rat standing on fake leaves
Rats are small, furry mammals with a long, bare tail. varga/Pixabay

As one of the most underrated companions in the world, pet rats deserve a chance to shine. Sure, wild rats bring a host of problems, but they’re entirely different animals. Pet rats are small, four-footed mammals waiting to delight the right person. Intelligence, personality, empathy — pet rats rank high on these and many of the traits people seek in a pet. So what, exactly, is a pet rat?

Pet Rat Vs. Wild Rat

One main difference between pet rats and wild rats is breeding. Pet rats are purposefully bred by people interested in perpetuating a specific variety of rat, whether due to the looks and/or temperament of that variety. Pet rats are all the same species, Rattus norvegicus, and the different types of rats are referred to as varieties instead of breeds.

Rats have a long history with humanity, but breeding them as pets and showing them is more recent. The first club known to show pet rats was The National Mouse Club in England in 1901, and the first club devoted to pet rats was the National Fancy Rat Society in England, which started in 1976. In the United States, some current clubs are the American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association, founded in 1983, and The Rat & Mouse Club of America.

Wild rats include the species Rattus norvegicus, R. rattus, and many other species of rats. Wilson & Reeder’s “Mammal Species of the World” recognizes more than 60 species of rat in the genus Rattus alone. Wild rats are not bred or domesticated. Living in the wild, they have all the traits of wild animals and are generally not friendly toward humans. While it’s possible for people to tame a rat taken from the wild, such situations are rare. Rats from the wild also carry the threat of harboring disease.

Pet Rat Varieties

Kennel clubs set breed standards for dogs, and cat breeder associations set standards for cats. For pet rats, numerous organizations across the world set standards. In the United States, the American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association recognizes seven varieties of rats, and within those are numerous colors and markings. The seven varieties are: Standard, Rex, Tailless, Hairless, Satin, Dumbo, and Bristle Coat. This means that pet rats come in an amazing array of different “looks.” Rat breeding is sometimes referred to as the rat fancy, so pet rats are sometimes called fancy rats.

Pet Rat Description

Pet rats are small mammals, usually weighing about 0.5 to 1.1 pounds as adults. The average body length is 8 to 10 inches (this does not include the tail). Males are usually larger than females.

Most varieties have prominent whiskers on the nose; a long, hairless tail; and a furred body. Note that both hairless and tailless varieties exist. They have large, round ears. The Dumbo variety has even larger ears that are on the side of the head rather than the top.

Pet rats come in many different coat colors. The AFRMA recognizes 40 distinct colors, including beige, champagne, chocolate, platinum, black-eyed white, pink-eyed white, silver black, silver lilac, hooded, Dalmatian, and many more. Eye colors include black, dark ruby, ruby, light ruby, red, and pink.

Short, smooth fur is the norm for most pet rats, although some varieties buck this trend. The Rex variety sports curly fur, the Satin features short, smooth fur with a luster to it, and the Bristle coat wears short fur that is coarse and stiff instead of smooth and soft.

Pet rats typically walk on all fours, but they can pause and stand on their hind legs to get a look around or sit on their haunches to hold food and eat it. They have prominent incisors that are used for gnawing food. Healthy rats have bright eyes and a coat in good condition.

Pet Rat Behavior And Traits

Pet rats are known to be intelligent and inquisitive. They can learn basic tricks with proper training, such as coming when called or even running an obstacle course.

They are usually calm, tolerant of handling, and not extremely vocal. Pet rats often make a sort of clucking noise or grind their teeth (bruxing), but these are usually soft sounds. Loud squeals could indicate fear or pain.

They have a keen sense of smell and explore more by sniffing than seeing. They instinctively chew and burrow, so their habitat needs to accommodate these natural behaviors. Pet rat owners also need to keep these behaviors in mind and always supervise any free-roam time in a home. Chewing and burrowing are vital behaviors for pet rats. The chewing helps wear down their constantly growing incisors. Burrowing is important to regulate temperature and offer a safe haven.

The world is a smorgasbord for pet rats, as they are omnivores who can eat many types of food. Lab blocks are one of the preferred staple diets for pet rats. Treats, in moderation, can include many healthy items. Food with high sugar, high salt, or other ingredients you know is junk food for you is also junk food for a rat.

Unlike some other rodents, pet rats are social and usually get along with other rats. Of course, individuals differ and not all rats like every other rat! If living in a pair or group, rats usually sleep together. Rats usually enjoy being in pairs or groups, but a lone pet rat with an attentive owner can do well.

Like cats, pet rats are meticulous groomers. Although they groom multiple times a day, they’re not very meticulous about where they eliminate. They might avoid the area where they sleep, but usually anywhere and everywhere is the place for urination and droppings.

Fascinating Pet Rat Facts

All species are special in some way. Here are some vital pet rat stats to put you in-the-know!

  • Rats usually live about 2 to 3 years.
  • The heart rate is 313 to 493 beats per minute (average human heart rate is 60 to 100 bpm for healthy adults).
  • Rats sometimes seem to have red tears; these are actually secretions from the harderian gland behind the eye.
  • Their eyes may appear to bulge out, or boggle, briefly. This often happens when grinding teeth. Watch what’s going on to figure out if your rat is happy or something might be wrong.
  • Rats hear better in the upper range than us. Their hearing is 500 to 64,000 Herz (humans hear at 31 to 17,600 Hz; rabbits at 360 to 42,000 Hz)
  • Rats can move each eye in different directions to get two views of the world at the same time, which allows them to always keep an eye on what’s above them.
  • Rats see brightness better than colors. Their color vision is similar to a person with red-green color blindness.
  • Rats have 4 toes on their front feet and 5 on their rear feet.
  • Rats, like many other rodents, cannot vomit.
  • Rats are known to eat their own feces, which is called coprophagy.

Pet Rat Appeal

Rats have experienced both good and bad “press” over the years. In pop culture, some of the most fun depictions of rats come from animated movies, including Ratatouille and Flushed Away. Books have a fair share of wonderful rat characters: Templeton in Charlotte’s Web (also a movie), Samuel Whiskers from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers. The world of comic books brought us Splinter from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (also movies). And who could forget Scabbers, the pet rat of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies? Today, pet rats are also well-represented in social media.
MartyMouseHouse (about rats)
Loki Rat & Friends

Subscribe to our newsletter