Have you ever considered getting pet rats? Rats went from being considered pests, to being studied as research subjects, to being invited into our homes as beloved companions. In fact, their popularity as pets has soared over the past few years.
But do you know what to expect when keeping pet rats?
Here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of bringing pet rats into your home.
It’s always a good idea to be prepared before getting a pet, and we’ll let you know exactly what you’re signing up for!
Rats as Pets
|PROS of owning pet rats
|CONS of owning pet rats
|They are affectionate
|They need to be entertained and challenged
|They are playful
|They sometimes pee everywhere
|They are very intelligent
|They chew on things
|They are low-maintenance pets
|They can get sick often
|They are clean
|They don’t live very long
The Pros of Owning Pet Rats
1. Rats Are Affectionate
Rats are very social animals and they need company to thrive1,2. They love to interact with other rats and with humans and will show their affection towards you at any given opportunity.
Rats show their love by grooming3, licking and nibbling you, as well as just seeking out your company. Some rats love to hang out on their owners as they go about their day. Your sweatshirt can be a cozy place for a rat to cuddle: It’s dark, warm, and they enjoy being close to you.
Not all pet rats are equally affectionate, though. Each rat has their own temperament, and some are naturally shyer than others. Anecdotally, bucks tend to be cuddlier than does, especially if they are neutered.
Regardless of their nature, it’s crucial that you don’t force a rat to cuddle with you if it is not interested. Leave it up to them, and most rats will definitely seek out your presence sooner or later!
2. Rats Are Playful
Wild rats live in large social constructs of up to several hundred individuals. They have developed a wide array of behaviors that solidify the bonds between members of the same group4 (a group of rats is called a mischief, by the way).
One of these behaviors is play3.
Rats love to play with each other – and often, they will play with their owners, too! You can play with your rats using different toys or objects.
Scientists have even taught rats to play hide and seek for an experiment, and the rats loved it5!
You can teach your pet rats to fetch, or to throw a ball into a tiny basketball hoop. The internet is full of great ideas about different games your rats will love to play.
3. Rats Are Very Intelligent
Rats are incredibly smart. Their intelligence has been studied throughout various scientific disciplines, and they’ve even been shown to outperform humans in certain cognitive tests6!
This trait also makes them great pets, as they love to be challenged.
It’s fascinating to watch your pet rats discover a new area in your home, or approach a new object, or try to solve a puzzle or find their way through a maze you built out of cardboard.
It’s almost like having your own little research lab at home, and it will provide you with endless entertainment.
4. Rats Are Low-Maintenance Pets
You don’t need much to get you started on your own mischief: A (large!) cage, some bedding, a few different beds and caves, a couple of water dispensers and food bowls – that’s it.
The rat cage only needs to be deep cleaned once a week.
Any area in your home can qualify as a free-roam area for your rat, which will ensure that they can get some exercise and mental stimulation outside of their cage.
It’s crucial to keep several pet rats together, as rats need company to thrive2.
Other than that, rats really don’t need much. Unlike a dog, you don’t have to walk them for multiple hours each day – but they do like it if you spend time with them, of course.
If you’ll be away for the weekend, you can leave enough food and water and your rats will get by just fine. Any longer than that, and a rat sitter will be needed.
5. Rats Are Clean
As opposed to their reputation, rats are actually rather clean animals. They spend a lot of time grooming their fur to keep it free from dirt and parasites7.
You may even be able to litter train your rat (this only applies to poop, though).
Your best bet is to place several litter boxes in various corners of their cage. If you find poop elsewhere, just place it in a litter box. This might make your rats understand what is expected of them.
Not all rats will learn this, but it’s certainly worth a try!
The Cons of Owning Pet Rats
1. Rats Need to Be Entertained and Challenged
Now, we’ve mentioned in the “pros” section that rats are playful and intelligent. The flip side is that they will actively need to be entertained to be happy.
Rats love to be challenged, and if you fail to provide mental stimulation, they might make you regret it by chewing all your things instead.
Thankfully, it’s not hard to provide some form of enrichment: Rats love exploring new areas of your home or unfamiliar objects (for example, a cardboard castle).
They can be taught countless tricks, such as fetch, spin, rolling, or rat basketball. Some dog intelligence toys on the market work great for rats, too – they can find treats hidden under plastic hats or inside little “drawers”.
