Rat Digging Box: How to Set It Up

Rat digging box setup

Rats are intelligent and social animals that need plenty of enrichment to be happy and healthy. Naturally, we want what’s best for our rats, and sometimes small changes can significantly affect their welfare and overall health.

Providing a good digging box is one of these changes; digging boxes are easy and cheap to make but can provide hours of fun inside your rats’ cage or outside during free roam time.

What’s a Rat Digging Box Anyway?

A digging box, also known as a foraging box or a substrate box, is a container filled with a diggable substrate that can be placed inside a rat’s cage or outside for use in free roam time.

Dig boxes are an excellent way to provide additional enrichment for rats, as it allows them to engage in their natural digging and foraging behaviors in a place they feel comfortable in. Rats have a natural instinct to burrow for forage, shelter, and fun, so a digging box provides them with the perfect area to do so.

Why Not Just Add More Substrate?

While substrate is important for rats (and all small furries) to have in their cage, providing a dig box is an opportunity to provide a new, exciting experience for them. Adding more substrate into a cage can only provide so much stimulation. A new dig box filled with something (rat-safe) that your rats haven’t experienced before allows them to use all their senses to enjoy learning about it.

That’s not to say that substrate isn’t important; in fact, rats should always have a thick layer of substrate lining the bottom of their cage at all times. Substrate gives rats a comfortable and safe surface to walk and play on, helps to keep their living space clean and hygienic by absorbing pee, and encourages them to dig and forage.

We’ll discuss the best types of substrate to use for your rat’s digging box below.

How to Set Up a Rat Digging Box

How to set up a rat dig box

To make a rat digging box, you’ll need:

  • a small container (optionally with a lid) such as a plastic storage box,
  • a drill or a knife to make holes in the lid,
  • and the substrate of your choice.

The first step is to drill or cut a hole in the container’s lid that’s the perfect size for a rat. Next, file down the edges of the hole, so they’re nice and smooth. Sandpaper is good for this, or a lighter to melt and reshape sharp edges, just make sure your rats are nowhere near!

Next, get ready to fill the container with your chosen rat dig box material. Make sure to leave a good gap between the top of the substrate and the top of the dig box unless you want lots of mess to clean up!

Suitable dig box material includes:

  • Shredded paper (ensure any ink is non-toxic and the pieces are small enough not to risk tangling)
  • Sterile coco soil that is kept slightly damp to keep the dust down
  • Coconut husk bedding (make sure it’s not too fibrous as this also risks tangling)
  • Shredded or squared cardboard (great for digging)
  • Compost mix, 60% compost, 40% sand is a good option according to Isamu Rats (don’t use anything that’s been outside already or that has pesticides or chemicals added), organic is best.
  • Paper bedding (such as Carefresh), making sure it’s unscented and natural
  • Hay

That’s your basic setup for a digging box, but the beauty of homemade enrichment is that you can make it your own! For example, some of the best digging boxes I’ve seen are soil-based and planted with different rat-safe flora, which is always a huge hit!

A Plant-based Digging Box

Rat dig box with wheatgrass

If you want to add plants to your rat’s digging box, ensure they’re safe. They’ll be nibbled, chewed, and dug up, so ensuring they’re rat-friendly keeps your rats safe and allows them to have fun.

Rat-safe plants great for dig boxes include:

  • Wheatgrass
  • Basil
  • Cilantro (Coriander)
  • Cress
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

Below, I’ll detail how to create a soil-based, plant-filed digging box for rats to enjoy. These are great to use during free roam time, as they can get pretty messy (due to all the happy digging!)

  • Step #1: Create the basic digging box, as mentioned above, but without a lid.
  • Step #2: Instead of filling with paper or card-based substrate, fill the box with a rat-safe compost. Eco Earth animal soil is completely safe for rats to use.
  • Step #3: Begin planting some seeds, plants, or even small vegetables into the soil. Plants are great for immediate use, but seeds such as Wheatgrass can give your rats some new shoots to nibble on.
  • Step #4: Add some treats to forage into the box for them. You can bury some of the treats but keep some on the surface layer, so they draw your rats’ attention. We’ve included a list of forage foods below, but mealworms and seeds are great additions.
  • Step #5: Introduce your rats to the box, and watch them dig, forage, and play!

Once your digging box is made up, it’s time to add some foraging foods for them. There are so many forage-friendly foods for rats to hunt for, and it’s amazing to see them using their senses to find tasty treats hidden in the substrate.

Rat enjoying the dig box

Some options for healthy, nutritious forage include:

  • Seeds, such as Chia, Flax, Pumpkin, or Pine
  • Whole (shell on) unsalted nuts, such as Hazelnuts, Macadamia, and Walnuts
  • Grains such as Buckwheat, Millet, Oats, and plain Popcorn
  • Dried herbs such as Mint, Oregano, and Rosemary

You can also include a small amount of their everyday food if you wish, but a few treats to forage, especially for the box, will make it more fun! You can find a list of all the foods safe to feed rats here.


To maintain the digging box and ensure it stays clean and hygienic, you should remove any treats and spot clean to remove poops once playtime is over, and the whole box should be cleaned out weekly (or as needed if it becomes soiled).

It is also important to keep an eye on the plants and make sure that the rats haven’t gnawed them to the point of destroying them! The plants are there for your rats to eat, so just replace any that have lost their pizazz.

Clean-up Crew for a Self-cleaning Box

If you want to create a bioactive digging box, you can introduce your own “clean-up crew” (CUC) that can keep the dig box clean, and prevent mold from growing.

There are certain creatures that rats can happily and safely live with that will maintain bioactive substrate for you, with minimal intervention. Isopods, Earthworms and Springtails are invertebrates that will take care of any mold, old food and even poops in the dig box. Owners will still need to keep the soil moist to prevent it drying out, keep it topped up, and turn the soil around at least once a week.

This last point is important; bioactive soil with a CUC can be safely kept in place and maintained for months, but ammonia can build up in any tunnels your rats (certainly) will create. This presents a big respiratory hazard for rats; to prevent this, turn the soil at least weekly to prevent ammonia build up.

Final Thoughts

Rats are always on the hunt for new things to play with and new adventures, and a digging box is the perfect addition to their toy rotation. It can be made cheaply and easily, is easy to maintain, and above all, can be personalized to fit your rat’s preferences.

Dig boxes offer a novelty experience that will delight them; I’m sure you’ll get as much pleasure out of watching them dig out burrows, forage for food, and generally have a great time as they do when they’re using it.

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