Rats: The Complete Guide to Caring for Pet Rats

The scenario of Ratatouille seems quite endearing when it comes to having pet rats, doesn’t it? Well, suppose you are planning on bringing home a pet rat. In that case, you probably have a plethora of questions, and understandably so. We have created this complete guide to caring for rats simply to make it easier for you to make your decision about bringing home a pet rat!

What Do Rats Look Like?

Pet rats are little creatures that weigh between 0.5 and 1.1 pounds when fully grown. 8 to 10 inches is the normal body length, excluding their tails. Being sexually dimorphic creatures, male rats tend to be bigger than female rats.


Being a rodent, a rat looks pretty similar to its rodent counterparts. The rat species’ two primary incisors are quite large.

Further, unless the rat takes appropriate measures to curtail its growth, like nibbling and gnawing on anything it can find, its incisors will continue to grow to excessive and, at times, dangerous lengths.

This is one of the crucial reasons why rats are constantly chewing, causing significant damage to homes. The nose of most kinds has noticeable whiskers and a long, hairless tail, and a furred body.

Rats have more fur on their bodies than on their ears and tails. It’s also worth noting that there are hairless and tailless variations of rats, whether pet or wild. Their ears are huge and round.

Dumbo rats have much larger ears positioned on the side of the head rather than on the top. They run on four legs and can stand erect on their two hind legs.

Additionally, rat species range in size, color, tail length, ear size, and hair texture. Roof rats are long and slender, but Norway rats are huge and rotund.

The roof rat’s tail is longer than the rat’s body, whereas the Norway rat’s tail is shorter than its body. Rats have a variety of heads, from blunt with aquiline noses too long and pointed.

What Are The Types of Rats and What Are Their Natural Habitats?

The fact is that rats have become so prevalent that the species inhabit nearly every natural habitat between the various types and breeds, from isolated tropical islands to woodlands.

Swamp rats, bush rats, rice-field rats, and forest rats are a few examples among them. Further, there are a variety of rodents with similar appearances that are commonly referred to as rats, such as wood rats.

When most people think of rats, they usually think of one species: black rats and Norwegian rats. Here are a few popular types of rats and the habitats they live in!

Black Rats

Black rats used to be the most commonly found and observed rats in areas inhabited by human civilizations and settlements.

Unfortunately, black rats get a terrible rap among humans for being the species of animals responsible for the deadly epidemic of the Bubonic Plague or Black Death.

black domestic rat

Norwegian rats began to take over as the rat species living closest to people in most temperate zones by the end of the nineteenth century. Although black rats can still be found in these regions, they are more common in agricultural ecosystems.

They are currently endangered in several parts of their historic habitat, such as the United Kingdom. In many tropical locations, they are still the most prevalent rat.

Like the Norwegian rat, they are thought to have originated in Asian woodland, most likely India, and still favor arboreal settings; in the United States, the species is sometimes referred to as “fruit rats” due to their ubiquity in orchards.

Norwegian Rats

Today, the Norwegian rat species can be found practically everywhere that humans live. In fact, these rats are also found, many times, in places where they are not necessarily welcome.

The species, however, has been present for much longer than cities, and the rats’ initial habitat has been entirely different. Originally, the rats’ distribution was limited to portions of China, Siberia, and Japan, where they lived in the woods and jungles.

With an exponential growth in human population and settlements that have even encroached into natural forests and original natural habitats of these animals, specifically in the temperate climate zones.

Because Norwegian rats are not well adapted to natural tropical habitats, they tend to stay in more developed surroundings in tropical areas. They can survive better than they would be able to in the wild.

Common Pet Rats

Funnily enough, most pet rats are Norwegian rats that have been domesticated simply because it is one of the breeds of rats that are most commonly found. Also, research has shown that this breed of rats can thrive as pets.

Not only are the living conditions perfect for them in terms of temperature and general climate, but also they enjoy the companionship of their human caregivers! However, even common pet rats require a habitat that meets some of their basic requirements.

