Rat Care Basics

Scientific Name: 

Rattus norvegicus

Common Name:

Norway rat

Average Monthly Cost: 

(without medical care) $75-$100

Average Veterinary Bill:

Surgical: $400-$700

Non-surgical $100-$200

Exam fee $75-100


Rats are social creatures that require companionship and a large living area. Rats are social in the same way humans are social, and should be housed in groups of 2 or more. They are also very intelligent and require plenty of toys, activities and free time. A solid-bottom, wire cage with a minimum size of 2′ X 2′ x 2’ is recommended for a pair of rats, with the general rule of adding 2 cubic feet of space per each additional rat. Rats are prone to respiratory infections and heatstroke, so place the cage indoors away from drafts, direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, and in a room maintained at 16-27oC.

It is also important to keep your rats away from smoke, aroma diffusers, essential oils, candles and other scents. Line the cage with bedding such as aspen shavings, fleece, unscented small-sized paper bedding or grass hay. Avoid cedar or pine chips, which contain oils that are dangerous for rats. Alfalfa and Timothy hay are also dangerous for rats, and scented paper bedding can quickly lead to choking. At Teeny Snoots Rat Rescue, the ratties love having tissue paper to shred and to use to make cozy beds!


Soiled bedding, droppings and stale or uneaten food should be removed a few times per week. Their water bottle should be rinsed and refilled every day. The cage should be cleaned completely once a week by replacing dirty bedding and scrubbing down the rest of the cage with warm, soapy water. Ensure the soap is non-scented as rats have a very sensitive sense of smell and make sure the cage is rinsed well!
















cooked corn


cooked beans

cooked potatoes


Rats should be fed a high-quality rodent chow such as Oxbow or Mazuri. Fresh clean water should always be easily accessible. A water bottle is recommended over a water bowl as bowls tend to spill and get unhygienic very quickly. Rats should have a serving of fruits and veggies every day or a few times per week. Rats are very similar to humans and can eat a wide variety of foods! A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t let the rats eat it. Rats are omnivores and enjoy eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and insects. Despite being scavengers in nature, rats in captivity need a specific balance of nutrients in their diet. In fact, too much protein can lead to kidney issues. Take a look at the ingredients and nutritional information of the pellet food before buying!







apple seeds

avocado skins

blue cheese


poppy seeds



timothy hay


raw beans

raw mushrooms

raw squash

green bananas

raw brussel sprouts

dried corn


wild insects





















Protein: 5% maintenance; 12-15% babies and nursing moms (most diets contain 18-23% so it is important to limit protein intake with other foods)

Fats: 4-6%

Moisture: 10%

Amino Acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine


Detailed information on the nutritional requirements of rats can be found in the National Research Council’s 1995 report, Nutrient Requirements of Laboratory Animals. Before starting your rat on any diet, be sure to do your research and speak to your veterinarian!


Rats love snacks! Foods like plain Cheerios, wheat puffs, oats and baby puffs make great everyday snacks. Snacks with a higher sugar content are generally considered “high value” because rats really enjoy them but shouldn’t have them too often. High-value treats are foods like dehydrated bananas, unsweetened coconut chips, nuts and the ever-popular yogurt drops! As a very special treat, rats love shelled walnuts and almonds, Greenies and Whimzees.

Fruits and vegetables with a high water content and low sugar content, such as cucumbers and leafy greens, can be given as often as your rats like! When giving you rats a snack, always open their cage door to hand them the snacks. Never give your rats snacks through the cage bars. Doing so will quickly lead to the rats rushing to the bars when they see you and assuming your fingers are treats, which can result in an unintentional bite.

Image of rescues Teeter-Totter and Arrow created by Toronto artist @luce.tooth


A bored rat is an unhappy rat. Rat cages need a mix of accessories, toys and enrichment activities to keep the rats busy and happy. Rats love hammocks and other soft, hanging beds. Try to give one bed per rat, especially for boys. Decorate the cage with hanging baskets, hides, rope toys, bird toys and dig boxes to keep them busy. You can fill a basket with orchard grass hay or coconut fibre substrate and sprinkle oats throughout to use as a dig box. Do not use alfalfa or Timothy hay. Tissue paper is a lot of fun for them and very inexpensive. Rats also love cardboard boxes and PVC tubes. Make sure they have plenty to chew on as their teeth never stop growing. Fun doesn’t have to be expensive! Be sure to also give your rats time to play outside of their cage in a safe area such as a bathroom or spare room. Out-of-cage time is a must and it will keep your rats happy and active.


