Pocket Pet Perks and Jerks: A Guide

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For those of you who read my blog with any regularity, you know that I’ve spent the last couple of years with my favorite li’l creatures in the world, my pet rats.



I have had three rats in total: Bartleby (not pictured), Icarus(on right), and Amadeus(left). Bartleby passed away on 12/12/12, when he was about two, and Icarus just passed a few days ago on 6/19, after having a pretty massive stroke. He was about two and half. It’s really hard to lose a pet, but you know that in the end, you still cherish the time you had with them.

I wanted to establish a couple of things that some people may not realize when it comes to keeping a pet rat. After owning them for so many years, you might be surprised at how many people hear me say that I have pet rats and get grossed out, freak out, or otherwise regard me as a lunatic. Here are a few myths I want to diffuse.

Pet Rats are NOT Sewer Rats

A lot of the weird reactions I get when I tell people what kind of pet I have are immediately just, “Eww! A rat?” I might as well be asking them to touch a piece of rotten meat. What they don’t realize is that these rats, e.g. a Fancy or Dumbo rat, has been bred for centuries as a pet. It is not its wild cousin, and in fact, would probably get killed if left outside. People keeping rats spans back as far as the 1800’s in Europe. Unfortunately used at first as bait in cruel rat killing games, people soon began to take notice of their markings and to breed them to keep as pets. They are as far off from their wild cousins now as pomeranians are from wolves.

Fancy Rats are Vegetarians

One of the creepiest stories I ever heard about wild rats was their penchant for blood. They were voracious carnivores that especially sought out life fluid like tiny, furry vampires. Think about how many movies use rats as a clichéd terror inducer? Again, wild rats are MUCH different than pet rats. Rats that you purchase in pet stores are veggie eaters. Their diet consists of different grains and fruits, and occasionally a yogurt treat now and again. They don’t eat people. Or drink blood. Or even deli meat. This brings me to…

Pet Rats Don’t Bite

Something pretty cool about my pet rats is that I have never gotten bitten by them—which is more than can be said for my hamsters and gerbils over the years. Those things have bitten the crap out of my hands, but rats will put up with just about anything you do, and not bite you. The most they do is sometimes ‘test’ an area with their teeth—typically cloth or if your hands smell like treats—to see if it’s edible. Once they realize it’s you, they stop. I’ve never picked up a rat and come away looking like I was an understudy in Carrie. I’ve never even had one break skin.

Rats Need Attention

Unlike other smaller pocket pet animals, pet rats get bored. They are super intelligent and need interaction just like people do. Rats often live in colonies, so the rule of thumb is that if you’re going to get one rat, you need at least two. There are some who prefer being alone, and simply don’t get along with other rats, but this is rare. You will need to visit with your animal, handle him, talk to him multiple times a day, and give him toys and play with him so that he isn’t bored and agitated.

If you think that you will not have as much time to spend with your rat as you should, get two, preferably from the same cage, that are familiar with each other. They will keep each other company when you are not around to play with them. They will need a ‘hide’, or some area in their cage to sleep in and play in when you are not there. Make sure that they have enough area to play in their cage. If you have two rats, a cage suitable for one rat is not going to work. They have to be able to run about and climb when you can’t play with them.

Regardless of how much time you spend with them, you have to acclimate them to being held. Pick them up carefully, and don’t be hasty in jamming your hand in their face while they are in the cages. My rats know where the door to their cage is, and typically I will tap my hand to let them know I want them to come over. Once they come, then I pick them up. Rats who are not used to being held do what my fiancé and I call “the windmill.” Their tails whip around in a circle as they are struggling to get to stable ground and free themselves. Try holding them firmly, with both hands, so that they feel safe when you have them in hand. Over time, they’ll get used to being picked up, and will probably become ‘shoulder rats’, who can sit with you while you’re watching tv or surfing the internet.

Rats Have Great Personalities

Animals have varying personalities, much like people do, and getting to know one is quite rewarding. Bartleby was the first rat that I ever owned, and was easily the sweetest. His disposition was absolutely stellar, he was box trained, and he was very gentle, and made sure to never even bite down too hard when taking treats from my hand. That said, Icarus was a straight up spit-fire that took me three months just to teach him that he wasn’t supposed to pee on me. Amadeus loves running around, so he needs lots of exercise. He doesn’t poop outside of his cage, but he still doesn’t understand box training. He loves attention, but he’s a bit finicky, and it has to be more on his terms. Still, when he wants loving, he is very sweet. He’s also kind of fat because he’s a treat stealer.

Rats are diverse animals, and they will surprise you with their playfulness and spirit.

They Are Prone to Specific, Common Illnesses

Some breeds of dogs get arthritis problems, some cats get upper respiratory infections. Fish get mites and fungi issues, birds have molting and lice problems, and basically every species of animal that you get comes with its own issues. Rats are no different. Getting and maintaining a healthy pet is important, but there are some things that even good hygiene and diet can’t fix. Rats are common to tumors, both benign and malignant. Female rats are prone to mammary tumors, while male rats might get pituitary gland tumors. Both may get tumors just under the skin.