The size and complexity of the cage will be determined in part by how long you can allow the rats out of their cages to play each day. The essentials are a big cage, a few inches of absorbent, paper-based bedding, and a couple of nest boxes for sleeping.

Rats also enjoy climbing; therefore, multilayered cages are an excellent choice, at least until the rats get older. In general, the more open space there is to explore along with unknown objects, the better.

Other Varieties of Rats

Now, rats today are typically divided into two main groups – true or genuine rats and other rodents (that are usually said to be rats but aren’t rats biologically). The Norwegian and black rats are the most widespread rat species.

Other rats have more specialized habitats and a smaller geographic range. The western New Guinea mountain rat (also called Rattus arrogans), for example, is only found in the mountainous regions of Western and Central New Guinea, as its name suggests.

The rice field rat (also known as Rattus argentiventer), on the other hand, is found in Indo-China’s moist grasslands and rice paddy fields. None of these species have been tamed or live in such proximity to people as the Norwegian and black rats.

The enormous pouched rats (a member of the genus Cricetomys), also used as pets and occasionally as service animals, primarily for mine detection, are not closely related to genuine rats.

The Difference Between a Mouse and a Rat

Rats and mice are quite similar to each other because they are both members of the rodent family. Mice and rats are also identical to roughly a thousand other rodents! They all have pretty much the same physical features and behavioral traits.

Small and beady black eyes, whiskers, sharp incisors, a tail, and a propensity to attempt to dwell where you do are some of the easily spotted features.

However, all you may have noticed thus far is a freaky noise while sleeping, torn clothes, chewed-up furniture and shoes, disgusting odor problems, holes in your walls, and the obvious – rodent poop.

But, seeing as you wish to bring either of these rodents into your home as a domesticated pet rather than treating them as pests at home, it is best for you to understand the difference between rats and mice.

We’ve thought of the most prominent differences between these two types of rodents and included them below so that you are equipped to bring home the ideal pet rodent!

The tail

The first thing to observe in rodents, to identify them as either adult mice or adult rats, is the tail. The primary point of difference between rats and mice is that while rats have a longer tail in terms of their length, mice have a longer tail than their own body.

Therefore, if the rodent in front of you has a small body compared to its tail, it,s unlikely to be a rat.

The difference in sizes between rats and mice

Another telltale sign to differentiate between rats and mice is the difference in their sizes. Adult rats are larger than adult mice. While adult mice can only grow as large as 10 cm to 12 cm in size, rats can grow to be 3 to 4 times the size of adult mice.

However, sometimes you can get confused between adult mice and baby rats since they could be similarly sized. In such situations, use the size of their tails as your primary indicator of whether the rodent is a rat or a mouse.

The difference in the diet of rats and mice

Being larger animals, rats will need to eat more. Even though the essential foods of their diets remain the same, rats will eat more than mice do.

Also, rats aren’t particularly picky about what they whereas mice will often opt for healthier and cleaner foods like fruits and vegetables.

Reproduction in rats and mice

Both rats and mice are prolific procreators. However, rats surpass mice in terms of reproductive trends in numbers alone. Rats generally create at least two thousand rat babies in merely a year.

Mice, on the other hand, give birth to about 200 baby mice throughout their lives. You will have to be extremely careful and restrictive about breeding your rats.

If you do, however, wish to allow your pet rat to breed, it would be best if you consult your veterinarian about the healthiest breeding practices and whether you should neuter your pet rats or not.

Rat droppings are different from mouse droppings.

There’s no real way to say this delicately, but rat droppings are different in appearance compared to mouse droppings. The main difference, apart from rat droppings being bigger, is that rat droppings are also more rounded in structure, especially toward their ends.

How do Rats Communicate?

Unfortunately, rats don’t speak to us the way Ratatoullie speaks with his human friend. However, rats do use clever methods of communicating with each other.

Pheromones, olfactory sensors, vocalizations, and body language/behavior, are some of these clever means and methods that rats use in order to speak or communicate with one another. 

