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Bringing Home Baby

Posted 03-23-2012 at 10:38 AM by

So now you have your new rats selected and are going to bring them home. Ack! Now what? Here are some tips to make your first few days as smooth as possible. (And even if you already have them home and realize that everything you've done is full of the phrase 'oops', this will still help you reverse gears and get on the right track. Ratties are easy little monkeys who never hold a grudge.

Before they come home:

Purchasing a Cage:

Most ready made cages sold in pet stores will be much too small, even if they say they are 'for rats'. Ferret cages are often closer in size, but have 1 inch bar spacing, which is much too wide to keep any but the largest adult male rats. Remember, anything a rat's head can fit through, his whole body can fit through. Critter Nation is an appropriate ready made cage commonly available in stores, but it is also the most expensive @ $400 dollars average. If that's too much for a starting budget, I have included links to many great cage options here, some of which can be assembled yourself for as little as $50 dollars:

In short, you will need bare minimum 2 cubic feet per rat, with the narrowest side being at least 18 inches long with a bar spacing of no larger than 1/2 inch.

Here is a handy cage space calculator:

Cage Set Up:

I'll cut to the chase here and offer the following link that discusses everything from toys, cage types, and safe bedding:

If you'd like to know what we use at our house, here's a list:

Food Dishes:

This can be anything, but I would recommend flat bottom containers that a 2 lb rat cannot easily tip over or gnaw to bits. I use ceramic cat bowls.

Water Bottles:

You don't /need/ a water bottle, but it is far and away much more sanitary and non-messy than a water bowl. Also, they can't tip it over while you are away, causing them to be without fresh water for hours. I use two of these for my 3 rats:


I line my cage with a layer of felt/flannel, baby-pinned in place that I purchase cheaply from the remnant shelf at Jo-Ann's fabrics. This absorbs urine from my pee-monsters, and it is washable. Also, if they chew holes in it,felt/flannel doesn't fray, leaving string bits that can tangle in rat feet, or strangle them.

I also sometimes use Aspen wood shavings--once again, NEVER pine or ceder. The downside is that they can kick it out onto the floor, and it clings to everything like velcro.

In addition, I have a ferret litter box my boys use. I use a different style bedding in that so that they associate walking on that type bedding only with potty time. I use Yesterday's News for the litter box.

Climbing Shelves:

Since the cage I use came second hand with no shelving, I went cheap here. I zip tied plastic mini-bins in a couple of different locations, and made comfy hammocks out of flannel that I pin in place with oversized baby-pins. My favorite hammock is nothing more than an outgrown 3T toddler sweatshirt hoodie. They get washed once a week, and discarded when they get too many holes in them.

I've also included a wooden bird ladder and a flannel braided doggy chew tug o' war rope for climbing.

Hiding Places:

Rats feel more secure if they have a hiding place to retreat to when things get too stressful. I had a big cheap plastic party bowl from Party City left over from Halloweens past. Using a wire cutter, I cut a hole in the side, and then ran a lighter flame over the ragged edges to smooth them down. Here's a picture:

You can also use 12 pack soda can boxes; cracker boxes; PVC pipe joints (3-5 inches in diameter); paper bag; Etc.

Toenail Rasper:

Rat nails are needle sharp. If you are like me and don't like doing the 'deed' of clipping your rat's needle sharp toenails as often as you should, get a brick or flat rough paving stone from Lowes and put it in their cage at a high traffic location like the cage door opening. Every time they run across it, they file their nails naturally. It cuts down on you having to do it so often.

First Day Home:

Ratties are home. Pfew. It's a stressful day for them. As much as you'd like to hug and snuggle them, this is the time to give them some space to calm down, relax, and claim this strange new house as their own. Give them at least one full day of complete privacy.

Handling Your Rat:

After a day or three to become accustomed to their new home, you can start getting to know them. Your rat may be a little shy or frightened at first, but be patient. A few tips to know:

1) What if he runs from me? It's more normal that they run from you at first than that they'll come right up to you. Don't worry. Just go slow and take time to let him get to know you. Talk to him. Lay your hand flat in the cage for him to explore. Put his cage in a room where you and your family frequent so he can become used to the sounds and smells of people. Offer him treats. While some rats are completely calm from day one, gentling can take time, sometimes weeks if your rat is a pet store rat who has been particularly traumatized or never handled. Rats are cautious in new situations. You'll find they will check something out and test it a few times before they are comfortable going to the next level of trust. In the beginning especially, it's often better to let him come to you.

2) Never pick up a rat by the tail. I know you have probably seen this before, but it is the equivalent of someone lifting you up off the ground by your wrist. It hurts, and it can damage a rat's tail, sometimes even causing the skin of the tail to be stripped off, an injury called de-gloving. The best way to pick up your rat is by bringing your hands low to either side of him and gently scoop him up between your hands. This supports him, doesn't hurt him, and gives him a chance to see you coming. Try not to swoop down on him from above as this is a predatory action to a rat.

3) Never offer food through the cage bars. Rats have poor eyesight and will begin to equate anything put through their bars as something eat-able, including your fingers or other body parts. This teaches them to be bitey, not because they are mean, but because you've taught them poor manners. Sometimes rats will put their teeth on your fingers. They are not trying to hurt, they are testing for food, or they are trying to groom you. Do your best not to pull back or jump, because if you do they may find that a fun little game to continue. Instead, hold still as possible and give a high pitched 'squeak'. Needless to say, that's rat for 'Owie, no teeth please'.

4) For nervous rats, a bonding pouch helps. When I brought my boys home and wanted to carry them on my person, I used a small blanket or pouch for them to hide in whenever they got insecure. This made them feel safe and helped build trust.

Mostly, working with your rats mean spending time with them is what will make the difference. Spending 20 minutes a day paying direct attention to them in some way will go a long way. Letting them spend free range time in your presence where they can approach you at their leisure also helps.

Next: Free range time and Rat proofing your house.

To Be Continued.
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