Before you begin searching for your new rats, you will need to be definite that these are the pets for you.
Too many rats end up in rescue, or euthanised, because people rush into getting them without thinking.
Please consider the following before getting your first rats.
Can you afford them?
Rats are commonly cited as 'cheap' pets, but, as any rat lover will tell you, this isn't necessarily the case.
Many people get rats on a whim without realising that this is an animal that can potentially cost you as much in vet's bills as a dog or cat. Just one course of antibiotics and pain killers for my rat cost £76. To castrate a rat costs anywhere from £40 - £150 here (vet prices vary from area to area).
The old saying goes 'if you can't afford the vet, you can't afford the pet', and harsh as it may sound, it is generally true.
Rats are still not a particularly healthy species, and badly bred rats such as those from pet shops, are even less so. Though good breeders are working hard to improve the health of the species, they are still prone to respiratory problems, tumours, kidney failure, heart problems, strokes, and a host of other issues, all of which will need medical attention if and when they appear.
Rats may also need surgery in some cases, like lump removals, or spaying/castrating. These ops are often almost as expensive as the same op in a dog or cat.
Blunt as it may sound, a pet is a luxury item, it is not a right. If you feel you cannot afford to look after your rats should they need vet care, please do not get them. I have spent almost £500 on one rat in the past, and this was before he was even 18 months of age. Many rats that pass through here end up accumulating a vet bill in the hundreds over the course of their life, even if it is just for relatively minor issues.
Please consider this before you take on rats as pets.
This doesn't mean every single rat ends up having to see the vet; some never get ill a day in their life and eventually die at home in their sleep, never having needed to see the inside of a vet clinic. But generally, rats are a species that struggle with their health, and it is important to be financially prepared for this when taking them on as pets.
It isn't just illness that costs money; consider the costs of the cage, litter, food, toys, hammocks etc.
If you want rats, make sure you have enough money to look after them and provide everything they need, from a decent cage to vet care, to food, to litter and so on.
Do you have time?
While rats are not the time consuming pet a dog might be, they still need daily attention of some kind.
Ideally, they need regular time out of their cage, more frequently if they are in a smaller cage, or are particularly active (such as youngsters). While not every rat owner actively free ranges their rats every day, they all handle them and interact with them daily, which is also important for checking their health.
But rats, ultimately, are bright, curious animals who like to explore and play, so many of them enjoy being out of the cage and interacting with their human. Some don't care for free range at all, especially older males, and tend to use it as an opportnity to sleep somewhere different for an hour.
Rats are crepuscular, meaning they're most active at dawn and dusk. However, they're are also very adaptable, and can adjust their own routine to match yours very easily.
Do you have space?
Rats need large cages.
Their caging needs are more akin to that of ferrets or parrots than they are other small animals, but of course this varies depending on how many you have in your group.
Its heart-breaking to see rats crammed into hamster cages for their entire lives. I've seen this very often; people have what they call a 'large' cage for their rats, and when you see it, it is scarecely bigger than a hamster cage.
Some pet shops do not help this situation by continuing to sell cages marked as suitable for rats that are miles too small.
Rats, particularly young rats, need space to run, climb, jump and play, and a cage also needs to be large enough to accomodate toys.
Remember, a rat's intelligence is estimated to be around the same as a 2-3 year old child. Bear this in mind when you choose a cage; intelligent animals need stimulation and they get bored quickly, particularly when young.
If a cage looks barren and boring to you, it probably looks barren and boring to the rat, too.
To give an idea, I use Liberta Explorer cages for my rats, which cost around £170 each. But I have fairly large groups; If you only have a pair of rats, a cage as large and elaborate as an Explorer is not necessary. But you're still looking at shelling out in order to get a decent rat cage. A £10 hamster cage, or a cheap second hand aquarium will not do.
Ensure you have the space for a rat-appropriate cage (see the page on Housing for some suggestions) and don't forget that you'll also need a secure area, safe for them to roam about in during their free range time.
Where will you be in 3 years?
Rats have an average lifespan of around 2 years, but some rats manage to reach 3, and very few, even beyond that.
Where will you be in 2 or 3 years time?
A lot of rats end up in rescue because their owners didn't plan ahead, and were going to university, or moving to accomodation that wouldn't take pets.
Sometimes, these things are unavoidable and you can't plan for them.
But if you know you are likely to be moving to a place where you cannot have pets in the next couple of years, or you know you want to go to uni, please reconsider getting rats until you are in a more settled situation. Its sad to see elderly rats who have spent their whole life in one place suddenly moved into rescue in their final months.
Make sure that you know you can provide your rats with a safe, assured home for the next 3 years.
Who will look after them when you're gone?
