Rats have gotten a bad rap throughout human history, but people who share their homes with domesticated rats (Rattus norvegicus domestica) attest to their intelligence, charisma and social natures. So, yes, rats can make great pets—but like all pets, they need care and attention to thrive. Here are some important questions to consider before you add a rat to your household.

Adopt first

Rats and other small animals sold in pet stores often come from breeding mills, where animals are kept in deplorable conditions and bred solely for profit. Animal shelters and rescues are the best place to acquire a pet rat, with the added bonus that you’ll meet knowledgeable people who can correctly identify your rat’s gender, connect you with a rat-savvy veterinarian in your area, and advise you on housing, health, diet and other issues related to your new pet.

Is a rat right for your family?

Like most small animals, rats can nip when frightened, so children should be taught to handle rats gently. While rats are meticulous about cleaning themselves, they can carry diseases that can also infect humans. Young children are at greater risk because of their undeveloped immune systems and because of their tendency for close contact with pets without proper handwashing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that families with children under 5 years of age, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems not have pet rodents.

Time commitment

To be happy and well-adjusted, your rats will need at least an hour of playtime outside their cage every day for exercise and stimulation, preferably in the evenings when they tend to be most active. You’ll also need to spot clean the cage by replacing soiled litter and bedding several times a week and do a thorough cage cleaning about every week.

The average lifespan for a rat is 2 to 3 years. If you can’t make a long commitment to a pet, this characteristic may be appealing, but if you have children and aren’t prepared for them to experience the death of a pet, this could be a drawback.

Social needs

Rats are social animals who need the companionship of their own kind to be happy. Experts recommend adopting a pair or trio of bonded rats—and since there are already plenty of rats needing homes, be sure yours are spayed or neutered or housed in same-sex groupings. As well as preventing unwanted births, sterilization can prevent aggression among rats and greatly reduces the chances of females developing mammary tumors. (Ask your local shelter or rescue group about veterinarians in your area who are trained to perform spay/neuter surgeries on small mammals.)

Your rats also need attention from you! You can pet them (most enjoy light rubbing around their face), talk to them, offer them treats and even train them to perform tricks. You’ll benefit by getting to know your rats’ individual personalities and witnessing their endearing antics.

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Housing requirements

Your rats’ cage should provide at least 2.5 cubic feet of space per rat for exercising, exploring and playing. Furnish the cage with toys, crawl throughs, nest boxes, food dishes, a water bottle, hammocks and litter boxes (yes, rats can be trained to use a litter box!). Keep in mind that many cages sold in pet stores are too small, and bigger is always better. Mainely Rat Rescue recommends multilevel cages designed specifically for rats. You also need a play area for out-of-cage exercise, such as a rat-proofed spare room.

Use paper bedding rather than pine or cedar, which are toxic to small animals. Small Angels Rescue recommends Carefresh bedding, which is made of recycled paper fiber and is available at most pet stores. For hairless rats, Mainely Rat Rescue recommends compressed paper pellets or Eco-bedding.

Budget considerations

The adoption fee for a rat is typically small, but there are significant startup costs and ongoing needs. The initial purchase of equipment and supplies is likely to include:

  • Large cage
  • Litter and bedding material
  • Toys, hammocks, structures for climbing and hiding spaces
  • Ceramic food dish
  • Water bottle 
  • High-quality rat food and treats

You should plan to spend at least several hundred dollars a year on your new friends, not including veterinary costs if your rats need to be treated for a common condition such as respiratory illness.

Joining the rat fan club?

It’s time to learn some new lingo. When they’re feeling frisky, rats will bound across the floor, a behavior known as “popcorning.” When content, they grind their teeth; that’s called “bruxing.” When they’re super happy, you may see “boggling,” when their eyes bulge out and vibrate.