Suggested Policies for Pet Rats in the Shelter
Our goal is for shelters to have the same policies for pet rats as for dogs and cats. We believe that all animals surrendered to the shelter deserve the same respect and consideration. We wish to stop the practice at some shelters of routinely euthanizing surrendered rats, especially pregnant or infant rats, or even feeding surrendered rats to reptiles.
We hope that every shelter will at least attempt to adopt out the rats surrendered to their facility. If a shelter finds they have a particular problem with surrendered rats, please check the list of rat rescues on the website at www.ratfanclub.org/adopt.html to see if there is a group that can help.
The optimum weaning age for rats is 5 weeks. At this age, the males and females must be separated as some rats become sexually mature at 5 weeks of age. However, it is best for their emotional development if the rats are kept with their same-sex siblings until 6 weeks of age before being adopted. To insure that the rats will be socialized to humans, they should be handled at least briefly every day from birth.
The developmental phases of infant rats are as follows:
Newborn: hairless and dark pink
2-6 days old: hairless and light pink; colored markings will start to be visible on skin
7-10 days: fur growing in; nipples are prominent on females at 10 days of age
11-14 days: fur is very short and sleek, they look like little puppies
2 weeks: eyes open, start eating solid food
3 weeks: fur is fluffy, rats are about 3" long (not including tail) and playful and jumpy (this is called
“popcorning”); they still look like babies with large heads and feet for their size
4 weeks: rats are about 3½" long (not including the tail) and look like miniature adults
5 weeks: rats are about 4" long
6 weeks: rats are about 4½-5" long
Rats 2-3 weeks of age can eat solid food, but orphans must also receive supplements of human soy baby formula until 4-5 weeks of age and need some help eating from a dish. Rats under 2 weeks of age must be fostered to a nursing mother rat or hand-fed.
Babies at the “popcorn” stage tend to be very jumpy. When trying to pick up a baby at this stage they will often jump out of your hand. This behavior should not be mistaken for fear or dislike of being handled, it is just playfulness and high spirits. The babies will outgrow this stage quickly.
A problem we have seen in some shelters is the policy of euthanizing rats who have bitten someone’s finger through the bars of the cage. This is a natural tendency and is not a sign of meanness or viciousness. Most of the time the rat is trying to grab the finger in the hope that is it food. If the cages are in reach of the public, post signs that warn the public not to poke their fingers into the cages. Any rat who bites in this way should not be labeled “unadoptable” as it is not her fault.
Suggested Policies and Procedures for the Intake of Pet Rats
If the rat is surrendered by the owner, be sure to get as much information from the owner as possible to try to determine the age of the rat. It is common for rat owners to lose track of the age of their rats. To help figure out the rat’s age, ask them when they got the rat. If they can’t remember an exact date, ask if they can remember the time of year, or if there was a family event that happened close in time. If the rat was obtained as a pet for a child, how old was the child when they got the rat? If you can narrow down the approximate date they got the rat, then ask the age of the rat when they got it. If they don’t know, ask them how big the rat was when they got it and how much, if any, the rat grew after they got it. A weanling rat is generally 3-4" long not counting the tail. Rats tend to grow rapidly, about 1" per month, until about 3 months of age when growth slows. A female rat will stop growing at about 6-7 months of age, and a male at about 8-9 months.
2. Ask if the rat has had any health problems, and if so, what the treatment was. Rats tend to have chronic respiratory problems, and a treatment that worked once might work again.
3. Ask if the rat has been exposed to any other rats in the 3 weeks previous to the surrender. If not, the rats are less likely to be carrying any contagious diseases.
4. Immediately separate male and female rats 5 weeks or older (weaning age) to prevent further breeding. Any females over 5 weeks of age that have been housed with males are likely to be pregnant, but you might be lucky and prevent more pregnancies!
Sexing rats: It is common to mistake a female rat for a male, thinking the testicles haven’t descended yet, because the female’s urinary structure looks like it might be a penis. It is less likely to mistake a male for a female because the testicles are quite large. The testicles are obvious on most males over the age of 4 weeks. In a litter of babies, you can compare rats until you find two that look different; in most cases it will be obvious which is the male and which is the female.
However, male rats have an open inguinal canal, which means the testicles can be pulled up into the abdomen. In most cases they will be down in the scrotum, but in cases where the testicles are not apparent, either because they are retracted or because the male has been neutered, a foolproof way to determine the sex is to try to evert the penis. To do this, apply gentle pressure on either side of the prepuce until the penis pops out. Also, only the females have nipples, but these can be difficult to see except at the age of 10 days when they are very visible due to the short fur.