Your rats will also love sensory play, such as digging in a box filled with soil, or fishing for peas in a shallow bowl. The possibilities are truly endless!
2. Rats Sometimes Pee Everywhere
Have you ever heard of “urine marking”? This is a form of communication that some animals use with each other. By leaving little droplets of pee, rats can exchange information about their identity, social and sexual status, and territory8,9.
Bucks mark more frequently than female rats, especially when they are not neutered10,11.
Finding rat pee everywhere does not sound that appealing to you? Just choose your rats’ free-roam area carefully – don’t let them explore your couch, for example.
If you have delicate floors, you can cover them with a plastic sheet and place a towel on top of that (so your rats don’t slip).
And last but not least, clean the rat cage thoroughly at least once a week.
3. Rats Chew on Things
It’s in the name: The word rodent comes from the Latin verb “rodere” (to gnaw). Chewing on things lies in your rat’s nature and there is no way to suppress this behavior.
So is your home doomed to be taken apart by tiny teeth? Not necessarily.
First and foremost, keeping your rats happy and entertained is key – a bored rat is far more likely to gnaw on everything.
Next, it’s crucial to provide an outlet for your rats’ chewing drive12: wood or bamboo chews (you can buy these in pet stores) or hard-shelled nuts work best.
If your rats like to gnaw on everything, keep potentially toxic objects out of their free-roam area.
4. Rats Can Get Sick Often
Since pet rats are affordable to buy, many people assume that this will also apply to their upkeep.
Unfortunately, though, pet rats are known to get sick often, and they can rack up quite substantial vet bills!
The most frequent causes for vet visits are respiratory tract infections and tumors – tumor removal surgery can be expensive13.
If your rats have a medical issue that is not straight-forward, you might need to look for a veterinarian that specializes in treating “exotic” pets, which could cost a bit more.
5. Rats Don’t Live Very Long
Probably the biggest downside to being a pet rat owner is the frequent goodbyes.
Pet rats just don’t live very long – the average life expectancy of pet rats is two to three years. Compared to other pets, this is very short amount of time!
Apart from being emotionally taxing for you, the death of a beloved pet rat is always a struggle for the whole mischief. The hierarchy and social bonds get re-organized when a rat leaves the group, so you’ll find that the remaining rats might struggle for a while.
Another difficult situation arises when only one rat is left – depending on their age and temperament, it’s hard to decide whether you should introduce them to a new group or leave them alone. Your veterinarian can help you with these decisions.
On the flip side, their short life span also means that no big commitment is required.
If you’re not sure where life will lead you in five years’ time, getting a dog or cat is probably a bad idea – but you needn’t worry about your pet rats living any longer than that.
Rats Will Steal Your Heart!
We’ve shown you five pros and five cons of owning pet rats.
While that might sound balanced, the truth is that the pros will always outweigh the bad stuff.
You’ll find that once you’ve owned pet rats, it’s hard to return to a life without them.
As a vet, I can say that rats are my favorite pets to treat, and to keep.
Rats will steal your heart!
1. Mogil JS. Mice are people too: Increasing evidence for cognitive, emotional and social capabilities in laboratory rodents. Canadian Psychology/psychologie canadienne 2019;60:14.
2. Wrighten SA, Hall CR. Support for altruistic behavior in rats. Open Journal of Social Sciences 2016;4:93-102.
3. Himmler SM, Himmler BT, Pellis VC, et al. Play, variation in play and the development of socially competent rats. Behaviour 2016;153:1103-1137.
4. Schweinfurth MK. The social life of Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus). eLife 2020;9:e54020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32271713.
5. Reinhold AS, Sanguinetti-Scheck JI, Hartmann K, et al. Behavioral and neural correlates of hide-and-seek in rats. Science 2019;365:1180-1183. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.aax4705
6. Vermaercke B, Cop E, Willems S, et al. More complex brains are not always better: rats outperform humans in implicit category-based generalization by implementing a similarity-based strategy. Psychon Bull Rev 2014;21:1080-1086. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24408657/.
7. 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/.
8. 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/.
9. 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
10. 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/.
11. 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/.
12. Froberg-Fejko K. Give a rat a bone: satisfying rodents’ need to gnaw. Lab Animal 2014;43:378-379. https://doi.org/10.1038/laban.611.
13. MSD Vet Manual. Disorders and Diseases of Rats. https://www.msdvetmanual.com/all-other-pets/rats/disorders-and-diseases-of-rats.
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.