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How Much Does It Cost To Keep Rats?

People often imagine that rats are inexpensive pets. Who can blame them when there are articles all over the net that make such bogus claims as “All you’ll need to buy is a 20-gallon aquarium or a similarly sized wire cage ($30+), some bedding and toys, and food, which will cost you about $40 per year” ?Not only are these figures inaccurate, but a 20-gallon tank won’t be big enough for a pair of rats, let alone a trio. In fact, you shouldn’t keep them in tanks at all.

The truth is, rats are quite expensive. They are cheap to buy as babies and their food doesn’t even begin to compare to the cost of, say, feeding a dog. The cage or cages you will need are large and expensive, of course, but  you may get lucky and find a good second hand cage on Ebay or a terrific Facebook page for cages called Cage Spotters which lists cages all over Britain the are being sold second-hand.


So how come I say they are expensive? Veterinary bills. I cannot tell you how many owners are shocked by the number of veterinary visits required by their pet rats, let alone the surgery costs when required. Most rats will sail through their first year of life without needing veterinary attention, although there are no guarantees. However, at some point between 12-24 months your rat may very well develop a respiratory infection and require antibiotics. None of the antibiotics needed are legally available without a veterinary prescription. Some of them treat one kind of infection and some another. All of them have to be given as quickly as possible after symptoms develop if they are to be effective. A veterinary visit plus the cost of the medicine will range but I’d imagine £50.00 would do the trick at today’s prices.


Okay, £50 may not seem expensive. It isn’t, considering that any animal you have may require a veterinary visit. But rats also tend to develop tumours. Many of these tumours are benign (mammary tumours are almost always so) and can be operated on and resolved. However, you must ask your vet early on how much they charge for such procedures as the prices vary enormously! I’d expect to pay between £60-£110 for mammary tumour removal unless the tumour were particularly tricky and then it might be more.


Does are more prone to mammary tumours but bucks can get them because even though they don’t have nipples they do have mammary tissue. Bucks also tend to get abscesses, which may or may not require veterinary attention. They sometimes need neutering (I’ve not had that problem as my bucks are big softies, but not everyone is so lucky!), and the does sometimes need spaying due to pyometra or other complications of the reproductive system (this will cost between £80-£110 at my vet).


None of these number seem high until you consider that the animal lives an average of 2-2.5 years. In fact, the average age of death of a male rat in the UK is  Once your rats have reached the end of their lives you will say goodbye to them, which means you may need another appointment with the vet for a “pts” (put to sleep). You then buy a couple of more rats and the cycle continues!


I estimate that every rat you have will cost you about between £100-£150 in vet bills. If you have two rats you are looking at quite a sum over the course of their short lives. How short you might ask? Well, a pet survey in the UK found that most rats live on average for 1.8 years. Most of my rats live between 21 and 27 months. That’s it. I know people say they have rats that live four or five years but I’ve not found that to be the case. So, having spent all this money on spaying or tumours or whatever, you aren’t going to have years of a healthy pet. They will die and then,  if you are like me and you are hooked on rats, you’ll only go and buy another trio!


So, while it is true that rats are far less expensive than dogs, they aren’t cheap! Well-meaning owners are conned into believing pet rats will be an inexpensive option only to be shocked when they can’t afford vital veterinary care that their rat requires.


What about insurance? A great idea exceptional that not all insurers will cover rats. the one I know of is Exotic Direct. They would be delighted to insure your rats but they charge £15 per rat per month. You’d do better putting the money aside, I imagine. If you do find cheaper pet insurance for your rats, can you let me know? I’d love to tell others!


There are rats that will cost you very little and die peacefully in their sleep without having ever shown a sign of illness, but they are rare. Arm yourself with the cash necessary to look after your rats without worry and enjoy them without the stress of worrying how to pay the bill if they need the vet. And if you do run into financial difficulty, look up the PDSA before you have a veterinary emergency. The PDSA recognises that people keep rats in pairs at minimum and will cover some of the costs of veterinary treatment if you qualify.


I really feel for you  if you can’t afford a pet. The longing to connect with animals is very great. Rat owners like me are always looking for those who love rats to help them out when they are away on holiday or work. You might be able to help out a breeder. Join the NFRS and go to rat shows, meet breeders and soon you’ll be in demand to help out and you’ll get LOTS of time with rats and baby rats as well as a little money to store away for your own.


How to Breed for Good Temperament

All breeders try to breed for a “good temperament” but not all breeders agree on what a good temperament is! Some breed for rats that are active and always on the move. Others may wish for “lap rats” that tend to be more mellow and cuddly. All breeders agree they want their rats to be happy, relaxed animals. They want rats that enjoy interacting with humans and other rats without any concerns about injury.