Ultrasonic frequencies

Rats use specific frequencies to communicate specific emotions to other rats around them. Therefore, there is little ambiguity in their communication. Apart from regular communication, rats also use these frequencies to signal specific things to playmates.

Like a human baby crying for its mother when it gets lost, baby rats also do the same by using these frequencies to call out for their mother.

Establishing dominance

Establishing dominance is crucial to maintaining a hierarchy in any given community of rats. To establish their position as a dominant alpha, dominant alphas use a variety of strategies.

One of the popular ways that rats communicate their dominance is by the act of ‘power grooming’ another rat. While engaging in power grooming, the alpha rat will groom the submissive rat’s neck, face, and belly.

Bear in mind that power grooming is different from social grooming in that it is forced grooming. Power grooming is done aggressively, with quick, short stroked nibbles.

Although the subordinate may peek or squeal, the alpha can very well resort to violence to any movement or failure to obey.

Wrestling with playmates

Play fighting is usual among the younger, more energetic rats and is nothing to stress about. Surprisingly, the play is frequently initiated by a rat that sits low down in the social hierarchy of its group, while the dominating rat tries to learn counterattack moves.

The way to distinguish between simple playfighting and actual aggression is to ascertain the point or target of attack. Usually, while playfighting, rats will target the upper body and nape, whereas while actually fighting, rats will lunge to attack their opponent’s hindquarters and hind legs!

Using scents and noses

Rats communicate using specific scents and, therefore, rely significantly on their noses. The technique of sniffing each other is employed not just for introductions but also to express their hierarchical standing during other interactions.

In fact, upon meeting a new member of the group, rats will often establish the hierarchy by using their nose to make physical gestures such as shoving it into their bodies. Further, rats can also learn about one another by smelling one other’s bodily fluids, feces, and urine.

Rats also use their urine to mark items, locations, or even mates, as belonging to them. Rats even change the manner in which they mark what belongs to them, and this manner, in conjunction with the urine itself, can convey crucial information such as their species, sex, social status, reproductive status, and pheromones.

Since rats have strong olfactory senses, it is not difficult to identify these factors by smelling another rat’s urine.

Wagging their tails

Generally, rats wag their tails to express two emotions – happiness and excitation or anger.

Since different rats have different personalities and use different cues to express their emotions, you will have to mindfully observe your pet rats in order to understand their manners of expressing how they are feeling.

What Should You Feed Your Pet Rat?

Rats, either in domestic households or even in the wild, follow an omnivorous diet. They eat more or less anything and everything they can find. However, that does not necessarily mean that you can feed your pet rat foods that are unhealthy for it.

Rats eating

But before we get to what you can’t feed your pet rat, here is a list of the food items you can and should include in your pet rat’s diet!

So, being omnivores, the ideal diet for your pet rat should consist of animal or vegetarian sources of protein and some fats. Meat, vegetables, and fruits are essential components of your pet rat’s diet.

Bear in mind that all these foods should be fed in addition to a staple diet of commercially available rat pellets. Why? Simply because these food pellets have generous servings of the nutrients that your pet rat needs to stay healthy. Here are some of the raw foods that you can feed your pet rat –

  • pears
  • apples
  • bananas
  • oranges
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • parsley
  • cabbage
  • some berries
  • peas
  • melons
  • stone fruits
  • different types of cooked meat
  • boiled eggs
  • cooked beans
  • cooked sweet potatoes
  • cooked corn

In addition to these food items, you can also use treats to make your pet rat’s diet interesting and as a tool to train your pet rat. Cooked rice, grains, cereal, bread, mealworms, and some sweet items are some treats that you can feed your pet rat.

You must remember that feeding them too much of these treats can result in long-term obesity. Therefore, you must exercise restrictions in including these foods in your pet rat’s diets.

Chocolate, raw sweet potatoes, insects, coffee, mangoes, and lemon peels are some food items you must strictly avoid including in your pet rat’s diet. These foods can prove to be extremely toxic for your pet rats!

How do Rats Reproduce?

