and actively participates in breeding rats for and feeding rats to reptiles and other animals. We are all trying to make cost-effective choices in our lives but, especially right now, with the online e-commerce market being so cut throat and competitive, it’s increasingly important to think about where you are choosing to spend your money.
For me, supporting small business is very important for a wide variety of reasons. To this end, Etsy is my go to site for awesome handcrafted hammocks, toys, and more. Darling Rats makes excellent, all-fleece hammocks that rats love AND are super safe for them! Fleece doesn’t fray like flannel or basic cotton so there is very little risk in your rat getting tangled in extraneous fibers and threads. I prefer corner grommets with shower hooks over hanging tabs or straps because my rats always tend to chew those first and then they have a floor pad. Bear chewing in mind when you are looking for toys too! I prefer toys with wire or metal connections since rope/sisal/twine will all get chewed up super fast and you’ll wind up with a scattering of toy pieces all over the cage.
Because shopping and supplies are areas where I have very strong opinions, I have actually bought Rat.Shopping! Although there isn’t much to see there yet, this site is intended to document my experiences with a wide variety of products that I have used over the last 20+ years. Initially, my goal is to cover all the basic supplies that we use and recommend through Rattie Ratz but also post and review other products as they are asked about or brought to my attention. People ask for my opinions all the time so, rather than answering the same questions repeatedly, I’ve decided to just post my opinions to a site for easy reference! Just bear in mind that, again, these are my opinions after 20+ years and your experiences may vary.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of resources. These are merely a few of the ones that I refer to or engage with. Rats are a huge part of my life but I also have 2 children, a partner, many other animals, and a garden to maintain so I don’t get a lot of time to engage online. If you check out any of these resources, I certainly hope you’ll find them useful and informative.
Wow! It’s July already and that means, at least here in sunny California, that the weather is warm outside. Although we might love the nice and sunny weather, when it gets too hot, this can be life threatening for animals, and pet rats are no exception. Rats are remarkably tolerant in a wide range of temperatures but there is a point when it is simply too hot and they may begin to suffer heat stroke – which is life threatening and can be fatal. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of witnessing rats die from heat stroke which is why I wanted to cover this condition in our blog series this year. I’ll review what heat stroke is, events that can lead up to it, things that can be done to help prevent it, and what to do if you think your rat may be suffering from it. Hindsight is 20/20 and I hope many of you will find this useful and informative!
Heat stroke is, according to Google, “a condition marked by fever and often by unconsciousness, caused by failure of the body’s temperature-regulating mechanism when exposed to excessively high temperatures.” So, how do rats regulate their body temperature? Similar to dogs, and unlike humans, rats don’t sweat. Have you ever seen a rat pant like a dog? … Nope, because rats don’t pant either! Rats control their body temperature primarily through releasing and constricting the veins in their tail! Tails are extremely important to rats and this is a major reason why. The “temperature-regulating mechanism” for a rat is its tail!
Just like people have different tolerances to heat, so do rats. Depending on size, age, cage population, habitat, etc, rats can start showing signs of heat stress around 78°F…which is also where I start being uncomfortable! If you’re hot and uncomfortable, then they are likely hot and uncomfortable too. Check the weather and, if you know it’s going to be hot, plan to run the AC (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and get some fans going to help keep the air circulating. Out here in California, when it starts getting hot, we have to consider and worry about electrical blackouts prompted by everyone trying to use their AC and fans at the same time and this is where it becomes important to have alternate plans in place in the event that there is no electricity.
When rats start to get hot, they will become much less active – again, similar to people. As the temperatures rise and they get warmer, they will begin to flatten out their bodies to increase their surface area to help release more body heat and try to cool down but, they’re rats. They can only flatten out to a point and then they really need some help in getting cooler or they will begin to become disoriented and soon pass out and very likely pass away. I don’t mean to sound alarmist but, as I mentioned before, I’ve been on the end of trying to, unsuccessfully, help rats recover from heat stroke and I can attest to the fact that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – for certain.
It’s imperative to have supplies on hand that won’t require electricity (in the case of a power failure). I always have ice and frozen vegetables in the freezer. Rats will drink a lot of water when they are hot so make sure there are plenty of water bottles available. I keep glass mason jars with metal lids so I can fill them with ice and put them in the cage. Rats will chew through plastic bottles and ice melts to water so, if you intend to keep your habitat dry, glass mason jars are the best route. I also keep ceramic or stone tiles. I personally have 12” x 12” granite tiles but any stone or ceramic tiles will work. Stone and ceramic retain their temperature longer so you can put an ice-filled mason jar onto a tile and the tile will take the coolness from the jar and that makes a better surface for rats to flatten out on to help cool down. There are commercial products like ChinChillers but I find it’s more cost effective to just buy the tiles from a home improvement store.
