Rats live for only a short time by our standards. This means that when we take rats into our homes and hearts, we will grieve. Frequently. As someone who talks about rats every chance I get, I’ve heard “I can’t do rats, they don’t live long enough and I can’t handle the heartbreak” numerous times. However, when we look at their life spans from their perspective, we see that the 2-3 years they each grace this world is indeed a lifetime of experiences. We should think of those years in terms of quality, not quantity.
What does it mean for a rat to have a good quality of life? Good food, good company, adequate space, and a healthy lifestyle.
In terms of food, rats in my care either at home or in the shelter get Oxbow brand. The adult variety is triangular and thin, fitting perfectly in little ratty hands. Rats can stack several of them in their mouth to carry off for hoarding purposes. My late Jesse Pinkman (who was a hairless guy) would stuff as many as he could in his mouth, stash them in one of his hidey houses, and come back for more. This food is also nutritionally complete–unlike homemade or store-bought mixes. There are plenty of lists of fresh foods that are safe for rats, but among those they should never eat are citrus fruits, mangoes, nutmeg, raw beans, and green potatoes. Generally, these foods contain chemicals that are extremely toxic to rats. Of course, rats need access to fresh water always.
When it comes to enclosures, the bigger the better! Rats need lots of horizontal space and at least two levels. I recommend an enclosure where they can get at least a couple of feet off the ground because in my experience they love to spend most of their time at the highest point. Rat enclosures should have walls made of wire or mesh for ventilation as well as a solid floor. Appropriate spacing between bars depends on the age and size of the rats. Outfit their enclosures with hammocks and hide-aways (plastic or wood), boxes and baskets. Rats love clutter. If you plan to regularly keep rats, I suggest you invest in a Single or Double Critter Nation. It’s the best in commercially available ratty accommodations!
Rats need other rats, and rats need you. It’s that simple. You should always keep rats in pairs at minimum, and interact with them daily. In law school, I would let my guys Tarim and Beezh run around my study room, and every so often they’d stop their scampering to come get some attention. Make sure there’s nothing in the area that they can damage or that can damage them–this includes keeping other pets out of the room. I’ve had some cats that steer clear of my rats and some cats who have been too interested in them for my comfort. Do not take chances.
Lastly, rats need exercise and vet care. They need out of the cage time for at least an hour every day. Secure a room or a space in a room and let them play! As I mentioned earlier with my study buddy rats, you want to make sure the area is safe for them and keep an eye on what they’re chewing or peeing on. Like any other animal, rats need veterinary care as well. Common health issues in rats include respiratory infections and tumors. Research exotic animal vets in your area, and join some online groups where people share knowledge of rat home health care.
Those are the basics! Healthy grub, environmental enrichment, vet care–the kind of things we should give any companion animal in our care. That’s how to pack as much living as possible into rats’ lives.
In the end, the important thing is that we give our rats all they need to feel loved and stay healthy. When I first meet a rat, the fact that they will only be with me a relatively short time doesn’t even enter my mind. Instead, I see the life in them–a whole lifetime. I see the affection, the curiosity, the beady little eyes looking back at me. When I first held my first rat Chibi in my hands, I thought about the life I was going to give him. How he would dine on Oxbow and peas and whole wheat cous cous. How he would have hammocks and boxes and ledges for comfort and enrichment. He had all that. And when I said goodbye to him, I knew that even if he had lived 15 years it would not have been long enough for me. But it was a whole lifetime to him.
Misty Christo has been the small animal manager of Town & Country Humane Society since 2016. In her words, she’s stuck around Nebraska because she worries that if she left there would be one fewer animal advocate in her home state. Besides being the small animal manager, Misty owns five rats of her own. Misty will share some of her expertise about rats through future articles.