Genetics influence temperament in all sorts of ways. I recall reading something from  long-time breeder, Jemma Fettes, of Isamu Stud, a very well known rat stud in the show world. She talked about how an orphan rat was put into a group of babies and grew up among them with (presumably) the same maternal care as the biological offspring to the mother. Even though he was raised exactly as the others, his temperament was far different. He wasn’t a “bad” rat, but a very active, cheeky rat, and far more trouble than his adopted brothers and sisters! Jemma was convinced the difference in his temperament was due to his genetics, not his environment.

When it comes to rat temperament, epigenetics come into  play.  That is, not everything about the DNA of a rat result in a particular temperament.  “Mother rats spend a lot of time licking, grooming, and nursing their pups. Others seem to ignore their pups. Highly nurtured rat pups tend to grow up to be calm adults, while rat pups who receive little nurturing tend to grow up to be anxious…Through her licking behavior, a mother rat can write information onto her pups’ DNA in a way that completely bypasses eggs and sperm. In a sense, her nurturing behavior tells her pups something about the world they will grow up in. Mom’s behavior actually programs the pups’ DNA in a way that will make them more likely to succeed.” (Genetics Science Learning Centre).

In fact, researchers at McGill University have determined that maternal care in the form of licking and grooming “changes hundreds of genes” in the babies at once.  In their laboratories, rats that were “poorly licked” were anxious and harder to handle. Those who were licked a lot were easy to handle. The tendency toward high levels of maternal care may be genetically linked, of course, but the point is that stress responses can be changed in a single generation. This has important ramifications for breeders. While they are unlikely to lose “type” or “colour” quickly, they can lose temperament simply because a doe isn’t attending to her offspring properly.

Having rats with low levels of anxiety is important. Anxious rats are more likely to bite. They are also more likely to become ill, lead shorter lives, and suffer from problems with mites. It’s important to breed relaxed rats and I know all breeders are trying to do so but understanding the mechanism for good temperament is trickier than it looks. And while breeders can do their best to socialise baby rats, handling them and creating a good environment for them with plenty of “enrichment” (toys and climbing and foraging opportunities), it looks like the basics of temperament depend largely on the mum!


The Closet Rat Enthusiast

I’ve been at Oxford University this week teaching on the master’s programme for creative writing. It’s a great gig because I spend all weekend talking about one of my favourite subjects – writing fiction – with a whole bunch of people who feel the same. Yesterday, I had the unusual pleasure of discovering one of the students on the course is a rat lover. We spent lunch sitting across from each other talking about rats, peoples’ perceptions of rats, how certain genetics play out in forming different colours (known as “varieties” in the rat world) and the dubious pleasure of “show rats”.


We got some funny looks at the dining table, especially when I pulled out the current issue of Pro-Rat-A, the National Fancy Rat Society’s magazine, to show her.


As it happens, this young woman goes to schools to talk about the way we are acculturated to be afraid of rats. She wants to show children that animals like rats – and wasps and snakes and perhaps any number of other dreaded animals – have a place in this world. For her demonstration, she uses a pair of roan does she adopted. They’ve been great ambassadors for rats, total superstars, but one has recently died and she’s down to a lone and elderly doe who has little time left herself.


“Would you like some morerats?” I ventured. I was sitting with other tutors and you could just see them thinking, What is all this about rats?All these years we’ve known her and we had no idea Marti was crazy.


It’s true that I keep it quiet. I’m a closet rat enthusiast, not because I am ashamed of my affection for pets rats but because I don’t like to hear them bein disparaged by people who feel differently. But the young woman did not disparage them. I watched her face light up at the notion of my hoped-for baby rats, arriving in November.


“Oh yes!” she said.


I explained I was breeding Missy to Pluto and that the babies were all likely to be black, some with Berkshire markings (splashes of white on their stomachs and legs).


“Black is good! I want them to look close to wild rats.”


I let her know that wild “brown” rats were agouti but that ship rats were black. If I could source some agouti from another breeder as well it would be great to have a mix of agouti and black.


“Take three, a trio of baby rats is a good number. And with does, we’re only talking about relatively small rats.”


“How small?”


“I used the bread rolls from the basket on the table to demonstrate. “A doe is about two of these rolls. But a buck can be, say, three or more. Of course, it varies. I know breeders whose does are three bread rolls and bucks are four!”


Was that maybe too much, the bread roll rats in among the bottles of sparkling water and the discreet menu card and the cloth napkins and all the linen? A little unfair to the other diners who were not quite as enamoured of the fancy rat? No, really, it’s okay. You can level with me.  Better to have taken the rats back into the closet? I mean, they do like closets…




Does or Bucks (girls or boys)?

When it comes to deciding whether to get bucks or does there is much to consider. Among rat enthusiasts, the debate on which gender is “better” makes for lively debate. Both bucks and does make great pets. I have to admit to loving both does and bucks equally, though it is a lot easier to keep only one gender because you can get all your rats out at one time daily rather than having two different play times, one for the boys and one for the girls. So, if you want to make your life easier, stick to does or to bucks. If you want both genders, however, I totally understand. In fact, there are some nice cages that will allow you to keep both sexes easily enough as the cage divides into half with an opaque tray between the two.