4. Examine the rats for health. Note especially:
- respiratory symptoms: sneezing, wheezing, labored breathing, red discharge from the eyes or nose (caused by a red pigment in the tears called porphyrin)
- condition of coat and skin, looking closely for visible mites (round tick-like parasites—tropical rat mites), lice (cigar-shaped parasites) or nits (silvery blobs on the hair shafts), and scabs (which can indicate microscopic fur mites); a magnifying glass is helpful
- body condition: underweight or overweight; hydrated or dehydrated
- wounds or lumps
- check that teeth are straight and even
Respiratory symptoms, parasites, abscesses and tumors require treatment before the rat can be put up for adoption. Crooked teeth can be managed with regular tooth trimming.
5. Even without obvious health problems, it is a good idea to quarantine new rats for 2-3 weeks in case they are incubating a contagious disease. Even if the rats have not been exposed to any other rats in the 3 weeks prior to the surrender, viruses can be carried on clothing which means the rats could have been exposed.
6. After a rat has been in the shelter for 2-3 days and has had time to calm down and adjust, you can evaluate it for socialization level and give it a score.
a. The rat willingly approaches a human hand, does not object to being picked up and held, enjoys being petted. This is a friendly and outgoing rat, well socialized: score as an A. Adoptable to all qualified applicants.
b. The rat will approach a hand with coaxing, and seems to enjoy being petted, but flinches or runs away when you try to pick it up. This rat is shy or cautious but will likely improve with handling. Score as a B. Adoptable to an adult rat owner with some experience.
c. Rat will not approach your hand and flinches or runs away when you try to pet it or pick it up. This rat is frightened or minimally socialized and needs extra socialization. Score as a C. Trust Training for 2-3 days will likely raise its score to a B. Needs attention by a trained volunteer in the shelter or in a foster home. Can be adopted to an experienced rat owner.
d. Rat is extremely scared and runs away when a human approaches. If you attempt to pick it up it screams and claws to get away. This rat is unsocialized or traumatized and needs more intensive Trust Training in a foster home with an experienced rat owner. Score as a D.
With the Trust Training method, even rats who score a D can often be rehabilitated, and may not need to be euthanized.
7. If same-sex rats come into the shelter together, they should remain together if at all possible because they will be bonded. Rats from different sources should only be housed together after a quarantine period, and after going through a prescribed introduction process. Rats are territorial animals and can aggressively attack strange rats.
Rats who are extremely shy or even afraid of humans may be that way because of several interacting factors. In a few rare cases, a rat may have been abused. But in most cases, it is simply that the rat didn’t receive enough socialization as a baby. It’s also possible for a rat to inherit a tendency to be shy or nervous, and such a rat will be more affected by a lack of socialization.
Regardless of the cause of a rat’s fear or shyness, the trust training technique is highly effective. This technique was taught to me by Rat Fan Club member Elizabeth R. TeSelle who had adopted a rat named Phineas who was terrified of humans. The only way Phineas had been handled by his former owner was by being hoisted in the air by his tail. Elizabeth wrote, “The first time I reached my hand into Phineas’ cage with a treat, he shrieked in terror and ran into the corner, where he huddled and chattered in fear.” Phineas ended up biting Elizabeth and her husband several times before they developed the trust training technique. After that, Phineas became a totally trusting companion, climbing into their laps for attention, riding on their shoulders, and grooming Marc’s beard.
The most dramatic case for which I used trust training was a rat I rescued who was so frightened of people he would dash for his nest box to hide whenever he saw a person. Using the trust training technique, it took only three days before he would willingly come out of his cage to be held and petted.
The key of the technique is to use soft food on a spoon as both a lure and reward. Using the soft food prevents the rat from being able to grab the food and run away with it. He is forced to stay near you to lick the food off the spoon. In severe cases if the rat feels the need to defend himself by biting, then he will bite the spoon and not your finger.
Foods you can use include yogurt, baby foods, mashed banana, mashed avocado, etc. Rats have a tendency to be suspicious of new foods, and many unsocialized rats have not been exposed to very many foods. If the rat shows no interest in the food you are using, put a bit of the food in a dish in the cage (jar lids make great rat dishes) to allow the rat to try the food at his leisure. Once he is eating the food out of the dish, you can use it on the spoon. If the rat still is not interested in eating the food off the spoon, keep trying different foods until you find one he will.
To start, offer your rat the food on the spoon inside his cage. When he will eat it inside the cage, make him come to the door of the cage to get the food. The next step is to make him get up on the door (depending on the design of the cage.) Next, make him come out of the cage and get on your knee, arm or hand. Next, require that he let you pick him up and put him on your knee or arm before he gets his treat.
