Fancy Rat Frequently Asked Questions

Fancy Rat

What’s a fancy rat?

This is a specialty rat that conforms to some rat club standard, such as hairless, odd-eye, chinchilla, dalmatian, rex, apricot. Many clubs set standards, judge rats, and award prizes. Many breeders supply pedigrees which help track the color genetics of rats used in breeding programs. There are no ‘purebred breeds’ of rats or such as might be found in dog or cats, as developing pure strains is not often a goal for rat breeders, who quite often are more interested in developing new colors, fur types, etc. Different types are referred to as varieties, rather then breeds. Such as tailless, dumbo, hairless, rex and standard.

Fancy rats live 2 to 3 years. In rare cases they have been known to live up to 5 years. Breeders are trying to breed rats with more longevity, but its difficult since it takes many years of careful selection. The fancy rat is often bred for good temperament, unlike feeder bred stock. In most cases, fancy rat breeders are more interested in developing better rats, then making money, so the cost of a fancy rat from a breeder is not often much higher then the price of rats from a pet shop, but the quality of the animal as a pet can be determined easier when you can see what the parents are like. Pet shop rats can often be good pets, but there is often no way to determine their genetics or stableness of their temperaments.

How do I tell a male from a female?

The testicles on the male rats are rather large and it is quite easy to tell the male from the female. In rats under 2-3 weeks of age, it is a little more difficult. Males reach sexual maturity as early as 5-6 weeks of age. Females at 9-12 weeks, but a female should not be bred till at least 12 weeks old at the very youngest.

What should I feed my rat?

Rats are omnivores and will eat just about anything, but this is a better diet then feeding junk food. Lab Blocks=Purina Rat Chow/Small Animal Pellets are complete rat nutrition. These are about 3/4 inch long hard extruded greenish feed pellets. ~ 55c/lb. So are Harlen lab blocks (high quality!), which come in F4 (regular) and F6 (nursing and pregnant rodents) Big males should get dog-bones=MilkBones=AttaBoy because they are lower in fat, and old males tend to obesity. ~55c/lb. There are a number of other brands of lab blocks out there, some better then others.

Any brand of lab blocks will do in a pinch if you cannot find the above brands. Some people have been known to use dry dog food when lab blocks cannot be found, but dog food tends to be too high in protein and fat and may cause skin problems.

Small amounts of vegetables, fruit (fresh or dried), meal worms, crickets, high quality hamster diet, dried corn on the cob or low fat whole wheat bread are good as treats. Do not feed chocolate, potato chips and other obviously unhealthy junk foods as they tend to be high in fat and can lead to obesity, tumors and heart trouble. Avoid feeding too many nuts or other high protein items, not more then about %5 of the diet if possible due to the high fat content. Vitakraft (from Germany, but available in many USA pet shops) makes a number of small animal treats that most rodents love.
Nutri-Cal (vitamins) can be used once in a week for healthy or daily with sick, pregnant or nursing animals.

Plenty of fresh water should be available to the rat at any time. Oasis water bottles are best, due to the wide cap that makes the bottle last longer then the cheaper brands. Oasis also makes rather clever water bottle holders that have guards on the top and bottom, all but eliminating chewing. Old style glass tube water bottles tend to leak more then the ball bearing style metal tube style. Water bowls are not advised as they quickly become contaminated with bedding, food and waste.

Are table scraps OK?

Rats LOVE most human food. Avoid too much fat, protein or fiber. Chicken bones are very tasty and safe. Unlike dogs, rats gnaw bones to bits. A diet of table scraps would likely be too high in fat to consider. As a treat it is okay. Avoid chocolate as it is very high in fat, sugar and caffeine, which is not good for small animals. Rats have a high heart rate and caffeine raises the heart rate. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs.

Fruit and fresh or steamed vegies are much relished by rats, but only give as treats, not as a diet. Avoid iceburg lettuce as it is mostly water and can cause diarrhea.

Are leafy vegetables OK?

Excessive consumption will cause diarrhea. Iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value, though mustard greens, dandelion greens and such are good in small amounts. Edible flowers such as Hibiscus, Marigolds, etc. are good, but make sure you know what flowers or parts of flowers are edible before feeding them to rats. I am trying to work on a list of safe edible flowers.

