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Raising a Wild Rat

October 25, 2010


Approximately 10 days old

One day,  I responded to a call from a distressed friend who had found some very young baby rats flailing about in her yard.  I jumped on my scooter and arrived to find the mama rat dead nearby, and one baby also perished before I arrived. But another pup was still alive, so I did exactly what you would do: I took him home.

At about 10 days old, “Spartacus” was blind and could not eat or eliminate waste on his own. I thought he was adorable. My husband wasn’t so sure. I am a believer in “Deep Ecology.”  If you’ve never heard this term, it means that I understand that all living things have inherent worth apart from their “usefulness” to mankind.  Rats are valuable within their ecosystems as a food source for predators and as scavengers. I have kept domestic rats as pets, and found them intelligent, social and interesting animals.

I’m always amazed at how people feel entitled to make judgment upon other creatures: That one is a pest! This one is just vermin! I doubt that Creation makes such mistakes. Anyway, the rats here in the Florida Keys tend to be of the species Rattus rattus rather than Rattus norvegicus – in other words, they are tree or roof rats rather than “sewer” rats.  I have also read that the agouti-colored, small roof rats in southern Florida are sometimes considered their own  subspecies: Rattus rattus frugivorous, or fruit rats. In the Keys, the locals often call them “palm rats.”

Whatever they are, my research quickly revealed that Rattus rattus are surprisingly attentive and devoted mothers, and I had my work cut out for me. I spoke with a veterinarian familiar with wildlife medicine (Dr. Kristen Jensen of All-Animal Clinic.)  I asked if she thought the rat might carry diseases or parasites.  She told me to give him a little dewormer and don’t worry–I was safe from the plague and rabies with our local rodents.

So, armed with a secure plastic container on a heat pad, a feeding syringe, and soy-based human infant formula, I went to work. At first, I fed little Spartacus about 6 times a day. I don’t do math, so I didn’t weigh him or measure dosages, I just fed him until he seemed to lose interest.  After feeding, I cleaned him with warm water and tissue, concentrating especially on his tummy, genitals, and anus to help him eliminate. He enjoyed being handled and “bruxed” (purred by clicking his teeth) while I massaged him. After his eyes opened  I started adding rice-based baby cereal to his formula mix. Once he started lapping formula off my finger, I ditched the syringe for a shallow dish.

Approximately 3 weeks old

By 5 weeks old, Spartacus would probably still be have been living in the nest in the wild, though his mom would not be taking care of him any more.  I wasn’t convinced Spartacus had the right stuff to make it as a wild animal. Generally, it is easier for hand-raised animals to make the transition to wild when they are raised with others of their own kind.  Had Sparty’s sibling survived, they would have identified with each other and he’d have been less friendly with humans.

Rats are social animals. Rat mothers spend a great deal of time grooming their pups, and the pups play together and groom one another.  In nature, Rattus rattus lives in large family groups with an hierarchy led by a dominant male followed by several females then the less dominant males. The group has a collective odor. Rats recognize each other by smell, and a rat can be attacked by his group if he has lost the collective odor.

As he grew I tried to make the inside of his cage “wild,” filled with plants and rocks like he’d find outdoors.  I put his cage in the open window at night so he could get used to the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors. It was interesting to watch him nibble on plants and berries I brought in from my yard: when rats encounter a new food they eat a very small amount to evaluate its effects. They seem able to associate a taste and its consequences, even when the effects appear several hours after ingestion.

When Spartacus finally returned the wild (his choice, made one night when his cage door and a window were both left open) I knew that becoming something’s food or getting poisoned might likely be his destiny: wild rats rarely die of old age. I also learned that if you raise a rat in your house then release the rat in your yard, the rat will consider your house friendly territory and come in if you leave a window open.  He may camp out under your washer/dryer for a couple of days, driving you crazy. At that point, he will not want to be picked up or petted, nor will you be able to catch him with any kind of net, bucket, or humane trap system. But he will gently bump your hand with his nose check to see if you’ve got food before going out the window again and watch while you close it. You will still put food on the windowsill for him occasionally, until you notice one day that no one is taking it or even leaving little teeth-marks in it anymore…….

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Resources for raising a wild rat:  The Rat Report: Raising Orphaned Rats or Mice by Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun, and Fostering Young by Nathalie Baldwin.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2010 9:19 pm

    Spartacus reminds of me Master Splinter =) !!! I love! You are so amazing Sara! Seriously – like a super hero. ❤ ❤ ❤

  2. January 21, 2011 2:01 pm

    This is an inspiring and touching post. Thanks for sharing the story, and the sweet photos.

  3. May 16, 2011 4:05 pm

    Hello, I ran into your page from digg. This isn’t not blog post I would regularly read, but I liked your thoughts on it. Thanks for making something worth reading!

  4. payton permalink
    October 26, 2011 10:33 pm

    Its Weird. Because i found one today. im not sure if i should keep it or turn him loose, he is very adorable. and if i do keep him… do you have any sugestions on what i should feed him or put in his cage?

  5. October 27, 2011 12:43 pm


    I fed Sparty a pet-store mix for rodents and occasionally some fresh food, expecially berries from the yard or any small insect I could find. But if he’s very young he needs soy-based infant formula. Please check the links within the post for more concise info on how to care for the little guy.

  6. April 24, 2012 3:19 am

    my grandma lives in a place in arkansas called revenden springs i wasnormally lifting up rocks and old logs to find one day big wild rats building on to rock parts. to my luck i find a huge rat. I corner it and try to catch it….. but notto i could see a lil baby rat in the den. I reached in and took the baby rat. sense the mother ran away and a storm was brewing i decided to make a decision. i took the baby rat and fed in soy based formla with a suringe. and i now have it today still lillttle, still cute 🙂

  7. Suzanne permalink
    February 27, 2017 8:53 pm

    Thanks for the info. I rescued a pup from our cat. It’s eyes were not open. I cared for it like you suggested. It looks like he’s healthy and growing. Should I be concerned about diseases by handling it?

  8. Charlie permalink
    March 31, 2017 1:11 pm

    I have(had) a rats best in my back yard, but then the dogs found it and scared them all away and when i went to look there was one baby left and I took her in. But she doesn’t stay in a cage. And yes I feed her and make sure she always goes to the bathroom. But she sleeps at the foot of my bed with a heat pad and a velvet cover. I have been taken care of her since Tuesday. I call her squeaks.

  9. Shea Standefer permalink
    April 7, 2017 7:48 pm

    I know this is an old post, but I have 2 rat babies (roof rats here in Florida) and they are about 3 weeks old now. They are still drinking milk out of a dish and don’t have much interest in fruits or anything yet. I want to make sure I do the right thing. This was very helpful to me and I’d love to know how old he was when he left on his own. I love these little guys at this point and want to make sure I do what is best for them.

    • jennie permalink
      August 28, 2017 1:46 pm

      I also just found am abandoned orphan wild rat in my barn. His eyes aren’t open yet and I could not locate any others. I’ve owned domestic rats for about 10 years, so thought i could try to help him rather than leave him to die. I’ve been feeding him infant formula every 2 hours and toileting him afterwards and “grooming” him with a wet q-tip like his mom would. All he wants to do is lay in my hand and sleep. He doesn’t look as healthy as other baby rats i’ve seen in photos though…he looks a little scrawny and stands up tall on his legs. just wondering if anyone has any other tips to help me get him to 6 weeks so i can release him!


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