Rat Care 101
Let's dive into how to properly care for your rats! Whether you've owned rats for years or you're just starting out, this page is dedicated to helping you learn about what your rats need to live a happy, healthy life. I've learned these things through years of experience and testing out different methods. Hopefully I can help you avoid pitfalls I fell into when I first started with rats.
Housing Your Rats
Before we can discuss what cages are best for rats, we need to talk about how many rats you plan to keep. Rats are social animals and should never be kept alone. No matter how much time you think you have for your pets, you can't meet the specific social needs of your rat. Grooming, sleeping, eating...they do these things together. But is a pair of rats enough? The short answer is no. While I will adopt rats in pairs, I prefer if they go in trios. My adoption fees incentivize adopting multiples. If you only get a pair, when one of the rats passes away (or needs to go away for vet care), that leaves a rat by itself until you can find a friend. Then when the older rat passes, the younger one is left alone. By keeping rats in trios, you ensure that there are always two to keep each other company. Also, if one of your rats likes to pester its friends, you've split the annoyance load between two rats by keeping a trio. Aside from vet expenses, a trio of rats isn't much more expensive or time consuming than a pair. If you find yourself with one rat and you don't want to get them a friend, please consider doing your rat a kindness and adopting it into a home with other rats. If you don't want multiple rats, consider a hamster. They prefer to live alone.
It would take me ages to list all the rat appropriate cages, so as far as a recommendation, I'll suggest the cage I use. I keep my rats in Double Critter Nation cages. These cages are spacious, easy to clean, and provide adequate ventilation. They're a little expensive, but they last. Cheaper cages often need replacing several times over when the bars rust or become unsafe, so you save money in the long run by buying a DCN or CN up front. Rats need floor space as well as vertical space for climbing, and this cage meets both needs. You can keep 6-10 rats in a DCN, but I wouldn't house more than 4 in a single level Critter Nation.
While there are lots of other options for appropriate housing, let's focus on what is not appropriate. Aquariums are number one on this list. Rats have very delicate respiratory systems. Nearly every rat will experience a respiratory issue at some point in their life. Keeping them in a fish tank will only exacerbate this problem because there isn't enough ventilation, and even if you give better airflow with a tank topper, it's still not enough space. Keeping your rat in an aquarium would be the equivalent of living in your bathroom with a toilet that won't flush. Is that how you'd like to live? Neither would your rats. Wood cages are also on the list of inappropriate housing. Wood soaks up ammonia, creating a danger for your rats (as well as stinking up your house). They can also chew through the wood, and even if they don't escape, the wood may be toxic. Also avoid metal cages with wire flooring. Not only is this painful for their feet, but they can also develop sores which can lead to bumble foot.
Cages marketed toward rabbits and guinea pigs are also unacceptable. They're usually unacceptable for the species they're marketed for as well. They don't provide the vertical space or floor space required for rats.
If you're unsure about a cage, please message me and I can assist you.
Paper bedding, hemp, and aspen shavings are all good bedding choices. With paper and aspen, make sure the bedding is low dust as the dust will aggravate their respiratory systems. I personally prefer aspen.
I no longer recommend fleece as a bedding option. Fleece gets very stinky very fast and needs to be washed every few days when used as bedding. It soaks up ammonia and creates an unhealthy environment when changed infrequently. It also doesn't allow the rats to dig around. Rats love to dig and tunnel through bedding.
Never ever use pine or cedar bedding. The oils in these woods smell great, but they'll wreak havoc on your rat's health. I won't pretend that rats are odorless pets, but if you're overwhelmed with the smell of their cage, you may not be cleaning their habitat often enough. Don't use pleasant smelling bedding to cover the odor. Clean more often. Kiln dried pine has been deemed safe to use, but I still prefer aspen.
Keeping Things Clean
As I said in the previous section, rats are not odorless pets. They pee and poop in a cage, so if the cage isn't cleaned regularly, it's going to stink. Once a week, I remove everything from the cage and do a proper cleaning. I empty all bedding, and I wash trays, hammocks, and toys before replacing them. Toys and water bottles can be soaked in a gentle detergent such as Dawn, but please rinse them very thoroughly. Once every two weeks, I also scrub the cage bars, the walls behind the cages, and the floor underneath. Choose a cleaner that's rated as safe for pets and be sure to rinse everything really well. You can never go wrong with natural cleaner such as vinegar, however. 50/50 vinegar and water solution does the trick.
During the week, do spot cleaning. If they've chosen to pee in a particular spot, clean the spot. If they've used a certain hammock as a toilet, take it out and wash it. If you've chosen to use a litter box, clean it daily. If you use dishes for feeding, these should be cleaned before each feeding, especially dishes used for fresh foods such as fruits and veggies.
Regarding the rats themselves, please don't bathe them. Rats do a great job of keeping themselves clean and don't need baths. Soaps will strip the oils in their fur, and bath time can be very scary for them. If your rat is having a hard time keeping themselves clean, it's ok to use a damp washcloth to help, but don't use soaps or submerge them in water.
Clean, fresh water should be offered to your rats around the clock. Always provide at least two water sources per cage. Water bottles can spring a leak without warning, and you don't want your rats to go an extended period of time without something to drink. I also don't recommend using dishes for water as these can easily tip over or become contaminated with urine or feces.
Regarding diet, for many years I suggested (and used) a quality lab block. While these do offer complete nutrition, they aren't very exciting for your rat and they aren't tailored to the different life stages. I have since switched to creating my own mix, and I will never go back. Since switching, I've noticed an improvement in their activity levels and coat quality. I strongly encourage you to make a mix. Mine is based on the Shunamite diet. It's simple to make and is based on percentages which comprise a balanced diet.