Rats can easily learn to use a litter box with rat-safe litter. Male rats respond differently to litter boxes than females so the training process is a bit different. For both, you will want to place some old litter into the new litter after every change so that the rats learn to continue to use that area as their potty area. For males, observe where they prefer to go and place the litter box there. Use a large rock as a “pee rock”. Boys like peeing on rocks and the rock will encourage them to use the litter box. For females, place the litter box where you’d like them to go. Females are very tidy and do not like pee rocks or dirty litter, so change their litter often and skip the pee rock.

The HEalthy Rat

Rats are very clean animals and can get sick very easily with poor husbandry, dirty cages, dusty rooms, extreme temperatures and artificial scents. Keeping your rats’ cage clean and free of dust is important in keeping them healthy. But, no matter what, your rats are likely to become sick at some point in their lives so it’s important to know what to look out for. Your rats should be seen by a veterinarian regularly for check-ups. Rats are very good at hiding illness so once you begin to see symptoms of illness, they have already been sick for quite some time. Common signs of illness include sneezing, lethargy, weight loss, dull eyes, disinterest in food, low interaction, puffy fur, squinty eyes, red staining around the nose and eyes, and unusual chirping or grumbling. These symptoms can be serious and you should contact a vet immediately. Disease in rats can progress very quickly so do not delay seeking medical treatment. Spend lots of time with your rats so you know how they look and feel when they are healthy so you can quickly identify when they aren’t feeling well!

Infant Advil

Dark chocolate

1ml syringes

Saline wound wash

Antibiotic eye drops

Heating pad

Kitchen scale

Small volume containers


Activated charcoal

Baby food

Emerald IC omnivore


Boost/Ensure meal replacement

Emergency Evacuation kit with their basic necessities

Small emergency cage

Emergency vet clinic phone number


The Rat Grimace Scale was developed by Sotocinal et al. 2011. It is a visual scale that tells us if a rat is feeling pain or discomfort. In the graphic above, the rats on the left are happy and feel good while the rats on the right are in pain and discomfort. Use this scale to help understand how your rat feels!

Eye Tightening

In a happy, pain-free rat (1), the eyes are wide and bright. In a painful rat (3), the eyes are squinty and tight.

Nose & Cheek Flattening

In a happy, pain-free rat, the nose and cheeks are puffy and short. In a painful rat, the nose and cheeks look flatter and longer.

Ear Position

In a happy, pain-free rat, the ears are pointing forward and curious. In a painful rat, the ears are turned outwards and may appear lower on the head.

Whisker Direction

In a happy, pain-free rat, the whiskers are spread out loosely to the side of the face or may appear pointing backwards. In a painful rat, the whiskers are pointing forward and look stiff.


Porphyrin is a reddish secretion produced behind the rat’s eyes, and can appear around a rat’s nose and eyes. Porphyrin plays important roles in the rat’s health and can be an important indicator that your rat is in pain or sick. Small amounts of porphyrin are normal and healthy; however, a lot of porphyrin can indicate that your rat is sick, in pain or otherwise unhappy. If you’re noticing frequent red staining around your rat’s eyes and snoot, pay close attention to how they are feeling and schedule some time to see your vet!

