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What are the Dangers of Keeping Pet Rats?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are very few dangers of keeping pet rats, but only if those rats are domesticated and kept in cages. Rats that have ever been wild may carry a number of diseases that can be transmitted to humans. When the animals have never lived in the wild, the dangers of getting a disease from them are nearly eradicated. Even so, humans should not handle rodents that may have a disease if there is any risk of transmission.

While rats can carry many different diseases, ones kept as pet very rarely have any way of catching them. Diseases may be spread through bites and scratches and occasionally through contact on the skin. It is possible for a rat to carry a disease that is hazardous to humans without showing any symptoms, making it difficult to judge whether the animal is safe to handle. The best way for a pet owner to avoid getting sick is to keep his rats healthy and clean.

Rats that run around freely in a house are much more dangerous than those kept in cages. Diseases can be carried by rat urine and feces, which rats often drop wherever they walk. Also, because rats can get urine and feces on their feet, it is possible for a person to get sick from handling one and touching her face or food without washing her hands.

Other than diseases, the dangers of keeping pet rats are similar to those of keeping other pets. Rats can bite or scratch, and they can be aggressive if handled or raised improperly. Most are relatively small, meaning that the capacity of a rat to injure a human is likely less than that of a dog. Even so, bites can be painful and can get seriously infected, so it is not a good idea to touch or handle a rat unless it is familiar.

Most concerns over the dangers of keeping rats as pets are related to the history of wild rats spreading disease, not to domesticated rats. Not only are domesticated ones unlikely to spread diseases, but their diet and natural behaviors might even make them safer than animals like cats and dogs. Even so, a rat that looks sick or that has been out in the wild for any period of time should be inspected by a veterinarian. When they do spread diseases, those diseases have a tendency to be serious and are not always easy to diagnose because they are often rare.

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Discussion Comments

By anon997873 — On Mar 11, 2017

Hi DrTroubles,

Have you contacted an adoption group like PetFinder? The one local to us has been an amazing source of information about rats. She also has a Rat Pet Starter Kit that includes everything you will need--everything--to get started. I would contact an adoption group because that's where all the knowledge and resources are. They also have great contacts for honest, affordable veterinarians.

By anon935974 — On Feb 27, 2014

@shell4life: All animals can transmit disease to humans. Here is a partial list of what humans can acquire indirectly or directly from dogs:

brucellosis, campylobacteriosis, cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, hookworm, leptospirosis, leshmaniasis, Lyme disease, Q fever, rabies, ringworm, rocky mountain spotted fever and other tick borne illnesses, roundworms, salmonella, plague, MRSA infections, tapeworms, and wound infections.

If you are that worried, don't have any pets. Otherwise, take reasonable precautions and see your healthcare provider if there is an illness. You might want to check out the healthy pets section of the CDC website.

By anon301281 — On Nov 03, 2012

Best thing to do is clean the cage at least once a week (and there is sure to be more info on the internet like what to clean the cage with). While doing maintenance, wear a mask and gloves and wash you hands and where ever the animal crawled, wear an old shirt or something like it. To tell you the truth, there are some kinds of deadly diseases that we can get from any domesticated animal if they're not well cared for, and for the record, I think they are the best small pets you can have.

By anon299600 — On Oct 25, 2012

Domestic/fancy rats in Britain today are descended from laboratory-rat bloodlines. Lab rats were bred to have sterile saliva/stomach bacteria (their tums contain only healthy bacteria required for digestion). Therefore a pet rat is less likely to carry/transmit disease than a human. Yes, my rats are 'cleaner' than I am!

By anon293066 — On Sep 24, 2012

There are no dangers of having pet rats. Cleaning their feces and urine is probably a lot safer than cleaning a litter tray for your cat.

By BoniJ — On Nov 14, 2011

When I think about rats, I can't help thinking about the bubonic plague in the middle ages in Europe. The disease was transmitted by fleas that lived on the rats, but I can just picture the rats crawling all over their houses carrying those disease-ridden fleas.

I'm sure some people enjoy having rats as pets. But you couldn't be careless. If they got out of their cages, they could be a real problem and a risk for disease.

I'm happy with my pet cat.

By StarJo — On Nov 14, 2011

@tigers88 – I had a similar thing happen to me. My neighbors were breeding rats to sell as pets, and they had a couple of them escape. Unfortunately, they made their way over to my house.

Shortly after the neighbors told me about the escape, I began hearing horrible gnawing sounds in my walls. They were so loud, and I envisioned the walls collapsing on me.

I told my neighbors, but we didn't know how to capture the rats. One day, I went up in the attic and saw several baby rats scampering into the corner. I didn't want to kill them, because my neighbors considered them pets.

We set some humane live traps baited with cheese. Before long, we had captured all of them. Since they had been running wild all this time, they had to get checked out by a vet before they could be sold.

By shell4life — On Nov 13, 2011

@OeKc05 – That is exactly why I refuse to let my son get a pet rat. Even if there are reputable places to get them, there is always that risk. Is a rat really worth dying over?

Who would want a pet that could kill you just with a touch? Of course, you would have to keep its cage clean, and that would mean coming in contact with urine and feces every day.