English thyme sprigs seem to relieve respiratory symptoms in mice..There are many herbs that rodents can safely eat in small amounts, but research them before feeding and feed only a tiny amount when first offering it to avoid stomach upset.

My rat won’t eat or drink and is losing weight. What do I do?

Rat is sick. Provide a low water bowl and feed as hand-fed baby. Consult vet.

In cases where a low water bowl only gets shavings kicked into it and is doing no good at all or the rat is too sick to use it. Try this. Mix 2 teaspoons of sugar into 4 ounces of water and feed (with an oral syringe) as often as you possibly can. Hand feed with anything you can possibly get the rat to eat (high-fat) as rats will lose weight extremely rapidly when severely ill. Definitely seek treatment from a vet.

What kind of cage is best?

Rat is sick. Provide a low water bowl and feed as hand-fed baby. Consult vet.

In cases where a low water bowl only gets shavings kicked into it and is doing no good at all or the rat is too sick to use it. Try this. Mix 2 teaspoons of sugar into 4 ounces of water and feed (with an oral syringe) as often as you possibly can. Hand feed with anything you can possibly get the rat to eat (high-fat) as rats will lose weight extremely rapidly when severely ill. Definitely seek treatment from a vet.

Cracked aquariums are cheap, but where do I get a lid?

Various “terrarium” lids are available in pet shops, but they tend to be expensive and vulnerable to gnawing. I like to make my own lids. I cut a piece of plywood or particleboard to size on table saw. Then I make plunge cuts on table saw to take out center, leaving 2 inches all around. Then I cut 1/2 x 1 wire fabric and staple-gun it on. I like to cut wire fabric with heavy diagonal cutters, and trim with aviation snips. The snips leave a smoother cut. Wire wheel if necessary, but solid ‘steel’ wheels are safer.

Where rats chew on lids, I have found that habenro hot sauce or juice tends to cause most rats to not chew on the item, but shouldn’t be used on the food dish or they might avoid their food..:)

I made lids from 1/2 inch square wire mesh. Cut a rectangular piece that is 4 inches wider and 4 inches longer than the aquarium. Bend the sides so that two inches hangs down on all sides of the aquarium and bend the corners so they are reasonably square. Run steel shipping tape all the way around the aquarium (top, side, bottom, side), overlap the ends, and put a small bolt through the ends. This keeps the rats from pushing the top off. IMHO, this is simpler and cheaper than wood and wire.

What kind of bedding is best?

I found wood shavings best as long as they are not dusty or only chips. Curly shavings don’t pack down as much, and dry out better. Pine and cedar tends to cause resp. problems.

Aspen shavings are the best and are found by the name Sani-Chips at most feed stores and lab supply outfits. Newspaper bedding is not good for rats and colored inks can be toxic, so avoid newspapers. Corncob is okay, but not very absorbent or nice to sleep on. Corncob bedding also has a tendency to grow molds very quickly. There are also books which warn of corncob bedding causing “ringtail” in some rats. (ie. “Rats: a complete pets owner’s manual” by Himsel published by Barron’s;pp.21 & 58.)

Paper bedding (not newspaper) is fine for rats. Just make sure you use a good brand such as CareFRESH or Cellu-Dri. There are also several others. Sani-Chips are the best hardwood bedding available.

There is now both grass and straw pellets available. The straw pellets are sold under the name Critter Country and are highly recommended for reptiles as well as rodents, clump well and hold heat well in heated cages. They are the most expensive however.

Warning: Pine shavings have been known to carry red mites, cause liver and kidney damage, and respiratory disease. So can cedar. Also beware of feed stores that store their shavings of any kind next to live poultry, as I know more then one person who found mites in their shavings, but it was the fault of the feed store that the pigeon and chicken cages were right next to the stack of shaving bags.

Do cedar shavings cause respiratory disease?

Yes, they can, but dirty cages and drafty conditions can also lead to respiratory disease as well. Coming in contact with rats infected with viruses and then handling your rats without taking precautions can also be a problem.

The ammonia in urine is said to irritate the lungs, so don’t let your cages get too wet and dirty. Cedar can also cause liver and kidney damage. So can pine. See above section on bedding.

Can two males co-exist in one cage?

Generally only if one or both were young when introduced. Be sure the cage is just-cleaned so it does not have the one resident’s scent too much. Make sure each has a retreat in opposite corners. Also put a little vanilla or non-toxic smelly or deodorizing substance on both rats to kill their natural scent, thus they cannot tell who is who or even who’s cage it was. There might be a little scuffling at first, but after one rat has established he is the boss, both should get along fine.

