A question I’m often asked by people researching rat ownership is how much do pet rats smell? There is no one answer – it depends partly on the sex (boys have a distinct, although not unpleasant smell), partly on how often the owner cleans them out, and partly on how well they take to litter training.
The good news is that rats can be litter trained. In fact, most take to it instinctively. I have a new 4-month-old boy here who does all his toileting in the litter tray with no training at all.
Unfortunately, whilst all rats are bright enough to learn to use litter trays, sometimes they just can’t be bothered! Nonetheless, its worth a try.
Litter Training Equipment
Here’s what you need to litter train your rats:
The first thing you need is one or more litter trays. How many depends on how big your cage is, and where your rats like to toilet. I usually have one litter tray in a small cage (small cage = 27 x 15 x 23 inches / 70 x 40 x 60 cm), and 3 or 4 in my big Critter Nation cage.
If money is an issue, you don’t have to buy purpose made litter trays. Old clean cardboard boxes cut down to size will work too, although they’ll need to be thrown away regularly.
Personally, I use a combination of small animal litter trays designed for cage corners and cheap plastic rectangular cat litter trays which cost a few dollars at the local supermarket. These are really useful in big cages, as by drilling holes in a few corners, they can be wired onto the cage and double as shelves.
It also needs to be:
- absorbent of both urine and smells,
- safe if the rats eat it (they will eat it), and
- free of any scents, dust or chemicals that could make them ill.
I use an unscented 100% recycled paper cat litter. The exact brands available will change with country. The important thing is to get unscented non-dusty decent sized pellets that are 100% paper.
How to Litter Train Your Rats – Step by Step
Step 1: Find a Good Place for the Litter Tray
If you already have rats, work out where they are toileting in their cage, and put the litter tray(s) there. If you are designing a set-up for future animals, then I find the best places to start are the back corners of the cage. It’s also a good idea to have a tray near where the rats sleep, as they don’t tend to go far if they get up to toilet while dozing.
I line my litter trays with newspaper before putting the litter in. It doesn’t make much difference to the rats, but it makes them easier to clean out. Some people prefer using litter trays with wire floor that keep rats’ feet clean.
Step 2: Move the Poo!
Many rats will instinctively use a well-placed litter tray. If they don’t get the idea, I use a piece of tissue to move misplaced poo into the litter trays. This helps the rats associate the litter tray with the smell of feces.
Rats are usually quite clean animals and they have toilet areas in the wild, so they want to put all their poo in one place. That means if an owner creates a nice smelly toilet area, they will generally use it.
Step 3: Move the Trays if Necessary
Sometimes, rats are just awkward and will choose their own litter corner, no matter how much encouragement you give them to use a tray. The best option there is to go along with it and move the tray to the favored toileting position. They know how they want their cage to work.
What About Pee?
Litter training rats to poo in a tray is fairly simple. Pee can be a whole other issue!
Mostly mine do pee in their litter trays… if they are awake. However, if they are asleep they frequently just pee in their bed. There isn’t much I can do about that, except change their beds regularly and have a litter tray nearby to minimize the effort of getting up. It’s a natural behavior – some rats do it and some don’t.
To encourage your rats to pee in their litter box, you can try adding a pee rock.
Pee rocks are strategically placed stones (around 1/3rd of the size of your rats) within your rat’s litter boxes that encourage them to urinate. Any clean, flat, and smooth stone that your rats can comfortably climb and drag themselves over can serve as a pee rock.
Litter Training for Playtime
My rats have free access to their cage during playtime and usually go back in to use their litter trays. If you have to free-range your rats away from their cage, then a litter tray on the floor will often work if they are used to having one in their cage.
Again, picking up any stray poos and popping them in the tray will encourage the rats to use it.
Help! My Rats Are Sleeping / Eating / Stashing Food in Their Litter Tray
Don’t worry, it happens. It’s important to remember that rats don’t have human ideas about rooms and hygiene. Yes, they are quite clean animals, have toilet corners, and in the wild will clear soiled material out their burrows. But poo and pee still have a different meaning to them.
A rat might sleep in their litter tray just because they find it comfortable. I did have one rat who insisted on sleeping in his litter tray and getting up to toilet in his hammock just below.
Food is often eaten and stored in litter trays because they smell – it marks the territory and the food out as theirs. And yes, sometimes rats do eat their own, or cage mates poo. It’s a way of recycling nutrients.
I currently have a cardboard box in my play area which has a carefully curated collection of dried poo in it. No one toileted there, but one of my little girl rats, who is a bit special at times, picks poos she particularly likes from dirty litter trays and stashes them away in her special box – along with many small bits of ripped up paper, some torn foam from my sacrificial armchair, nut shells, and a small steel bolt she stole from my husband. It makes sense to her!