Common Illness and What to Watch for

Frequent sneezing, grumbling or chirping noises, reduced activity – upper or lower respiratory infection; cardiac disease

Gasping for breath, open-mouth breathing, breathing with their heads tilted up, wheezing – these are signs of serious respiratory distress and emergency care is required immediately 

Hard, solid, round lumps – generally, lumps that can be pulled away from the body can be removed; lumps that feel embedded in the body’s tissue are more serious and you should see your vet

Soft, squishy lumps – if painful, it is likely an abscess; if not painful, it could be a lipoma

Squinty, red eyes – allergies; eye injury; eye infection; pain or stress 

Head pressing, confusion, holding and “chewing” food without actually taking a bite of the food, weak wrists – pituitary or brain tumour; stroke

Walking flat-footed, lifting the back legs less, reduced ability to climb – hind-leg degeneration (a non-fatal degenerative condition that can be slowed with exercise); stroke

Head tilt – inner ear infection; brain tumour 

basic rat physiology

(American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine Series, 2015)

Image of rescues Teeter-Totter and Arrow created by Toronto artist @luce.tooth

Common Illnesses and the Meds We Use to Treat Them

Respiratory infection – doxycycline, enrofloxacin (Baytril), azithromycin

Pituitary tumour – bromocriptine, cabergoline 

Heart disease – furosemide, atenolol, pimobendan, clopidogrel 

Pain – meloxicam, gabapentin, ibuprofen (infant if commercially bought) 

Inner ear infection – Clavamox, enrofloxacin, doxycycline 

Abscess – amoxicillin, enrofloxacin, Clavamox

Mites/Lice – selamectin, ivermectin 

If your rat is prescribed medication, be sure to use it exactly as directed by your veterinarian and finish the full course of antibiotics even if your rat is feeling better.

the social rat

Rats are friendly, curious and sensitive creatures. They become deeply attached to their rat and human family but they’ll need time to warm up to you first. Remember that they are their own beings and need to learn that they can trust you.

Begin by feeding them small treats by hand or offering them yogurt or baby food on a spoon. When they’re comfortable with your touch, offer to pick one up. Pick them up from underneath instead of reaching your hand over them. This is less scary for them. Use one hand to support their bottom and one to support their body. Spend time holding and playing with your rats daily.

They love you and want to see you! If your rat is a rescue, they may need more time to trust you. They’ve been through a lot and need to know that you will be there for them and love them. Don’t give up on them if they aren’t immediately social; they’ve experienced trauma but will come around!

There are at least 56 species of rat in the world

The Norway rat likely originated in Asia

Rats can go into heat as early as 24 hours after giving birth

When presented with a new food, rats will take a tiny taste and wait to see if it makes them sick. If it doesn’t make them sick, they will come back for more

Rats can become pregnant as early as 5 weeks old!


Introducing rats can be very difficult and dangerous if not done correctly. Never place rats that do not know each other into the same cage without using a proper introduction method. Doing so can very easily result in fighting and death. Introduce rats in a new, neutral area. This will prevent territorial aggression. 

Remove all accessories from your cage and thoroughly wash everything, including the base and bars of your cage. When reassembling the cage, add only bedding, food and water; no toys or hides. Add 2 water sources and sprinkle the food throughout the cage to prevent resource guarding. When moving the rats back to the cage, introduce the new rats to your most submissive, gentle rat first and work your way up to your most dominant or difficult rat. The rats will argue to establish their new hierarchy so be sure to keep a close eye on them to ensure nobody gets hurt. If blood is drawn or angry bruxing begins, separate them immediately. Never leave them unsupervised. 

Once all rats get along well, you can start adding their accessories back to the cage, working your way from their least favourite accessory (e.g. litter box, baskets, etc.) to their most loved accessory (generally hammocks and hides). Make sure all hides have at least 2 exits until you know they will not fight and give one hammock per rat.

Rat hearing frequency is between 250 Hz to 8-32 kHz

Rats cannot vomit

A rat’s left lung has 1 lobe, whereas the right lung has 4 lobes

Rats that are overfed have higher incidences of tutors and shorter live

Rats can have chocolate and in fact, it can help open their airways during respiratory illness


Excited bites are different than aggressive bites. Excited bites do not break the skin and are usually a quick nip and run, whereas aggressive bites will draw blood and be prolonged. Excited bites are usually misdirected excitement and energy. To help with excited bites, get a collection of small rat-sized toys that you can give to your rat to hold in their mouth when they are excited instead of biting you. Soon enough your rat will learn to grab their toy before they greet you!

