A Beginner's Guide to Fancy Rats

By Carrie Noring

Congratulations on the adoption of your new pet fancy rat! There are a few basic things you will need to know in order to properly care for your pet. Letís get startedÖ


The first thing to consider is the type of enclosure you are going to house your pet rat in. There are many different types of housing available on the market today. But the two best are wire cages and glass aquariums with a clip on wire mesh top. Whichever you choose there are a few things to remember. Always make sure that your rat can stand completely upright on its hind legs in its new home. A height of 12 inches is a good minimum to use. Also, make sure that your rat will have adequate room to move around. A good rule of thumb to follow is to provide at least 200 square inches (10Ē x 20Ē) of floor space per adult rat. Of course, bigger is always better when it comes to keeping your rat happy.

Rat Furniture

Itís a good idea to provide your pet with a few basic pieces of ďfurniture.Ē The first to consider is an exercise wheel. Rats are naturally very active creatures and enjoy the opportunity for exercise that a wheel provides. The proper size wheel for a rat is one designed for ferrets, which has a diameter of 10 - 12 inches and a track width of 5 inches. There are several types of wheel that can be purchased. The old standard is the wire wheel. However, some rat fanciers donít like the wire type because there is the potential for a foot or tail to get caught and injured. There are now wheels made from solid plastic. These also have their own drawbacks. The solid plastic wheels get dirty faster with rat urine and feces and therefore must be cleaned more often. Also, because rats love to chew, plastic wheels have the potential to be destroyed by your rat. The ultimate decision of what type of wheel to purchase is up to you, just make sure you carefully observe your rat with its new wheel to see how things work out.

Another piece of rat furniture to consider is something for your rat to sleep on or in. There are a few options to consider. The first is a hammock made from a washable material. Next would be a plastic igloo type house. These two options are nice because they can be washed and disinfected as needed. Third is a wooden box with an entry hole. You can make these yourself, or you can purchase a box made for breeding birds. However, wood really isnít recommended, because it is difficult to keep clean, as rat urine will soak into it. An alternative to the wooden box, is a cardboard box with an entry hole cut into it. When the cardboard box becomes soiled, simply throw it away and replace it with a new one.

The next piece of furniture could really be considered a toy, but it is also important. Your rat will need something to chew on. A ratís teeth grow continuously throughout its life and need to be worn down by chewing. If the teeth arenít worn down, your rat will have problems eating and may starve to death. There are two main items you can consider providing for your rat. Pet stores sell pumice stone for teeth care. It is a lightweight gray stone with many small holes and hollows in it. However, rats seem to prefer chewing on wood. Pet stores also provide a large array of wood toys and chews for your rat. One thing to remember, if you purchase the dyed products, the dye will stain your rat's fur. Also, keep in mind that not all products sold for pets are actually safe. If the dye used isnít an FDA approved food coloring, then donít purchase the product.Of course, the best and easiest solution to this is to purchase the natural non-dyed wood chews.

Dinner-time Essentials

A food dish is a necessary item to provide for your rat. The dish keeps food in a confined space and prevents the rat from messing in the food and making it inedible. Plastic dishes can be used, but keep in mind that rats love to chew. A good choice is a ceramic crock made specifically for small animals.

A water bottle is an essential piece of equipment for your rat. There are several designs available at you local pet store. Make sure to always provide your rat with fresh water. Rats can dehydrate very quickly, so check regularly to make sure the water bottle is working properly


Proper bedding is essential for your ratís happiness and health. Bedding should be comfortable for your rat to walk on and it should absorb moisture. Two good candidates are aspen shavings and paper products such as Carefresh. These types of bedding can be found at most pet stores. There are some types of bedding that should never be used with small animals. These are cedar shavings, pine shavings, and recycled newspaper products. The cedar and pine shavings are very aromatic and contain oils that will irritate your ratís mucous membranes. This can make them very sick and can sometimes lead to the death of your rat. Recycled newspaper bedding contains ink that can be potentially toxic to your rats. There are other types of bedding available, such as corn cob bedding and walnut shell bedding, however, these are hard and less comfortable for your rat to live on.


Rats are naturally omnivorous, meaning they will eat animal matter and vegetable matter. This makes rats rather easy to feed. The basic nutritional requirements of a rat are met when the diet consists of 75% carbohydrates, a minimum of 7% protein, and a small amount of fats. These requirements are easily met by providing your rat with rodent lab blocks, which can be found in most pet stores. Of course a diet of the same thing day in and day out can become very boring. Itís a good idea to supplement the lab blocks with other foods on a daily basis. A high quality vegetable based dry dog food, such as the brand Nutro, is relished by most rats and is a good addition in small quantities.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also good to add to your ratís diet and are usually highly enjoyed. Some healthy fruity favorites are bananas, apples, pears, strawberries, blueberries, seedless grapes, pineapple, and mango (flesh only, no skin) followed by limited quantities of melon (too much melon can cause diarrhea). Some healthy raw vegetable favorites are carrots, celery, corn on the cob, sweet peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and fresh leafy greens (iceberg lettuce is okay as a treat, however it contains little nutritional value). Make sure to thoroughly wash all produce before giving to your rat. Cooked vegetables, such as left over mashed potatoes or baked squash are appreciated additions to your ratís diet. Grains and seeds such as oats, sunflower seeds, barley, pumpkin seeds, and millet are another category that is healthy and enjoyed by rats. Finally shelled nuts, cooked pasta, whole grain breads, boiled eggs, and yogurt are also recommended. Remember that rats do not need a lot of fat and donít need any refined sugars in their diets, so avoid junk food. What makes people fat can make your rat fat too.