Tumors do not mean your pet rat is going to die. These are common in the species, and most are going to be benign. Some may be treatable with medicine, or some may have to be removed. You need to be aware of illnesses before you get any animal, so you can prepare for them.

Rats are also susceptible to respiratory infections, which are typically treated with an antibiotic called Baytril. It’s very cheap to get from a vet, and you usually get enough to last through a later flare up. The first sign of this infection may be that they are sneezing a lot, have red porphyrin coming from their mouths or noses (it’s not blood, I promise), and you may hear wetness in their lungs or tiny coughs. They are all born with the virus that causes these infections (it’s not communicable to humans), and so you may need to get some antibiotics on hand to deal with this. I found that my rats would typically get sick maybe once a year, sometimes around the same cold seasons when I would catch a cold.

They may get lice or mites, which will only be a problem if they are already sick and the numbers get out of control. Again, this is a quick fix by a vet prescribing a medication, and takes only three applications by mouth for three weeks to clear up. Do NOT get the injections, as this is painful for your rat and has caused problems with organs in the past. Besides, it is so easy to get the vet to flavor the syrup that your rat will eagerly look forward to getting medicine as a special treat.

“Their Tails Freak Me Out!”

This is another common complaint I hear from people about rats. The tail ‘feels like a snake’s scales’, and some people are not mature enough to handle touching them. I personally never had an issue with my rat’s tails, and I think once you have touched them a couple of times, you quickly get over your fear of them.

Rats are Neat Freaks

It’s true! Your rat will constantly be grooming itself sort of like a cat does. They will lick their paws and tummies, and use their little hands to smooth down any unruly fur. They often clean the dirt out from the pads of their feet, and they don’t like to go to the bathroom near their food. If the rat is not cleaning themselves, it may be a sign that they’re not feeling good, or that your cage needs to be cleaned. (Which you should do about every other week, if not every week, depending on how many rats are in the cage.)

I bought a critter shampoo to help clean my rats, and they get baths every couple of months. Some of them will like it, and some of them will hate it. You never know until you try to clean them. They need their nails clipped every so often, and this is as much to protect you as it is to protect them. Their nails get sharp, so it’s a needed service. You can buy a set of clippers if you’re confident enough to do them yourself, or you can take them to the vet’s, which typically costs anywhere from $10-$20. I myself am too afraid to clip their tiny nails, so I pay about $12 at Banfield to have them do it.

Food Sources

Rats are, as I stated, vegetarian. This means that they will need as healthy a diet as possible. I give my rats fresh veggies fairly often, and feed them with pellet food, rather than the mixes of seeds and pellets. They love fruits as a nice treat, but I’d stay away from anything too acidic, like pineapple and tomato. They like little chunks of unseasoned croutons, love yogurt, cheese, and bananas went over really well with all of mine. They can basically eat whatever people do, with a couple of exceptions. The best rat food that I have found is Oxbow Regal Rat. I would stay away from mixes, because your rats might love to eat the seeds and other things (corn is TOTALLY non-nutrious for them, but it’s everywhere in the mixes), but not eat what’s healthy for them, kinda like little kids. Try mixing crunchy veggie treats and soft yogurt treats so that you’re not giving them too much sugar.

A rat’s teeth grow for the duration of their lives. They will need treats or wooden chews to gnaw on and wear down their teeth. Having a firm, crunchy food can help, but it is not enough, so make sure to give them plenty to chew on, even wooden sticks or cardboard rolls that they can break apart and file their teeth on.

Rats drink a LOT of water, so have a large enough bottle to accommodate them. If your bottle is too small, get two, or get another. Change it often.

Watch Out for Pet Store Animal Purchases

My first rat was bitten by another rat in the store before I got him. The other rat had been segregated to another cage for being a jerk, but I didn’t know that Bartleby had been injured until I got him home. He started sneezing immediately, and I brought him in for a check up about a week after I had him and had discovered the scabbed over bite on his thigh. I got him on antibiotics right away, but it was not early enough. The bite had not been treated at the pet store while he was there, and so by the time I had him home, realized he was sick, and got him medicated, the infection had already spread. Bartleby was sick on and off for the entire duration of time that I had him as a result of this. It is also what inevitably killed him. We found out right before he died that the infection had gone into his bones, and had basically turned septic.

Remember that to the pet stores, small animals are their stock. They have a limited number of people who can take care of the animals, and so they may have issues before you bring them home. Some may have respiratory infections, some may have bite wounds, some may have lice or skin mites. Make sure that the animal you want to bring home is healthy. They should have bright eyes, clear noses and breathing (a little red may be normal, not a lot), and soft fur. They should also be clean. You’ll need to watch out for these things before you get them, and alert the store associates if you see anything sickly in the animals, or if there are clear signs of neglect. I have seen cages that are covered in filth, broken toys for the rats, and downed water bottles. If you see these issues, alert the manager, and do a thorough inspection of the rat before you bring him home.


These guys are amazing. They are sweet, cuddly, easy to care for, and can be litter trained, and even learn a couple of tricks. Overall, they’re great pets to have, and people don’t give them nearly as much credit as they deserve.

 R.I.P. Icarus, 07/12 – 06/1410015649_725879547434638_2529115464381667155_n


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