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Ask Dr. Jenn: Is It Safe to Keep a Rat as a Pet?

My son wants a pet rat, but I always thought rats spread disease. Is it safe to keep a rat as a pet?

February 21, 2023 4 min read
Ask Dr. Jenn: Is It Safe to Keep a Rat as a Pet?

Domesticated rats make wonderful pets for children and adults. They are intelligent, social, and easily bond to humans. They can even be trained to do tricks. Their calm demeanor and larger size makes them easier to handle than other rodents, such as mice or hamsters. Although they make great pets, all rodents carry some risk.

Throughout history, rodents have spread serious diseases to humans, including the Black Plague and hantavirus. These diseases are spread by large colonies of wild rats, usually through contact with their urine through an open cut, inhaling germs from large amounts of rat feces, or eating food that has been contaminated with rat feces and urine. While domestic rats can also be carriers of these diseases, it is very rare. Only certain species of rats, cotton rats and rice rats, can carry the strain of hantavirus that causes diseases in humans. The bacteria that cause plague in people also makes rodents very sick and is more often spread through the bite of a flea that has been feeding on wild rodents, such as chipmunks or prairie dogs.

If you purchase your rat from a reputable breeder with a healthy rat population that is housed in a clean and uncrowded environment, they are unlikely to be carriers of these serious diseases. You can further keep you and your rat safe by eliminating contact with wild rodents.

Proper husbandry is a key factor in keeping your pet rat healthy. Rats are very susceptible to respiratory tract infections. Keep their environment clean and change the bedding frequently to reduce respiratory pathogens. If you have more than one rat, make sure there is adequate space to avoid the stress of overcrowding. Feed a well-balanced pelleted food formulated for rats and monitor food intake to prevent obesity.

Good hygiene is another key factor for both your health and your rat’s health. Just as your rat can spread germs to you, you can give germs to your rat. Make sure you are washing your hands before and after handling your rat and his environment. This will eliminate transmission of most harmful bacteria and viruses both to and from your rat.

Although it is unlikely your rat is a carrier of the serious, life-threatening diseases we discussed earlier, many rats carry bacteria that can cause “Rat Bite Fever” in humans. Rat Bite Fever causes flu-like symptoms in people, including fever, muscle pain, rash, and swollen joints. The bacteria is usually transmitted through a bite or a scratch. Safe handling of your rat will help prevent disease transmission. Learn proper handling techniques so he feels secure. If startled or scared, he may bite or scratch you to try get away. If the skin is broken, thoroughly clean the wound and contact your doctor if you develop any flu-like symptoms.

If you have decided that a rat is relatively safe and can reduce the risk of disease, there are a few other facts to keep in mind.

Rats have an average life span of 26-40 months (2-3 ½ years), with the oldest pet rat reported to have lived 56 months (4 years, 8 months). They reach maturity at four to five months of age and can start reproducing at that time. If you plan to have more than one rat, it is important to separate males and females early or have your male rat neutered.

Rats often develop tumors are they age. Mammary tumors are the most common tumor in both female and male rats. Although most are benign (up to 90%) they can grow very large and require surgical removal.

Rats have pigments in their tear glands, which can give their tears a red color. The pigments are secreted in larger volumes when a rat is stressed or sick. When the tears dry around the eyes and nose, they can be mistaken for blood. Although these red tears are not a concern in themselves, the presence of red crusts around the eyes and nose can indicate an underlying disease.

Overweight rats have a higher risk of spontaneous tumor development and diabetes. A healthy and well balanced diet is very important to their overall health. In addition, high protein diets can lead to kidney disease as your rat ages.

Rats do not receive routine immunizations, like dogs or cats do. Many will live their entire lives without seeing a veterinarian. However, if you want to give your rat the healthiest and longest life you can, I recommend scheduling an appointment with a veterinarian when you first bring him home. Find a veterinarian who is comfortable examining and treating pocket pets. The vet will be able to give you tips on husbandry, diet, and basic health care. She will also be familiar with your pet and know how to treat him if he gets sick.

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