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Choosing a Rat

By: Talia Starkey

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Rats are very sociable animals. They love being played with by their owners and quite happily ride around on your shoulder, take food treats from your hand and sit on your lap. With patience and gentle training you can even teach your rat to answer to its name, fetch objects thrown and complete obstacle courses.

Fancy rats are bred to conform to standards set by show clubs, much like purebred dogs and cats. However, there is no ideal purebred rat bloodline to maintain - instead, rat breeders are always looking for novel combinations of coats and body types. This leads to an extraordinary number of ribbon categories at every rat show.

Appearance

A rat's coat is straight or standard if it lies flat and smooth on the rat's body. Rex rats have curly or wavy coats and whiskers that curl at the tips. Satin rats have shiny, silky hair and longer than average coats.

Rats come with as many as 32 different hair colors. Those that are solid colors with no other markings are called self-colored or self rats. Rat colors range from the common black or white, to the slightly unexpected chocolate or agouti, to the positively outrageous powder blue or platinum. Silvered rats have an equal number of silver hairs as primary color hairs, giving them a sparkling appearance.

There are almost as many different coat markings as there are color variations. Hooded rats (with their dark heads and long straight stripes down their spines) and Irish rats (with their solid color tops and white bellies) bear some of the most common markings, though you can also find Dalmatian rats, blaze rats, masked rats, and many more.

Varieties

  • Standard rat. This is the rat you're most likely to find in a pet store. The standard rat, like the other varieties of rat on this list, may have any hair color or any coat type.

  • Sphynx rats. Sphynx rats, also known as nude or hairless rats, may have a little peach fuzz around their eyes or at their ankles, but otherwise they are almost completely hairless. Their naked skin is often translucent and wrinkled. Sphynx rats also come in all colors and markings, but it is difficult to distinguish between traits that are mostly expressed in the fur.

  • Manx rats. These are born without tails, similar to a manx cat. Healthy manx rats have slightly longer back legs than standard rats to help them balance in compensation for their absent tails. Because their hips ride higher than their shoulders, manxes appear to have rounded bodies, like little rabbits. If you're serious about getting a manx, beware of tail amputees and other unhealthy manx imitators.

  • Dumbo rats. Like their Disney cartoon namesake, they have oversized ears. The Dumbo rat's ears stick out from the sides of his head like floppy butterfly wings. Their skulls are wider and flatter than the standard rat's pointy head, and their bodies may be stockier as well.

  • Dwarf rats. These miniature rats are about the same size as a gerbil. Female miniatures are about one half the size of standard females, while male miniatures are about two-thirds the size of standard males.

    Feeding

    Rats are indiscriminate eaters, so its up to you to make sure that they get the right kinds of food. Their basic diet should consist of kibble or lab blocks, to which you can add small amounts of leafy green vegetables (like spinach) and bran, corn, uncooked oatmeal or other grains. Leftover cooked bones – pork, beef or large chicken bones – are a good source of protein for your rat. Leave a little meat on the bone and allow your rat to chew through it. He will wear down his ever-growing teeth to get to the rich marrow inside. A rat's teeth are also strong enough to open hard-shelled nuts.

    Housing

    A 15-gallon aquarium makes an adequate cage for a pair of rats, but it's better to buy a larger tank if you have the space in your house or apartment. You can also choose to keep two rats in a wire cage that's at least two feet square, but find one with a solid bottom and sides made out of small-mesh wire netting. Rats can get their feet caught in gaps any larger than a half inch square. Many chinchilla or ferret runs that seem ideally spacious do not meet this criterion.

    The best bedding choices are shavings or products other than pine and cedar. This includes hardwood shavings (like aspen shavings), paper products made from short tissue fibers, pellet beddings, ground corn cobs and other natural fibers. Pine and cedar shavings contain aromatic oils that can be irritating to the rat's lungs so it is best to use other types of bedding.

    You will need to clean your rats' cage once or twice a week, depending on how large the cage is and how many occupants it has. Ammonia from urine can build up quickly in an aquarium so many breeders recommend a daily spot cleaning to remove urine-saturated bedding and feces.

    Special Concerns

    Be aware that your rat has a very poor gag reflex and cannot burp or vomit. So while your rat may love the sweet taste of soda, you should not risk his health by offering him any carbonated beverages. Likewise, do not give your rat sticky items like peanut butter or toffee that may get stuck in his throat. You will not be able to help him if he chokes on it.

    Rats have very sensitive ears and it may be stressful for them to live in a room that's always chaotic and noisy. At the same time, you don't want to banish your rats to an unused spare bedroom that no one visits. Pick a family room that gets a decent amount of foot traffic but doesn't always have a television blaring. Keep your rats' cage on top of a dresser, away from drafts and direct sunlight and protected from inquisitive dogs and cats.

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