By Jennifer Coates, DVM
When you hear the word “rat” do you think vermin, lab animal, or cuddly pet? The truth is that rats can fall into all three categories, but one subgroup — the fancy rat — is highly sought after, as pets and even as show animals. What are fancy rats and why do they make such great companions?
Fancy rats, lab rats, and most “wild” rats that thrive alongside human societies are all of the same species, Rattus norvegicus. What sets fancy rats apart is the fact that they have been bred over many generations for their good looks and pleasant natures. This has resulted in beautiful animals who truly enjoy contact with people. They seldom bite and are less likely to carry diseases that can be transmitted to people than are many other species of pets.
Varieties of Fancy Rats
Breeders have developed a dizzying array of fancy rat varieties. According to the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association (AFRMA):
At present, all rats are shown in seven varieties:
STANDARD – With short, smooth, glossy hair.
REX – With curly hair and curly whiskers.
TAILLESS – Complete absence of a tail, similiar to the Manx cats.
HAIRLESS – Complete absence of hair.
SATIN – Thinner, longer coat, with a lustrous sheen.
DUMBO – Larger ears set on the side of the head.
BRISTLE COAT – Stiff, coarse coat.
Each of these seven varieties is grouped into six Sections by color and body markings. There are 40 distinct colors recognized among these Sections.
Suffice to say that almost any combination of coat type, coat color, ear set, and presence or absence of a tail that you can dream up is probably available from a fancy rat breeder somewhere. Take a look at the AFRMA’s description of rat varieties for a great overview of what’s out there.
Where to Get Fancy Rats
If you are looking for a very specific type of fancy rat, say a Sable Burmese Dumbo or an Agouti Rex, you will need to go through a breeder. Debbie "The Rat Lady" Ducommun, internationally recognized expert on rats and founder of the Rat Fan Club, says “a reputable breeder working to breed pet rats, and not feeder rats, is a very good source for healthy and friendly rats.”
But you have other options if you are simply in the market for a new fuzzy friend. Ducommun says that rat rescues are excellent places to get pet rats, adding that “they will often have babies for adoption from accidental litters.” She also says that “animal shelters in large cities commonly have rats who need homes.” On the other hand, Ducommun warns, “most rats sold in pet shops are for snake food and may not be healthy or properly socialized.”
Basic Care of Rats
Rats are quite easy to care for, particularly if you have a good understanding of their basic needs and provide for them right from the start.
“First of all, rats are social animals that do best with a cage-mate — or two or three!” says Ducommun. Therefore, if you are new to rat ownership, you should plan on purchasing or adopting at least two rats at the same time; this will have an effect on how you set up your rat habitat.
One of the biggest mistakes that new owners make is purchasing a cage that is too small. While a small “starter cage” may be necessary if you are bringing home baby rats (larger cages tend to have spaces that babies can crawl through), you should plan on getting the largest rat cage that you can afford and that your home will reasonably permit. At a minimum, cages for healthy adult rats should provide two cubic feet of space per rat, have multiple levels, and be very easy to access and clean. Cages that allow air to flow freely between wire bars are far superior to aquariums or other habitats with solid sides.
The bottom of the rats’ cage should be filled with an absorbent litter such as shredded paper, recycled newspaper pellets, or wood shavings (not cedar). Litter needs to be replaced at least weekly, and the cage should be washed on a regular basis. Cages should also be outfitted with the following:
- A nest box and bedding that the rats can shred and manipulate (e.g., paper towels or commercial bedding material)
- Branches, ladders, or ropes for climbing
- Wood blocks or other safe objects for chewing
- An exercise wheel.
Even if you put together the ideal habitat, your rats need at least 20-30 minutes outside of the cage every day. During this time you should interact with your rats through play and some cuddle time. You can even train your rats to perform tricks, come when they are called, go through an agility course or maze, or walk on a leash.
Rats are omnivores, meaning they will eat almost anything, but you still need to give close thought to what you offer them. Pellets made specifically for rats should make up the bulk of their diet. Seed-based foods are not ideal because rats will eat only their “favorites,” resulting in a nutritionally imbalanced diet. Small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables make ideal rat treats.
Fresh water should be available at all times. Bottles with sipper tubes work best since rats will make a mess if water is available to them in bowls.
Rats are generally quite healthy, but like other pets they seem to be prone to a specific set of problems. According to Ducommun, “the most common health problems in rats include respiratory infections and mammary tumors in the females. Respiratory infections can be controlled with the right antibiotics, and mammary tumors can be mostly prevented by having females spayed when young.” Other common rat disorders include obesity, malnutrition, trauma, overgrown teeth, foot infections, and several bacterial and viral diseases.
It is very important that you establish a relationship with a veterinarian who has experience treating rats. The Association of Exotic Animal Veterinarians website allows you to search for doctors who are “dedicated to advancing the care of ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, rats, mice, chinchillas, hedgehogs, and other exotic companion mammals” near you.
Rat fancier clubs are another great source of information on everything from “the basics” of keeping rats to referrals for reputable breeders and veterinarians. And, as Ducommun puts it, “since club members love rats and love to talk about them, they can be supportive friends for families just getting started in rats.”