By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Who knew rats could be so amazing? Now that rats have stolen your heart, you want yours to have everything they need to be happy. Read on for what you need to know about putting together the coolest and best rat cage possible.
Rats are social critters, so hopefully you have (or are planning on having) at least two. And this means that the small “starter” rat cages you’ll find out there are not big enough for your brood. Have no fear if you already have one of these cages though. It’s perfect while your rats are small (young rats can often climb through the more widely-spaced bars of adult rat cages), and you can use the small cage for transport or as a feeding cage in the future.
Housing your rats in the biggest cage possible has two advantages. First of all, your rats will be happier, particularly on those occasional days when you just can’t find the time to play with them as much as you should. They’ll have room to roam and you can fit in all the toys and furniture they need. Secondly, large cages don’t need to be cleaned as frequently.
So how big is big enough? At a minimum, a cage for adult rats should provide at least two cubic feet of space per rat.
Size isn’t your only concern. What a rat cage is made out of is important too. Wire mesh sides and tops allow air to flow freely into and out of the cage. This prevents ammonia from building up inside, which lessens the chance that your rats will develop respiratory problems. Your rats will also use the wire walls of their homes to climb, and they’re a great place to hang all that cool gear you’re going to add to keep your rats physically and mentally active.
This isn’t to say that you have to get rid of a solid-sided rat cage or aquarium if that’s what you have available. Just make sure that it has a mesh top to promote airflow and know that you’ll have to work a little harder to keep it clean.
Rats are cool, but they’re also messy. They like to chew, shred, dig, and build nests, which can result in food, bedding, and litter ending up where you don’t want it. Of course, rats also pee and poop, and it’s your responsibility to ensure that they’re not sickened by their own waste. Designing your rat cage with their habits in mind can make keeping everything clean a lot easier.
If you have a wire cage, make sure that the bottom tray has tall sides and is made from thick plastic. This will prevent rats from chewing holes in the plastic and keep the mess inside the cage. The bottom of the rats’ cage should be filled with an absorbent litter such as shredded paper, recycled newspaper pellets, or wood shavings (not cedar). Or, if you’re game, you can try litter training your rats. In this case, line the bottom of your rats’ cage with an old towel (they’ll still pee around the cage since it’s an important marking behavior) and place small litter boxes in one or more corners of the cage. Fill the boxes with an absorbent litter like those mentioned above.
To litter train your rat, place any poop that you find in the litter boxes and show your rats where they should be going from now on. Continue to do this, and when your rats finally get the idea and poop in the box, have treats and tons of praise ready to show them they’ve done exactly what you wanted.
Litter training makes clean up simpler, but however you choose to proceed, you’ll need to replace all the litter at least weekly and thoroughly wash out the entire cage on a regular basis; in other words, before it begins to stink.
Pay attention to how you provide food and water to your rats. Their health and your sanity depend on it.
Purchase a large water bottle with a sipper tube. A group of rats can go through water faster than you might think, and you don’t want them to run out. If the bottle has to be placed inside the cage, make sure it’s made entirely out of glass and metal so the rats won’t chew holes in it. If it can be hung outside the cage, a plastic bottle with a metal sipper tube should be fine. DO NOT place a bowl of water inside your rat’s cage unless you want to be removing soaked bedding and litter on a daily basis.
Avoid seed-based diets. Feed your rats a pelleted or block diet made specifically for rats. Pellets or blocks can be offered in a bowl or food hopper. Rats tend to pick out their “favorites,” which can lead to poor nutrition and a mess as the dregs are scattered around the cage. Fresh fruits and vegetables are ideal rat treats but shouldn’t make up more than 10-20% of their diet.
Rats need toys, lots and lots of toys. The options are only limited by your imagination, but things they can climb on, in, through, over, and under are always big hits. Think branches, dowels, ladders, ropes, shelves, and tubes. Don’t spend too much time worrying about your color scheme, though (unless it’s important to you). Rats don’t see color very well so they won’t care.
Rats also like to run, which makes an exercise wheel a must. Look for ones that are large (11 inches in diameter or more for an adult rat) and made of a solid surface. When they’re off the wheel, many active rats like toys they can chase. Cat toys that make noise when they’re pushed along are a great choice.
You also have to support your rats’ need to chew. Supply them with toys made out of wood, rawhide, and cardboard so they can pick what suits them best in the moment. To keep toys “new” and engaging, have a large stash on hand and rotate them through your rat’s cage and play area.
After all that play, rats need several spots to rest. Most love hammocks that you hang from the sides of their cage. If your rat is a chewer, you can easily make “disposable” hammocks by folding a rectangle of cotton cloth (old t-shirts work well) into a square. Use large safety pins to hold the corners closed and attach them to the wire rungs of the cage. Your rats can lie on top when they’re warm and snuggle in the middle when they’re cool.
Rats should also have a box, igloo, or other structure on solid ground where they can shred and manipulate bedding (paper towels or commercially available material) to build a nest.
And keep in mind that no matter how nice their cage is, your rats need at least 20-30 minutes outside of the cage every day. This is a great time for you and your rats to play together, learn some new tricks, or just have a cuddle.