5 Suitable Bedding Types for Rat Cages to Keep Our Rodents Comfy

by Alison Blyth
What is the best rat bedding? Which option to choose?

Choosing what rat bedding to use in a cage is one of the most important decisions a rat owner makes. Rats live in really close contact with their bedding so it is vital that it is safe, comfortable and suited to their needs.

Why do rats need bedding?

There are three types of bedding that are needed in a rat cage:

  • Substrate in the base of the cage, to line the cage, and give the rats something to dig in.
  • Litter for toileting, to absorb urine and feces, and encourage good toilet habits. The most common option for this is an unscented 100% recycled paper cat litter, which is placed only in the litter trays so the rats get used to having toilet areas. Avoid mineral or wooden litters, and anything with added perfume.
  • Nesting material for rats to use in lining their sleeping areas. Most people use paper kitchen towels (which are the same material as the paper nesting material sold in pet shops, but much cheaper), unscented toilet tissue (you can hang a whole roll in the cage and let the rats do the rest), ripped up newspaper with non-toxic ink, or cut up pieces of fleece fabric (for all fabric in a rat cage, chose something that doesn’t create long threads when cut or chewed, and remove any pieces that have holes a rat could get tangled in). My rats tear up their newspaper cage lining, because the Horde likes nothing better than to take control of their own cage.

The biggest decision is what type of bedding to use for substrate, so let’s take a look at the options.

Good bedding types for use as substrate

Substrate has three roles:

  • to protect the base of the cage from urine and feces;
  • to make the rats comfortable so they are not always walking on metal or plastic;
  • and to give rats something to dig in, because rats really love to have a good dig.

If you have a cage with a deep plastic base such as Kaytee Multi Level cage, then a suitable loose substrate can serve all three purposes. If you prefer a cage with a flat base such as the MidWest cage, then you can either build your own deeper tray, or use newspaper or fleece to line the cage, and provide a loose substrate in a tray or box for digging. I line my cage with newspaper as the rats enjoy tearing it up, and I find fleece gets smelly very quickly. However, it is a personal choice – the only important criteria are that it is safe and meets the rats’ needs.

A good loose substrate needs to be

  • Low dust (look for something that states it has been dust extracted). Rats are really prone to respiratory diseases, and living on and digging in a dusty substrate will irritate the lining of their noses and lungs. For this reason, coarse bedding is often better than fine.
  • Unscented. Bedding materials sold for small pet cages often have artificial scent added, or are made of a material with a strong natural smell, like pine shavings. The idea is to mask the smell of urine for the owners. However, both of these are a really bad idea for the rats. Again, this is because they are very sensitive to respiratory problems. When we smell a scent, what actually happens is that cells in our nose detect volatile chemicals which are given off by the source. That is as true of a natural smell as an artificial perfume. Just like dust, these chemicals can irritate a rat’s nose and lungs and make them more likely to get ill. Urine smells need to be dealt with by good hygiene, not covering them up.
  • Physically safe. It is important that a rat can’t hurt itself on its bedding. Two things to look out for are any bedding with sharp pointy bits that could stab into a rat’s nose or eyes (straw for example can be too hard and sharp), and anything with long fibers that a rat could get their legs or neck tangled in.
  • Non-toxic. Obviously, rats should never be bedded on anything that can make them ill if they eat it.

Having owned rats for nearly twenty years, I have tried a lot of different substrates, and I don’t have one particular favorite. In fact, I regularly use several different types to give my rats variety in their environment. I either change things up when I clean the cage, or I mix several types together in the digging box.

These are some of the loose substrate materials I regularly use as a bedding

cardboard as a rat bedding

  • Carefresh paper bedding (natural and unscented). This is a recycled paper bedding that comes in big fluffy pieces, and rats love digging in. It’s important to check you are buying the right product for you, as there are scented and colored options that I personally don’t use with rats.
  • Cardboard bedding. Depending on the brand, this can come as shredded cardboard or cardboard squares. It is very popular in the UK rat fancy, and is great for digging. However, some people dislike the fact that glue is used in the cardboard manufacturing process.
  • Shredded paper. This is a really cheap / free option if you have a shredder and access to lots of unwanted office paper. I often mix some into digging boxes. You should only use matt paper printed with non-toxic inks, and I have found it needs to be made via a cross cut shredder (so you get lots of short pieces). Long strips can be tangly, and are also more likely to have sharp edges. Shredded paper tends to compress down a lot, and doesn’t absorb urine well, so I mix it with one of the other beddings for better performance.
  • Hemp bedding. This has become popular recently, as an all-natural alternative to wood-shavings. There are several brands depending on where you live – I find my locally available one a bit fine, and I tend to mix it with something coarser.
  • Coconut husk bedding. This is a product designed for reptiles, but which has gained popularity among small animal owners as another natural alternative to wood-shavings. I am currently using a mid-sized version mixed with hemp in my main digging box. Some brands contain a lot of fibers, so it is worth looking closely at what you are buying and checking that they are suitable for rats.