Offering frozen things to eat will also help them cool off from the inside out. Frozen peas or mixed vegetables are common favorites. Some people like to freeze grapes and offer those too. Frozen grapes or just grapes in general, are also great for liquid supply while travelling too since we all know that water bottles will leak all over the place! If you can crush your ice and put some in their water bottle so they can get ice-cold water, that is also very refreshing. I also keep misting bottles and hand fans because you can mist the rats to kind of mimic sweating and use the hand fans to help with the evaporative process which can help them feel cooler as well. In cases of extreme heat stroke, you can even go so far as bathing your rat(s) in cool water to help lower their body temperature. Unfortunately, there is a point when all is lost and there is nothing more you can do so it is definitely best to focus your time and energy in preventing heat stroke rather than trying to help a rat recover from it.
Rats are very similar to people when it comes to heat and the things that you would do for yourself to get cooler, they would likely benefit from as well. Using the tips and tricks listed above as a preventative to heat stroke will ensure a more enjoyable summer for both you and your rats!
We’re now half way through our 20th anniversary blog series and I feel it’s time to cover the basics of maintaining sanctuary rats. These are senior rats and rats with special needs – be it physical, emotional, behavioral, or otherwise. Unfortunately, rats have very short life expectancies and, in my humble opinion, if your rat lives to see 2, then that is a full life. The average life expectancy is 2-3 years with very few rats, in my experience, making it much past 3 years of age. There are a lot of factors that play into the overall health and longevity of your rats but, when you choose to adopt, you have little control over factors like genetics and care/maintenance before the rat came into your care. You adopt your rats as they are when they come into your life. As such, some may already be senior or need special care. 18-24 months of age is getting old. 2+ years would definitely be considered “senior.” Here at Rattie Ratz, we judge “senior” by chronological age (if available) but also by overall health and condition because, just like people, rats age differently. “Special needs” rats are labeled that way for a variety of reasons.
Since these articles are intended for beginners, I am going to spend most of my time discussing the care and maintenance of your rats as they age and become seniors. Everyone keeping rats for the lifetime of the animal will, at some point, be caring for a senior rat. Senior rats are just old rats and, with age comes health issues like cataracts, respiratory illness, hind end degeneration, weak limbs, lethargy, and more. Just like people, aging rats might begin to lose weight, have thinning fur, sleep more, eat less, and generally not be able to get around quite like they used to when they were in the prime of their life. As such, it is your responsibility to make sure that their changing needs are being met and their current activity level and mobility is being considered. Rats that used to enjoy multi-level cages may need to move into single story cages to protect them from falling off ledges and injuring themselves. Make sure that food and water are readily and *easily* available and accessible to your senior rats. If you maintain a mixed age colony, make sure you are catering to your seniors and any special needs rats in the space.
Older rats still enjoy hammocks but might not be able to climb to get into them. Consider making sure a hammock is very low to the ground so elderly rats can try to pull themselves in. Despite being old, the mobility and determination of senior rats can surprise you! Make sure food and water are on the ground level. If your senior is having issues being able to chew their food, consider soaking the food in water to soften it up or, if they used to enjoy raw foods, consider cooking them a bit to soften them up. Many people will supplement a soft block diet with baby foods and cereals that are easier for their elderly rats to lick up. In the golden years for your rats, I don’t worry too much about what they are eating. It’s important to make sure they are eating and keeping weight on. I typically identify weight loss as really the beginning of the end and that is one of the signs I use to help prepare myself, emotionally, for their passing. If your rat starts to lose weight, you can try offering something like Nutri-Cal which is a high calorie supplement paste, or Pediasure/Ensure, that most rats seem to like. I really enjoy offering my seniors a wide variety of tasty treats because I prefer to make their senior time as enjoyable as possible.