The fact is, breeding rats is extremely easy. Because it is that easy unless handled appropriately, you can very easily witness a population boom in the number of rats in your home.

Rats usually reach sexual maturity at five weeks of age, so the sexes should be separated prior to this age.

Now, it’s important to remember that rats do not have a specific breeding season. However, either extreme heat or extreme cold will drastically affect reproduction rates in rats. Females that have reached their breeding age can be in heat every five days throughout the year.

The only exception to this heat cycle occurs when they are pregnant. Even so, they may come in heat once or twice early in the pregnancy. You can mark your female rat’s reproductive and heat cycle on a calendar but remember that it can vary from time to time.

Each cycle of heat usually begins in the evening and lasts most of the night. Once your female rat crosses 18 months of age, she will hit menopause. During this time, her heat cycle will gradually fade out.

Along with her desire to procreate, your female rat will also become more and more impotent. It is inadvisable to breed or mate your female pet rat after the age of 18 months.

When a female is 4 to 5 months old, it is optimal to breed her for the first time. Breeding a female older than 6 to 8 months for the first time can be risky because her pelvic canal will be narrowed in a tight position.

Due to this position of her pelvic canal, giving birth normally may not be possible for the rat. Ideally, you should never breed a female if she has had abnormal births earlier, regardless of her age.

Regarding rat reproduction, age isn’t as significant for male rats as it is for their female counterparts. In fact, unlike female rats, males can be fertile even when they are old.

If you want to breed a female again, you should wait a few weeks after her offspring has been weaned to give her time to heal physically and mentally.

Wooing their partners

One way female rats will attempt to woo male rats is by displaying specific behavioral symptoms. When a male rat strokes her back, a female rat in heat will usually perform the mating ‘dance,’ which is extremely entertaining and interesting.

She may dart forward or spin around initially, stiffen her legs, elevate her head and tail, and vibrate her ears! This show indicates to the male that she is ready to mate. On the other hand, the male will express interest in the female almost immediately in most cases.

The male rat will sniff her and even lick her. Usually, he’ll grab her fur or neck with his teeth upon mounting. Rats usually mount multiple times during courtship. The male rat must usually mount several times before completing the deed, and mating will last for a long time.

However, a female can become pregnant after a single mounting, so don’t let them play together if you don’t want your males and females to mate.

Keep your unneutered males and females apart, even if the female is not in heat. A determined and persistent male can sometimes excite her into coming into heat. 

The average lifespan in rats

Most pet rats live to be about three years old. However, in the wild, this age might be lower due to natural impediments such as predators and biological factors.

Do Rats Burrow?

Yes, rats do burrow. Being a part of the rodent family, rats too find comfort in digging their way underground in a space that predatorial creatures can’t access. Moreover, rats have an innate and natural proclivity for building intricate tunnels with several entrances and exits.

These tunnels may have multiple layers during heavy rains, allowing rats to seek higher or dryer ground. These subsurface systems also function as food storage areas that are relatively safe.

Due to their comfort and safety, deeper, well-insulated places are optimal nesting and childbirth sites. Rats develop and use incredibly small entrances and exits, which can be barely a few inches wide.

Because most predators cannot fit into the tiny rat tunnels, rats can easily flee threats.

It’s unclear whether pet rats enjoy burrowing or not. However, it’s most certainly an instinctive behavior they need to engage in to stay and feel protected.

Why Do Rats Make Good Pets?

Grayscale Photo of Person Holding Mouse

Well, apart from reenacting scenes from Ratatouille, rats still make for excellent pets. Here are the best reasons we could think of why you can seriously consider bringing home a pet rat.

Loyal bonding with their caregivers

Rats recognize their owners and even respond to their sight and sound, as any rat owner will tell you.

They are gregarious and enjoy spending time on the couch, on people’s shoulders, or in their laps with human family members. Pet rats enjoy the warmth and contact of their caretakers and are quite cuddly!

Clean animals

Contrary to popular opinion, rats are meticulous groomers who despise having their hands, or any body part, dirty. Usually, if they get something on their fur, they strive to clean it up as soon as possible.