Older males can be introduced, but its best to use the deodorizing method and realize that the two rats may fight anyway or never get along..Watch them carefully. Males can even be kept in larger groups if the cage is large enough. Do not add females to a cage with more then one mature male, as this will trigger territorial fighting between males.

Do rats need houses inside their cages?

No, but they love them. They like to jam themselves into small boxes. If you can get 7x7in. plastic boxes with holes, they can be washed. e.g. baby-wipe boxes, plastic corn poppers, newspaper rural-delivery tubes, 1/2 gal. milk cartons, old Playskool toys w/o bottoms. Plastic/PVC sewer pipe connectors come in many shapes and rats love to climb around them and sleep in them, just remember to get a size that will fit all the rats in the cage. It’s best not to give a new rat a box to hide in, as they might become territorial and attempt to nip when someone tries to reach into their ‘den’. Wait until the rat already knows you and wants to be with you.

Note: Plastic will be chewed by most rats and if this causes concern about possible ingestion, then there are wooded boxes available. Parakeet nesting boxes work pretty well if you are careful to not catch their tails when opening or shutting the lid. Hole may be cut larger for male rats or pregnant females, if they don’t chew it to fit themselves.

Should I get my rat a wheel?

Yes, if you want to. But be sure to get a larger one as he grows. Large rats will need 11″ chinchilla wheels (MJC). A wheel rat WILL get a curved tail. Not all rats will take to a wheel, but if it does it will use it a lot. Beware of wire wheels as feet and tails may be injured. Sheet metal style wheels are best.

My rat scratches his face and has sores. What’s he got? Mites?

The majority of the time it is NOT mites. Scabs are more likely to be caused by too much protein in the diet, allergy, or skin infection. Mites are only a possible cause.

If it is mites. I found Ivermectin (0.02 mL of 1% oral solution/lb, diluted with water to 0.1mL doses) best (MJC). This is available for horses at feed stores at about $44/25mL (2500 doses). Any vet can dispense less. Try to get vet to give you a vial with undiluted 1% and a syringe, and dilute and dispense yourself. Diluted Ivermectin will curdle. Treat all rats that could have come in contact. Clean and disinfect cages. Repeat if nec. at 1 week.
I have found that Zimecterin (horse wormer) works well. Take a little dab about the size that fits neatly on the flat part of a flat toothpick and smear it on the rats tongue. Repeat in 7-10 days. If you must use sprays, use the kind used on parakeets, such as 10 in one.

My rat sneezes. Should I treat him?

If its just sneezing after digging or sticking their nose into something, don’t worry about it. If there is red crusty stuff around the nostrils and the sneezing is not related to dust or such, then it is best to be safe and put the rat on an antibiotic. Don’t bother with Sulmet..Its worthless on rats and will cause internal bleeding in mice.

I’ve found the best antibiotic for rats to be Tylan. It comes in powder form (commonly sold for poultry) and can be added to water. Put 1/8 a teaspoon in 8 oz of water and change every 3 days. Keep the rat on the Tylan for no less then 10 days and even more then 30 in chronic cases. If the rat isn’t drinking enough due to the taste, add a small amount of Equal ™ sweetener to the water.

Most antibiotics are available through feed stores, larger pet stores and vets, though one can order it directly through mail order. Antibiotics like Baytril (enrofloxacin) however are only available through a vet or with a prescription. Baytril Note: CAUTION: Don’t use in growing animals (stunts growth)

In severe cases rats often will stop drinking and therefore medicine in the water will be useless. Severe cases should be taken to the vet, unless you have access to prescription drugs such as Cefa-Drops, Gentocin, Amikacin, etc. Also Bunni-Mycin nose drops are good. (MJC)

Keep cages cleaned every day during illness, to keep the spread of viruses or bacteria down. Disinfect with Parvasol, Air-Khem A-464-N or other anti-viral disinfectant. If nothing else is available, wash cages in bleach and water, then rinse well and sun dry. Even healthy animals should be cleaned and cages disinfected on a regular basis. Note: If you can smell it, then its worse for them and they have to live in it.

My rat makes a rasping noise when breathing. Is he dying?

