Are owners truly looking after their pet rats?
A blog by Chloe Stevens, our scientific officer for animals in science and Jane Tyson, our senior scientific officer for companion animals.
Did you know that here at the RSPCA we have a team of animal welfare scientists? We help to make sure all of our advice and activities are based on the most up-to-date understanding of animals and their welfare needs.
This World Rat Day (4th April), two of our team members are highlighting some of the latest information about how best to care for pet rats, based on a recent project carried out by expert Dr Vikki Neville from the University of Bristol.
An expert look into the true needs of pet rats
Around 200,000 rats are kept as pets in the UK, but less is known about their day-to-day wellbeing than other popular pets, like cats and dogs.
To find out more about how pet rats are looked after at home, Dr Neville and her colleagues conducted a survey of rat owners. This survey was completed by more than 650 people from around the UK.
Dr Neville explains the importance of understanding welfare needs:
Understanding how companion animals are cared for is a vital step in working out what we need to do to, if anything, to improve their welfare. This allows us to produce the most effective advice for owners on how to best look after their pets.
Surveys of pet o
wners are a really useful tool for getting a large amount of data in a short amount of time and in our case, gave us some valuable insights into the living conditions of pet rats.
Survey reveals common rat care misconceptions
Dr Neville and her team were pleased to find that plenty of rat owners are already providing their rats with lots of the things that they need. For example, almost all rats were housed with others, except for a few cases where this wasn't possible (such as when a companion rat had died). Rats are social animals and need the company of other rats, so this was great news!
The results of the survey also showed that rat owners were great at providing their pets with lots of toys and objects in their cages. While, almost all owners were also interacting and playing with their rats every day, which is really important for building bonds between rats and owners.
Although the survey did reveal lots of good news about how rats are cared for, there were also some areas where things could be improved. Some rats didn't have access to separate 'bedding' or 'nesting' materials, but it's really important to give rats both.
Materials like wood chips can make good bedding, while shredded paper or tissue paper works well to allow rats to build their own snug nest for sleeping in. Some owners did report using sawdust to cover the floor of the pen or cage, but this can often be too dusty for rats, so it's best avoided.
Freedom to explore
Allowing rats time to explore outside of their cages can be a great way to keep rats happy and stimulated, but lots of owners sadly didn't do this. If you have pet rats - why not try supervising your rats as they explore a secure room, or even creating a rat playpen with lots of toys and space to run?
What was most concerning was that a small number of owners reported that they never took their rats to the vet. Rats can get ill and suffer from health problems just like any animal, so please remember to keep an eye on all your pets for potential problems and take them for regular check-ups too!
There's more information about looking after rats on our pet rat care advice pages.
What about laboratory rats?
Of course, surveys like this don't just help us understand how best to care for pet rats - the information gathered can also be really useful for rats in other settings, such as when they're kept in laboratories.
Dr Neville noted that pet rats are really motivated to perform a wide range of different behaviours - like climbing, digging or rearing up on their back legs to explore their surroundings.
Unfortunately, rat housing in laboratories usually doesn't provide rats with the right environment to carry out these important behaviours. We've been calling for laboratory rats to be housed in larger cages or pens, with more things to do, for a long time and it's something we're hugely passionate about.
Rat owners also reported that their rats performed behaviours like bruxing (tooth-grinding), 'boggling' (where a rat's eyes pop in and out), and also bounding when their rats were happy. The presence or absence of these behaviours in laboratory rats may allow us to better understand rat welfare in laboratories.
Dr Neville explained:
Rats are such intelligent creatures and are full of personality, just like tiny dogs, and I think they deserve the best life we can give them ¿ if our research helps to improve their welfare then I would be delighted.
In fact, some of the survey respondents' favourite things about their rats were that they are affectionate, entertaining, friendly and intelligent.
Rehome a rescue rat
If you feel like you could give a home to some of these lovely animals, why not take a look at Find a Pet to see what small furries are currently available to adopt!