One of the first things prospective rat owners want to know is “do rats smell?”. After all, these are animals that have an (undeserved) reputation for being dirty, vermin, or living in sewers. If you’re asking that question then fear not – I have good news. Not only are rats not particularly smelly animals, there are easy steps you can take to ensure they and their cage don’t perfume your whole house.
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Rats are clean animals
Far from being the dirty vermin of myth, rats take their personal hygiene very seriously. They can spend hours of the day grooming, making sure their fur, whiskers, ears, toes and tail are all clean and well maintained. They groom each other as a form of social bonding and hierarchy enforcement, and some of them will happily groom their owners given the chance. I received a thorough forehead and nose wash from my elderly boy Albert between writing the first two paragraphs of this article.
While most rat grooming is done with teeth and tongue, they aren’t averse to having a wash in a bowl either. Whenever I give the horde a bowl of water to play with, several of them are straight in using water to wash their faces, heads and arms.
So, what does a rat smell of?
From any sort of distance (e.g. a few feet away) an individual rat doesn’t smell of anything. They don’t have a strong natural scent. If you get up close then opinions vary. Some people say male rats smell of doritos – I can’t say I’ve noticed that myself, but maybe I don’t eat enough corn chips. Having taken the opportunity to sniff Albert, I find it a gentle, slightly musty fur smell.
One situation when rats do have a bit of a personal smell is when they are territorial and have been scent marking. Both male and female rats have scent glands on their flanks which they use to rub their scent onto disputed territory. Generally I find you only get this in the home if you have more than one group of rats, or if you are introducing new animals to the group. However, even this smell isn’t unpleasant – it’s a faintly chemical smell somewhere between aniseed and US grape juice drinks. It also doesn’t last long, at least to our noses.
But what about their poo?
Of course, when many people ask whether pet rats smell they aren’t thinking about the natural smell of the animal, but whether their urine and feces will make the house stink.
I’ll admit here that the horde can get a bit smelly. However, there are 19 of them in one group, and although their cage is enormous (five connected ferret cages, officially big enough for 53 rats), they tend to pile into giant multi-rat heaps for rest, so they often choose the same places for poo and pee. It means regular spot cleaning is needed to keep the rat room fresh and prevent a build up of ammonia in the cage that could harm the rats’ lungs.
That is really the key with stopping rat cages from smelling – getting the amount of cleaning right.
5 cleaning tips to keep a rat cage smell-free
#1 Litter train your rats
Rats are intelligent creatures and can be trained to poo in specific places, which makes spot cleaning easier. They tend to be less co-operative about pee training, but even there they have preferences (peeing somewhere near their bed, or on a stone they like the feel of), so some cunning cage arrangements can get most of it into a litter tray.
#2 Clean their cage regularly
Smells build up so keeping on top of cleaning your rat cage is the biggest thing you can do to make sure it doesn’t get stinky. How often you need to clean depends on various factors including the size of the cage, the number of rats in it, and whether they are litter trained. The best thing to do is try a weekly schedule and then adjust it to suit your group.
#3 But don’t clean too often
It may seem counter-intuitive, but cleaning the cage too much can make the smells worse. That’s because rats like to live in an environment that smells of them – it makes them feel safe and reassured that they are on their own territory. If the owner is too vigorous or frequent with cleaning then that nice reassuring smell disappears… and the rats work twice as hard to get it back.
#4 Spot clean to control the stink
Spot cleaning is a great way to balance our need to keep the cage hygienic and smell-free and the rats’ preference for an environment that smells of them. Simply scoop out dirty litter and change any damp hammocks or obviously dirty furnishings, leaving the rest of the cage as it is. With my smaller cage, I generally spot clean every few days, and strip the whole cage weekly to fortnightly (depending on how many rats are in residence). With the giant horde cage I never strip it all out at once – instead we clean and renovate sections on a rolling basis.
#5 Use absorbent substrates
The biggest source of smell is not the rats themselves, but the substrate they wee on (rat poo only really smells if they wee on it). That means choosing the right substrate for your cage is one of the easiest ways of managing any smell. With the rising popularity of flat based cages, many owners prefer materials such as fleece or newspaper to loose substrates that can get kicked out the cage. However, neither fleece nor newspaper is particularly absorbent of wee or its smell – that means you can end up with a soggy, stinky mess very quickly. I do use newspaper on the flat parts of my cage (not that it stays there – the rats delight in tearing it up and dragging it into their nest), and we have fleece hammocks. But both have to be changed regularly, and I make sure to cover any surfaces where the rats wee with digging boxes of loose substrate, or litter trays.
And one thing not to do
The worst thing you can do to solve cage smells is cover them up with air fresheners, sprays, or scented bedding. It’s a bad idea for two reasons.
Firstly, if the cage smells enough to bother the local humans then it is dirty and needs at least spot cleaning for hygiene reasons, and to protect the rats from ammonia build-up. Covering up the smell is a sticking plaster, not a solution.
Secondly, rats have really sensitive respiratory systems – that’s why they react badly to ammonia from their wee and why they are prone to lung problems. Adding in artificial scents of any kind has a high risk of irritating their airways, making health problems more likely. The best way to make a rat room smell fresh is simply to open a window and let in some fresh air.
Smell is something that prospective rat owners often worry about, but hopefully you can see it doesn’t have to be a problem. Let us know in the comments what tips and tricks you have for keeping your cage clean and your rats happy.