Be aware that your rats are intelligent, agile beings that require not only food, water, and shelter, but intellectual stimulation and attention to wellness in general.
Rats are happiest when adopted in groups of two or more, since in the wild they live in tightly bound colonies. Rats are very communicative, though most of their "talk" can't be heard by humans, since they tend to communicate using ultrasound. To prevent unpleasant noise or interference with their "conversations", it's good to locate your rats' cage away from computers or any sort of ultrasonic pest control device.
The cage should be large and cozy for multiple animals. A wire ferret-type cage with several levels is a good choice, since the design allows for excellent ventilation. A large aquarium (40-55 gallon) with a secure lid can also be a good choice. Just make sure your cage is big enough not to cause stress, while being escape-proof. Rats are smart and flexible. If their heads can fit through something, their whole bodies can. Consider locks or clips to secure any loose doors or lids to cages. Consider also, that rats are strong. You may need to secure lids to aquariums with extra clips or weights.
If you are using a cage with a wire floor, you will want to offer padding to prevent injury and irritation to the feet. Cotton cloths and paper towels are convenient and the rats have fun tearing them up, but keep in mind that these will need to be cleaned out very frequently since they absorb urine. Some prefer to use plastic sheeting which can be washed.
The best choices for rat bedding are aspen or Carefresh (or other recycled paper product, such as Yesterday's News). Cedar, pine, and other softwoods are completely inappropriate since they give off phenols which contribute to respiratory infections, a problem that is all too common in rats. Corn cob litter may be eaten and cause choking. Small animals also benefit from a few handfuls of alfalfa hay added to their home since the oils in the hay are healthy for their skin and coat. They will not eat the hay, but enjoy using it to build nests.
Your rats' cage will need regular cleaning. If you provide a litterbox for your rats (look for one designed for ferrets and use either small animal litterbox litter or plain very-low-dust cat litter) which you dump and refill every day or every other day, you should be able to wait about 2 weeks between cleanings, provided your rats are given enough space. Rats take to using a litterbox quite easily, but if yours need a hint, just move any "accidents" from other areas of the cage into the litterbox to help them catch on to the idea.
Building a comfy nest is very important to rats. Begin by offering them some sort of hiding place. The plastic igloos for sale at most pet supply stores are ideal. Rats also like cardboard boxes from packaged food. Be sure the boxes have not been treated with BHT which may make your rats very ill. Most organic cereal boxes and similar items should be fine. Another popular option is giving your rats whole boxes of inexpensive facial tissues. They love pulling out the tissues and curling up inside the box. This type of nest will not last long, however, because the paper absorbs urine. The same goes for wooden nesting boxes, so the plastic type may be the most economical in the long run. Just be sure to offer plenty of cardboard, paper, or fabric for your rats to tear up to make a comfy bed.
There are a number of commercial foods available as well as homemade diets. Your rat will need a healthy, well-balanced diet, so you may want to start with a commercial block or seed and kibble mix. "Lab Blocks" are formulated to be complete, however, they were developed for use in laboratories and feeder colonies in which rats will be slaughtered very young, so they may not be appropriate for promoting longevity. Seed and kibble mixes are more interesting, and were developed for pet rats. Just keep an eye on your rats' eating habits to make sure all the pieces are getting eaten (though if there are alfalfa pellets in the food, just dispose of any unwanted ones. These are not appealing or necessary for rats and are too often used as filler in rat food.)
Rats do best on a low-protein diet. Cat food, ferret food, dog food alone, hamster and gerbil food are all poor choices to maintain your rats' health. Look for food that is indicated as rat food expressly. Other types of food can cause allergies, greasy coat, malnutrition, even death.
You can serve food in a food-safe plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass dish, or you can increase your rats' stimulation by "hiding" their food inside boxes, paper towel rolls, hanging food-dispensing toys available at most pet supply stores, or scattering food into the bedding. Just be sure the food stays fresh and clean and is eaten in a reasonable amount of time.
Treats are great for adding variety to the diet when chosen well. Start with small amounts and increase slowly, keeping an eye out for loose stools. Some good treat choices include:
Ferretvite (a vitamin supplement)
Vegetable baby food
Fruit and oat baby food
Whole grain cereal (Cheerios, Shredded Wheat)
Soy Yogurt (soy may be tumor inhibitive and rats are prone to tumors)
Blueberries (studies have shown them to be good to preserve rats' cognitive function.)
Dried apricots or bananas
Booda Bones (yes, the kind dogs gnaw on. Rats love them and they keep teeth healthy.)
Dry enriched pasta
Low-protein dog biscuits (small ones)
A tiny bit of cooked oatmeal or cream of wheat
A few things to steer clear of:
Peanut butter (may cause choking)
Cheese and other dairy products (may cause stomach upset.)
Too much meat (may cause greasy coats)
Play is extremely important to rats. Offer a variety of toys and interesting locations. Pet supply stores have a wide variety of toys available. Try out different kinds to see which your rats like best. Large rat-sized exercise balls give your rat a lot of fun and, properly used, a safe way to explore the house outside of his or her cage. Some people set up different kinds of habitats to play in. For example, you can grow cat grass in a large plastic container to let your rats romp and dig in while you supervise. Some rats like to play in shallow water. Just be certain to clean and dry them well afterwards.
Rats love to be petted. How do you know when your rat is happy? Just like a cat's purring, rats do what is known as bruxing. Their teeth grind together making a very distinctive noise and their eyes may bulge in and out. It's a high compliment! Enjoy!
Though the outdoors may be tempting, don't risk it. A rat can disappear far too easily and domestic rats will die quickly in the wild. Your rat may also pick up mites outside or contract diseases. It's just not worth it.
There are a few common rat ailments you'll want to be aware of.
Tumors Rats are very prone to tumors as they age. Many are benign and can be surgically removed, but you'll need to contact your vet to be certain. Preventative measures include adding small amounts of soy to the diet and having your rat spayed or neutered. More vets will do this procedure than you might think.
Respiratory Infections If your rat begins sneezing and wiping her face with her hands, if there is a red discharge around the nose or sprayed on the inside of the cage (this is porphryn) or if his breathing sounds labored, it's time for a trip to the vet. Usually, the vet will prescribe a liquid medication that will take care of the problem quickly, but if one of these ailments is ignored, your rat could easily die, so be sure to get help in a timely fashion.
Mites and other parasites are icky but the vet can give you medicine to take care of these problems. The mites that live on rats are not communicable to humans. Very few diseases can be transmitted between rats and humans, the notable exceptions being Bubonic Plague (curable now), strep throat, and rabies (which should not be an issue provided you keep your rat indoors.)
A good vet is your most valuable friend! In the NC Triangle, you may be interested in contacting these vets who work with "pocket pets":
Dixie Trail Animal Clinic 3044 Medlin Dr. Raleigh, NC 919-781-5977
Avian & Exotic Animal Care 919-231-8120 5305 Talison Ct Raleigh NC
Avian & Exotic Animal Care 919-844-9166 2315 Lynn Rd # 104a Raleigh NC
There's no need to breed! Plenty of animals need homes. Check out your local animal shelter, rescue, or contact 3R Raleigh Rodent Rescue to adopt an animal who needs a home. Breeding drastically reduces the life span of your female and ads more animals to an already overpopulated world.
Also, if you do breed and are unable to find appropriate homes, please do not release domesticated rats into the wild. They will not be accepted into existing wild rat colonies and they may spread disease uncommon in wild rats and destroy an entire ecosystem. At best your rats will die a slow, painful death by starvation or will be torn apart by other animals, and we just don't think that's a good option.
Rat Health Care, a 36-page booklet written by Debbie "The Rat Lady" Ducommun. Available through the Rat Fan Club 857 Lindo Lane Chico, CA 95973 (530) 899-0605
Rats!: For Today's Pet Owner from the Publishers of Critters USA Magazine (Fun & Care)
Training Your Pet Rat