I am thinking of getting my son a puppy instead. I'm not aware of any diseases that humans can catch from dogs, other than rabies, and I would make sure to keep up to date with the vaccinations.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 12, 2011

My neighbor is a vet, and she contracted leptospirosis from someone's pet rat. She got very sick and could have died if she hadn't realized what was going on in time to get treatment.

She had just gotten scratched badly by a cat, so she had an open wound on her arm. Her next appointment was with a sick rat. She wore gloves while holding him, but he urinated on her arm and across her scratch.

Within a few days, she started feeling like she had the flu. She ached all over and had a bad headache. Then, she started vomiting.

She knew that these were symptoms of leptospirosis, which you can catch through rat urine. She went to the hospital and got treatment. The doctor told her that if she hadn't, it could have possibly caused her kidneys to shut down.

By kylee07drg — On Nov 12, 2011

My young cousin wanted a pet rat for her birthday. I couldn't believe that her mother actually approved of this, but I agreed to get her one.

I went to a pet store and got a baby rat. I got the cashier to put it in a cage for me, because I refused to handle it. I am a germophobe, so you can imagine how hard it was for me to go get a rat and carry it in my vehicle.

I went straight to the vet from the pet store. I got the thing vaccinated and examined, and she said it was disease-free. Relieved, I took it to my aunt's house.

Since it's kind of hard to hide a rat in a cage, we gave it to my cousin right away, even though her birthday was still two days away. She was overjoyed and fell in love with it. I will never understand how she could have affection for something that I find so disgusting and scary.

By JaneAir — On Nov 11, 2011

I think the biggest danger of keeping pet rats is getting to attached to them. Especially if you get a pet rat for your children.

Rats don't have a very long lifespan. I believe most of them only live for a few years, unlike a cats or dogs (they can live for over a decade.)

Children are often heartbroken when their pets pass away. So if you're looking for a pet for a child, it might be smart to pick something a bit more long lived.

By JessicaLynn — On Nov 10, 2011

I read an article awhile ago that had some pet rats information. It said rats are actually supposed to be very good pets. They're supposedly very sociable.

However, I used to live in the city. As you can imagine, most cities have some kind of vermin. My former city had a ton of rats that would just run around like it was no big deal. I used to always joke that they didn't run across the street, they moseyed.

Anyway, I don't think I could ever convince myself to get a pet rat. Even though I know pet rats aren't dangerous, I just associate rats with those gross creatures that run around the city.

By ddljohn — On Nov 09, 2011

@alisha-- I've had three pet rats in the past and I have two right now. They are really great pets, not dangerous at all. They do like to nibble on things, but they're not going to eat your ears while you sleep. And you should keep them in their cage most of the time anyway.

I've gotten my pet rats both from breeders as well as from pet stores. I think that rats at the breeders are equally at risk of getting sick as rats in stores are. My three rats died of old age and genetic tumors, not from disease. As long as you get your rats from a certified place, they will be fine. Just keep in mind that there is no guarantee about how long they'll live.

By tigers88 — On Nov 09, 2011

One of the real dangers of keeping pet rats is that they might get out and live in your house.

A few years ago we bought my daughter a few pet rats, two males and two females. One day she left the door of the cage open and of course they escaped. Well later that winter we ended up with a pretty serious rat problem in our house. It seems that our four rats had mated with each other and produced a number of offspring who were living in our walls and ceilings.

The problem became so bad that we had to call in a professional exterminator. I know that this problem is not very common, but it could happen to you too.

By discographer — On Nov 08, 2011

I really want to get a pet rat but my mom won't let me. She thinks that it will bite away at our ears when we're sleeping! This sounds so childish to me but it has been impossible to change her mind about it.

I think the only danger of a pet rat would be disease like the article said. I think it would be best to adopt a pet rat from a home rather than getting one from a pet store. I feel that too many rats live together in stores and they might easily infect one another with a virus if one of them is carrying something.

If I can manage to change my mom's mind, I hope to adopt one of my own. I've even thought of pet rat names for when that time comes! There are lots of good options, but I think I would name him or her 'Ratatouille,' from the movie!

By lonelygod — On Nov 07, 2011

@drtroubles - If you are looking for quality pet rat cages it is a good idea to buy from a pet store that has a large selection of rodents. A lot of stores carry cheap cages that are just good for hamsters and aren't that secure in my opinion.

As far as keeping your pets happy and clean, you'll need to make sure you have enough material for bedding and plenty of pet rat toys. As far as cleaning your pets goes, rats are actually really neat animals and spend a lot of time grooming. You might just want to pick up some simple pet shampoo in case you really feel your rat needs a bath. Also, get their nails trimmed on a regular basis by a professional.

By drtroubles — On Nov 07, 2011

My friend has pet rats for sale and I have had a tough time of convincing my wife that buying pet rats is a good idea. She seems to think that they all carry disease and are prone to biting. Learning that pet rats can actually be safer than cats and dogs is a bit of a relief.

Does anyone have any tips for how I can make my cages for pet rats as safe as possible? Also, what pet rat supplies do I need to keep them clean?

I don't want to leave anything to chance when I bring home my new pets. I know if I cover all my bases my wife can't say anything negative about my new critters.

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