When a rat allows you to pick him up and remains relaxed, he has developed a real sense of trust and will respond to handling like a rat who has been well socialized. At this point you can discontinue the trust training and treat him as you would any other rat.
In severe cases where a rat refuses to eat the food from the spoon, you may have to reduce the amount of regular food you give the rat so that he will be hungrier than usual.
Caring for Pet Rats in the Shelter
In the shelter, a single adult rat should be housed in a cage no smaller than 12" X 20" X 12" high, or in a cage 12" X 15" X 12" high equipped with an appropriate exercise wheel. A mother and litter of babies can be kept in a cage this size. A mother with babies less than 2 ½ weeks old should not have an exercise wheel, to avoid injury to the babies.
Two to three bonded rats (depending on size) can be kept in a cage 12" X 24" X 12" high if it is equipped with an appropriate exercise wheel, or a cage 15" X 24" X 12" high without an exercise wheel. One additional rat can be housed for each additional 60 sq. in. of floor space added to the cage.
Avoid cages with elevated floors made of 1" X ½" wire mesh as this size mesh allows the back feet to slip through and get caught, causing injured or broken legs. These floors can be covered with plastic needlepoint canvas, but they must be inspected frequently because the rats will chew on the plastic. Do not cover elevated floors with smaller wire mesh as rats can get their toes caught between the layers of mesh.
The best exercise wheels for use in the shelter are the Super Pet Large Silent Spinners. Another good wheel is the Wodent Wheel (www.transoniq.com) but they require disassembling for cleaning.
We suggest each cage also be furnished with a nest box and/or hammock to provide not only a hiding and sleeping place, but opportunities for climbing. A plastic pitcher with the handle cut off can be hung in the cage as a nest box to save floor space. Tubes, ladders and shelves are also appreciated by rats, and tubes can be hung in the cage to save floor space.
The best litter/bedding to use on the bottom of rat cages (also for gerbils, mice and hamsters) is rabbit food or alfalfa pellets. These products are inexpensive, non-toxic, and great at odor control. Aspen shavings, CareFRESH, recycled newspaper pellets and aspen pellets can also be used. Pine and cedar shavings contain acids that damage cells in the respiratory tract and should not be used. These shavings also contain toxic phenols that are absorbed into the blood and must be eliminated by the liver, so exposure to these wood shavings can also cause enlarged livers, altered immune response, and decreased fertility.
When using rabbit food or alfalfa pellets as litter/bedding, the cages will probably only need to be cleaned once a week. If using CareFRESH the cages may need to be cleaned more often. When cleaning cages and accessories, scrubbing with soap and water is sufficient when the same rats will be replaced in the same cage. If new rats will be placed in the cage then it should also be disinfected and thoroughly rinsed.
Food should be a commercial rat block (large pellets) or nugget which provides a uniformly nutritious diet, rather than a seed/grain mix that allows the rats to pick and choose. However, a grain/seed mix can be given occasionally as a treat. If possible, fruits and vegetables should comprise 20% of their diet. The most nutritious veggies are broccoli, kale, bok choy and cooked sweet potato. Water should be provided in a water bottle with a 5/16" sipper tube. The inside of the sipper tube, as well as the water bottle, should be scrubbed weekly with an appropriate brush or cotton swab.
Rats must be kept at a room temperature below 90° F. They also need a period of complete darkness every night. Exposure to constant light can stimulate the growth of tumors and fatal ovarian cysts.
Suggested Adoption Policies for Pet Rats
If dogs and cats that are adopted from your shelter receive a free veterinary exam, then the same policy should be extended to rats.
We suggest that the adoption fee for a rat be $10, or perhaps 2 rats for $15.
The average life span of pet rats is 2 to 2 ½ years, although with proper care some can live to 3 years or older. Older rats can be adopted out if healthy and the prospective adopter understands that older rats are more prone to health problems. Health insurance can be recommended. Rats considered unadoptable might be able to be placed with a rat rescue. There is a list of rat rescues on the website at www.ratfanclub.org/adopt.html
Some shelters require that adopted rats be altered and some don’t. It seems to be more common for shelter to require neutering rather than spaying, probably because more veterinarians are willing to neuter rats. Some shelters try to control breeding by only adopting rats of the same sex to each home.