Foods to avoid

Never give your rat onions, chocolate, coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages, soda pop, or lemonade. Also avoid citrus and other foods with a high acid content.


When initially approaching your rat, move slowly and let it smell you, offer it the back of your hand making sure to curl your fingers into your palm. It is a good idea to wash your hands with a non-scented soap such as Ivory before handling your pet rat. This way, there wonít be any enticing smells on your hands and your rat wonít think that you are something good to eat. Also, avoid wearing strong scents such as perfumes, scented lotions, hair spray, and aftershave as these can irritate the delicate mucous lining of your ratís respiratory system. Remember not to stick your fingers through cage bars when visiting with your rat. Your pet may interpret this as a threat to its home territory, or it may think you are offering a treat, which could possibly lead to a painful bite. Never pick your rat up by the tail! Always pick your rat up with a hand underneath its belly and a hand placed gently over its back. Never squeeze your rat, this is very scary and uncomfortable for your rat and may cause it to bite you. Gentle handling is always a must.

Play Time

Rats are social animals and enjoy human companionship, actually needing interaction with you if it is the only rat you own. Your rat will enjoy hanging around on your shoulder while you watch TV. However, some rats like to explore their environment and may attempt to do so. If you decide to let your rat explore, make sure you rat proof the area that your pet will be running loose in. Such as blocking off any holes a rat may fit through, removing anything you do not want chewed, and making sure to remove or adequately block off anything that may hurt your rat. Also, make sure there are no other pets that will have access to your rat. Cats, dogs, and even ferrets are predatory by nature and may try to harm your rat. Birds and small animals may actually be harmed by your rat, so it is a good idea to keep your pets separate. A couple of exceptions to this rule are rabbits and guinea pigs.They are usually both large enough and gentle enough to get along with your rat during playtime. If you do decide to allow your rat to interact with other pets, make sure to always keep them supervised.


Make sure you have a veterinarian that specializes in exotic animals. When a rat gets sick, it needs to go to a doctor, just like a person does. There are some basic symptoms of illness to be aware of; these include:

         Hair loss

         Scratching, rubbing, or chewing of the body that causes damage and bleeding (this does not include the occasional itch)


         Visible parasites (fleas, ticks, lice)

         Swelling of any part of the body

         Eyes bulging from their sockets


         Limping or favoring a certain leg

         Excessive sneezing (rats do sneeze occasionally just like people do)

         Rattling sound when breathing, congested sounding

         Labored breathing

         Red discharge from eyes or nose (this is a pigmented secretion, not blood)

         Reddish brown staining around the eyes

         Noticeable lack of energy

         Weight loss, lack of appetite



         Blood in the urine


         Head continuously tilted to once side


All of these symptoms can indicate serious illness. You should take your rat to the vet if any of the above are noticed.




The quarantine is an important process if you have rats already at home. It helps to prevent any possible illness from spreading to your resident rats. When you bring a new rat home, even if it appears completely healthy, you should keep it separate from your other rats for 21 days. Keep your new rat as far away from your established rats as possible. Care for your resident rats first, then wash your hands before caring for your newcomer. Always wash your hands with an antibacterial soap or disinfect your hands with a product such as Purell hand sanitizer after caring for the rat in quarantine. Wait two hours after handling the new rat before you handle your resident rats

It is possible to pick up airborne illnesses at pet stores that carry rodents. When going to a pet store, do not handle any of the rodents there. After leaving the pet store, wait for two hours before handling your rats at home. The reason for this is to provide enough time for any airborne disease-causing organisms that may have adhered to you or your clothing to perish. It is a good idea to wash your hands even if you didnít handle any animals at the pet store.


Suggested Reading


It is always a good idea to purchase and read through a book or two about your rat. Some recommendations are listed below.


         Rats: Complete Care Guide, by Debbie Ducommun,

†††††† 192 pages, published in April 2002, by Bowtie Press


         The Proper Care of Fancy Rats, by Nick Mays,

Published in October 1993, by TFH Publications


         Fancy Rats, Complete Pet Ownerís Manual, by Gisela Bulla,

64 pages, published in April 1999, by Barrons Educational Series


         The Rat: An Ownerís Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet, by Ginger Cardinal,

128 pages, published in November 1997, by Howell Book House


         Rats, by Carol Himsel Daly, D.V.M. ,

95 pages, published in April 2002, by Barrons Educational Series



Copyright© 2004 Carrie Noring

Permission is granted to duplicate and distribute this document only in its entirety, only for educational purposes with no intent toward commercial gain, and with proper credit given to the author.

Special thanks to Carrie Noring for allowing the use of this article to help educate the general public on proper fancy rat care.

Last Revision: 02/02/08
Copyrighted © 2004 - 2009
Michigan Fancy Rat Association
All Rights Reserved