SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Caring For Rats

Rats are intelligent, inquisitive and sociable animals! They grow on average about 20-25cm and their life span is about 2-2.5 years.


Rats are omnivores, and will eat a variety of foods including vegetables, fruits, pellets, seeds and grains. High quality commercial rat pellets should be provided at all times. It is not recommended that rats are fed a diet that includes too many seeds or grains as these diets lack many nutritional requirements and increases the risk of obesity.

Fresh vegetables and fruits, such as broccoli, carrot, peas, apple and banana, should also be provided to maintain a balanced, nutritious diet.

Your rat should have free access to fresh water at all times, dripper bottles are great for this as they are less likely to become soiled than water bowls.

Enrichment ideas: Hiding and scattering portions of your rat’s daily food throughout their enclosure can encourage foraging behaviour and can be an enriching activity.


The more space you can provide for your rats, the better! Make sure the enclosure you choose is made from materials impervious to chewing, as rats love to chew and can be fantastic escape artists. Enclosures with multiple levels are a great way to encourage normal behaviours and exercise.

It is best to position the enclosure in a quiet, undisturbed area away from the main activity of the home and away from any draughts and direct sunlight. Rats are sensitive to extreme cold and heat dehydration, and can experience heat exhaustion when temperatures exceed 30°C.

Line the enclosure with an absorbent substrate, such as shredded paper or recycled paper kitty litter. Rats are sensitive to high ammonia levels in the air (produced by rat urine), which can lead to respiratory tract infections. It is important to clean the enclosure and replace substrate regularly to keep ammonia levels down.

You will also need to provide your rats with nesting materials, such as shredded paper, and a nest box, such as igloos or cardboard boxes. Small hammocks can also be used. Rats love a place to hide, so it is best to provide multiple shelters and boxes. Rats also love to play so it is important to add exciting things to their enclosure to climb and explore. This can include ramps, platforms, boxes to climb, rope ladders, toys and safe chewable items. You can pick these up at pet stores or you can make your own.

Rats are very social and it is important that they are housed with another rat as a companion. Ideally, the companion should be a same-sexed littermate (sibling) or a same-sexed rat of a similar age.


Signs of a healthy rat include: a healthy coat (e.g. no patches of missing fur), clear bright eyes, well-formed poo, pink gums, clean and even teeth, healthy feet without sores and are active and curious.

Rats require regular veterinary care and check-ups. In addition, you can give your rat daily health checks.

Things to watch out for include:

  • Not eating or drinking
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dull coat or hair loss
  • Discharge from eyes/dull eye colour
  • Discharge from nostrils
  • Abnormal breathing
  • Weak hind legs
  • Scratching excessively
  • Weight loss
  • Dirty teeth
  • Abnormal lumps or bumps

Please consult your veterinarian immediately if you notice any of these signs of illness.


Rats are active, intelligent and curious animals that require exercise and mental stimulation for optimal health. They are excellent climbers, jumpers, and love to investigate, forage and explore their enclosures and toys.

Some rats will love ‘scritching’, which is the collective term for petting, rubbing, massaging, scratching, cuddling, grooming and tickling. Some rats will happily relax for hours during scritching sessions. Calm, gentle handling every day from an early age can be a great way to develop a positive relationship with your rats. It's important to never grab or scare your rats and never pick up a rat by their tail! A relaxed, gentle manner is always best when handling and be sure to support their whole body using both of your hands.

Training your rats, using positive, reward-based training, is another way to develop a positive relationship with your rats and can be a very enriching and fun activity for all involved.

Enrichment ideas: Rats love chew toys, e.g. branches from fruit-bearing trees, hard-shelled nuts, wood chew blocks, baby teething rusks and wine corks. Rats may also enjoy chasing around feathered cat toys. It’s a good idea to rotate your rat’s toys weekly, to keep your rats interested and engaged.

Additional Information

Visit the SPCA Kids’ Education Portal (www.spca.nz/kids) for more information on caring for your companion rats, including enrichment and training tips and helpful videos!

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