Neutering male rats not only prevents reproduction, but also reduces the incidence of problem behaviors in male rats, including urine-marking and aggression. Problem urine marking is fairly common with about 50-75% of males showing this behavior, but only about 5% of male rats develop an aggression problem. Usually aggressive behavior will manifest by 8-12 months of age. Neutering a male does not provide the rat with any significant health benefits but because of the behavioral benefits it would be good if a shelter could adopt out neutered male rats or offer low-cost neutering of rats.
Spaying female rats is highly recommended as it reduces the incidence of mammary tumors from 50% to 4%, and the incidence of pituitary tumors from 16% to 4%.* It also eliminates problems with the ovaries and uterus, which are also fairly common in older rats. It would be highly beneficial if a shelter could adopt out spayed female rats or offer low-cost spaying for rats. Details on these surgeries can be found in the Rat Health Care booklet published by The Rat Fan Club.
*“Effect of surgical removal of subcutaneous tumors on the survival of rats”, Charlotte E. Hotchkiss, Journal of the Veterinary Medical Association, May 1995 (vol. 206, no. 10)
“Development of Spontaneous Mammary Tumors over the Life-Span of the Female Charles River (Sprague-Dawley) Rat: The Influence of Ovariectomy, Thyroidectomy, and Adrenalectomy-Ovariectomy,” Patricia W. Durbin, Cancer Research, March 1966 (vol. 26 part 1)
“Effects of X-Irradiation, Ovariohysterectomy and Estradiol on incidence, benign/malignant ratio and Multiplicity of Rat Mammary Neoplasms-A Preliminary Report,” H.A. Solleveld et al., Leukemia Research in 1986 (vol. 10, no. 7)
Suggested Criteria a Potential Pocket Pet Adoptor must Meet
1. Owns their own home or has the permission of his or her landlord.
2. Has a cage made of suitable materials at least 12" tall with 288 square inches of floor space for 2 rats, and an additional 100 square inches of floor space for each additional rat.
3. Understands that pocket pets need veterinary care the same as dogs and cats, and is willing to provide and pay for this care. (Major medical health insurance policies are available from Veterinary Pet Insurance. See the website at www.petinsurance.com)
4. Is willing to adopt two rats to live together, or if adopting a single rat, agrees to give it at least 4 hours of human attention daily, or to introduce it to a current pet rat.
5. An adult caretaker is willing to insure this pet receives daily attention and exercise, as well as proper food and bedding, and will not require a child to take sole responsibility, and will not threaten to get rid of the pet even if the child needs habitual reminders to do agreed-upon chores. (This is just part of being a child!)
Promoting the Adoption of Pet Rats
It is much easier to adopt out rats if their cages are in an area of the shelter that is easily accessible to the public, especially an area where the public would be in anyway such as the reception area. If the rats are in a separate small animal area, be sure it is prominently marked with signs and directions so the public can find it.
Placing colorful toys in the rat cages will also encourage adoptions. These toys, such as climbing ropes and ladders, tubes, bird chew toys, etc., can make the cages more attractive and let potential adopters know that rats are playful animals that are fun to watch and fun to play with. Sometimes potential pet owners are as interested in the toys as they are in the pets.
Writing a short description of each rat, telling its name, history and a little bit about its personality can also make rats much more adoptable. Here is an example:
This playful male rat was dumped at someone’s home. Luckily they recognized he was a domestic rat and was able to catch him and bring him to our shelter. Gonzo was very scared at first, but he quickly learned to trust his human rescuers and is now a friendly playful companion who would like a home where he can get out of his cage to play every day. He is probably about 8 months old and is a black hooded rat.
If a shelter is taking in a fair number of pet rats, it stands to reason that there are a fair number of community members who have and like pet rats, so all the traditional ways of promoting the adoptions of dogs and cats should work for rats as well. This includes Pet of the Week spots on TV or in the newspaper, classified ads in the pet section of the newspaper, and listings on websites such as Petfinder.com. One of the best methods is to hold adoption days at local pet shops. The adoption of rats and other small pets can be combined with dog and cat adoptions, or held on separate days. Be sure the pet shops promote the adoption days ahead of time with posters or flyers.
If a shelter only takes in rats occasionally, you will probably need to educate the community about why rats make good pets. A good way to kick off this campaign is to notify your local media when you take in a rat or rats who need a home. If keeping rats as pets is a novel idea in your area, this should be a story that will interest the media and provide positive publicity for the shelter. A good story hook is “The shelter that helps the underdog, even if it’s a rat.”
You can also print an article about pet rats in your shelter newsletter.
Display a poster in the shelter reception or adoption area explaining why rats make good pets and instructing people to ask for more info. We have cute pictures of rats cuddling with people and wearing costumes that you can use. We hope eventually to produce a poster.