Wood-shavings – the good, the bad and the ugly

For a long time, most small pets were bedded on wood-shavings, usually pine or cedar. You can still find these for sale in most pet shops, and people often use them as a cheap option. However, they are very controversial in the rat world. This is because the cheap options are frequently dusty, and the woods used contain phenols (the chemicals that give them their smell) which have been associated with respiratory disease and other health problems in rats.

I personally haven’t used wood-shavings for many years, but some people in the rat community still prefer them over paper-based beddings (which contain inks and chemicals from processing). An important thing to remember is that not all shavings are equal. A recent product that some rat owners have started using is a bedding designed for horses. These larger wood-shavings are fully dust-extracted and kiln dried, which is said to remove the phenols by heat treatment. I haven’t tried these (they are only available around here by the trailer load!) so can’t currently make a recommendation either way.

The important thing with any bedding is to think critically about its safety, and how it will suit your rats. Trial any new product in a small amount, and if you find your rats start sneezing on it, or are uncomfortable, then stop using it straight away, regardless of whether other owners like it. Rats, like people, are individuals and can be sensitive to different things.

What kind of bedding do you use or plan on using?

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18 comments

marie June 3, 2019 - 11:35 pm

Really great article. I owned rats when I was a child, and yep, we used cedar chips. Poor things. Now as a 30 something year old, I have my ratties again, and want to do the best by them (obv). I’m trying out all different kinds of litters (carefresh, recycled paper cat litter, hemp substrate, and fleece). I was excited about the fleece because it’s soft for them, and I simply wash it and reuse it. However, it was becoming so stinky so fast, and I was frustrated. I’m currently using hemp substrate mixed with carefresh. I think I will give the horse bedding a try- we have lots available where I live (Lund, Sweden).
I’m looking for something to line the shelves and ramps with, though. Some kind of cloth, I guess? And perhaps I can secure it with binder clips. Change it every few days? Should I try towel material or do you think fleece would be great?

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Alison June 5, 2019 - 8:29 am

Hi Marie, I use newspaper for lining solid shelves (I don’t have ramps). It gets torn up a lot but that’s essentially entertainment for the rats. I’ve tried fleece in the past, but like you I find it gets too smelly, too quickly. I wouldn’t use towels as the looped fabric can catch their claws.
For barred shelves, I use pieces of vinyl, corflute, or plastic table mats held on with clips to give them a solid surface, and then put the newspaper or fleece over that.
I usually put a cat litter tray with substrate or paper cat litter on larger shelves – I find it keeps the shelf cleaner for longer.
Hope that helps 🙂

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Shelby Harper January 22, 2020 - 3:24 pm

I just use Thrifty nickel papers I put them in there cage and let them shred it and they place it were ever they want it so it’s free and fun.

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Stephanie June 15, 2020 - 7:56 am

Hi Marie, We use old/unwanted long socks for the ramps. No need for clips or pins to hold them there, just feed the sock onto the ladder just like putting on a sock. Simple. And, none of my rats have ever chewed them either, which they love to do for their bedding. I use material/clothing/towels/sheets etc for bedding and wash them adding a sanitiser to each load. This minimises the small. WAY cheaper than everything else, although we do use a poopy box for litter control that they use, mostly for pooping.

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Valerie July 11, 2019 - 10:00 pm

Thank you for sharing!! I’m a fairly new rat mom (5 month old rats) and I got them from a local breeder. They seem reputable, and recommended products for me to use that they use as well with no issues. One of them is the horse wood flake bedding. I agreed to use it because I was afraid to change it up if that’s what the rats had been used to, and they insisted paper was not good enough and that the wood flakes were the best. I was also afraid to use it because of everything I heard about the phenols. One of my girls has a sniffle currently (her first one) but I think it’s issues not related to the bedding (cage cleaning, air circulation, my absence, others taking care of them, etc). Despite the sniffle, the bedding seems to work pretty well. I’ve used it for 3.5 months with no apparent issues. It is heat treated, and the only dust is the stuff that breaks down and settles to the bottom. If my girls dig a bit in the substrate they’ll sneeze once or twice because of the wood powder at the bottom but I try to give them digging boxes and a deep substrate layer to compensate. It works well with odor control, and is cheap here (US). Up until recently there has not been any issues with any respiratory stuff. I bought some Carefresh when I first got them to compare bedding and the paper was so much more dusty even though it says 99.9% dust free. I could feel and see the dust on my hands. Maybe because I didn’t have the all natural colored one).

Sorry if that seems like a book! I just wanted to share my thoughts and say thank you. I’ve read your other posts and they’ve been helpful.