Possibly. See above for treatment. Also keep him warm and out of drafts. Nutri-Cal vitamin supplement is great for times like this as the rat might not be eating as well. Note: Some rats will wheeze and rattle from irreparable lung damage. If this is the case treatment may not be indicated. If the rat actually is sick enough to be close to death, then treatment with the suggested drugs is not even close to being good enough. Gentocin injectable (.05cc per pound injected Subcutaneously once daily) is pretty fast acting, and combined with Cefa-Drops (.20cc per pound orally every 12 hours) is a life saver in most cases of severe respiratory infection. You should see improvement within a few days. (Gentocin and Cefa-Drops are mostly available from a vet. )

My rat’s head is crooked and he walks in circles. What’s wrong?

Called “Wry Neck”, antibiotics are definitely indicated. Treatment for respiratory should help, but some head tilt may always remain. Gentocin Otic Solution (ear drops) should also be used. Some rats never recover from head tilt however and often have trouble eating or cleaning themselves. Some rats suffer so much from it that it may be best to put them down rather then prolong the suffering.

Do pregnant rats need special care?

Lots of food: calories, protein, cheese, carrots, sweet potatoes, cat food, torn paper strips for nesting (non-scented tissue or paper towels).
Watch for vaginal bleeding. If no babies in 12 hours go to vet for Oxytocin injection to induce labor. If breeding date is known and bleeding is well before term, induce labor.

Some females will reabsorb the babies if they fail to give birth. Put them on antibiotics during this period.

Some people would advise taking the rat to the vet right away, but this is a matter of opinion on the part of some people and if you are not sure what to do, you can always call the vet and ask what the best course is. I haven’t lost any rats yet and haven’t taken any to the vet either for labor problems. Best to do what you feel is right.

Do nursing moms need special care?

Gestation for rats is 21 days and baby rats start eating solid food as early as 10 days old (when their eyes open), so the young develop rapidly, so they will need food. Lots of food. Cornbread enriched with soy flour is good. Cooked rice (white or brown) for moms and babies too. Small amounts of cat food or some Nutri-Cal spread on a bit of wheat bread is good.

Plenty of fresh water offered at all times.

Babies can be safely weaned as early as 3 1/2 to 4 weeks old, but it is suggested to not wean then till they are at least 5 weeks old, to make sure they get a good start. Precocious male babies who are trying to start mating should be weaned right away so they don’t get their mother pregnant, as they can be sexually mature as early as 5 weeks old in some cases.

What do I do if a mother dies before weaning her litter?

This may sound cruel, but sell babies for snake food if you are not willing to stay up long hours and hand feeding babies or there is no foster mother available. It is kinder then the pain and torment of the babies starving to death if you can’t feed them often enough. Or, if you have the time and patience, you can try to hand feed them. We use 1/2 cup 60:40 evaporated-milk:water mixture with 1 tsp. light corn syrup (Karo). Draw 1ml. into needle less syringe (MJC), heat.

Test on forearm … Feed one drop to each baby in hand. Repeat for entire litter. By second day they should be holding syringe like baby bottle. Stroke lower abdomen with wet finger to stimulate evacuation. When they can crawl, put Gerber Baby’s First Rice mixture into heavy glass furniture-caster cup. Also graham crackers or monkey chow soaked in milk mixture. Next feed non-fish wet cat food. They will love you forever.

Goat milk can be used instead of the evaporated-milk:water mixture. Honey can be used instead of corn syrup in a pinch.

Babies losing all their fur when hand raised is normal. It will grow back unless they were supposed to be hairless. 🙂

Your best bet though is to foster the babies onto another mother rat when available as hand raising is not always successful or practical. Mother rats are pretty good about accepting strange babies. If mixed well with their own, they can’t even tell them apart if they all smell the same. If the mother was lost due to respiratory disease, don’t risk infecting a foster mother or other rats. The best thing is to euthinize the babies to protect other rats from exposure and to prevent their suffering, as they will likely die anyway and the intensive handling of the sick babies to hand feed them will help spread the virus.

I took in 3 orphans once who, unknown to me were carrying corona and KRV viruses. Not only did those babies die, but I lost 15 other rats by the time the virus swept through and half those who survived were left with damaged lungs. I know from personal experience that sometimes one has to be a little more hard hearted towards orphaned baby rats.

If you have no foster mother available, call around to other ratteries and see if they do. I found its best as a breeder to breed females in pairs so I always have an extra ‘mother’ if needed.