As always, as your rats age, their immune systems also age and start to break down. They aren’t able to fight off illness, injuries, and/or infections quite like they used to. As a result, you may find that they need more and/or stronger medications to help keep respiratory and other issues in check. It’s important to have a relationship with a great rat vet before you need to go to a vet. As you grow in your knowledge and experience, you’ll be able to choose to treat many issues and illnesses on your own but, until then, please make sure that you have a vet you can go to when your rats start to get old. A knowledgeable vet can help make end of life care more painless and manageable. Also, when the time is right, it may be decided that it is in the animals’ best interest to be euthanized and a vet will be needed to perform this procedure. I insist on being present if I need to euthanize a senior rat and this is something you will need to review with your vet team in advance because some offices will not permit owners to be present.
Although senior rats would be considered “special needs,” there are plenty of other reasons why a rat may be deemed a “special needs” animal. If a rat sustained an injury which resulted in the loss of something useful like a limb, tail, or eye, that would be a special needs rat. You would need to make appropriate cage/food/medication alterations to accommodate whatever physical disability your rat has. Rats are also labeled as special needs due to behavioral issues. If a rat is particularly aggressive to other rats or people, if they are scared/traumatized, or if they have some other neurological condition, these are all considered special needs and would have to be evaluated to determine what is best for the animal. Since I am assuming you are a beginner, I am not going to go into each of these cases. Beginners really would not likely start with adopting a special needs animal. It is much more likely that you have adopted young rats and they are now getting old and worn down.
Regardless of your rats’ age, please do not underestimate their actual motivation and abilities. Rats are very smart, resilient, and creative. I’ve seen elderly rats, with complete hind end paralysis, drag themselves up onto different levels of their space! Missing eyes, parts of tails, and limbs don’t seem to slow too many down either! Rats adapt and, if they want something bad enough, they will figure out a way to make it happen. The most important takeaway from this is just to be observant, kind, and compassionate. If you notice that your rat isn’t getting around quite like they used to, make modifications proactively. Moving to single level cages, fleece for bedding, and softer foods are very common for older rats. They shouldn’t be expected to run around an entire cage anymore. They are expecting you to consider them and their aging needs and work to make their space as safe and comfortable for them as possible in their senior months.
Part 1: Introducing yourself to new rats
So far, in this blog series, I’ve covered topics that basically prepare you for getting rats. Now, let’s take a moment to discuss meeting new rats for the first time and proper introduction techniques, tips, and tricks that I have learned over the last 20+ years of working with rescued rats. First, I want to emphasize that my experience is with *rescued* rats and rescued rats typically come with physical and/or emotional baggage so a lot of these lessons are anecdotal and are based on my own personal experience. Your mileage may vary. As I stated in a previous blog post about choosing rats, I will reiterate the fact that each and every rat is unique. Absolutely no two rats will *ever* be the same. Just like people, rats have their own genes (nature) and experiences (nurture) that help shape the rat they are right now and just because a rat is a certain way right now does not mean that the rat will remain that way for the rest of its life.
When you meet *any* new rat for the first time, it is important to observe the rat(s) first and then, properly introduce yourself! I choose to use a combination of verbal communication and body language. Although this is not based on scientific study, I feel that animals can sense your feelings about them. I always approach new rats with kindness and confidence. First, I will watch the new rat(s) so I can observe their body language. A rat’s body language will tell you A LOT. Happy and confident rats will gladly come to the side of the cage to meet and greet you. Open the cage and offer the back of your hand for them to sniff out. Carefully and gently pick them up and continue on from there. An angry or aggressive rat will puff up their fur, strut around the cage, rub their shoulders against the bars to mark their territory and will very likely try to bite you if you attempt to enter their space. Since I am targeting these blogs to beginners at this point, please just don’t try to handle rats that are showing any signs of anger or aggression. They will need a more experienced handler.
A lot of the rats that come through the rescue are, what I would consider, timid. These are rats that want to be happy and confident but their experiences have made them a bit wary and insecure. Many of these types of rats can be rehabilitated, with some effort, and need to be handled with care and compassion. Scared rats are often the most unpredictable because you don’t know if they will “fight or flight.” When I meet a new rat that is scared of me, they often run straight into their house or somewhere in their cage that they feel is the safest place to be. When I am trying to introduce myself to a rat like this, I will typically open the door to the cage and then try to coax them out with some sort of tasty treat. Oftentimes, they will not come out willingly so I need to go in and get them. First, I will remove their house or hiding spot while I talk to them and explain that I just want to meet them. I don’t want to reach into their hiding spot because they are more likely to feel threatened, cornered, and bite me. At this stage, as stated earlier, I am speaking to beginners so, if you are not able to get a scared rat, please ask someone with more experience for some specific assistance.
