Rats are immensely curious creatures. They are interested in everything and very intelligent. That makes them awesome pets, but also means they can get bored easily. One of our jobs as rat owners is to keep those little furry brains entertained.
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Building an entertaining rat cage
When we talk about entertaining rats, it’s easy to jump straight to thinking up games that we can play with them when they are free-ranging or new ways to bond. However, many people will only be able to play with their rats for an hour or two a day. Most rats spend most of their time in their cage. That means that the first thing we need to do to stave off boredom is make their cage entertaining in and of itself.
The first thing to take into account when buying a cage is to make sure it is big enough. But space on its own isn’t enough. Too much empty space is dead space. So it is really important to lay out the cage well, not just with the obvious things like comfy beds and litter trays, but with lots of things to explore and do.
Here are items I always include in my cage layout.
Rats love to dig. It is one of their most fundamental natural behaviors. They do it to find interesting things and treats, to make nests, and sometimes just for the fun of it. However, the fashion in cage layouts recently has moved towards doing away with deep-based trays full of substrate, and instead lining a flat cage base with newspaper or fleece. That’s just not as much fun!
You don’t have to have a deep cage base to provide a digging area. I’m currently using a number of Critter Nation style cages, which don’t have a base tray to put substrate in. Instead I take advantage of their fully opening front doors to pop a large cardboard box, or the plastic base from an old cage in as a digging box. I fill the box up with a suitable substrate, and the rats can dig away. Another cunning idea I’ve found is to use long narrow planting troughs – the sort sold for window sills. Drill a few holes round the edge to wire them onto the cage bars, fill with substrate, and bingo! A combined digging box / burrow.
Tubes and tunnels
Tubes and tunnels, or as it is better known in the local DIY shop, drainpipe. Rats like to go inside things – it helps them feel secure, and they also seem to like exploring burrows. So I suspend sections of drainpipe about 15 in / 40 cm long in different parts of the cage.
Ropes are brilliant ways to fill the dead space in the middle of the higher parts of the cage. Rats are natural gymnasts so they have no problem at all navigating a rope parrot perch. Using ropes in the cage helps the rats keep fit, and allows them to explore all areas of their home.
My rats love paper. They love pulling it into their houses, tearing it up, and making a nest (and then peeing on it because they have no class, but let’s not dwell on that…). Making a nest can occupy a couple of rats for hours so it is a great way to keep them entertained. I chuck the newspaper in as whole sheets – no need to tear it up, as that is their job – and once a stinky nest has been made, I clean it out, add more newspaper and let them start again.
Entertaining your rats with food
When feeding rats there is a temptation to do it the human way – i.e. nicely presented on plates or bowls. But rats really don’t need to be fed like that. They don’t understand table manners (which is why I frequently find a rat head-down in my mug of tea), they don’t watch cooking shows, and having their food provided at the same time in the same way everyday is actually rather dull. A great way to make our rats’ lives more entertaining is to change up how we feed them. Strategies I use include:
Make sure the food is varied
I feed my rats a mixture of grain based dry mix, and fresh food, which is mainly veggies, with some fruit, and some leftovers, eggs etc. Although I do sometimes use rodent pellets as part of the dry mix, I never feed just pellets, because although nutritionally balanced, that would be pretty boring.
Bowls have their place in feeding rats – they are a good way to contain messy food, and they are useful if you have oldies, nursing mum’s or ill rats where you need to monitor their food intake. However, they aren’t necessary for the average pet rat. Instead, I scatter feed most of the Horde’s food, spreading it around different parts of the cage every day. This encourages them to forage for their food, and spend more time working for it compared to the time spent eating it. That encourages a really important natural behavior (wild animals spend most of their waking lives finding food), and it also helps control their weight.
Another benefit I’ve found to scatter feeding is that it deters bullying and makes it easier for all rats to get their fair share of the food. When I was using a bowl, certain rats would sit in it, to make sure they got the best bits. But they can’t sit on multiple areas of the cage simultaneously, so rats lower in the hierarchy get a fairer deal.
Kabobs, pinatas, and parcels
There are lots of other ways of presenting food. As the Horde is currently rather large, I often put in whole vegetables like complete corncobs (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a 0.4 lb / 200 g rat try and climb a brick wall carrying a complete corn cob in her mouth. The scary thing is she managed it. Then she hid the corn cob inside my sofa).
Another option is to make a puzzle or game out of the food, and you don’t have to use expensive toys. Dry mix can be made into DIY crackers, parcels or pinatas with a bit of paper and ingenuity. Fresh veggies are ideal skewered on a kabob and hung up around the cage. The rats then have to seek out their food, climb and work out how to remove it. I use a purpose made steel stick from the pet shop (with wooden chews and bell removed – removing the bell is vital for owners’ sanity…), but I have improvised with garden wire in the past.
The major concept in entertaining rats in their cage is variety and change. Every time I do a major clean out, I rearrange the cage layout of the rats can spend time exploring new things. Every batch of dry mix, and every day’s fresh food is slightly different depending on what I have to hand, so that feeding time always comes with a bit of unexpected excitement. Each thing is quite minor on its own, but added up, it all contributes to making sure our rats have an entertaining life – even when we’re not playing with them.
How do you entertain your rats?
Let us know in the comments 🙂