The right starter pet for you? (Part 1)

Rats

Three pet rats sitting next to one another
Image Source: Tambako the Jaguar

Typically speaking, I tend to avoid the phrase ‘starter pet’ as this indicates that there is any pet in this world that requires anything less than complete commitment, dedicated research, and specialist care. However, I will concede there are some pets that are definitely NOT starter pets. Though a budgie is much more high maintenance than you might initially believe, they’re undeniably easier for a new bird owner to look after than, say, a macaw. The most important thing to consider, however, is perhaps not how high or low maintenance a pet may be, but rather how well their needs will fit your lifestyle. If you work from home and have a lot of time to spend with an animal, a highly demanding pet like a dog or a bird might be appropriate, whereas a more independent animal like a reptile or hamster might be better suited to someone who spends less time at home, and is perhaps a bit of night owl. 

If you’re considering your very first pet, the best advice I can give is to research, research, research. Ensure that you never trust just one source, as opinions always differ on best practice and a lot of advice out there is outdated. To start you on your journey, I am going to be doing a series of articles looking into some of the best and most common starter pets, to evaluate their pros and cons and find out who might be best suited to each type of animal. 

Today’s article is going to focus on one of the most misunderstood pets. Though many people find their hairless tails grotesque, I think they more than make up for that by being both adorable and affectionate. I am, of course, referring to rats.

Rats make surprisingly good starter pets
This is Pesto, one of The Nature Nook’s two pet rats.

Rats often get a bad reputation for being dirty or nasty creatures, but in truth, rats are fantastic pets. These robust little creatures are particularly suited for children (with adult supervision) as they are highly energetic and extremely personable. Being very social animals, they can genuinely learn to enjoy your company and often won’t mind a child who wants to play with them for hours at a time. Though no animal should ever be left alone with a young child, rats benefit from being extremely hardy and are able to not only tolerate but actually enjoy more rambunctious play. That is not to say that you can toss your rat around, but whereas other small animals, such as mice, become very easily frightened, a rat is more likely to enjoy your company and actively want to play with you. 

Rats are also extremely intelligent and will enjoy the enrichment of being taught tricks or given puzzles, which can be delightful to watch and great to show off to friends. Many rats will have a fantastic time if allowed to run outside of their cage. It can be extremely fun to set up cardboard mazes for them or to simply watch them scamper around. A rat will require a lot of playtime, so if you are considering this pet ensure that you have at least an hour free each day to allow them to free roam. You may also see the need to have a designated rat room, which you can make safe by removing electrical wires, and ensuring all small spaces they could get stuck in are covered up. 

With such adorable personalities, most people who take on rats find themselves wanting more and more. But if you are the kind of person who would prefer to have just one pet to bond with you completely, rats won’t be right for you as they should always be kept in groups of at least two (preferably in same-sex groups, unless you want an overabundance of babies). Rats will sometimes scrap, but usually, if they have enough space, toys and food, these small disputes won’t cause either rat any harm, and they will gain a lot more than they lose by sharing their home with another of their species. Rats simply love playing with each other and you will get to see them sleep cuddled up together, which makes for very adorable viewing. 

Two pet rats resting together in their cage
Rats are social animals, and Pepper and Pesto love cuddling up together.

Unfortunately, rats do have an extremely short lifespan of only around two years. This can be very sad as people often bond extremely closely with their rats. However, this does make them a relatively short-term commitment – ideal, perhaps, for a student or someone else whose circumstances are liable to change in the near future. It is worth bearing in mind that you will have to say goodbye to your beloved pet a lot sooner than you would most likely want to, but while their time is short, they will definitely make the most of it if you give them enough space. 

There are some other drawbacks to rat ownership too. Rats are surprisingly clean animals – they groom themselves often and can even be litter trained – but they do release small amounts of urine very frequently. Yes, even while you’re handling them. This means you may want to have specific clothes to handle your rats in, and ensure that you clean their cage extremely often to keep them hygienic and prevent a build-up of ammonia. Rats, like most rodents, have fairly sensitive respiratory systems that are particularly prone to infection. This means that finding the right bedding to absorb the urine, keep the cage smelling fresh for as long as possible, be soft on your rat’s feet, and also be dust-free so as not to affect their breathing can be somewhat of an uphill battle. Many rat owners spend a lot of money trying out different beddings to find the perfect one that works for them. But no matter what you choose, it is imperative that you change it very frequently, as well as cleaning their toys, hammocks, and cage. 

Being such high energy creatures, rats also require a lot of space. A large cage and plenty of time out of it are therefore necessary for anyone who wants a rat. Cages intended for large parrots, such as macaws, can be easily repurposed to become fantastic rat cages if you’re struggling to find one that is just right. A wide cage is important for a lot of animals as it allows them space to move from side to side while they are shut-in, but the benefit of rats is that they are fantastic at climbing. This means that, with the addition of plenty of platforms, hammocks, and other things to climb on, a nice tall cage can be just as good a space for your rats as a wide one and might fit your home better. The cage on its own won’t be good enough, though. If you’re going to commit to this pet, you’ll need to make sure you have the money to constantly replace enrichment toys once your pet has chewed them to pieces. Like all rodents, rats have perpetually growing teeth and will need lots and lots of toys to gnaw on to keep their teeth down and their brains busy. 

If you have plenty of free time and some extra space in your home, rats make a fantastic addition to the family, and their playful, friendly nature is sure to delight you. Rats are possibly the pets I recommend to people most often, on account of their relatively easy care when compared to many other commonly kept animals, and their hardy, adaptable and extremely intelligent little personalities.

In the next article in this series, I’ll be exploring if hamsters are the right starter pet for you.

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