Once you have a rat out, it’s important to talk to them and reassure them that everything is going to be OK. Handle rats with confidence and consider using a cuddle cup or bonding bag if the rat is a bit on the timid side. Female rats are generally much more active, quick, and agile than their male counterparts who tend to be bigger and slower. Give rats treats while they are out and about with you and they’ll begin to associate being with you and getting treats! Rats are smart and social. They want to be your friend. As with any new friendship, it’s important to get it started in the right way and reinforced with recurring positive interactions.
Part 2: Introducing rats to other rats
Now that we’ve discussed introducing ourselves to new rats, let’s talk about introducing rats to other rats. For the sake of time and the length of this blog, I am going to try to keep this part fairly basic and introductory. The key with introducing rats to each other is that, much like the rats themselves, each introduction will be unique. For this piece, I’ll be assuming that we are introducing one solo rat to another solo rat. Many of the techniques are the same regardless of the number of rats but there are more complexities when introducing multiple rats.
First, you’ll want to put each rat into their cage and put the cages up next to each other. This will give the rats an opportunity to sniff each other out and you’ll be able to observe their body language which will tell you a lot about how to proceed. If there are no signs of anger/aggression, then proceed to putting both rats into a neutral area to check out. If there are signs of potential issues, then swap the rats into each others cages so they can live in the other rats smell for a little while. When you do this, make sure that each rat has been in their cage for several days, then swap the rats into each other’s cage and let them stay in there for a few days before trying to move on to the neutral space stage.
Neutral spaces are usually something like a bathtub. Some people use their bed but I prefer to be in a more controlled space. I actually invested in this play pen to use both for play time and as a great introduction space. I attach 4 panels together on their short sides to make a confined pen and then I put it on a clean blanket. The rats can jump out of the pen but they can’t climb it. Having it short enables easier access to break up any fights that may arise. I supervise them in the neutral space and watch their interaction and body language. If there are any severe fights, I split up and start over. I’ll allow the rats to sort out smaller altercations but if anyone is injured/bloodied or fur is flying, then I definitely split up and start over. Putting vanilla extract on their noses and rear ends can help make each of the rats smell more similar and may help smooth out the introduction process.
If the 2 rats are hanging out in the neutral space and appear to be tolerating each other, then I’ll introduce some treats and see what happens. Scared rats will not eat so, if you put some treats down and they are both happily gnawing away, then you can move on to putting them in a clean cage together. If the treats cause fights, again, depending on the severity of the fight, you’ll need to judge whether to let them duke it out or split them up and start over again. When I graduate the newly introduced pair to a cage, I leave it empty to begin with – just like the neutral introduction space. When they demonstrate that they are OK in the cage together, then I start adding things, one by one, to the space and monitor their progress. I typically use a cage that is large enough to accommodate a “time out” cage inside the main cage. If one rat is aggressive towards the other rat, then they go on time out for 20 minutes. After their time out, I’ll try again and see what happens. If you are worried about fighting, do not leave 2 newly introduced rats in the same cage without supervision! It’s better and safer to just put them back in their individual cages until you can supervise their introduction again.
Introductions can take a long time. Typically, girl to girl intros are easiest. Neutered boy to girl intros are usually OK too. Neutered male intros I’m more cautious about and intact male intros are usually the most troublesome and time consuming. If introducing males is unsuccessful, I’d suggest having the males neutered to help with that. The age of the rats will also play a role in introductions. Baby and younger rats are generally easiest. Adult female to younger rat are usually OK too. Adult introductions can be a challenge and senior intros really depend on the rats. I’ve had a lot of senior intros where the feeling I got from the rats was, “If I were younger, I’d kick your butt but, I’m too old to care right now so I guess I’ll tolerate you” and then they become best buddies. I will also admit that there are some introductions that simply will not work either and that’s because rats have personalities and sometimes those just clash with another rat and no matter what you do, these rats will not be able to live together. It’s important to observe and listen to the rats while you are performing introductions. Take it slow and try not to rush the process.
“You are What You Eat!”
We hear this a lot and I believe, in many respects, that it’s pretty accurate. Having type 1 diabetes, I am always having to watch what I eat and I get to see how different foods affect my blood glucose levels. This is directly associated with my overall health and well being so it doesn’t surprise me that what you put into your body, or your pet’s body, would have a direct effect on their overall state of being. Much like people, rats can get bored of the same stuff if that is all they have day in and day out but it is important for your rats to have a stable and well balanced primary diet. To this end, the common rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule which is 80% plain, high-quality block feed and 20% fresh/other. In addition to these basics, you’ll also want to think about chew toys and treats.
So let’s start with the basics and talk a bit about the block diet. Yes, this may sound *very* stale and boring for your rat but rats, like humans, will tend to choose things they like to eat over things that they should be eating. A high-quality block diet is designed to give them everything their bodies require in each and every wholesome bite! So what constitutes a “high-quality” diet? Well, to be perfectly transparent, this will vary from person to person depending on who you consult! Generally speaking, in my humble opinion, there are different needs for “growing” rats than there are for “maintenance” rats. “Growing” rats include pregnant/nursing mothers and young rats up to about the age of 6-8 months. These rats need slightly more protein to supplement their changing bodies and I typically look for block diets that have about 18% protein and low fat. Maintenance/adult diets should be a little lower than that and I typically look for around the 14% protein and low fat. For senior rats, their needs will be dependent on their overall health at the time and I’ll be dedicating a blog to senior and special needs rats in the future.
The importance of a healthy block diet is to help prevent obesity which can lead to all sorts of other health issues and to ensure they are getting a nutritionally complete diet. There is plenty more that can be discussed with regard to a rats’ basic diet but, for the sake of this article, I’ll leave it here. The keys to remember when looking at diets are LOW fat, 12-20% protein depending on the age and condition of your rat, and an ingredient list that makes you comfortable (ie vegetarian or not, soy/no soy, corn/no corn, no mineral oil, etc).
With 80% of their diet out of the way, let’s move onto the other 20% of their diet – fresh and other. This is where you get to make food interesting for your pets! Rats, like many other animals, can NOT eat some items and a quick Google search will come up with many lists of items to stay away from so I won’t go into detail on those here. For me, I supplement with a human-grade, organic grain mix that I make myself and I do make this grain available to others via TheRatShop.com. I’m sure there are plenty of other rat enthusiasts who also make grain mixes that you can buy. You can also make your own but, if you only have 2-3 rats, that can prove challenging since a lot of the ingredients are in bulk. Rats are omnivores by nature and love a mix of different foods. I typically think of the rats as mini garbage disposals as I often feed them the better left overs from my own dinner plate. Peas and fresh corn are great for rats too. Unlike dogs and cats, rats can enjoy things like poultry bones. I always consult the list of foods to avoid, just to be certain that I am not offering them something that might make them sick. Rats are unable to vomit so anything they eat must go all the way through so we want to avoid things that may cause stomach upset. In nature, we often see that rats will be hesitant to try new things because of the fact that they are unable to vomit if they get sick. In captivity, that is less likely the case because our rats trust us and trust that what we offer them will not make them sick. My general rule of thumb is that, if I will not eat it, don’t feed it to the rats AND moderation is always best. Rats are small animals. Only give them enough fresh food (fruits, veg, meats, etc) to consume quickly, since you don’t want these things going bad in the cage and your rats eating them later. Also remember to remove any leftovers right away.
So, 80% of their diet should be the free-fed, high-quality rodent block and 20% should be fresh foods and/or a high-quality cereal/grain mix. Another thing to consider are chew toys for the cage. Rat teeth grow continually and the block diet will help maintain their teeth but offering chew toys in their space not only gives them more stuff to chew but also more stuff to be entertained by. I like to have a selection of chew toys to pick from and, when I do the weekly cage cleaning, I will swap out and move around the chew toys in their space. When looking for quality chew toys, I always pick toys with wire frames because there is nothing more disappointing than getting an awesome toy and having my rats chew one part of the non-wire frame and the whole toy falling apart on the bottom of the cage As a matter of fact, I typically keep extra wire or pipe cleaner on hand to re-work chew toys that have fallen apart! I prefer to buy and use toys that are made from more natural products like wood, loofa, coconut, manzanita, fruit wood, etc. Many toys also have plastic components, which are ok as the rats are not eating these things – just chewing on them, but I prefer as natural as possible. Some toys also include mineral stones and such which rats in my care have typically enjoyed as well. Chew toys are not really part of a rats’ diet but they do play a role in your pets’ overall well being.
