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Rats are agile, sensitive little animals that deserve commitment when being looked after as a pet.
Rats belong to the rodent family. There are over 80 different species of rat throughout the world.
The most common, Black and Brown rats are thought to have originated from Asia. They managed to stow away in merchant ships and other means of transport, which carried them across the world.
It is thought that the Black rat reached Europe in the 4th Century and caused outbreaks of the Plague in the 6th and 7th centuries. We all think of rats as the carriers of the Bubonic Plague or Black Death in the 1300s but they were merely the hosts of fleas that actually spread the disease.
Feeding your Rat
In their natural habitat rats will scavenge for their food and will eat almost anything. Rats are omnivores and need protein to keep them in good condition. This can be in the form of cheese, but good quality rat pellets will provide them with the balance they need.
Rats need a quality rat mix that does not contain nuts or seeds as these can cause skin problems and spots. Too much green food will cause diarrhoea.
If you feed your rat human food, remember to avoid foods that are high in calories, sugary or contain too much fat - rats can get obese very quickly.
Rats need feeding once a day, everyday. A good quality heavy earthenware food bowl is essential to keep the food dry and clean and prevent your rat from tipping the food onto the floor of the cage. Their bowls must be cleaned after every use.
You should try to ensure that your rat eats all of his food from a very young age.
Prevent selective feeding (where your rat leaves some of the ingredients in coarse mixes) by reducing the amount until he eats all of it. You can then slowly increase it to the recommended daily allowance.
Ensure that there is fresh drinking water available at all times.
How to house a Happy Rat
Rats can be housed in a wire cage with a plastic base, a plastic rat home or a large vivarium with a well-ventilated cover.
Wooden cages should not be used as rats will chew their way out. The important thing to remember is that a rat home can never be too big as they love to explore and exercise. Multi - level cages are a good idea as they add interest for your intelligent rat.
They love to hide and climb and will enjoy playing with a sisal rope or large rat wheel. A hammock is the perfect place for them to play and rest above the ground.
Rats are best kept indoors and careful thought should be given to where your rat's home is situated. The temperature in the room should be constant, away from direct sunlight and draughts and out of the reach of any other pets.
A rat's hearing is extremely sensitive so he should be situated away from loud noises such as a stereo.
Cages should be cleaned out on a regular basis. This is especially important in warmer weather to reduce odours. Keeping your rat warm and cosy at night is very important (especially if he is of the Hairless variety).
Use bedding that is absorbent. Untreated, unthreshed straw should not be used as it can scratch your pet. It is also recommended that you provide bedding that is dust extracted as this reduces irritation to the eyes, nose and respiratory system.
Choose a good pet shop to buy cage cleaners and bedding. Barley straw and woodshavings are excellent for rats especially if they are treated with a non-toxic cleaning agent to eliminate pet odours, germs and bacteria and are dust free.
How to Exercise your Rat
You need to provide a large, secure run for daily exercise. This can be free-standing or attached to the cage. An idea is to use a large cardboard box and put bedding on the bottom. Put in some toilet roll tubes and, as rats also love to climb, you can hang up a piece of sisal rope. Hide a piece of apple wood for him to gnaw and you will see how much fun he can have in his own exercise yard.
However, you should always keep an eye on him whilst he is in his play area.
If you provide a wheel in his cage so your rat can exercise, make sure that it is big enough for him. He must not have to bend his back whilst inside. Also ensure that it has a solid floor and not rungs as they can cause injuries to the feet and tail.
Although rats often sleep during the day, they are really energetic and will exercise for 3-4 hours a night, and will enjoy spending the evenings with you.
Rats are naturally very active and inquisitive animals. They like to keep themselves busy and, when allowed, spend the majority of their time running around and investigating their surroundings. Their natural instincts are to explore and socialise. It only takes a few items to create an exciting playground for your pet.
Piles of logs (natural wood - willow, beech, hazel or apple) make platforms for them to explore or rest under. Rats will chew the wood and this will help keep their teeth in trim.
Feeding time for a domestic animal is often over in minutes whereas, in the wild, feeding takes most of the day as they forage for their favourite foods. By hiding food and the occasional treat your rat will be forced to hunt for his food - this will keep him occupied for many happy hours and prevent boredom.
Handling your Rat
Before attempting to handle your rat, make sure he is awake and alert or he might be scared and try to bite you. Talking to your rat makes him aware that you are close by and wanting to socialise.
Always approach your rat calmly and gently. Once your rat knows you are near, place a closed fist in front of him and allow him to approach.
If he is confident and appears interested, slowly unclench your fist and open your hand to allow him to crawl on to your palm. If he does not approach you, gently scoop him up and cup him in the palms of your two hands to ensure he is safe and won't be dropped. Never pick a rat up by his tail.
Rats are very social animals and will become unhappy if left alone, so keeping them in pairs is best. Two males or two females from the same litter will get on extremely well and be great company for each other.
Rats enjoy 'play-fighting', but if you introduce an older rat to another rat, they may fight seriously and cause injury. Don't keep a male and female together unless you want to breed from them.