Housing and Other Needs
Ok, I’m a big, huge believer in providing caged animals with the best possible living space. I kinda hate keeping animals in a cage at all, but if it’s inevitable (as it is with pet rats, unless you’re a far more reckless soul than I am), keep them in a good one. A BIG one. It’s interesting, because I’m not one to go to extraordinary veterinary measures with animals; I believe that I give them the best natural lifespan they would have had, and make it a happy one, but I don’t work to extend it beyond that.
But when they’re alive, I want them to feel as free and happy as possible.
People will advocate for rats that you give them 2 square feet of living area per rat, but I honestly don’t think that’s enough. Even if they get a lot of out-of-cage time, they are most active running, playing, and moving at night, which isn’t when their out-of-cage time will be, for the most part.
So we bought our rats the following cage: the Critter Nation 24” by 36” by 63” (high), two-level cage, from Doctors Foster and Smith for $235. It came with two half-size adjustable shelves, and I bought two extra shelves for like $14 each, so the total square footage per rat we have is 12 square feet (24 square feet total).
I believe our cage would comfortably hold up to 4 rats, but rats do like their space, and trust me, our ratties love to use the whole cage, so please don’t crowd them more than that. And the thing is, even if you only have two, they still need a big cage, because they need to be able to run and explore; 4 or 5 rats can have basically the same size cage as two, because frequently they’re just snuggled up together anyway.
Now, the cage I recommend has some very strong advantages over any other cage I found on the market. The first and foremost is that it is the only cage I ever found where the entire front opens up for cleaning. If you haven’t yet had rats, you can’t imagine how important this will be in keeping the cage clean. Trust me, it’s vital.
It’s so vital that when we had our first rats, 10 years ago, not having found this cage yet, I created a cage out of zip ties and closet shelves (the wire kind) solely for the purpose of having a front that opened completely. It was cheaper than our current cage, but if there’s one place you are going to spend money, make it on this cage: additional shelves are very cheap; each level has an excellent, removable, cleanable plastic bottom tray; the size of the cage is expandable, with new levels fitting right onto existing levels (assuming your ceiling is very very high; otherwise, 63” for the two-level cage is probably a max); there is a storage shelf under the cage; the cage is on very sturdy wheels.
I get no money for this endorsement, but trust me: save money on toys (rats, like kids, are just as happy with the box things come in), on food (we get food they love but it’s not expensive at all), even on vet care if need be, but get your rats the best cage for them and for you (if you have an easier time cleaning the cage, you’ll clean it more, which is only good for the rats); as far as I have ever found, this cage is it.
There are bales of pine, and cedar, and other woods; there are light fluffy papery things; there are tiny sawdusty things. Pine I hear is bad for rat respiratory tracts, so avoid that. I’d say avoid all the prepackaged beddings if you can. You’ll save money and have a cleaner-smelling cage if you just use towels, tablecloths, placemats (the stiff cloth kind work great), old t-shirts, pillowcases ... whatever old squarish fabric you can round up (from your own junk piles, and yard sales are great for finding this stuff cheap).
Now, washable bedding would be really inconvenient if you didn’t have a washer/dryer readily available, so for anyone in that position, I’d recommend the paper bedding. But if you can do laundry at home, you just shake the fabric tray cover (whatever you use) into the trash can (to get rid of stray debris), drop it in the rat-laundry bucket, wipe down the plastic bottom tray, lay down a new piece of fabric, and voila ... fast and easy cage cleaning.
And the rats love love love the fabric ... they’ll pull it into their boxes and hidey holes to make snug little nests, they’ll bunch it all up into piles; they’ll make it their own, as it is. I’ve read that using cloth can snag in the rat toenails, but honestly I’ve never had a problem with that, though I used to be really paranoid about it. If you’re worried, use woven fabrics rather than knit -- placemats, napkins, and pillowcases would be great. But I have to say our old t-shirts are hands-down our rats’ favorite snuggle-accessories. There’s this one blue t-shirt which (ironically?) both my kids wore at some point, which the rats will always pull into their bed area when it’s available to them. It’s barely shreds now, but they love it so.
Rats love places to snuggle and burrow and sleep. They sleep a lot. You can buy fake tree trunks, or small igloos, or edible Logz (made from pine and alfalfa and honey; our rats love to gnaw on these; available at Walmart), all of which make great rat hidey-holes. But remember how I advocated getting the best cage you could? Well, here’s where you can save money in return. Rats are just as happy with a cardboard box full of soft cloth to burrow into, and chew on, and make their own. The only real difference is that boxes absorb pee and only last about a week before they need to be traded out; oh, and they’re free.