My Female Rat Is Wiggling Her Ears and Acting Weird

Your girl is in heat! These behaviours are absolutely normal and healthy for a female rat. Rat heats last about 12 hours and occur every 4-5 days. During this time, you may notice odd behaviour from your girl and she may be more nippy towards her sisters, but you will not notice any blood like in the heats of other animals.

My Rat Is Being A Bully TO THE OTHER RATS

Rats are often considered animal toddlers. They are very curious, very smart and very mischievous. Around 5-8 months old, rats will start to reach social maturity and may go through phases of being difficult or troublesome. Oftentimes, rats that were previously submissive or passive will suddenly start bullying the their mischief-mates. This is them testing their limits. To manage this behaviour, get a small cage to use as your “time-out” cage. Put bedding, food and water in it but no toys. Make it very boring. Whenever your rat begins causing issues in their mischief, pull them out and place them immediately into the time-out cage without speaking to them. Leave them in the cage for an hour and increase their time-out time by an hour each time. Ignore them while they are in the time-out cage. You want to teach them that being with their friends is the most fun but in order to be with their friends, they need to be good. Rats learn very quickly and usually stop their problematic behaviour after only a few time outs!

My Rat Is Very Nervous And Does not WANT TO BE SOCIAL

This is common in rescued rats as they have been through a lot and may be experiencing trauma. When a rat isn’t being social, it is important to make sure that they are not sick first. Once that is done, we can start working on their nerves. The best starting place is to place their cage in the part of the house that you spend the most time in. Speak to them often in a calm voice and give them a piece of clothing that smells like you to snuggle with so they can start associating your scent with comfort. Get them a carrier or small cage that you can place on the couch beside you, on the bed while you sleep or the counter while you cook. Offer them yogurt or baby food on a spoon so they know they are safe near you. Move slowly and use a calm voice. Do not force them to leave the cage unless they want to and always pet them from the side or underneath. They will come around!

One of My Rats Passed and the Others Are Sad

Rats bond strongly with their human and rat family, and grieve when their friends pass away or when they are rehomed. If one of your rats passes, make sure to spend lots of time with the remaining rats to comfort them. They grieve just like we do. If you only have one rat left, do not rush to rehome them. Rehoming your rat after losing their friend would be very traumatic for them and your rat may feel that they have done something wrong. Rats are social animals in the same way humans are; we like other humans around but if we lose our best friend, we don’t immediately want a new best friend. Spend as much time as possible with your rat. Carry them around in your hood while you cook or clean. Their cage may be upsetting to them so give them plenty of free time. Remember that your rat loves you very much and would rather be alone with you than in a new home with stranger rats. Once you have both had time to grieve, you can assess if you’d like to rehome them or bring in new rats. If your rat is 2 or older, rehoming would be very difficult on them and they may become depressed. Keep this in mind while making your decision.

MY RAT IS BEING Very Aggressive – Penguin’s Method

I call this Penguin’s Method after its success with my previously-aggressive boy, Penguin. As for anxious rats, place your aggressive one in the room where you spend the most time. Talk to them constantly and give them a t-shirt or piece of clothing that smells like you. Let them use the cloth to bite and beat up instead of you. They will hopefully eventually use the cloth to snuggle with but it may take a few rounds of beating up the cloth before it can be snuggled. Try to talk to them through the bars using their communication tactics, like chirping and teeth chattering. When they see you trying to talk to them, they will be more interested in you.

Offer them the back of your fist to sniff and get used to your touch instead of your open hand; the back of your fist is much harder to bite and less threatening. Do not ever force them out of their cage; allow them to decide when they are ready. When they do come out of the cage, lift them from underneath. Lifting from above is a sign that you’re trying to assert dominance over them and makes you seem more like a predator. The same concept can be used for not forcing them out of the cage; forcing them shows them that they are weaker and they will try to prove to you that they are not weaker. They will also start to see you as a source of challenge and discomfort, and will start to get their guard up around you. Do not force them to do anything; build a relationship with them. When they do decide to come out of their cage, spend a lot of time with them. Carry them around the house with you as you study, do the dishes, cook dinner, watch TV, etc. Most importantly, always keep in mind that they have been through traumatic experience before coming into rescue and it is important to respect how their past may be making them feel in the present with you.