They like grooming one another (known as allogrooming) and gathering and organizing their food into piles. You don’t need to bathe them very often as pet rats, either.

However, you might have to groom more mindfully for pet rats that are obese or suffer from any diseases or unaltered males who mark their territory with urine.

Intelligent and empathetic creatures

Usually, people do not consider rats to be bright. However, they are extremely intelligent and simple to train. Rats are even frequently used in psychological studies to better understand human behavior because of their intellect.

Solving riddles and puzzles, learning trucks, and running through mazes are some of the activities that you can teach your pet rat to perform. If you wish to teach your pet rat more complicated acts, you can consider teaching them to play fetch!

When rats are called by their names, they will answer. When their fellow rats are in distress, they also express empathy and sympathy for them.

Pet Rats and their Playtime

Rats require and love the interaction, and they eagerly anticipate time spent with you. Their intelligence is better than that of most other rodents, which does their training and play fun. Make sure that such activities are not only enjoyable for your rat but also safe for him.

Avoid exposing your rat to actions that will frighten him. You can lose its trust, and rats will bite if they feel threatened before going out of the cage to play or train. Ensure that any other pets that could injure your rat are safely stored.

Ascertain that your rat is relaxed and unafraid. It is preferable first to get to know your pet to secure it through trust training.

Now, depending on their age, rats play differently. After their eyes open at roughly two weeks of age, Younger rats begin actively playing with each other. A good breeder should play with their puppies not just when they are young but also daily.

The majority of the play activities at this age will involve chasing and wrestling. Put your hand inside the cage and “imitate” them as if it were another rat to participate in this game. Then you can join them in pursuing and wrestling in their natural habitat.

Using verbal instructions while playing will not only get kids more thrilled, but it will also serve as a reminder throughout their life that it is time to play. As the rats get older, their intensity and variety of play will reduce.

Diseases that Rats are Vulnerable to

Some of the diseases that rats are vulnerable to are digestion-related ones caused by parasites and protozoa, respiratory diseases and lung infections, degeneration of the vertebrate column rendering them immobile, leptospirosis, skin infections, an infestation of ticks, fleas, and mites, and some types of cancers.

Consult your veterinarian to understand the symptoms of these diseases. Doing so will help you keep your pet rat healthy and free of diseases!

How Should you Groom Your Pet Rat?

The reality is that pet rats don’t need to be groomed, especially healthy rats. Healthy rats generally groom themselves, and since they don’t stink as such, you don’t need to use shampoos and specific bathing and grooming sessions to keep your pet rat clean.

Close-Up Photo of Person Touching a Black Rat

Moreover, using chemical-based shampoos and other items to bathe their results in their skin and fur coats drying out. However, when they are older or sick, you will have to trim their nails and give them baths with mild shampoos every once in a while.

Even when grooming your pet rat’s nails, you will have to be extremely careful. Generally, it is unnecessary since your rat will likely trim its nails by itself, but for older and sick rats, it might be a necessity. If possible, it would be best to entrust the task of trimming their nails to your veterinarian.


Pet rats are adorable creatures and don’t need too much maintenance. Therefore, if you can manage including a pet rat in your daily schedule, it might be a great pet for you.

Whether you are planning to bring home a pet rat or you are already caring for one, this article is your complete go-to guide to caring for your pet rats!

FAQs About Rats

Is a rat a rodent?

Yes, a rat is a rodent.

What does a rat eat?

Rats are omnivores and, therefore, eat fruits, vegetables, and meat from time to time.

How long do wild rats live?

WIld rats generally live to be 2 to 3 years of age.

How long do pet rats live?

Pet rats can live to be four years of age, on average.

What scent do rats hate?

Rats hate strong scents like those of peppermint, citronella, and eucalyptus.

About the author

I'm Gulshan, a passionate pet enthusiast. Dive into my world where I share tips, stories, and snapshots of my animal adventures. Here, pets are more than just animals; they're heartbeats that enrich our lives. Join our journey!