Rats are very curious creatures and love exploring the world around them. It’s not surprising that they also love toys. However, with all the, often quite expensive, options available in pet shops, and the different ideas out there for DIY toys, what are the best types of rat toys to offer?
I’ve listed seven of my favorites below. It’s important to note that a lot of these aren’t conventional “toys”. Rats don’t always play in the way we’d recognize the word, and when they do, it’s often with a friend rather than an object (the best toy for a rat is undoubtedly another rat). Instead, for me, the best rat toys are ones that stimulate natural behaviors that aren’t always promoted by life in a cage.
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Is paper really a toy? It is according to Miss Gooseberry, and you can’t argue with 200 g (7 oz) of adorable goofiness. Whether it is toilet paper hung in the cage, scraps of newspaper found on the floor, or sheets of paper towel handed out by a willing human servant, Gooseberry will grab them and carry them off to arrange in her favorite box (which she doesn’t sleep in, it’s just the place she stores her precious things). There are hours of fun in a piece of paper for a rat.
However, there are lots of different ways to offer paper to maximise how much play a rat gets with it. I never provide my rats directly with paper bedding. Instead I make it into a foraging game so they can find and move it to suit themselves. Options include:
- hanging strips of paper through the cage bars,
- tying a roll of toilet paper or kitchen paper towel to the roof or side of the cage,
- or even adding in whole newspapers for them to tear up.
Leaving tempting bits of paper and card around their free-range area gives the rats the thrill of discovery (things they find are always more exciting than things they are given). Watching a small female rat trying to move a whole newspaper while standing on it is also better entertainment than the TV…
2. Cardboard boxes
In my opinion, a good cardboard box is the best value toy for a group of rats, and not only because they are usually free. A smallish box, like a wine box with a rat hole cut in, makes a great nest site or hidey-hole, in or out of the cage, while bigger boxes can be repurposed into castles, digging boxes, tunnels, and mazes to explore.
Rats love to invest time redesigning boxes to have custom-made entrances and exits. I also use cardboard boxes as ratty staircases down from the cage door, reassuring enclosed spaces to give medicines, and occasionally a way of catching a rat who doesn’t want to go home from free-range.
3. Hidden treats
What’s more exciting for a rat than a treat? A treat they discover for themselves. There are numerous ways to hide treats to make the ratty treasure hunt more exciting. I often bury them in one of the digging boxes, in or out of the cage. Other times, I scatter them around the free-range area so the rats come across them during their daily play.
However, you can also buy or make treat puzzle toys. My friend swears by small plastic eggs that split in half (a bit like the inside of a kinder surprise) – pop a treat in, put the egg back together, and the rats have hours of fun getting it out again. I’ve used egg-boxes and small plastic drawers meant for storing nails and screws for the same purpose.
4. Digging boxes
Rats adore digging. It’s one of their most important natural behaviors, both for making burrows and finding food. Unfortunately, with the increase in popularity of flat-based cages lined with fleece and newspaper, it’s something they have less opportunity to do.
So, I always have a few digging boxes around, filled with a combination of substrate (usually sterile mulched coconut husk), ripped up paper and cardboard, and even old paper bags. In the box filled with coconut mulch, I’ve embedded drainpipe, scattered dry-mix and planted a few edible plants like mint, coriander and nasturtiums. The rats adore digging down to the depths, pulling up the plants (they don’t last long), and foraging about for food.
5. Wands and chasing toys
Rats love a good chasing game. Toys for that can be as complex as you want to make them. Fingers are as popular as anything bought for the purpose. More hands off options include:
- DIY wands made of newspaper,
- cat wands,
- and strips of fleece.
6. Food toys
Food is a central part of a rat’s life, so toys that use food are a great way of keeping pet rats active and engaged.
There are a huge number of ways you can present food to challenge rats. At the cheap end are DIY crackers and pinatas, which can be used to hide either treats or portions of the rats’ regular food. Other options include using kabobs to hang food in different areas around the cage.
Foraging for food is a behavior that is really good for rats, so using ways of hiding food is a great toy idea. Options include:
- foraging logs (using a chunk of rat-safe wood such as apple, drill holes in it and stuff with food items),
- coconut shells,
- cardboard egg boxes,
…or even other sorts of food. As it was Halloween this week, I bought the Horde a couple of small pumpkins and handed them over to be gnawed into. Once they’d chewed through and eaten up the yummy pumpkin innards, I filled the skins with the dry-mix for that night.
Don’t discount food as a toy in itself. One of the most popular games round here at the moment is chasing walnuts (or hazelnuts, pecans, macadamias, or almonds). I buy the nuts whole, still in their shells, and then while the rats are enjoying free-range, throw or roll them across the floor. Everyone wants to capture the nut first and make off with their prize (usually into a favorite cardboard box). As I type this, my oldest girl, who is almost three, is rolling a walnut across the floor with her nose.
7. Water toys
Many rats don’t like swimming, especially if they never had access to water when young, but almost all of them like to play in water. However, it’s something we often don’t give them much chance to do.
One of the best ways to provide water play is a shallow bowl or tray (choose something that can’t be tipped over) filled with water and a handful of frozen peas and corn. Commonly known as pea-fishing, this is a great way of getting rats used to water, as the food gets them interested. In summer, you can set up ice lump fishing, which helps keep the rats cool in hot weather. It’s also quite funny when the cunning rodent decides to stash an ice-cube for later…
Rats also like a simple bowl of water in the cage, as an addition to their water bottles. Owners often don’t provide this as it does tend to get split or polluted with litter. I just accept that as part of being owned by rats and change it daily. If you watch rats with a bowl of water you’ll see how valuable it is. They don’t just drink from it, but also use it to wash their faces, and even just pat and splash it as a form of play. Right now, I’m defending a glass of water from Miss Petunia, who wants to go diving in it. Fortunately, she’s been distracted by stealing a used tea-bag.
As you can see, toys for rats don’t need to cost a lot of money, or even be designed for the purpose. Some paper, cardboard, food and a bit of ingenuity can give them all the play they need without costing us the earth. The most important aspect is to keep up the variety in their lives and give them an ever-changing range of things to do.