A Pest to Some, Others Consider Them the Ideal Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

owning a pet rat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Capable of cuddling, coming when called, learning tricks and bonding with you much like a dog or cat does, rats offer many of the benefits that draw people to other pets, but require only a fraction of the space
  • Rats do require daily interactions, feeding (including preparation of fresh foods) and exercise, but they can be ideal pets for those who cannot commit to the needs of a dog but desire the same level of companionship
  • Rats are curious, intelligent, charismatic creatures who will quickly become part of your family if you let them
  • Rats need companionship, so plan on adopting a pair of rats or more (either the same sex or rats that have been spayed or neutered); they’re also nocturnal, so they’ll sleep much of the day and demand some of your attention at night
  • Rats may not be the best choice for families with young children, who may handle the animals too roughly and are at an increased risk from zoonotic diseases (the same is true for people with compromised immune systems)

While about half of U.S. households own a dog or cat, only 4% of pet owners share their homes with a small mammal. Of them, most choose guinea pigs, rabbits or hamsters, and only 6% own a rat or mouse.1

Perhaps it’s their reputation as being pests that’s the problem, but anyone who’s gotten to know one of these intelligent rodents will tell you that they deserve more respect. I had my first pet rat when I was 23 and was amazed at how “dog like” Alexander was, in all respects.

In fact, for some people, adopting a rat can be the perfect choice for a pet. Capable of cuddling, coming when called, learning tricks and bonding with you much like a dog or cat does, rats offer many of the benefits that draw people to other pets, but require only a fraction of the space.

“You might not have the energy to walk a dog, but you can manage to fill a water bottle,” Abby Chronister, a graphic designer who credits her pet rats with helping her overcome anxiety and depression, told The Washington Post.2

Rats do require daily interactions, feeding (including preparation of fresh foods) and exercise, but it’s true that they can be ideal pets for those who cannot commit to the needs of a dog but desire the same level of companionship. “Those little critters are what made me get out of bed, knowing I had those little lives to care for,” Chronister told the Post. “They bond with you like a dog does.”3

Why Many Pet Owners Fall in Love With Rats

Rats are curious, intelligent, charismatic creatures who will quickly become part of your family if you let them. Rats are not content to sit alone in their cages all day; they require interaction with their owners, and ideally another rat, and thrive with mental stimulation such as learning tricks. You can teach your rat to use a litter box and come when you call him, much like a cat. Lots of people have taught their pet rats to do all sorts of tricks, as they respond well to clicker training.

Further, rats show empathy and will free one of their trapped cage mates instead of eating a chocolate treat.4 They also laugh when tickled and develop affection for the human hands that tickle them and make them laugh.5 Each rat is unique, too, with its own personality to share with you. Small Angels Rescue, a Maryland-based small animal rescue, notes:6

“Ask any rat guardian and they will tell you their rat has a distinct and unique personality just like we do! No two rats behave exactly the same way … even two siblings that grew up together are totally different. One may be outgoing and mischievous while the other is more shy and subdued. Some rats are very busy and curious while others are more calm and lazy … just like us!”

If you’re considering a rat as a pet, it’s important to understand that they will not be content to spend all of their time in a cage. They are social creatures, love to explore and require daily stimulation. Rats left without any contact or playtime can become depressed and aggressive, so be prepared to spend daily time snuggling and interacting with your pet. Small Angels Rescue adds:7

“Rats are naturally social creatures and are happiest with companionship. Rats quickly learn to trust us and bond with us and they want to be around us. Just walk by a rat’s cage in the evening when they are awake and you’ll be greeted by a pair of little paws on the door and a pink nose pushing through the bars to come out. Rats enjoy our company and look forward to interacting with us.”

How to Care for Rats

Rats need companionship, so plan on adopting a pair of rats or more (either the same sex or rats that have been spayed or neutered). They’re also nocturnal, so they’ll sleep much of the day and demand some of your attention at night. Your rats’ habitat should have plenty of space for roaming and the flooring should be solid, not wire, which is painful for animals to stand on.

An aquarium will not be suitable for rats, as it doesn’t allow for proper ventilation and will isolate your rat too much. The habitat will need to be cleaned regularly, as rats are fastidious at keeping clean and can become ill from living in a dirty cage. Along with safe bedding (no cedar, which can be poisonous), provide your rats with a cozy space to sleep and hide, along with a hammock or two.

Rats also need access to purified, fresh water via a water bottle at all times and require a fresh, varied, species-appropriate diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains and protein. Small Angels Rescue has a good list to get started:8

“Rats often enjoy, among other things, asparagus, avocado, basil, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn … cucumber, eggs (scrambled or hard boiled), oatmeal (made with milk), okra, parsley, peas, red pepper, spinach, sprouts, squash, sweet potato (cooked) and tomatoes.

Fresh fruit can be used as a treat. Rats often enjoy, among other things, apples, bananas, blueberries, cherries (pitted), cranberries, grapes, kiwi, melon, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums and strawberries. Please note that male rats should not have citrus (lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit).

Rats may also enjoy whole oats, spray millet, cooked brown rice, cooked pasta, whole wheat bread, coconut, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, tofu (packaged, not bulk) and cooked potatoes.”

Along with time out of the cage to explore every day (in a rat-proofed space) for at least an hour (but preferably more), rats need toys and other interesting things to explore, such as tunnels, paper bags, chew toys, ladders, bird toys and nest boxes. Some rats also enjoy running wheels.

Is a Pet Rat Right for You?

Rats (or any small mammal) may not be the best choice for families with very young children, who may handle the animals too roughly and are at an increased risk from zoonotic diseases (the same is true for people with compromised immune systems). However, if you’re looking for an intelligent, cuddly pet that is also quiet and small, a pair of rats may be perfect for you.

Contact a local small animal rescue in your area if you’re considering rats as pets; as with other animals, there are many in need of a home, and the rescue will be able to describe the rats’ personalities to help you find the best fit for your family. Here’s a video one rat lover made about all the reasons she loves rats as pets: