Cleaning is a job we must do regularly to eliminate germs, bugs and bad smells, and make sure our pets stay healthy. The practical basics of how to clean a rat cage are pretty straight forward (and we have a guide here to help!), but there are some less obvious things that are helpful to think about when planning ratty housework.
1. Is Your Cage the Right Size for Your Rats?
My rats have always had a lot of space. Nowadays they live free-range in their own rooms, and before that they had five large ferret cages joined together. People ask “how do you clean all that?”, but there’s the secret – larger spaces get dirty more slowly, and actually involve less cleaning, than smaller. That’s because with more space, the rats use each part of it less often. It’s the same as in human houses – we have to clean and change our own bedrooms far more often and more deeply than we clean a guest bedroom that gets used once a year.
There are of course some things I spot clean daily or change weekly to keep the areas hygienic, but if a cage is getting dirty or smelly very quickly (e.g. you need to do a full clean out more frequently than once a week), it’s worth thinking about whether a bigger cage might help.
2. What Substrate Are You Using?
The substrate is what we line the base of the cage with. In a cage with a deep base it best to use something loose like kiln-dried shavings, shredded cardboard, or hemp that allows rats to dig and tunnel. How often these substrates need changing depends on whether the rats are also toileting in them. If they are, then those areas will need to be changed out at least weekly and may need spot cleaning every couple of days. If they don’t, then a dry substrate can last a few weeks in a cage, or even longer in a digging box.
Bioactive substrates, where a thick base of coco soil is home to springtails and other micro-bugs that eat waste, are designed to last long-term (months to years) without changing. However, it’s worth noting that rats are temperate adapted and pee and poo much more than some other animals, so a fully self-sustaining bioactive set-up is not generally possible – it’s necessary to still use litter trays, physically disturb tunnels to ventilate them, and spot clean any particularly dirty areas of substrate.
People with flat based cages may only have loose substrate in a digging box, and line the rest of the cage with newspaper or fleece. Unfortunately, both of these soak up wee and become sticky, soggy and stinky quickly. Newspaper also frequently gets pulled up and dragged off into nests. I’ve started lining the flat areas of the cage with off cuts of vinyl flooring or corflute, which are easy to quickly wipe-down, although I still provide sheets of newspaper and bits of fleece in for nest building. If you do use fleece or newspaper, or your rats use it in their nests, it is best to pull it out and change it as soon as it feels even slightly damp.
A recent trend is lining rat cages with artificial grass as it is washable, makes a foraging substrate, and looks natural (although it is actually made of plastic). However, I am not a fan of this, because in my experience, textured plastic is the absolute worst material for smells in a rat cage. Which brings us to point 3…
3. What Are Your Cage Furnishings Made of?
Everything in a rat cage is going to get dirty and need cleaning. Different media absorb urine in different ways:
- fabric and paper soak it up,
- while on plastic and metal the liquid evaporates and leaves the sugars, proteins and other gunk as a sticky mark.
Neither of these is desirable, which is why it’s a good idea to put a litter tray anywhere your rats wee or poo regularly.
As mentioned above, textured plastic is particularly bad for harbouring wee, especially on shelves or mats. The texture traps the urine, building up stink and making the furniture hard to clean. The day I stopped using textured plastic shelves in my cage was the day it got a lot less smelly.
Another material to avoid on horizontal surfaces is unsealed wood. Wooden shelves and bases soak up urine easily, smell and are hard to get clean. I use wood in perches and climbing frames but stick with something wipeable for the flat surfaces. Obviously, if you want to use a wooden shelf and choose to seal it with paint or varnish, then it is essential to use a pet-safe substance that won’t give off fumes or harm the rats if they chew it.
The materials of your cage furnishings, as well as how much your rats use them will dictate how often they need to be cleaned. Anything that gets smelly or soggy should be cleaned as soon as it is slightly damp, which might be every day, whilst most furniture, along with the cage bars and base, benefit from scrubbing (if the rats use it a lot), or wiping down (if they don’t) every week. Your exact schedule will depend on your rats and your own cage furnishings – you can see my cleaning schedule at the end of the article.
4. What Safe Cleaning Agents Will You Use?
The most important feature of our cleaning agents is that they are safe for rats – it is important to avoid anything that leaves toxic chemical residues. I use:
- F10 disinfectant (which is designed for veterinary contexts),
- oxygen bleach (which degrades to water and oxygen during use),
- and an eco washing up liquid – but I also rinse everything thoroughly after washing.
My basic rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t want it on your cutlery, don’t put it on rat furnishings.
5. What Will You Do With the Rats During Cleaning?
Obviously, cage cleaning disturbs the rats – and if you let them, they will generally want to help. And by help, I mean get in the way. I am a world expert in sweeping my rat room floor while three rats climb my legs to see what I’m doing, another climbs the brush handle and a fifth burrows in the dustpan to see if I am stealing anything interesting. Generally, minor adjustments like scooping out a pee corner, or wiping down a shelf can be done with the rats in situ. However, for any major cleaning operations, its safest, for the rats and for our sanity, to put the rats in a carrier, a spare cage, or let them have playtime with someone else in a playpen or another room.
How Often Should You Clean Your Rats’ Cage?
Alison’s cleaning schedule
I currently have two fully free range rat rooms (for my fancy rats), and two large critter nation cages (for my hand-raised Rattus rattus). However, the schedule is more or less the same for all of them.
- Change water bowls and water bottles
- Clean out old uneaten food
- Wipe down the feeding area
- Check nests aren’t getting damp, and pull them out and provide fresh bedding when they are.
- Spot clean any toileting areas outside the litter trays
- Change / wash any regularly used furniture including hammocks
- Clean and empty litter trays
- Change dirty substrate
- Sweep the floor of the rooms / wipe down the cage bases
- Sweep or vacuum the floor around the cages, because rats throw stuff everywhere!
Monthly – bimonthly
- Wash the floors of the rat rooms / scrub down the full cages
- Change the digging box substrates (assuming they aren’t toileting in it – I change it weekly if they are)
- Change out and wash all the less frequently used structural furniture like ropes, perches etc.
The advantage of this schedule is that the cleaning gets spread out rather than all coming in a lump. We often do one of the weekly items each night, so we don’t have to devote hours to the job at the weekend. It also means that something is always changing in the rat cage / room, with a full rearrangement at least monthly. Pet rats love variety and exploring new things, so regular cleaning and changing of furniture is not only good for their hygiene, but also their mental health.