Summer is upon us in the northern hemisphere – time to get out our lightweight clothes and enjoy the sun! However, while we might enjoy the warmer temperatures, they can cause difficulties for our furry friends, who sometimes need a helping hand to deal with the heat.
Our pet rats belong to a species called Rattus norvegicus, which is adapted to cool temperate climates. Unlike us, rats don’t sweat and they also don’t pant like dogs. Instead they cool themselves by exchanging heat through the bare skin of their tails and feet, and in the wild, by hiding underground in tunnels and burrows during the heat of the day.
Rats in cages don’t have the same options as wild rats for getting out of the heat. Instead, they need us to make sure they are safe and comfortable. Here are the strategies I use to keep my rats cool in the heat of the Australian summer.
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Keep the cage in a cool part of the house
Most houses have some rooms that are cooler than others, because they receive less sun, or have better ventilation or insulation. Work out which room in your home is coolest in the summer, and consider moving your rat cage there when it is warm.
The position of the rat cage in the room also matters – make sure it is out of direct sunlight and has good air circulation around it.
Generally, it is a bad idea to keep pet rats outside, as they are more exposed to predators and disease, and more likely to escape. In summer in hot countries, being outside can also expose rats to temperatures they can’t cope with, so it is best to bring them indoors. Rats kept in outdoor sheds are also likely to overheat, unless the shed has been designed with adequate insulation and cooling mechanisms.
Make sure there are cool places to relax
When rats are feeling the heat they tend to pancake, or splodge out – lie down and spread themselves out in a puddle, to maximise the skin surface area that can exchange heat with their environment. They may also often lie upside down to expose their tummies to the air.
Ever lain down on a cool tiled floor in the heat? It can be one of the quickest ways to get relief on a hot day, and it is exactly the same for rats. As well as offering bare shelves to rest on, I put marble slabs or ceramic tiles in the fridge, and then pop these in the cage as cool places for the rats to sit.
Another idea is to freeze plastic water bottles, and place them in the cage wrapped in a tea towel. I find this hit and miss. It works in terms of keeping the rats cool, but it also tends to lead to floods when one of the furry geniuses decides the bottles make nice icey chews.
Splish, splosh, splash – provide plenty of water
And not just to drink. Rats should always have unlimited access to fresh drinking water in a bottle, but in hot weather, it’s worth giving them a paddling pool as well. Not only does the water help cool them down by evaporating off their skin in the same way sweat cools us, but they love playing in it. A popular game is to fill a shallow bowl with cold water, and drop in handfuls of frozen peas. The opportunity to go “pea-fishing” will encourage the rats to dip and paddle in the water.
Make ratty “aircon”
We don’t all have aircon in our houses, and even where we have, there are times we can’t or don’t want to use it. For example, living in a bushfire zone, I can’t leave my air con on for the animals when we are out at work. However, fortunately, its easy to make a safe cage “air con” system for the rats.
All that’s needed is a 500 ml / 17 oz water bottle, and a washing up bowl:
- Fill the bottle about three-quarters full with water, leaving enough room for it to expand as ice, and freeze it.
- Once frozen, pop the bottle on top of the part of the cage you want to cool, and place the washing up bowl upside down over it.
- The bottle will cool the air around it, and the presence of the bowl will force this cooler air down into the cage. As I have a large cage, I tend to have two or three of these systems on the go in the summer, placed over the areas where the rats like to sleep.
Another way to cool the air is to run a fan with a bowl of ice placed in front of it. The melting of the ice cools the air blowing across it.
Give icey treats
We all love an ice lolly or ice cream in summer. Whilst ice cream itself isn’t very good for rats (too much sugar and fat) there are lots of icey treats they can eat. One of the simplest is frozen fruit or vegetables. I often feed frozen berries or stir-fry vegetable mixes straight from the bag in summer. They defrost in the cage and the rats eat them as they reach a comfortable, but still cool, temperature.
It’s also possible to make treats – blend up some of the rats’ favourite fruit and veggies and freeze the mush in an ice cube tray to make ratty popsicles.
For more treat ideas, take a look at our post about rat treats.
Our pet rats aren’t evolved to deal with hot summer temperatures, but with a bit of thought and effort on our part, we can keep them not just safe and comfortable, but actively enjoying the summer.