Finally, we get to my personal favorite which are treats! General treats and training treats. As stated before, rats are SMALL animals and thus, do not need huge treats or even a lot of treats. When most people look for treats, they specifically look for treats marketed to pet rats/rodents and, to be perfectly honest, most of those types of treats are horrible for your pet rats! Rather than focus on all the horrible treats available on the market, let me teach you about how I evaluate treats. Much like their food, I look at the ingredients and I pay close attention to sugar content and overall size. Most of the time, I simply steer clear of the “rodent treats”. Instead, I give my rats small pieces of nut, tiny yogurt drops, pieces of the kids’ cereal, and often pieces of treats made for dogs, cats, or other animals. There are plenty of amazing treats out there that are fantastic for rats but marketed for other animals. Just because something is specifically marketed for rats or rodents does *not* mean it is the best thing for them. Fruitables are a wonderful example of a dog treat that is excellent for rats too! Plenty of little snacks for babies and toddlers would also be great for your pet rats. My point is that, you are not limited to the pet store! There are plenty of safe and healthy treats out there. For training, just use even smaller pieces since you will want to reward the behavior your are training for and you don’t want them to fill up their tummies before the training session is over. I find rice crispies to be excellent for training but things of a similar size would work well too!
Much of your rats’ overall happiness is completely dependent on you as their caregiver. They rely on you for a nutritionally complete block diet, fresh foods/cereal mixes, chew toys, and treats! You are responsible for providing them with everything they need to live happy and healthy lives. Just like you wouldn’t take your kids out to fast food every night, you also don’t want to feed your pets things that are not good for them. Play around and mix it up. You’ll quickly figure out what things they prefer and it’s fun to find new things that your rats enjoy. One important thing to conclude with is NEVER feed your rats anything through the bars of the cage! EVER!! Rats are associative, just like dogs, and if you feed goodies through the bars of the cage on a regular basis, then they will associate anything (including fingers) coming through the bars as being food/treats or something otherwise tasty to eat. Set your rats up for success and always put their food into their food dish or, if you are training them to gently take treats from your hand, be certain the door is open while you are offering them things to eat. Rats are amazing animals. Just like people go on dinner dates to meet others and get to know them, bonding with your rats using food and treats is a reliable way to gain/maintain trust and attachment.
So, last month, I covered finding the right rat for you and choosing your new (or additional) companion. Now that you might have some idea of who your next furry friend(s) will be, you will need to think about the type of home that will be most welcoming for them! Please remember that, if you are getting a companion for an existing rat or rats, then you will need to maintain TWO cages for the time that you are working on introductions. Some introductions take no time at all and others can take months and/or not happen at all. Rats are individuals, just like people, and, similar to people, they don’t necessarily like/tolerate all other rats. I would venture out on a limb and say that most rats, with enough time and patience, will eventually be able to cohabitate. There are always exceptions to this generalization though!
On to CAGES!
I will say, from personal experience, that rats can and will get their back feet caught and potentially stuck/trapped in this particular size of wire which may lead to severe injury (think broken ankle). I prefer cages that are all metal because they are chew proof and you never know if your new companion is a chewer until you wake up late for work and realize that someone chewed out of their cage and is on a walk-about in your home somewhere! (Been there, done that!) Plastic pans are fine but only if you either know your rat won’t chew out of it OR if the wire cage sits inside the cage. Martin’s Cages are a fantastic example of a wire cage that sits inside the pan and their shelves are made from ½”x½” wire mesh which is more tolerable for little rattie feet. I would still suggest covering the shelves and ladders with fleece using tiny binder clips but, in my experience, rats do fine in their cages. I would also suggest their powder coated cages over the galvanized cages because the galvanized cages will eventually rust and look terrible.
At the time of this article, the cages that I currently use and highly recommend are the Critter Nations by Midwest Homes for Pets. They claim to be “The World’s Best Small Animal Habitats” and I would, wholeheartedly, second that claim with one caveat. The pans and shelves that come standard with the cage do not keep the bedding in the cage and get chewed very quickly. I replace all my pans with Bass Pans. Originally, I ordered the galvanized version because that was the only option available but, if you know you are going to keep having rats for quite some time, please save yourself the trouble and get their stainless steel version! For the same issue as the wire cages, galvanized pans will discolor, rust, and become pretty gross over many years of constant use. I am currently in the process of upgrading all of my pans to the stainless steel version. Critter Nation cages are amazing! The single level version is an excellent choice for up to 6 rats. The doors open fully and are readily removable to make weekly cleaning relatively quick and easy. They offer a double critter nation which is even better if you have the space and there are add-on units available if the sky is your limit. At the moment, I use a triple critter nation which is a double plus one add-on unit. I’m short so I need a step stool to care for the very top of the cage so I wouldn’t really suggest going higher than that. If you really do not have the space for a Critter Nation, then I would suggest getting a Rat Manor which is moderately smaller but still good for 2-3 rats. I prefer not using any of the shelves that come with it so I can get creative on the inside but the mesh shelves are fine for the rats.
