Do Rats Need a Wheel? What Kind of Wheels Are Safe?

Do Rats Need a Wheel

While wheels are not an absolute necessity in your rats’ cage, they’re a great addition for exercise and enrichment.

Rats in the wild will run significant distances throughout their lives, and when they can, they’ll run to their full length (extending their bodies) and even bunny hop. Allowing your rats the opportunity to run in this way helps to build their stamina and is beneficial to their general health and wellbeing.

As rats should get their free roam time out of the cage daily, they can get their fair share of running and physical exercise during this time. However, providing a wheel in their cage allows them to perform natural running behaviour whenever they want to in their own time.

Do Rats Like Running on a Wheel?

Female rats (does) may benefit more from a wheel in their cage than males (bucks) as they are generally more active, however whether a wheel is used (and indeed the type of wheel used) is down to your rats’ personal preferences.

Research has showed that wheel-running is not something only rats in captivity do – wild rats also actively enjoy using a wheel. In a study conducted by the Lieben University Medical Center, two cages containing food and a wheel were set up in areas where wild mice lived. Cameras were placed at each cage to capture the animals visiting the cages, and rats (as well as mice and even frogs) were shown to not only use the wheels, but return after a few minutes and continue running on them, showing that they intentionally used them. They even used wheels when there was no food to entice them.

The best way to ensure your rats are confident on their wheel and that they learn how to use it is by introducing it into their cage at a young age. Rats are much more likely to use their wheel if they have the opportunity to experience it and watch other rats use it when they’re young, however this doesn’t mean older rats won’t appreciate a wheel to use in their own time.

What size wheel do rats need
A large rat wheel in the background

What to Look for When Buying a Wheel

While there are different brands and styles of wheel to choose from, going by your rats’ personal preferences is the best guide to follow when buying a wheel – as long as safety is the top priority.

As an example some does might prefer silent, lighter wheels, while bucks and older rats might rather use a bigger and heavier wheel that spins more slowly.

Appropriate Rat Wheel Size

Rat wheels should always be at least 12-13 inches (30+cm) in diameter, if not more. This is because rats need this amount of space at minimum to be able to safely stretch out and keep their backs straight while running.

A rat who has to run with their backs bent and who is unable to fully straighten their spine while running can suffer from spinal injuries that are caused by having a wheel with a diameter too small.

Rats who have a wheel that’s too small may also just not use it, so ensuring you buy a correctly sized wheel will protect your rats’ spines and encourage them to actually use it.

Is the Wheel Safe?

There are some styles of rat wheels you should not use, as they could cause injury:

  • Rat wheels made out of plain metal bars should not be used as they can cause terrible injury to your rats’ feet and tails should they get caught, which happens often with this type of wheel.
  • Mesh wheels are also not recommended as there’s still a chance they can cause trapped digits.
  • And, of course, never use hamster balls for your rats (or any other pet for that matter).

When looking for a wheel for your rats, buying a wheel made out of safe, durable materials is key:

  • Solid plastic or metal (if your rats are chewers) are a good choice, as the solid wheel parts provide firm footing for your rats with no gaps or holes capable of causing injury.

Ease of Cleaning

Another factor to consider is how easy the wheel is to clean. A wheel that can be taken apart in simple pieces for cleaning and easily put back together is ideal, as rats’ waste can (and often does) get stuck in cracks and crevices, so an easy clean wheel is a good way to ensure proper hygiene after your rats have had a good run.

Types of wheels to avoid

Types of Exercise Wheels for Rats

There are 2 different types of wheel you can buy for your rats:

Exercise wheels such as the Silent Runner wheel are usually affixed to the side of the rats’ cage, and are made of either plastic or metal with an axel in the center, allowing the rats to run at a level angle on the running platform. Some regular wheels make the use of ball bearings to make sure the wheel makes minimal noise.

Flying saucers are another type of wheel that are usually free-standing, and which offer a more unrestricted running platform due to them being more “open”. They’re usually axle free, meaning there is generally less of a risk of spinal injury or tail injuries (if they got caught), and made of again either plastic or metal. This type of wheel takes more room in a cage, so make sure it fits in your rat cage setup before purchasing.

The differences between the wheels are subtle but again it all comes down to each rat’s personal preference as to which type they’d make more use of.

Rat Wheels that Fit the Criteria

This Silent Runner wheel is great for ease of cleaning as it fully dismantles, doesn’t have an axle and is very quiet, as well as being correctly sized.

Kaytee Silent Spinner is also a good choice, as it is both large enough and provides solid plastic footing for the safety of your rats’ feet.

This Flying Saucer Treadmill is another excellent example of a good rat wheel, as it’s made of solid metal with a large diameter and no axle, meaning it’s ideal for rats to run on as well as being easy to clean and safe.

In conclusion, wheels in your rat cage can be an excellent addition to their daily exercise routine, however they may not want to use them and they should get daily free roam time to facilitate the need for physical exertion anyway.

If purchasing a wheel make sure it’s safe and large enough, and if you can, introduce wheels at a young age for the best chance of use.

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