By Mary Kate Fein, Uptwinkles Rat Sanctuary

Why rats?

Rescued rats may come from  independent or supplier breeders (often for food for other animals, such as snakes, or those you will most often see in pet shops), labs, or neglectful previous caregivers from shelters. Rescued rats may have different needs and personality quirks depending on their individual personalities, life experiences and any trauma they may have gone through. Rats’ physical lifespan is generally 2-3 years depending on a variety of health and individual factors. Despite the stigma against them, domesticated (or “fancy”) rats can be loving, friendly, fun, and intelligent family members to humans. They are often described as “small dogs”. However, domesticated rats are still some of the most abused animals and there is a constant need for loving homes for them.

Re-homing rats

Rats are very social animals who need to be housed with other rats (there are some rare occasions where a rat does not get along with other rats, is too ill, or gets enough attention from their caretakers, however act on the side of rescuing at least pairs). Rats who are not already bonded will need to go through a gradual introduction process to avoid fighting. See these this video on rat introductions.

Rats will sometimes have a hard time warming up to a human touch immediately, so teaching them how become comfortable with handling is important, so invest in this process right away. See this video on hand-training a scared rat. Rats can get along quite well with other non-human animals, so give everyone time to adjust. To avoid breeding, rats should be housed together only if that cannot mate or are sterilised (however, these surgeries are most often unnecessary if the former situation can be arranged). It is wise to remember that rats are very individual people and can often adapt easily to(howeve, this is most ofrten a uneccesay. Senior rats or very young rats may also need to be housed separately based on their new surroundings, so be open to learning from them what they need.


When choosing housing for rats, remember the larger the better. For two rats, the absolute minimum size is 60 cm x 90 cm x 60 cm (24” X 36” X 24”). For every rat, there should be a minimum of two square feet. The cage should be throughly cleaned at least weekly, and spot-cleaned daily. Keep the cage in a place where there is good quality airflow. Here is an example of a great overall set up.

Rats need a cage with solid flooring, levels, and ramps. Wire flooring can cause bumble feet and should be avoided, or covered with fleece or bedding. The bar spacing should be no more than 3/4 of an inch for a full grown rat, and no more than 1/2 an inch for babies. The bars themselves should be powder coated to avoid rat urine corroding the bars. Rats are excellent jumpers and climbers, and tall, but also wide enough cages which provide room for them to do so will be best.

Rats cannot be housed in tanks due to the ammonia build up (or at the very least this housing must be very temporary).

Popular cages include Critter Nations, Ferret Nations, You and Me Rat Manor, and even guinea pig cages that are properly altered and combined with plenty of out of cage time. These cages can be purchased new, or from Craiglist and thrift shops.


Rats love and need to burrow, nest, and hide. Cardboard boxes are a cheap option that most rats will be just fine with that (some even prefer them over fancier accessories!). Popular accessories include hammocks, tunnels, ropes, and various toys. Here are some suggested accessories that you can either buy ready-made or DIY!:

Free Ranging

Rats should have a safe out-of-cage space in your home where they can play daily, at least 1-2 hours (the more the better though, just be wary of too much dust). The most common solution when the whole home is not safe is a bathroom. Please see these resources regarding free-ranging:


Specially formulated rat diets should make up 80% of a domestic rat’s diet, but you should also offer variety of fresh fruits and vegetables daily (once a day).

Popular “lab blocks” for a rat’s base dry food: MazuKaytee Forti-Diet Pro Health Mouse, Rat, and Hamster Food

Please visit pethelpful.com/rodents/Homemade-Rat-Diets for foods rats can and cannot eat, as well as a vegan DIY diet using half Natural Balance Vegetarian Dog Food and half homemade mixes.

Make sure they have constant access water, ideally in a water bottle (prevents spills and messes getting in the water bowl). Sanatize water bottles regularly.


Health concerns

Any time you rescue a new rat you should first take them to the vet for a checkup. Finding a vet who sees rats can be hard, let alone finding a good one. Do your research in advance so when an issue comes up you know where to go.

Rats are prone to a few health issues. Here are some of the most common ones to watch out for. You should take your rat to the vet immediately when you notice any of these issues:

  1. Red discharge on eyes or nose
    This discharge may look like blood, but it is not. The coloration comes from porphyrin, a red colored pigment which is present in the rat’s mucus, and appears only when the rat is unwell.
  2. Respiratory Issues
    Wheezing, sneezing and breathing noisily are all signs of respiratory disorders. Mycoplasma, a microscopic organism, inhabits the respiratory tract of all rats. While some rats carry this organism without being affected by it, there are others which may appear symptomatic of disorders in the respiratory system.
  3. Tumors
    Rats may develop tumors when they are old. This tendency is greater in female rats than in male rats. These small lumps grow steadily and though they begin to grow as mammary tumors, they can start growing in the armpits, sides and many other places on the rat’s body. Rats that are fed on a high fat diet are more prone to developing tumors. The tumors, though usually benign, can sometimes become ulcerated and infected. In such a case, the tumors have to be operated upon and removed.
  4. Skin Issues
    Rats can pick up skin parasites from their bedding, so be on the lookout for signs of skin irritation or scabbing. Look out for inflamed patches of skin, missing fur, or excessive scratching and biting.








For a downloadable PDF version of this care guide, click here:

Rat Care Guide

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