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I am going to make the assumption that you have just purchased a rat (from the rattery or otherwise) and you have got it at home, the family are all looking at it, gathering round it, poking it (sorry stroking it), and generally wondering why the rat is cowering inside a toilet roll tube.

Firstly, I would always recommend that you have more than one rat - two is good, three is better. Inevitably there is the rat that we love and the rat that we like; but not quite as affectionately. If you have three rats then the effect of seeing your cagemate always being handled whilst you sit in your cage isn't quite as bad.

One very important thing to do is read. Read everything about rats and their behaviour that you can, and then read between the lines.

Nextly cages, what type of cage? There is a very 'nice' rat starter kit available in most pet superstores - I don't recommend these. They tend to be about 1 1/2 feet long , 1/2 foot wide and 1 foot deep. Invariably this is only good for a rat that is under about 12 weeks, or one that is getting on and doesn't (or can't) move around that much. So you should have got a cage that is as big as possible - the cage shown on this page is one that I have built myself. It is 3 foot square by 18 inches wide. If you want to have a go at building one yourself, click on the picture and you can go to Paul Spooner's web page for wire etc. If your not feeling that adventurous I can make a cage for you. E-mail me if you want more info, or go to the Cage Page for pictures of our cages. It is always best to have the biggest cage you can get. Don't worry when you see your little kittens in it at first, they will grow into it.

Now let's assume that you have set yourself up with your rat(s). It's time to let them settle in and gradually get to know you. I find that the best way to let a new rat get to know you is to let it 'shoulder ride'. This is something rats love doing - sitting on your shoulder whilst you walk about the place. It builds their confidence in you and in their surroundings by letting them see that you are not there to harm them and by allowing them chance to see and smell different things.

Make sure you get the right type of food. There is a company called Jollyes that do a fantastic rat food - their e-mail address is info@jollyes.co.uk - web site being http://www.jollyes.co.uk . The problems that can be suffered by a rat if they aren't given the type of food can be awful and can include obesity, malnutrition, fatty tumours and absesses (the list is almost endless). The wrong diet is very often reflected in the rats' coat and the skin under it. Often what is a dietary fault can be diagnosed by many owners as fleas or mites. This can lead to stress that the poor little rat really doesn't need.

A lot of information advises not to use shavings. This is due to respiratory conditions sometimes picked up by rats kept on shavings. This tends to be more of a problem in the US due to the different type of shavings used there. Most shavings found in the UK tend not to cause too many problems. Avoid pine and cedar shavings, which contain a number of substances that can iritate the rat's respiratory tract.

We were told of a type of cellulose based cat litter called Bio-Catolet, which is also suitable for rats. We got some and found our lives to be improved dramatically. As our rats live in the living room, this type of cat litter has two advantages over shavings, mainly: there is less mess, as the bio-catolet does not get spread all over the carpet like shavings do, and also it tends to mask that familiar ratty smell. I would highly recommend bio-catolet to anyone who has one cage with a small number of rats, that may need cleaning out every one and a half or two weeks - it is a little more expensive than shavings but lasts so long it is well worth it (sold on the idea yet?) We currently don't use Bio-catolet for our larger cages and breeding rats. Instead we use Ideal Bedding from n-virotek. This is in fact a horse bedding, but it is very cheap and can be easily purchased and unlike shavings it won't go all over your living room floor! Our rats seem to prefer Ideal Bedding - it is made up of chopped cardboard, and they seem to enjoy piling it all up to make huge nests out of it!

Free Range or Not Free Range?
I can say that our rats live in a semi-free range environment in that they venture out of their cages daily and are left to their own devices.

The free range debate is one that you will have to face if you want to keep rats. Will you or won't you let your rats run around?

It is of course up to you but I personally would recommend it. It gives them a chance to interact with you and each other and explore their surroundings unrestricted by you. It is the best source of exercise they can have and keeps them fit, healthy and mentally alert, as they have the opportunity to adventure and explore in a way that you can never artificially create in a cage.
Remember also that the term for a group of rats is a mischief of rats! It is natural for rats to gnaw on anything they can get near, so if you do let your rats out you will need to ensure that all electrical wires and cables are out of reach.

Rat Breeding

Although I don't recommend that everyone starts breeding - far from it - it is inevitable that some people will. It is important therefore that those who do understand some genetics and have a clear idea what the outcome of a mating will be. For those who are new to breeding, but would like to know the likely outcome of a mating then you should try the genetics engine on A rat web site that enables you to predict what the likely outcome of a mating will be. Just put in the rats that you want to breed with as much genetic information as you know and this engine will predict what the litter will contain.

First of all, if you want to buy any toys for your rats and you live in the UK you should visit this site: www.ratmad.com This is being constantly updated by Lucie Mann and should fulfill most rats desires for toys.

I am not therefore going to look at toys that you can buy specifically for rats, rather look at ways that you could build your own toys or toys that you can buy for other animals that are suitable for rat use as well.

Ropes are an essential part of a rat cage. They can be used to link areas of rat cages together such as different levels or from one level to a door. They also provide your rats with exercise that is challenging (by virtue that they have to balance) and good for them.

Ropes can be bought and made, obviously normal rope is perfectly fine but I use bird ropes that are made from dental string (floss made into rope). This is really chew resistant and can be cleaned easily as well - these bird ropes are also usually easy to attach to the side of the cage.

Rats love tubes, they love running through them, hiding in them and sleeping in them.

They can be easily made from any tube that you can get hold of, such as drain pipe tubing or cardboard carpet roll tubing. These can also be hung from the side of the cage using wire.

Plant Pots.
I swear by plant pots in my cages. All the cages have plant pots in them for the rats to hide or sleep in. These can also be attached to the side of the cage with wire, and your rats will love sleeping in them. Cut a hole in the side that is pointing down and your rats will be able to enter it from a new direction and pee will easily drain from their sleeping area (stopping it and them getting too smelly).

Bird Toys.
Have an experiment with bird toys. In some cases these can be ideal because they are designed for birds that live in cages and most rat products don't utilise the versatile nature of the cage.

Rat Mazes.
Anyone with a pair of pliers and a bit of wire can make a stimulating rat maze. These can be made to go inside the cage or can be made to place on the door of a cage - that way the rats have to navigate their way out of the maze if they want to explore outside.

Rat Bath.
Every now and then rats are going to need to be bathed - and usually they hate it and you for doing it. There is a better way!

Get hold of a plastic storage box, place a clean brick in the middle of it, then fill the box to just below the top of the brick (make sure the water isn't too cold or too hot). Then get some wire and bend it round the corners of the storage box, put some animal friendly shampoo in if you wish and then a rat. They won't like it at first but after a few goes they will grow to love it.

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