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Alison Blyth July 27, 2019 - 12:30 pm

Hi Valerie,
Glad to hear your bedding choice is working. The woodflakes designed for horses are safe, as horses are even more sensitive than rats. So it is likely that the sniffle is not bedding related. I’ve had the same problems with carefresh. Sometimes it is fine, sometimes I find it is really dusty.
Good luck with your babies!
Alison

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Losa September 12, 2019 - 7:55 am

Hi, Has anyone used “Bunny Bed O’Linum Natural Linen” as ratty bedding material, or know if it’s suitable?
I’ve been looking for an alternative to kitchen roll, which previously my rats have liked but I’m worried it’s affecting my little rat’s breathing.

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Alison Blyth September 14, 2019 - 1:11 am

Hi Losa,
I’ve got no personal experience of this one, but the brand is a considered good quality. Linen is a very absorbant fibre so it would probably work similarly to a flax bedding. One question I’d want to ask is what the added odour absorber is though.

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Ian Melia January 3, 2020 - 1:59 pm

Hi guys I’m in the UK and I use horse bedding it’s called bedmax it’s great and comes in a huge game/bag

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Ian Melia January 3, 2020 - 2:00 pm

Bale/bag not game/bag

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Monika January 7, 2020 - 10:03 am

Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

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Jessie Aflalo January 11, 2020 - 11:29 pm

Hello

Great article but I need a little bit more help. My cage as a separate tray to collect urine and faeces. So the litter (from back 2 nature) I put on it the rats can’t walk directly on it. They have plenty of bedding material but sometimes they will urinate or poo on other places and I wonder if it’s because they can’t walk (and then recognise) their toilets?

They do poo only in one corner it’s just sometimes it’s done somewhere else. Anything I could do?

Thanks,
Jessie

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Alison January 13, 2020 - 12:38 am

Hi Jessie,
Is this one of those cages where the plastic tray sits under a metal grid?
What I usually do with those is take the tray out and put it inside the cage, or cut a piece of plastic board or vinyl flooring to fit the floor, cover it in newspaper and then use litter trays in the cage as normal (ignoring the underneath tray all together). It does make cleaning a little bit more effortful, but it is better for the rats as they are not constantly walking on bare bars, which isn’t very nice for them, and it allows them to interact naturally with their litter.
There isn’t much that can be done about rats pooing and peeing away from their litter corner – you can move the poos to the litter tray to encourage them to use that, but I find there are always a few stray poos about the place.

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Jessie January 13, 2020 - 12:17 pm

Hi Alison,

Thanks for your reply. It’s not bars and it’s plastic so their little feet shouldn’t be impacted. Link to the cage is here: https://www.littlepetwarehouse.co.uk/products/little-friends-chatsworth-double-80cm-small-animal-rat-cage-grey-white.html

Do you think me cleaning the cage (I use a damp cloth for their platform and spray a tiny bit with disinfectant (fine to use on pet’s home)) maybe make them want to mark their territory again hence the urine?

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Alison January 14, 2020 - 12:50 am

Cleaning the cage is fine (good in fact!) as long as it isn’t too often. Once a week or so is about right unless they make it really mucky. Cleaning too frequently can make them mark more, but too be honest some rats [eyes up my horde] just don’t have class when it comes to pee and go wherever they fancy.
I’d put a litter tray in their poo corner with litter they can interact with, and another near where they sleep as rats frequently get out of bed and pee in the nearest convenient place, and see if that helps. If there is a place they seem to pee frequently then popping a litter tray there is also worthwhile. In any one cage I tend to have three or four litter trays to account for different habits (pooing, peeing while awake, peeing when they are snoozing).

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Jessie January 17, 2020 - 11:28 pm

I think you are spot on, they have their pooping corner which is in the actual litter tray so that’s fine (the odd one is tolerable) and they do pee on the platform which is near their favourite bed so I’m gonna give that a go.

Thank you very much!

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LB February 7, 2020 - 4:57 pm

Hi, I appreciate your article. It’s helpful and very thorough regarding the differences between substrate, litter and nesting materials. I do have a male who is sensitive to the laundry detergent we use when washing their fleece substrate and hammocks/cuddle sacks, so I am switching to a due-free/perfume-free, hypoallergenic detergent. I wonder though if I should also switch to brown (chlorine-free) paper towels for their nesting material…? Have you ever heard of rats being sensitive to the chemicals used in paper towels? It isn’t a cost issue for us, but is is of course harder to find properly chemical-free paper towels… Thanks for any info you can share, and thanks as well for the thorough and well-presented article!

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Alison February 8, 2020 - 1:20 am

Hi LB,
It’s not something I’ve come across. The chemicals in laundry detergent are quite different to those used in paper manufacture so I’d only worry about the paper if the sensitivity doesn’t clear up with changing the washing liquid. I often wash the horde’s laundry without human detergent, but with a capful of F10, which is an animal safe veterinary disinfectant (I use it to clean their plastic furniture and cage too).
All the best with helping him.

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