Do Mice and Rats Make Good Animal Companions?

Are mice or rats right for your family? Possibly, if you know a little about them before you decide to adopt.

Cute mice snuggled up in cozy bed © iStock.com/rihast

Avoid Getting Mice and Rats From Breeders and Pet Stores

Just like dogs, mice and rats are supplied to pet stores by mass breeders, who aggravate the problem of these animals’ overpopulation and their resulting abandonment and abuse. Shipped to distributors in cramped containers that are breeding grounds for parasites as well as viral and bacterial pathogens, they often reach pet stores ill, malnourished, or pregnant.

Small animals provide these stores with only a modest profit, and their deaths are considered a minor loss to the businesses. Their living conditions in the stores generally reflect this. You can commonly spot animals with a discharge from their eyes or nose, rough and scaly tails, ruffled coats, hunched postures, listlessness, bloated stomachs, and dirty, damp mouths and anal areas. Frequent scratching is a sign of skin mites or fungal problems. Warning signs of illness include sneezing, wheezing, thinness, broken teeth, blood or mucus in droppings, and diarrhea. If you purchase a mouse or a rat from a pet store, you may be acquiring a sick animal who will need immediate veterinary care. PETA has repeatedly uncovered cruelty at PetSmart and Petco.

Sleep Needs of Rats and Mice

Mice are typically nocturnal, so those you adopt will likely sleep all day and make noise (running on their wheels, chewing, etc.) all night. If your home isn’t usually quiet during the day and there’s no peaceful place for them to rest, you may want to rethink keeping mice as companions. Rats, however, tend to adapt to their guardians’ behavior. So if you’re regularly active around them at certain periods of the day, you may find that they eventually become active around those same times.

Like all other animals, mice and rats don’t want to be disturbed when they’re sleeping. So plan interaction with them when they’re awake, and be sure not to disturb them during your cage maintenance (cleaning, refilling food and water, etc.).

Veterinary Care for Mice and Rats

Prospective guardians of mice or rats should keep in mind that they do require veterinary care and that this can be as expensive as it is for cats and dogs. They’re very susceptible to upper respiratory infections (URIs), which are often fatal. If you notice that your animals are losing interest in food or toys or are showing symptoms of illness such as coughing, wheezing, labored breathing, excessive tiredness, or cloudy eyes, you’ll want to get them to a small-animal specialist or an emergency animal hospital as soon as possible to be checked for a URI or another illness. The vet can often prescribe a course of oral antibiotics, which will need to be administered every day. The visit and the antibiotics for each animal could cost upwards of $100, and the prescription may not always save the animal. It’s imperative that your companion get medical care as early as possible in order to have the best chance of survival. An animal must never be left to suffer from a URI. The infection is extremely painful, and animals won’t simply “get better” without medical care.

© iStock.com/w-ings

How to House Your Mouse or Rat Companions

Rats and mice naturally prefer living in groups and shouldn’t live alone unless they have specific medical or behavioral issues that require it. Intact male mice typically don’t get along with other intact males, but having them neutered by a mouse-savvy veterinarian and providing them with ample cage space should help mitigate any aggression. Neutered male mice who still fight should instead be placed with a group of females (as they live in nature). Males who cannot be neutered because they are too old or have health problems should be kept alone unless they’re already bonded to another male, but they’ll require extra attention from their guardian to ensure that they’re not lonely.

Rats, on the other hand, are far more sociable, and it’s rare that they don’t get along. Aggressive male rats can be neutered by a rat-savvy veterinarian, and male and female rats and mice should never cohabitate (even briefly!) unless at least one of the sexes is sterilized.

A white rat in a flowering bush sniffs the air© iStock.com/olgagorovenko

Basic Care for Mice and Rats

If you adopt rats or mice, you’ll need to provide them with a comfortable habitat that meets all their needs.

Here are a few basic guidelines to follow:
  • Wire enclosures are much healthier for mice and rats than aquariums, as they’re ventilated to allow fresh air in instead of trapping odors, which helps prevent respiratory issues. Most commercially available cages are too small, but a double unit Critter Nation would be ample for a small group of rats or mice.
  • Cover the floor of the enclosure with bedding at least 6 inches thick (if your cage has a shallow tray such as on the Critter Nation, you can buy custom-made cage guards on websites such as Etsy or do an internet search for other ideas to keep the bedding contained) to provide them with comfort and cleanliness and to allow for burrowing and nesting. Odorous bedding such as cedar and improperly dried pine shavings are toxic to small animals, and the odor and dust from them can cause URIs. Companies such as Carefresh and Kaytee make soft paper bedding that is comfortable, absorbs moisture, and is nontoxic and dust-free. Aspen shavings are also commonly used and can be stirred into the paper to allow for better tunneling.
  • Mice and rats are sensitive to temperature extremes and drafts, so you’ll want to keep their habitats out of direct sunlight and away from air vents.
  • They need constant access to fresh water and dry food that’s suitable for them. They also love most produce for treats and can eat grains and occasionally nuts. Avoid giving them cheese, milk, and other animal-derived foods. You’ll want to clean their food dish daily and their water bottle before each refill. It’s a good idea to offer them a small bowl of water in addition to their bottle, since bottles can often malfunction and stop dispensing water and some animals prefer one or the other and won’t drink enough without their preferred receptacle.
  • Because of their sensitive respiratory systems, they can’t be exposed to smoke. Similarly, don’t spray perfumes, cleaning products, or other airborne chemicals near them.
  • Much like cats, mice and rats clean themselves. They don’t need to be bathed and wouldn’t enjoy it. Don’t bathe them unless your veterinarian tells you otherwise.
  • Their teeth grow constantly, but most rats and mice can keep their own teeth trimmed down by grinding them (called bruxing) or by chewing on hard items such as mineral blocks, the occasional nut in the shell, wooden toys, and other rodent-safe toys. Your veterinarian can ensure that your companions’ teeth are in good shape during their regular checkups.
  • Mice love to run on exercise wheels. The wheel must be solid plastic and appropriate for their size (at least 8 inches, but if their back arches when they run on it, it’s too small). They love to run at night, so if the wheel is too loud, apply a drop of olive oil to the brackets. Rats tend not to enjoy wheels as much as other rodent species, but they should still be offered one, and it must be solid and at least 14 inches. Large wheels are expensive and hard to find, so you may want to try checking Etsy or making your own.
  • Mice and rats don’t feel secure in an open cage—it should be packed full of species-appropriate toys, hiding and sleeping areas, and items such as branches, tubes, tunnels, and other items to climb on. Look for items such as cork logs, wooden bridges, coconut huts, and grass tunnels. They would also enjoy tissue boxes, paper bags, and so on, but be sure to replace paper items if they get soiled. Mice and rats are extremely smart and love to solve puzzles, too. Have fun with them by making puzzles for them to solve for a treat reward, and then watch them figure them out. You can put a treat inside a toilet paper roll and stuff paper into the ends, put a reward inside a paper bag and roll the top closed, ball up a piece of paper around a snack, hide a tempting morsel under only one of two small paper cups, and try anything else that you think they might enjoy.
  • Rats and mice usually pick one or two spots as their toilet areas—you should spot-clean these areas every other day. Approximately every two weeks, you’ll need to clean out and wipe down the whole cage. Scoop out and throw away all the bedding and food remnants from the floor of the habitat, and then wash the entire thing with unscented soap (or vinegar) and water. Don’t use harsh cleaners, as the chemicals can irritate animals’ delicate respiratory systems. Dry everything thoroughly before putting in new bedding and fresh food and water. It’s also nice to leave extra treats for the animals to find. While you’re doing this, let the animals play in a species-appropriate playpen or a rodent-proofed room (ideally the same room their cage is in) within your line of sight. Never use rodent balls, as these are dangerous and also confusing for the animal. To rodent-proof a room, remove toxic plants and other potentially toxic items such as cleaners and medications, cover exposed cords, ensure that vents are securely covered, block off the area under the door so that they can’t squeeze underneath, and cover any gaps or spaces where they could get stuck. Recliners and rocking chairs are also hazards for small animals and shouldn’t be in the room.

Companion rat peeking out of open door of orange cage© iStock.com/panama1213

Bonding Takes Time for Mice and Rats

It may take a while for mice and rats to become comfortable with stepping into your hand and being picked up and held. Start by laying your hand flat, with a food treat in your palm. You may have to leave the treat in their habitat a few times before the animals approach your hand, but you’re still helping to create a positive association. When your animals walk into your hand to take the treat, don’t pick them up immediately—give them time to feel comfortable first. Then slowly lift them to your chest to be gently petted. They may also enjoy sniffing your hands and face just as a cat or dog would, and this can be very cute (and ticklish). It’s rewarding to see them begin to trust you and run to you when you approach. You may also want to try letting them sit with you on your sofa or bed, but never let them loose in your home unless under strict supervision or in a fully rodent-proofed room.

Adoption Is the Only Kind Option

If you’re ready to give mice or rats a loving and devoted permanent home, please don’t support breeders, dealers, or pet stores. Your local humane societies likely have many of these animals who need families, and the Rat and Mouse Club of America’s (RMCA) Furry Friends Orphanage foster-care program maintains units across the U.S. You can learn more about the RMCA and its adoptable animals here.

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind