When talking of rats, many people will think of dirty, disease-ridden sewer rats. It’s no wonder that some people are repulsed by the idea of keeping them as pets.
But are pet rats just as filthy? Or are they hygienic pets? Just how clean are pet rats really?
Pet rats are actually avid groomers and like to keep clean. However, many rats will leave drops of pee everywhere as a means of communication, which isn’t always compatible with our idea of cleanliness.
If you want to find out whether pet rats are hygienic enough for you and how to keep their enclosure clean, keep reading below!
Are Pet Rats Hygienic?
How Clean Are Pet Rats?
Grooming is very important behavior for rats1. It keeps their fur clean and free of skin parasites2. They spend a lot of time on grooming, as you can easily see if watch your pet rats for a while.
Rats don’t only groom themselves; they also use grooming to show affection to other members of their mischief. They need the help of their cage mates to keep clean, since they can’t always reach every part of their own body – especially as they grow older and become less flexible.
That said, rats will have a very specific, “ratty” smell to them. This is very important to them, as they use olfactory cues to identify who belongs to their mischief and who doesn’t3. Therefore, you should never wash your rat with soap or shampoo or use any products on their fur.
Do Pet Rats Pee Everywhere?
It’s not a myth that rats leave little droplets of pee everywhere. This is a form of communication to them – urine marking carries information about the rat leaving the pee, and it can be used to mark trails, territories, and objects4.
Males show more urine marking behavior than females, especially when there are females around5.
Females mark more when they are about to go into oestrus, which is their sexually receptive phase1. Sometimes, you can observe rats leaving a drop or two of urine on another rat: this is called “conspecific urine marking” and its function is still unclear6.
By neutering male rats, urine marking behavior can be reduced by roughly 80%, but it can never be completely eliminated7.
Having rat pee everywhere might not be compatible with your idea of cleanliness, but does that mean that pet rats are not for you? Not necessarily. If you keep pet rats in a safe enclosure, and only let them roam freely in a designated area that is easy to clean, urine marking probably won’t be such a big issue.
Make sure to deep clean the rat cage at least once per week, and also clean the area where they can roam freely often. If you have delicate floors, you can lay out a plastic sheet covered by a towel to protect them from rat pee.
Do Pet Rats Poop Everywhere?
Thankfully, there is no such thing as “poop marking”. Most pet rats tend to poop in the same spot or in a designated area, usually away from their food. But not all rats are equally clean in this regard, and it’s possible that you will find rat poo in all sorts of places in their enclosure.
During free roam time, pet rats are often simply too busy to poop.
Some people say that pet rats can be trained to poop in a designated litter box, but your mileage may vary. It’s certainly worth a try, though! To make your rats understand the concept, just collect their poop, and place it in the designated spot.
Do Pet Rats Carry Diseases?
There are certain germs that can be passed from pet rats to humans, especially to immunocompromised individuals. If you handle your pet rats in a hygienic way, this shouldn’t be a problem. To read more about how to safely keep rats as pets, have a look at this article!
Hopefully, we were able to show you that pet rats are not necessarily unhygienic pets.
Urine marking behavior aside, they are actually quite clean. Just clean their enclosure and free-roam area often, and you can enjoy their company without needing to worry about them being unsanitary pets!
1. Calhoun JB. The ecology and sociology of the Norway rat: US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, 1963. https://archive.org/details/ecologysociology00calh/page/n7/mode/2up
2. Hart BL, Hart LA. How mammals stay healthy in nature: the evolution of behaviours to avoid parasites and pathogens. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 2018;373. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6000140/.
3. Otto GM, Franklin CL, Clifford CB. Biology and Diseases of Rats. Laboratory Animal Medicine 2015:151-207. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7158576/.
4. Peden BF, Timberlake W. Environmental influences on flank marking and urine marking by female and male rats (Rattus norvegicus). J Comp Psychol 1990;104:122-130. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2364657/.
5. Manzo J, Garcia LI, Hernandez ME, et al. Neuroendocrine control of urine-marking behavior in male rats. Physiol Behav 2002;75:25-32. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11890949/.
6. Grant EC. An Analysis of the Social Behaviour of the Male Laboratory Rat. Behaviour 1963;21:260-281. https://brill.com/view/journals/beh/21/3-4/article-p260_5.xml.
7. Price EO. Hormonal control of urine-marking in wild and domestic Norway rats. Horm Behav 1975;6:393-397. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1222940/.
Nina has a degree from the Veterinary School in Zurich, with a special focus on microbiological research. Nina has a passion for sports, nutrition and the outdoors and she loves all pets, but rats have a special place in her heart. When she’s not working or reading and writing about all things related to pet health, she loves to travel and surf.
As a small animal veterinarian, Nina is your go-to expert on pet health and nutrition.