There are a lot of generalisations about the differences between bucks and does and we may as well start with them. So, true or false?

True of False? Bucks Are Lazy; Does Are Lively

There is some truth in this! A female rat, or doe, is often smaller, sleeker, and more active than her brother. While everything comes down to individual personality, does tend to be far “busier” inside their cages, racing up ladders, crossing ropes, building elaborate nests, etc. By contrast, boys tend to do as little as possible to create a nest, then flop down and sleep the day away. But at night, things are different! Boys will want to come out and play just as much as the girls will! they may not play as fast or for as long, but my boys race over me as I watch a movie, sit on my books and explore my eyeglasses while I’m trying to read, jump from one shelf to another just for fun. Girls are faster (no contest there) and tend not to sit on your lap as much as boys, but all this changes with age.

By 18 months, many of my girls will slow down enough to sit on my lap. The boys at 18 months will probably cuddle longer and be less likely to “race” anywhere!

My girls will frequently climb up my leg to get to me. My boys might come over to my foot, think about climbing, then change their minds.

If you have children who want to play with the rats during the day, girls are probably a better option, though the boys may learn that playtime is during the day and may wake up especially just to have fun.

True of False? Bucks Smell More 

In my experience, this is true. They’re bigger; they eat more; they have more oil in their coats. I don’t mind this about bucks but if you are someone who really hates the smell of rats I’d go for smallish does. Does tend to weigh between 350–500 grams, but can be more! Male rats range from between 450–700 grams. I have heard of a couple that top 850 grams.

Another point: if you are mildly allergic to rats you may get on okay with does but not with bucks.

Caution: bucks mark more, which means they dribble urine sometimes. If this drives you crazy, go for does.

True of False? Bucks Cannot He Introduced to Other Bucks

Not exactly true, no.  An adult buck will usually accept a couple of baby boys, ages 9-14 weeks, without difficulty as long as the introductions are done correctly. But introducing adult bucks to adult bucks is trickier. I’ve known people who have done it without any problems but please remember that rats who are strangers to one another can fight. The injuries can be serious or even fatal.

Those who are successful at introducing adult bucks to adult bucks almost always use the “carrier method”, about which I will write shortly. However, I personally do not like to introduce adult bucks to one another. I’m too concerned about injury.

By contrast, I have successfully introduced adult does to adult does with little to no fuss. I use the carrier method and watch for any signs of trouble. All my intros have been incredibly easy. This may be due to the rats I have, but I think it is true to say that does are generally easier to introduce to one another.

Everything depends upon individual personalities, of course.

True of False? Does Are Indifferent To Their Owners

Completely false! Makes me mad when I hear this! Does adore their owners! They just won’t sit in your lap for very long until they are a bit older. Have a look at Missy in this video and you’ll see that does can be just as much of “lap rats” as boys. However, everything depends on the age of the rats, how much you handle them, how much time they have to explore, and the “line” from which you buy your rats. Some lines produce more active rats than others. I am breeding for calm docile rats that make great pets. I don’t mind if they never win in the variety classes at shows — it doesn’t bother me at all.

I might add that bucks are pretty darn active as youngsters and that while some are licky, lovey “squishes”,  some don’t want to be “lap rats”. Again, it all comes down to the individual.

True of False? Bucks Are More Likely to Be Aggressive

Apparently, this is true though in my own experience, my bucks aren’t territorial or at all aggressive. They don’t bite me and I’m always reaching into their cages and messing about with “their” stuff. Both bucks and does tend to taste your toes — I have no idea why — but they don’t bite them as such. They may decide to give your fingernails a manicure, too. This amuses some, annoys other. Does will sometimes get a bit shark-like just after giving birth (though often not). Bucks begin “play fighting” at about 5 weeks of age and will occasionally get into scraps with each other as adults. Does do the same, but at a lower level.

Do not try to break up a rat fight with your hands as you could get bitten in the process. The problem with rat bits is that they HURT. And bucks are bigger so,if you were to get bitten, it may be more serious.

True of False? Does Live Longer

Statistically, this is true In general, does live a couple months longer than bucks. This may be because bucks tends to gain more weight than does in their later lives. There’s a wonderful website with all sorts of statistics on rats. Among the various graphs and charts is one that shows how rats pretty much continue to gain weight throughout their lives, with the boys being more likely to become obese unless their diets are carefully controlled.

True of False? Does Have Bigger Vet Bills

Probably true, unless you have to neuter your male rat in which case, they will likely cost as much as a doe.  A does may need a spay or to have mamary tumours removed. Some rats never seem to get mammary tumours. Others get enormous ones. Bucks can get them, too, but are less likely to do so. I’ve had two does spayed recently and both bounced back really nicely and are now genderless, happy middle-aged rats who I hope live good long lives!