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Breed: Rattus norvegicus
inquisitive, bold and intelligent
up to 3 years
Recommended for: teenagers, small homes


Rat. The mere mention of the word would send shudders down most (but not all) people’s spines. These mammals have shared a close although uneasy association with another mammal – man, for many thousands of years. Rats are mostly known for their role in the ‘black death’ or bubonic plague, resulting in the death of perhaps 25 million people in the 14th century. But the rat can only take half the credit. It was in fact the rat’s fleas which helped spread the disease.

There are in fact many hundreds of species of rat, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, was singled out and became domesticated on a large scale during the nineteenth century – primarily for use as the first laboratory rat. Over time pet owners became interested in rats when scientists began breeding for temperament and colour and soon after popularity for the pet rat grew.

There are now several rat fancier groups in Australia. The Australian Rodent Fanciers Society began in 1996 and now has branches in all states and territories other than the Northern Territory.


Domesticated rats grow to a body length of 12-15cm (5-6″) with a furless tail roughly the same length. Females (does) are long and athletic. Males (bucks) are more brick-like with a short, wide, masculine face.

The coat is glossy and sits close to the body. Coat colour can range from white (actually albino), black, grey, red, chocolate, champagne, fawn and more recently, blue. Depending on coat colour, eye colour may vary from black, ruby or pink.

Several coat patterns are also available. A solid coloured rat is called a ‘Self’. ‘Hoods’ are predominately white with colour on the head, shoulders and along the spine. A ‘Berkshire’ is reminiscent of the two tone car, the rat is coloured over the top with white underneath. Both of these types may also have a blaze of white down the face. These are called ‘blaze’. A more recent type is the ‘Downunder’. Developed in Australia, the Downunder is a variation of the Berkshire or Hood, with an additional strip of colouring along the belly. Hairless and rex (curly coated) rats are not widely available in Australia.


Ever inquisitive, the rat is a bold animal and enjoys the company of other rats. However rats are territorial and will fight if over-crowded. They are a social species and should be housed with at least one other rat in a suitably sized cage. It is ideal to own a pair of same-sex rats if just stating out as they are more likely to get along.

On occasions, males may become aggressive, particularly after reaching maturity at three months. This problem is best avoided if the buck is purchased from a responsible breeder who selects for a placid temperament, rather than from the pet shop where temperament is often not considered. Owners report that rats are relatively intelligent and with gentle positive reinforcement are trainable.


Rats are fairly easy to feed and love their food! Provide a good quality seed-based diet (such as oats or sunflower seed), supplemented with fresh fruit, vegetables and cooked chicken bones to help keep their teeth trim. Specially prepared rat pellets are also available from pet stores.

Supplementing the diet with occasional treats, especially sweet food, will help keep your rat interested in meals. Don’t feed lots of meat, it’s not necessary and should only be fed as a treat. Proper food storage is essential. It must be stored in rodent-proof containers so that outside rodents are not able to contaminate the feed. Obviously this applies to all pet food, regardless of the species, and isn’t difficult to do.

Health and lifespan

Having descended from laboratory rats bred specifically for medical research, pet rats are unfortunately susceptible to a range of health problems. Mammary tumours are not uncommon amongst the does, and many rats can suffer from respiratory diseases, particularly Mycoplasma Pulmonis, with its likelihood increasing if the rat is kept in poor conditions.

A rat’s susceptibility to many of these conditions is heritable and it is incumbent upon enthusiasts to select the healthiest possible lines to breed.

Rats don’t require any vaccinations though if you are bitten (enthusiasts say this is very rare if the rat has been bought from a responsible breeder), you must consult your doctor for a tetanus shot.

Rats have an average lifespan of about 3 years.

Breeding and cost

Rats can reach sexual maturity from as early as five to six weeks and are very easy to breed. The optimum breeding period is between 3 and 10 months. Average litter size is quite large, between 6 and 18 kittens and pregnancy will only last 21-23 days. It is best to take the males out of the cage once the female has delivered her kittens as they are very quick to breed again. Despite common belief, males do not eat their young. The young are born hairless, with eyes and ears closed and can be handled, however the mother may be a bit nippy on occasions. Females and males are easily identified and if you are buying a doe from a pet shop, assume that she is pregnant.

Space and exercise

 Rats need one hour free run time out of the cage per day. Girls are more active than boys and less likely to sit for a cuddle. They are excellent escape artists and will chew anything within reach, so ensure that the enclosure is escape proof.


Rats don’t smell and are in fact fastidiously clean animals. It is however important to thoroughly clean their cage regularly. This will protect their health, your health and minimise odour from droppings. Bedding and water should be changed daily. Claws can be kept blunt by placing a brick in front of the water container. Running over the brick will ware the claws down.

Getting started

Rats costaround $15 from a breeder or around $10 from a pet shop.

A suitable cage able to house four rats will cost around $80. The cage needs a separate area for eating and drinking, a toilet area and a sleeping area. Rat hammocks, ideal for allowing each rat its own space, are available via mail order.

Ideal owner 

Rats are generally owned by people with living space constraints. Many are owned by inner city families who want a pet for their child but are not prepared for a 15 year commitment. A rat can become very attached to its carer and make a great companion for someone who may want that unusual pet.

Further Information

We filmed this segment with members of the Australian Rodent Fanciers Society (AusRFS).


AusRFS of NSW, Incorporated
Email: [email protected]
Web: http://www.ausrfsnsw.com
Phone: (02) 9590 7693


AusRFS of QLD, Incorporated
Email: [email protected]
Web: http://www.ausrfs.org.au/qld
Phone: 0408 338 805


AusRFS of South Australia
Email: [email protected]
Web: http://www.ausrfs.org.au/sa
Phone: (08) 8322 6707


West Oz Rat Fanciers
Email: [email protected]
Web: http://www.ausrfs.org.au/wa
Phone: (08) 9279 3586


Australian Rat Fanciers Society of Victoria
Email: [email protected]
Web: http://www.ausrfs.org.au/vic
Phone: (03) 9440 7710

Rat Hammocks and other rat paraphernalia can be purchased from: ‘The Dapper Rat’ http://www.dapper.com.au