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Caring for Your Rat

By: Talia Starkey

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Rats make amicable house pets. A rat raised in a caring environment is friendly and responsive to his owners, much like a cat or dog. In this way rats are unique among their small-pet counterparts: they learn to like humans and to crave human company. You will need to spend more time with your rat than you would with another small pet, but you will reap the rewards of this friendly interaction.

The Basic Home

Before you invite any animal into your home, you must be sure that you already have the basic equipment you will need to house him safely and adequately. Rats are social creatures and prefer to live with at least one cage mate, but make sure that the sales person checks the rats' sexes to avoid unwanted offspring. A 15-gallon aquarium or a wire cage that's at least two feet square is adequate for a pair of rats, but get something larger if you have the space. Rats are active and need space to climb and exercise in their cages.

Get a solid bottom cage to avoid problems with broken or injured toes (a rat can step through a wire mesh any larger than one-half inch square). Cover the bottom of the cage with phenol-free shavings. Cedar and pine shavings smell good to humans but can cause damage to a rat's lungs, so choose aspen or hardwood chips to line the floor of your pet's cage. There are some pine shavings that have been treated to reduce the aromatic oils. These can be safely used. You can also buy cage pellets made from recycled paper, but they are usually more expensive than the wood shavings. Rats like to nest in clean rags or torn paper.

Get a sturdy ceramic bowl for your pet's food. His water should come from a water bottle mounted on the side of his cage (he will likely spill water served in a bowl, or kick shavings into it).

Clean your rats' cage at least once a week. Completely remove all bedding and wipe down the walls and floor of the cage, then allow it to dry completely before you put your rats back in it.

Always provide your rat with toys in his cage. These need not be pet-store purchases. You can find interesting objects for your rats to chew and climb around your home. Cardboard boxes and tubes, clay flowerpots, pieces of rope and other objects can become playthings. Just remember that your rat is a rodent and will gnaw on all of the objects you place in his home. Don't give him anything with small parts that could break off in his mouth and hurt him, and don't allow him to chew on plastic-coated or painted toys.

Feeding Your Rat

Much like many humans, rats are prone to bad eating habits. They will eat for the sake of eating, and thus are vulnerable to weight gain if they are not fed the right kinds of food. As much as your pet enjoys salty and fatty snacks from your table, you must resist the urge to share each meal with him. While a little variety is good for any creature, your rat can easily fill up on unhealthy foods and forgo those that provide him the basic nutrition he needs for healthy living.

Rodents can consume about 10 percent of their body weight in food every day. Rats are omnivorous, which means they will eat both plant and animal fodder. The standard rat fare is a lab block feed, which you can buy at your local pet store. This kibble is a good source of nutrients and will also wear down your rats' teeth. You can also give your rat green leafy vegetables (good sources of vitamins) and some fruit, though the staple of their diets should be some sort of pellet food. Grains are also good food for rats: give them bran, corn, uncooked oatmeal, rice and wheat; do not give them sweetened cereals.

Try giving your rat a sturdy piece of bone with a little bit of meat still on it (from beef or pork, nothing splintery like a chicken bone). Chewing on the bone will help him to wear down his ever-growing incisor teeth, and both the meat and the bone marrow are good protein sources for him. Your rat's teeth are strong enough to open up hard-shelled nuts and cracked corn, so you can try those too.

Remember, your rat is not capable of vomiting or burping, so you must never give him carbonated beverages. Sticky foods, like peanut butter off a spoon, toffees or fruit candies, can also get your rat into trouble.

Playtime

Playtime is a great time to get to know your rat. You will find him innately intelligent and capable of recognizing you and the other people in your household. He will enjoy spending time climbing on you – going through your pockets or just perching on your shoulder and checking out the view.

Be sure to rat-proof the room where you intend to play with your pet, covering up all small holes and places where your pet could get behind furniture or into walls. Lift all electrical cords off the floors to avoid undesired chewing. And never leave your pet alone in a room with a larger animal (cat, dog or small child), no matter how friendly they seem towards each other when you are around.

A rat's innate intelligence makes him a natural for learning tricks. Try to think of tricks that are an extension of your rat's natural behavior. For example, a rat can easily pick up and carry an object back to his nest. So it is possible for you to teach him to "fetch": to carry an object that has been gently tossed back to the person who tossed it. Rats are incremental learners, so begin by rewarding your rat each time he takes one incremental step towards a trick goal.

If you want to teach him to fetch, start by throwing a small wad of paper towards him and saying "fetch." If he sniffs the piece of paper, give him a small, low-calorie treat, like a piece of crisp rice. Repeat this until he seems to understand that going towards the thrown ball reaps a reward. The next step is to reward only if he goes to the ball and picks it up in his mouth. Then only reward him if he picks up the ball and moves it towards you. And so on. Remember to keep your training sessions short: a rat's attention span is even shorter than a small child's attention span.

Always use positive reinforcement to teach your small pet a trick; never strike or reproach them for doing something "wrong." Also know that, like dogs, rats respond best to simple one-word phrases, like "fetch" instead of "fetch the ball."

Unless you are intent on observing the complete life cycle of a rat family, breeding your own rats is not necessary. Rat fanciers and pet stores alike have abundant young rats that they are willing to sell to pet owners. If you do want to breed your own rats, be aware that a pair of rat parents can produce between three and seven litters of six to twelve baby rats (called "kittens") each year. You should never mate your rats unless you have reliable and caring owners lined up for each new little animal.

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