If you are someone who enjoys holidays and time away, do you have someone who will be happy to look after your rats when you're not around? This is one point a lot of people seem to overlook.
Not everyone likes rats, and it can be hard to find someone willing to care for them on your behalf. The more rats you own, the harder this becomes.
Ensure you have a trusted friend or relative who would be happy to look after your pets if and when you go away. Or if that is not possible, be willing to accept that you cannot go away on holiday while you have rats!
Is your vet happy to treat rats?
There are a fair number of vets who are completely inexperienced with rats, and even some who will refuse to treat them outright.
Though you'd be lucky to find an amazing rat vet from the start, at least ensure you have a vet who is comfortable to see rats and has at least a little experience. Its vital to have a vet you trust and who trusts you. Please see this article on Choosing a vet for some tips.
If you absolutely cannot source a vet you are happy with, it may be sensible to reconsider owning rats as you will more than likely need to take them to the vet at some point, and it saves a lot of time, money and heartache if you have one you trust.
What will your other animals think?
Do you have other pets? Think carefully about how you will manage them with regards to the rats. For example, if you have a dog who loves to bark at, and obsess over, anything small and furry, will you have a spare room or outhouse that the rats can live in where they will not be bothered by the dog?
I've had several rats come in who have spent their whole life in a cage in the living room at floor level, being terrorised by the family dog, constantly.
This is simply not fair, on the rats or the dog. While the rats may be 'safe' in their cage, it is extremely stressful for them to be constantly stalked by a predator. They are prey animals, and highly aware of all threats around them. While they might learn to tolerate the dog after a time, it really isn't ideal to have rats in a situation where they are constantly harassed by other animals.
A fair amount of rats come into rescue because the owner claims 'the dog doesn't get on with them' or 'the cat keeps trying to kill them'. When you are keeping predator and prey under the same roof, you cannot simply expect them to get on peacefully all the time.
Please ensure that if you have other pets, you have the space to keep the rats seperate from them if needs be. See this article for advice on rats interacting with other animals.
Does your landlord agree to you owning rats?
If you live in rented accomodation, its vital you find out from your landlord whether or not you are permitted to own rats, and what the rules are.
Its shocking how many rats end up in rescue only a few weeks after being bought because the owner didn't check with their landlord first.
A lot of landlords will permit 'small, caged animals', but sometimes this will exclude rats, so be sure to ask for clarification on that.
For whatever reason, a hamster is often permitted, but rats will not be. This, unfortunately, stems from ignorance and people's silly beliefs that rats will somehow cause more damage or be more risky than a hamster.
Some landlords tend to panic over the idea of a rat escaping and taking up residence in the house walls or floors. In reality, this is something hamsters do far more often than rats!
Some landlords will permit rats but on the basis that they 'do not come out of the cage'.
Use your common sense on this one. In reality, most landlords aren't going to know if you let your rats out for an hour in the evening, and as long as they do not damage the property (your responsibility to ensure they have a safe place to run where they cannot destroy things) then I daresay no-one would be any the wiser.
But again, think hard. If you think you would have no option but to leave your rats in a cage forever, maybe re-think them. Rats need out of cage time at least some of the time to explore and experience new smells and sights, and to interact properly with their owner.
Have you ever met a rat?
Sounds silly, but some people go out and get rats without ever having had any exposure to real ones. They may think they like rats, or they may have seen one on a TV show or movie and thought they looked fun, then when they actually meet a real one, they may find out that the rat wasn't quite what they were expecting. They may realise they don't actually like it, or they're scared of it (common with children) or, as happens often, they are allergic to it.
Many rats end up in rescue due to allergies people didn't know they had until they got their rats.
If you are able, please meet a rat in person before you go out and buy your own. Find a rat owner who would be willing to let you meet theirs, or visit a rescue center and ask to handle and see the rats. Buying a rat without ever having even held one before could be a risk. If you meet one first, you will have a much better idea of whether this is an animal you can see yourself bonding to, and you'll be able to tell if you have any allergic reaction to it
Remember that our pets are totally reliant on us.
They are like children in that we make the choice to bring them into our lives, and they are totally dependant on us from then on. If we're going to choose to have them, its our responsibility to do it right.
Rescues are full to bursting with rats, and a lot of them would have avoided being in rescue if the owner had simply thought a little harder before getting them. The top reasons rats come into rescue, in my experience, are as follows:
Kids got bored
We don't have the time for them
Moving to a location where rats are not permitted
The dog/cat/ferret/husband/kids/mother-in-law etc does not get on with them
Most, if not all, of these can be prevented with a little forward thinking. Please do not impulse buy an animal; really consider whether it is right for you, and the animal. That way, there will hopefully be two less rats having to come into the already over-crowded rescue system.