This weekend I’ve introduced two new neutered boys into my group (known as The Horde). That brings my total number of pet rats to eight – three neutered boys and five girls – and offers the perfect opportunity to change the rat cage setup and encourage everyone to get more exercise.
Setting up a large rat cage can be a challenge for new owners. Most cages come with a few basics like shelves, a hammock and maybe a house. However, these are rarely enough to keep rats entertained, and most owners will need a stash of spare cage furnishings to swap out for dirty items. So, what should we be looking for?
Taking a rat’s-eye view
I like to start by looking at the cage layout from a rat’s point of view. It is easy for us humans to decide how we think a cage should look, but frequently, our rodent friends have their own ideas – popping over to the cage right now, I find one girl asleep in her litter tray, while another has pushed the digging box away from the side of the cage and squashed herself down between the plastic and the bars. It isn’t quite what I intended!
Let’s think about what rats enjoy doing. Domestic fancy rats are Rattus norvegicus, a species that digs extensive burrows in the wild, but also climbs buildings and trees, and can travel several hundred meters to find food. So, a cage to keep rats happy and healthy is a cage set-up for digging, climbing and running.
My rats love a good dig in a thick substrate. Often, I bury nuts or other treat items for them to find, but they also dig just because they want to, because they fancy making a hole or burrow. In cages with deep plastic bases this is easy to set-up – just fill the base with suitable materials like cardboard squares, cross-cut shredded paper, hemp or shredded coconut fiber small animal bedding, or safe large wood shavings (kiln dried and low dust). The substrate should be non-toxic, dust-extracted, and free from long fibers that rats could get their necks or legs tangled in.
However, like many enthusiastic rat owners, I’ve fallen in love with the Critter Nation style of cage, which has a fully opening front. They are so easy to clean! Unfortunately, they also have flat base trays that don’t work with substrate unless you want it spread halfway around your house.
Some people solve this problem by making custom bases out of the corrugated plastic (corflute) you can buy in DIY stores. Since my horde is into chewing holes in their trays, I prefer to give them a range of digging boxes that are either harder to chew or disposable. Things I use include the deep bases from smaller cages, which you can often pick up cheaply second-hand, and plastic troughs that are sold for growing plants on window sills. My favorite option though is a big cardboard box. These are often free if you ask nicely in a local shop, and they can be customized with extra doorways for burrows under the substrate. And because they are free, it doesn’t matter if the rats decide to indulge in some redecoration of their own.
Most cages come with ladders to help rats move between levels. However, unless you have an oldie in your group, they really aren’t necessary. One thing that rats are excellent at is climbing – as my girls like to demonstrate by going vertically up curtains or internal brick walls. All they need to get about a cage are the cage bars, and enough odds and ends to clamber between.
We love including ropes so they can move up and around the cage in unexpected ways – I usually buy from the parrot section of pet-shops, but you can also make your own out of any clean natural fibre rope, as long as you are careful not to leave any holes, snags, or dangling fibres where feet, heads or toes can get caught.
Another popular option for climbing is to include fruit tree branches – apple, pear, plum and cherry are all safe woods. Many people like to freeze the branches first to get rid of any mites or insects that might be hiding in the bark. Branches should be wedged or wired securely into the cage, and any sharp pointy bits that might injure a falling animal should be removed.
If you don’t have fruit trees available, a cheap way to make climbing perches is to get some 2 cm (or 1 inch) diameter dowel from your local DIY shop, cut it to the length you want, and drill a bolt into one end. You can then fix these to the bars using a washer and nut on the outside – and the rats have a branch to perch on or leap from. I have loads of these, as my fruit trees are far too baby to be pruned, and I find that although they get chewed, they last and work brilliantly. I clean all the cage toys, including ropes and wooden bits, by washing in hot water with a veterinary disinfectant.
Just like humans, rats need physical exercise to stay fit and healthy, and as well as climbing, a great way for them to do this is to run about. As cages have limited space, many owners like to put a wheel in. The key thing here is to choose one that is big enough for an adult rat to run on safely, which means one of the big silent spinners, silent runners / wooden wheels, or flying saucers. The wheel needs to be at least 30 cm (12 in) across, otherwise it can damage the rat’s spine. It is also important that wheels are made of solid plastic or metal, not metal bars, as rat tails can get caught in rotating bars and damaged.
Not all rats will use wheels, especially if they aren’t raised with them as babies. I like to put one in if I have room, but I also encourage my rats to spend as much active play time out of the cage as possible – and strategies for that are another blog post.