Note: It is very important when feeding to be careful to not feed to quickly or the formula/milk may end up accidentally inhaled. The most common reason for death of hand-raised baby rodents is pneumonia due to formula getting in the lungs.

How can I comfort my rat if she is in pain? … at delivery?

Electric heating pad under half of aquarium (set on low), unless its too hot for added heating. Remove houses so you can monitor rat. Talk to a vet if needed, but rats are pretty good at having babies on their own and there isn’t much you can do other then watch for excessive bleeding or other signs of trouble. Some rats enjoy shredded paper towels at this time, but make sure they are the non-scented, no dyes (patterns), plain white ones. Try to avoid touching the new babies if you can help it, since this may stress the mother and even a loving, kissy rat may nip you if she views you as a threat to her babies. Its not generally a good idea to give a rat in labor aspirin or other pain killers as it may cause labor to stop prematurely in some rats. Best to let nature take its course.

What’s a blue rat?

This is a slate-blue rat similar in color to an Russian Blue cat. A random mutation found by chance in England c.1990 .

Some clubs now recognize a ‘Russian Blue’ color that is slightly different. One of the clubs calls very pale blue rats lavenders. But its a known fact that most clubs have trouble agreeing in what to call a color or the standards for colors they accept and even if the color is a new color or just a bad example of another color. Best to check with your own club leadership if you are not sure of what color your rat is. Sky blue is recognized as well and is a lighter shade of blue then a show quality blue. A pink-eyed pale blue would be considered a platinum.

How can I tell if my rat is in pain or ill? What if he is dying and suffering!?

The rat stands still, often its eyes are mostly closed and its hair stands on end. It may squeak if you touch it. It may even try to nip if you try to pick it up. It will tend to avoid or fight off contact from other rats and want to be by itself. Excessive sneezing, wheezing and coughing are signs of illness. Seek advice from a vet if unsure.

If you KNOW the rat is sick and know, for whatever reason there is no chance for it, you may be faced with the hard choice of putting your pet down in a humane manner. Please contact a vet for further assistance.

My male got into a fight and now he has a big abscess on his back. What should I do?

All wounds should be rinsed with Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) when they are fresh. This will prevent most wounds from closing and getting infected. Neosporin cream is good for healing minor wounds quickly. Normally an abscess will pop and drain on its own. If not, they normally kind of hard nodules under the skin. If this is the case, wait until a small scab forms and then squeeze gently. The scab will pop open and you can continue to squeeze out old semi-dried pus. Squeeze until all of this is out and watch to make sure more pus doesn’t form. Neosporin is okay, but not normally needed if oral antibiotics are used. Tylan or Tetracycline in the water is fine. Amoxicillin from the vet is better.

Note: Some people who don’t like using Hydrogen Peroxide, so here is one suggestion: Might I recommend as an alternative, then, Tea Tree Oil, which will also sterilize the wound, but to the best of my knowledge is not acid-based. It also has a really nasty smell, so they don’t lick it off (I’ve had a big problem with that when using aloe on little cuts and bruises; the other rats would pounce on the one placed back in the tank and lick every last bit of aloe off) and the other rats stay away (unless its something bad enough that warrants them being put in isolation, in which case this is not a worry!)

My rat rocks back and forth and seems to stare into space a lot. Is he sick?

Not likely. There are many theories as to why some rats do this. Poor eyesight, nervousness, etc. Since most of the rats that do it are red or pink eyed, its most likely poor eyesight.

There is also a theory that since a rats eyes are on the side of its head and not to the front like humans, then the rat is trying to focus forward by rocking, so that it can view the object with both eyes, though one at a time. Someday I’ll have to make a diagram for this one.

Can I get rabies if my pet rat bites me?

Highly unlikely. There has never been a case of a human catching rabies from a pet rat.

Here is a section of the CDC’s information concerning rabies in rodents:

Small rodents (e.g., squirrels, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rats, and mice) and lagomorphs (including rabbits and hares) are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to transmit rabies to humans. From 1990 through 1996, in areas of the country where raccoon rabies was enzootic, woodchucks accounted for 93% of the 371 cases of rabies among rodents reported to CDC (1,65,66). In all cases involving rodents, the state or local health department should be consulted before a decision is made to initiate antirabies postexposure prophylaxis (67).