Positron emission tomography (PET) is an important in vivo molecular imaging technique for translational research. Imaging unanaesthetized rats using motion-compensated PET avoids the confounding impact of anaesthetic drugs and enables animals to be imaged during normal or evoked behaviour. However, there is little published data on the nature of rat head motion to inform the design of suitable marker-based motion-tracking set-ups for brain imaging—specifically, set-ups that afford close to uninterrupted tracking. We performed a systematic study of rat head motion parameters for unanaesthetized tube-bound and freely moving rats with a view to designing suitable motion-tracking set-ups in each case. For tube-bound rats, using a single appropriately placed binocular tracker, uninterrupted tracking was possible greater than 95 per cent of the time. For freely moving rats, simulations and measurements of a live subject indicated that two opposed binocular trackers are sufficient (less than 10% interruption to tracking) for a wide variety of behaviour types. We conclude that reliable tracking of head pose can be achieved with marker-based optical-motion-tracking systems for both tube-bound and freely moving rats undergoing PET studies without sedation.