To make your own mix, you'll need to collect ingredients. There are five categories to fulfill: base, processed grains, protein, herbs/veg, seeds. Each category has its own percentage, and each percentage is divisible by five. Grab a scoop! Anything will do! This scoop will represent 5%. I use a tall drinking glass.
So knowing that my drinking glass stands for 5%, I'm ready to start scooping.
The base makes up 50-60%. That means I need 10-12 scoops of base ingredients. I do five scoops of Cavalor Fifty-Fifty and five scoops of Versele-Laga no corn pigeon food. There are many other options for base ingredients to choose from.
Processed grains make up 20-25%. That means I need 4-5 scoops. Good ingredients for this category include: low sugar (below 5%) breakfast cereal, egg noodles, veggie pasta, Ryvita, and old fashioned oats. I do one scoop of Total, one scoop of Rice Chex, one scoop of egg noodles, one scoop of veggie pasta, and one scoop of old fashioned oats. You can mix and match in this category, so feel free to change it up!
Protein makes up 5-10%. Young rats and pregnant/nursing rats need higher protein. Older rats need lower protein. Good ingredients for this category include: fish based dog kibble, dried black fly larva, dried shrimp, lentils. For my mix, I use one scoop of salmon dog kibble for small dogs, half a scoop of dried shrimp, and half a scoop of dried mealworms.
Herbs and veg make up 5-10%. The list of rat-safe foods is a long one, so do some research to see which ones you'd like to use. I mix it up a lot and add one scoop of a mix since my rats also get fresh fruit and veg during the week.
Seeds make up 5%. Again, lots of seeds are great for rats, but do some research to see if the seeds you'd like to use are safe. I do a one scoop mix of flax, pepitas, hemp, and sunflower.
Once your'e done scooping, mix everything well and you've got a meal for your rats for several feedings!
When in doubt, there's a wonderful Facebook group dedicated to helping people learn this amazing diet. Search Shunamite Diet USA and it should pop right up! Everyone there is super friendly and eager to help.
On top of my mix, I offer my rats fresh fruits and vegetables a few times a week. Kale, ripe bananas (never green), apples slices (no seeds), broccoli, sweet peas...there are tons of healthy, safe options!
Treats are also loved by rats, but give them sparingly and make them work for it. More about that in the enrichment section!
When keeping any pet, it's important to make sure their needs are met. An often overlooked need is enrichment. Enrichment is basically comprised of the things you provide your animal that meets their species specific needs as well as their intelligence needs. What can we provide for our rat's that will offer an outlet for their natural rat behaviors? What can we provide that will mentally challenge them and stave off boredom? As it turns out, there are a multitude of options!
Let's look at some natural rat behaviors and ways to stimulate them mentally!
Rats love to chew. While they do something called bruxing (grinding their incisors against each other) to keep their teeth in check, they also chew things to help with this. They will often chew anything in their cage, including their hammocks, any plastic trays or accessories, and wood. Even if you don't intend for an item to be a chew toy, the rats will chew it, so make sure anything you put in the cage is safe. While you can't control what they chew, you can provide safe options to encourage chewing. Wooden toys made from rat safe wood (stay away from pine and cedar) and colored with food-grade dyes are great options. Look outside the box for chew toys. Things marketed for birds and rabbits often make great toys for rats as well! Just make sure the items are rat safe.
Rats love to dig. This is one of the many reasons I don't recommend fleece liners for cages. Even if you use aspen for bedding, however, most cage pans or trays aren't deep enough to allow the rats to dig very far. To really give your rats a spot to show off their skills, consider providing a dig box! This can also double as a foraging spot (I'll touch on that next).
Foraging provides mental stimulation and encourages natural rat behaviors. In the wild, rats have to work pretty hard to get food. While pet rats aren't wild, they still benefit from foraging for their food. It works their body as well as their mind. There are a few different ways to emulate this behavior in a cage setting.
*Scatter feeding - This method of feeding is just like it sounds. Instead of putting all the food into one dish, you scatter the food around the cage. Sprinkle some in the bedding. Put some in a hide or hammock. Bury a little in their dig box. Hide the food in random places to encourage foraging.
*Foraging toys - There are lots of options for foraging toys, but you'll have to think outside the box to find them. Most of the toys I use are marketed for birds and cats. I have several different toys in each cage. A cat treat ball can be filled with food. They'll have to turn the ball to get the food to fall out of the hole. There are also clear balls that unscrew into two halves with holes in the bottom. They're marketed for birds and hang from the cage. The rats have to knock the ball around to get the food to fall out. You can also make your own foraging toys. Take toilet paper tubes and fold the end. Stuff in a mix of rat-safe paper and food. Fold the other end and pop it into the cage. Lots of options exist, and these toys will stimulate their natural foraging needs as well as their minds
Rats benefit from an active cage set up. Obesity is a common problem with pet rats, and an active cage set up can help combat this. It also helps stimulate a rat's natural climbing abilities. Think hammocks, cubes, sputniks, branches, ropes, baskets, and ladders. Fill the cage. Hang things from the top, sides, and stretched across the length of the cage. Also make sure you have fall breakers so your rats don't have far to fall. They're agile, but slips happen. As your rats age, you may need to adjust your set up.
Even if you have a wonderful, engaging, active cage, rats still benefit from free roam time. For at least an hour a day, rats should be allowed to explore a new environment, but more time is better. Whether it's on your bed, in a rat-proof room, or in a playpen, free roam is a great time to build their confidence and play games like pea fishing. You can also use this time to train your rats to do tricks!