So give your rats plenty of places to burrow into, but you don’t have to spend a fortune doing it. Right now, our rats’ favorite hidey-hole (of the many purchased ones they have in their cage) is a teeny tiny cardboard box ... maybe 3” by 4” by 6” ... that I put in there for them, taped so they’d just have a small entrance at the bottom, curious to see if it was too small for them. So you never know!
On the subject of keeping the cage clean, is the topic of litter. Yup, you heard me, litter. Rats will use litter-boxes. Or at least female ones do ... our male rats would use the litter-box, but maybe only 60 or 70% of the time. Our females use it probably 95% of the time, minimum.
If you change your litter every day (which takes less than a minute), and have a small litter box on half the levels, you’ll find the cage stays much cleaner, much longer. I’ve heard rats can be trained to use litter, but we didn’t have to do that.
We put the litter bowls in with our small female rats soon after we got them, and they just started using the litter instinctively (they probably like their cage to stay clean as much as we do). We use the plain, cheap cat litter with no clumping and nothing special about it, and it is amazing the difference it makes in the cage as far as overall cleanliness goes.
To hold the litter, you need something not too big (so it won’t take up too much space in the cage), not too small (so they don’t, uh, miss :-) ), and not tippy (so light plastic is right out). At first I used the plastic Ziploc food storage containers, the short square ones, but they were easily tipped over by the rat weight. Now we use big heavy stoneware soup bowls ... they’re wide enough to hold the litter and the rats fit inside them, and heavy enough to not tip when in use. And they were cheap from a thrift store. Those heavy plastic cat food bowls would probably have worked as well, but they were too expensive for me (though I’ve since seen them at the dollar store).
As for food, when we first got them, we fed our current ratties the rat mix you get at Walmart, but rats will pick out their favorite foods quickly and leave the remaining food as a big mess to clean up, so we found a complete block food, called Oxbow Essentials Regal Rat foot, which the rats love, and which they can’t cherry-pick through. We get it from the same site from which we purchased the cage, the Doctors Fosters and Smith website, and shipping is free with every $49+ order, so you might want to save up to buy your food with other needed supplies. For our two rats we buy the 20 lb bag, and it definitely lasts a loooonnng time.
Our first set of rats, 10 years ago, we actually fed chunk dog food, because we lived in a rural area at the time, and online shopping wasn’t what it is today, so we made do with what we could use. It probably wasn’t the healthiest alternative, but it worked for us and our rats at the time, and they lived anywhere from 1 year (unrelated-to-food-death) to 3 years, so the food seems to have been ok for them.
Last on the subject of housing and food is treats. This topic could go in toys and games, as treats are a great training incentive, but I’ll include it here. Rats love to eat many many things ... I have heard of (and occasionally used) cheerios, dried fruit, fresh veggies, small cracker pieces, popcorn pieces, chicken bones, cheese, and so many other foods being used as rat treats.
But we pretty much tend to stick with Yogies, a small sweet cheese-flavored rat and small animal treat which our rats absolutely love. Mostly this is for the selfish reason that different foods tend to have different effects on the rat poop consistency, and it’s not fun to clean out a cage after a rat has had something that makes her poop unpleasantly watery. (Litter boxes sometimes get disregarded if the rats have digestive emergencies). (Oh, and usually rat poop is pretty innocuous).
Also, though, many human-food treat suggestions come with warnings - “oh, they love nuts, but don’t feed them xyz nut, it’s bad for them!” Or the same for some types of veggie, or grain, or whatever; honestly, I don’t want to have to worry about forgetting which treats might kill our rats. So we stick with the tried and true Yogies, which are about $2 for a small bag either from the Doctor Fosters and Smith website (honestly, they aren’t paying me a dime to endorse them!), or even from Walmart. The rats love them, they get one or two a day (usually just at our bedtime, when we entice them onto our shoulders with a yogie and scritch them for a bit before bed), and we know that they’re safe for the rats, at least as safe as a nightly chocolate chip cookie would be for us.
I did once accidentally buy the Yogies for rabbits, which are large and orange (rather than the small yellow ones for rats), and I think ‘carrot’ flavored. The rats love those too, but not as much, and they are HUGE ... each yogie is, in rat-proportions, like having an entire pie for dessert ... too much! So I’d stick with the small yellow ones if I were you, just sayin’ ...
We just use the kind of water bottles that every small pet owner seems to use, the kind that strap on the outside of the cage, which has a ball the rats lick to get water. All I’ll say here is, sometimes these bottles develop leaking problems, so we have 3 of them on different levels, so the rats don’t ever accidentally run out of water due to a leaking bottle.