Rats have short lives and grow up very quickly. Baby rats -- kittens -- wean when they are about a month old. By the age of five weeks, they can already reproduce, although they haven’t reached their full size at this point. At two years, a domesticated rat is geriatric. Although rats don’t need a special diet during their adolescence, you do need to spend time socializing them.
Acquire a solid pet carrier before collecting your rats. Carriers specifically for small rodents are widely available from pet supply retailers, although cat and rabbit carriers may suffice if their gaps are small enough. Cardboard carriers such as those sometimes supplied by animal sanctuaries are not particularly secure. Place a few slices of cucumber in your carrier before adding the rats – this keeps them from becoming dehydrated.
Determine the gender and the age of the rats immediately and arrange an appointment with a vet for confirmation. Staff of animal sanctuaries, especially those that serve primarily on dogs and cats, aren’t always experts on small rodents. It is fairly easy to sex rats over the age of about 5 weeks, because the males have very obvious genitalia. Very young rats might be a bit trickier to age, because the testes of males younger than 5 weeks have not descended.
Separate the rats by gender if they're not all the same. Place females in one cage and males in the other. Spaying and neutering of rats is unusual in lieu of a medical problem. Unless you separate your young rats, you run a high risk of caring for a lot more rats than you bargained for.
Place the cage or cages in a busy family room, preferably raised so they are at eye level to encourage human and rat interaction. Rats typically rest in nesting boxes; some rat owners recommend refraining from using nesting boxes while the rats are small, though, forcing them to live in the open and encouraging them to interact and bond with humans. If you leave out the nesting box initially, tie rat hammocks in the cage for your rats to sleep in instead.
Feed the rats all-in-one nuggets or lab block rather than a muesli-style mix. This way they won’t pick out their favorite parts and leave the rest. Supplement with small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. Most healthy human foods, such as dried pasta, make good treats; but you'll need to limit them to one or two samples a week. Obesity causes all sorts of health problems for rats. Life is short enough without unnecessary complications.
Handle your rats every day, especially those that appear to be shy. Allow them exercise time in a playpen or a room with few hiding places such as a bathroom. Once the rats are older you can let them out in a room with furniture, provided power cables are protected; but at this stage don’t give your rats the opportunity to hide under the sofa. You might have a long and frustrating wait if the rat doesn’t want to come out.
Clean out the cage or cages once or twice a week. Place the rats in their playpen or carrier; remove toys, nest boxes and food bowls; dispose of all the soiled bedding; and wipe the cage down with a damp cloth. If necessary, use a vinegar spray or a solution of dish-washing liquid and water. Rinse the cage afterward. Dry with paper towels and add new bedding before replacing the rats and their accessories. Rat hammocks may require laundering occasionally. Use paper-based bedding, not sawdust or wood shavings.
Teach your rats to come when you call. You’ll find this an extremely useful trick once they are a bit older and you allow them more freedom. Simply make a distinctive, high-pitched sound just before you feed them, such as a certain whistle. Also, make the sound before providing a treat. Almost all rats will learn to come running whenever they hear this sound.
- If you have adopted a female rat who turns out to be pregnant, remove male kittens once they are 5 weeks old. If you don’t, their sisters and even Mom can end up getting pregnant again. Rats are extremely prolific breeders not especially concerned about inbreeding. The female ones can stay with their mother, although you might need a larger cage than you anticipated.
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Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.