Pet Rats: Safe or Not?

If you were to ask someone why they don’t own a rat as a pet, some might say it’s because they’re too small. Others may point out that these rodents aren’t housebroken or don’t play well with others.

But there is another reason perhaps more commonly cited by people who choose not to have a rat as a pet they bite. But even if we ignore those criticisms, which are valid, the fact remains that rats (as pets) are really uncommon. In 2014, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reported that about 2 percent of all U.S. households had at least one pet rat.

That means that most Americans probably haven’t ever held or cuddled a brown-furred rodent since elementary school. And for many, this lack of exposure is due largely to their size. Most people just aren’t comfortable having something so small in their homes.

Rats also tend to be very solitary creatures, preferring to live independently from other animals. For this reason, keeping them in your home can often lead to behavioral problems such as anxiety, aggression, and over-grooming. This unappealing reputation has led to the perception that rats are bad pets.

However, despite being an unusual pet choice, rats actually make great companions for certain people. They do require a lot of care and training, though, and while they’re generally seen as less popular than dogs, cats, and birds, there’s no denying their popularity among some owners. There are plenty of reasons that you should consider adding a pet rat to your family.

So how exactly does one go about owning a rat? What are its pros and cons compared to other types of pets? We’ll explore this question next.

  • Possible Rat-Owner Complications
  • The Unwanted Pests in Your House
  • A Little History on Rats and Pets

Possible Rat-Owner Complications

One thing that immediately stands out when considering whether or not to own a pet rat is the fact that they need a lot of space. Smaller varieties, like the dwarf hamster, only need a cage measuring 30 inches long x 18 inches wide x 24 inches high (about 75 centimeters x 45 centimeters x 61 centimeters).

The larger Norway rats can grow up to 6 feet in length, so they need cages that measure at least 3 feet long x 4 feet wide x 5 feet tall (or bigger), preferably made of metal or wire. If you’ve got the room, then, by all means, get yourself a big-time rat!

There are several things that will happen if you decide to keep them inside your home, however. First, you will probably notice some droppings in places where you wouldn’t expect droppings. Rat urine is odorless, unlike that of humans, so unless you want to smell like dirty socks, you’ll need to take extra measures to keep odors under control.

One way to do this is to buy a deodorant spray meant for household use. Spraying down areas where they’re likely to urinate (the floor, shelves, etc.) once or twice per day should help reduce smells. You can also try placing baking soda under furniture legs or around corners to absorb any lingering odors before they emit into the air.

Another problem associated with keeping rats indoors is getting rid of pests. These little vermin (which include mice, squirrels, gerbils, and other species of rodents) can chew through electrical cords, shred books, rip up rugs and destroy clothing. To prevent these activities from happening, you’ll need traps and bait stations set throughout your house.

Keep food locked away and put clean bedding on the floors so that these critters cannot nestle in between. Also, keep your garbage cans sealed tight, and remove or seal off sources of entry (such as gaps around pipes and vents). Once they start nesting in your home, you could end up spending quite a bit of money fixing the damage done by these tiny scavengers.

On top of pest infestations, rats also pose potential health risks to anyone living with them. A single rat can produce 10 times its body weight in waste each day, filling every available nook and cranny to create the impression of a massive colony.

Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that homeowners give their houses a thorough cleaning prior to acquiring a new pet rat. Getting rid of dust bunnies, clutter, cat litter boxes and piles of paper helps ensure that rat feces won’t be able to build up. It also prevents unwanted bacteria and parasites from sticking around.

In addition to the above issues, there are also some psychological concerns that come along with owning a rat. Many people feel guilty after watching videos online of starving baby rats. Some people think that keeping a rat would mean that they’d be required to take part in torturous acts of animal cruelty. However, although these scenarios are certainly possible, they’re extremely rare. More common problems arise from the socialization skills of these animals.

The Unwanted Pests in Your House

Because rats are relatively large animals, they’re capable of chewing through wood, drywall, carpeting, insulation, paint, and more. When given access to materials like this, they quickly become destructive pests.

One way to avoid this issue is to purchase ratty old furniture from thrift stores, flea markets, or estate sales. These pieces usually have lots of hard-to-reach cracks and crevices perfect for housing a pet rat. Another option is to invest in a wooden cabinet or chest that you can lock shut. Then, give them free rein within the confines of this box.

What happens if you’re unable to acquire ratty furniture or cabinets?

Well, if you already have a rat, then you can simply move it outside and allow it to gnaw away at whatever it wants. Unfortunately, if you don’t currently have a rat, you’ll need to pay attention to local laws regarding ownership of wild mammals. Consult your state’s Department of Natural Resources website to see if you need a permit.

Aside from destroying property, rats can also cause quite a few problems for homeowners. Their constant digging leads to holes that are difficult to fill in, causing waterlogged basements and exposed wiring. Additionally, rats eat seeds, grasses, plants, and fruit, spreading insects and disease. Finally, they carry parasites called roundworms, which can infect your dog or cat.

Although some people prefer to let rats run amok outdoors, there’s nothing wrong with providing them with proper shelter and protection. The best solution is to enclose them in a cage or hut to keep them contained. In either case, you’ll need to provide adequate ventilation and lighting. Ideally, these shelters should be placed somewhere that’s safe from predators, fire hazards, and direct sunlight.

As we mentioned earlier, rats are naturally loners. Although they may seem friendly enough to strangers, they can sometimes exhibit aggressive behavior toward members of their own species. Owners should always exercise caution when interacting with their pets. Now that we know a little history of rats and pets, we’ll wrap up our discussion on this topic with some additional resources.

A Little History on Rats and Pets

For thousands of years, rats have been kept as both food and pets. They’re widely used in laboratories today to test drugs, study cancer treatments, and research various diseases. Back in ancient Egypt, rats were considered sacred creatures and were worshiped as gods. Romans believed that rats carried the plague, which eventually killed millions during the Middle Ages. During World War II, many Nazis ate rats as a matter of survival. Today, some cultures still consume them as a delicacy.

In terms of pets, rats became popular again in the 19th century when Charles Darwin wrote “The Descent of Man,” which discussed the evolutionary relationship between apes and man. Around the same time, English author Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Brief Record of the Life and Adventures of Maria, Called ‘Mia,’ Written by Herself.” In this book, she described her personal experiences caring for a pet rat named Dicky. Since then, rates have continued to appeal to readers and viewers alike.

While rats themselves are generally not harmful, they can potentially spread dangerous diseases to humans. Therefore, pet owners must be vigilant against their spread. One important step is to wash your hands thoroughly whenever you handle your pet. Always wear gloves when working on or near your pet. Keeping them confined to certain spaces and limiting contact with other animals and humans reduces the likelihood of exposing them to illnesses.

Finally, we’ll mention some organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of pet rats. The Rodent Room at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine works to advance public awareness of captive breeding programs and laboratory practices. Meanwhile, the International Council for Laboratory Animal Science advocates for the humane treatment of animals used in scientific experiments.

Bottom Line

Rats are natural-born killers, but unfortunately, they can also be easily trained to attack. Never reward your rat for biting or scratching another person, especially children. Instead, teach him or her basic obedience first, and provide positive reinforcement for good behavior.