After getting the cage set up in the preferred area of your home, you’ll need to take some time to furnish their home much in the same way that you would furnish your own home. The basic accessories required are a water dispenser, food dispenser, and house to sleep in. I strongly recommend getting and using GLASS water bottles. They are easier to clean and sanitize and can’t be chewed. The water should be used quickly and changed regularly so an 8oz bottle for 2 rats is fine. I would suggest having a few water bottles on hand to use when you need to go away for a weekend or on really warm days when they might go through more water than normal. As for food dispensers, I use and prefer the Snap’y Fit bowls from Midwest Homes for Pets who also manufactures the Critter Nations recommended earlier. I use the 20oz bowls but my groups are typically 4-6 rats so if you just have 2-3, the 10oz bowl will likely work for you. I like these because they can’t be chewed and the bowl easily comes off for cleaning. Food tends to go where the rats want to “hide” it though so some people have had great success hanging “pom poms” over the food to help “protect” it so the rats don’t feel the need to hide it in the corner under all the bedding! Darling Rats is a great place to get these pom pom food bowl covers. As for houses, I use and recommend the Large Space Pod by Lixit. These are great because they can go on the floor or be hung from the top of a cage and the rats REALLY seem to like these. Yes, the plastic does get chewed so you’ll need to get a few but they are relatively affordable and easy to clean and use. Additional things to consider for your rats’ habitat are hammocks, chew toys, shelves and ledges, and things that might keep them busy and entertained. If you have females, I would also offer them a LARGE wheel (12”+) just in case they like it. Some boys will also use wheels but it generally seems to be more of a female tendency whereas males seem to use it for sleeping and pooping.
And…while on the subject of pooping, let me take a moment to cover the bedding options and cleaning of this new space for your rats. The choice of bedding is mainly a personal preference. AVOID pine and cedar as the chemicals that make them smell so nice may also cause damage to a rats’ fragile respiratory system. Most people, myself included, will choose to use a recycled paper bedding like CareFresh or Yesterday’s News. Others prefer lining the cage surfaces with fleece or felt because it is soft, absorbent, and you can just cut it to shape with no fraying and use binder clips to secure it. I use the paper bedding option and clean cages once a week. I’ve tried the fleece/felt but I felt like the cages needed more regular maintenance because the fabrics don’t do much to control the smell. Others still will employ a combination of both by lining the cage with material and using a litter box with paper bedding. Rats are VERY intelligent and associative so potty training, in theory, is definitely an option though, in my experience, females are much easier to potty train than males and I typically choose to keep males. How often you actually clean your cages will also depend on your personal set up. At the very least, the cages will need to be cleaned once a week. If you have a lot of rats, or you’re using fabric and you think it’s stinky, or for whatever other reason, you may end up cleaning the cage out more often. I only have time for a weekly cage clean so I choose to go with the pelleted recycled paper bedding.
I prefer to use a Vinegar Recipe with some essential oil to help with the smells. I feel it is safer for the animals and it smells much nicer than bleach. There are cage cleaning solutions out there like Nature’s Miracle, which I have used historically as well and would also use and recommend if you prefer a pre-made solution. The most important aspect is that the whole cage will need to be cleaned about once a week.
To wrap things up, we’ve established that the bigger the cage the better! We’ve also reviewed the type of cage and placement of the cage within your home. We discussed the basic cage accessories as well as the better cage accessories and we’ve reviewed the general aspects of cleaning your cage. Companion rats are caged-animals and, as such, they are going to spend A LOT of time in their cages. It is your responsibility, as the guardian they rely on, to provide them with a clean space and stuff to do and play with in that space. Feel free to get creative! Look online at what other people are trying out in their spaces, some examples include: a digging box, treat pinatas, and MORE!!! A lot of the DIY rat toys are made from recycling stuff that you already have lying around your house. Start saving those toilet paper rolls, packing paper, and plastic bottles and see what you can come up with! There are a ton of things that you can do with your pet rats to keep them happy and healthy!