Rats need bedding for digging, foraging, nesting, sleeping, and toileting. In this article, we will look at which are the best beddings for rats, which bedding works well in each situation, and which beddings are best avoided.
We will discuss important issues, such as, safety, comfort, absorbency, value and which types of rat beddings are the best for reducing odor, before exploring the pros and cons of some of the best beddings available.
- The 3 Main Types of Rat Bedding
- Great Beddings for Rats
- DIY Bedding and Reusable Possibilities
- Things to Look Out for That Make Bedding Unsuitable for Rats
- The pros and cons of 6 great beddings
The 3 Main Types of Rat Bedding
To help you decide what the best bedding for your rats is, let’s break the behaviors we listed above down into three groups, as each requires a different type of bedding.
- Digging and foraging – this happens in the floor substrate (or a digging box) and bedding used this way can be called bedding, litter or substrate. It is the main bedding needed in the cage.
- Nesting and sleeping – rats make good use of nesting material, which is usually just called bedding. The material is used to line bedding boxes, baskets, and hammocks.
- Toileting – rats can be trained to a litter pan and bedding used for the pan is usually just called litter.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
The Main Cage Floor Substrate – Make It Deep
The best cages have a deep base tray or high kick guards to hold bedding in the cage. Rats benefit greatly from having a deep litter (3” to 6” at the very least) on the cage floor. These benefits include:
- A soft bouncy layer at the base of the cage is protective in case of a fall.
- The springiness of deep litter gives a gentle surface to walk, run and play on.
- Food can be scattered and buried to allow for foraging behaviors.
- Rats can dig properly, and even create tunnels or nests in deep litter.
- The depth of the litter reduces the need for frequent cleaning sessions and helps to reduce odor.
As well as being used in a deep layer, the cage floor bedding should also have some structure. Rats (like all mammals) like to change and manipulate their environment. Using bedding that can be picked up and carried – as well as holding its structure for digging out tunnels – is a big plus.
An alternative approach if your cage has shallow trays – and you don’t want to attach separate kick guards – is to cover the trays with lining or packing paper and install a plastic bin (tub) as a digging box.
Underbed storage bins are often a good shape and size to cover most of a cage base, or you can include smaller – but much deeper – tubs that only take up part of the base tray area. Coir (coconut fiber) compost bricks make an excellent digging substrate for a digging box.
If you have more than one digging box, try using different substrates in each of them. This gives rats a choice and allows them to demonstrate a personal preference. It’s also more enriching in terms of textural and sensory differences.
The Nest or Sleeping Area Bedding – Make It Soft
Rats use nesting materials to help regulate body temperature and to increase warmth and comfort for sleeping areas. They are natural nest builders and will forage for useful material in their environment.
Bedding used for nesting needs to be a good size for the rats to manipulate and soft and flexible for the creation of the nest. Many rats will wee in their beds, so nesting material often needs to be changed every few days.
With this in mind, it needs to be easy to remove and cheap to buy (or reusable). Chopped card, soft paper, DIY shredded paper, and Vetbed all make great beddings for the nest.
The Litter Pan – Make It Absorbent & Different From the Main Bedding
Having a couple of corner litter pans in the base (or cat litter trays on the cage shelves) can make a lot of difference as to how long it takes for the bedding on the main cage floor to need changing.
Rats are easy to toilet train, in fact, often just using the pan with some different litter in it is enough. If the rats need encouragement, you can gather up stray feces from around the cage and put it into the pan until they get the idea.
The best litters for litter pans are often paper-based pellets and straw pellets as they are very absorbent and will be different in texture from the bedding used elsewhere in the cage. This can help your rats to toilet train to the litter pans.
Great Beddings for Rats
There are several excellent beddings that can be used in each of these situations. Which one you choose is often a matter of availability and personal preference. It’s good to also consider that your rats may have a preference as well!
Chopped or Shredded Card Bedding for Rats
Card is inert, low dust and highly absorbent bedding, which comes in large bales that are generally marketed for horses. It is usually pre-consumer card waste that is mechanically chopped into shreds or squares. This type of bedding has little smell of its own.
Card is excellent bedding for structure, and a great substrate for the cage floor, being easy to dig in and carry around. The large bales make it cost effective to buy but more expensive to have shipped. Card is best used as a cage base substrate or in a digging box.
It’s highly structured and easily manipulated – if you use it your rats will probably carry some off to line their nests.
Large Flake, Kiln Dried, Dust Extracted Pine Bedding for Rats
Pine has historically been a no-no for rats because it contains phenols (volatile chemicals that give it a distinctive ‘pine’ odor), which are known to exacerbate respiratory issues.
However, a new technique of kiln drying the shavings removes the phenols and leaves behind a useful rat bedding. Kiln-dried pine has great absorbency, keeping smells down. It also has a good structure for digging and foraging.
Kiln-dried pine is becoming widely available as a horse bedding and comes in large, cost-effective bales. Shavings are best used for cage base bedding or mixed with other substrates in a digging box to improve structure.
Large Flake Aspen Bedding for Rats
Aspen is a hardwood shaving that is naturally low in phenols. Look for dust extracted Aspen and throw away the tiny bits that settle to the bottom of the bag. This bedding has great absorbency but can be expensive.
One issue with wood flakes of any kind is that shavings tend to grip onto carpet, socks, and fabric and can be a nuisance to try to sweep up. This shouldn’t be a problem if you have hard floors. Aspen is best used for cage base bedding or in digging boxes.
Wood Pulp Bedding for Rats
Mechanically or chemically processed wood becomes wood pulp, which is the base material for the manufacture of paper and card. Animal beddings are often made from reclaimed wood pulp from recycled card and paper.
Wood pulp products can be anything from pellets to soft lumps, to smooth paper. They tend to have very little smell (unless artificially added) and have good absorbency.
Price tends to be variable depending on the pulp source and processing used. Some can be comparatively expensive, added to which, they often don’t last as long between changes as some other beddings. However, wood pulp bedding tends to be easy to source.
Suitability for different uses varies with the presentation:
- Pellets – excellent for litter pans but should be avoided on the cage floor as they are hard on little feet and don’t hold any structure, so are useless for digging. Not suitable for nesting material.
- Soft clump bedding – works well as a cage base substrate, though it can work out expensive as deep litter. It can also be used in litter pans or in digging boxes if mixed with other shavings, hay or card to improve the structure.
- Tissue strands, paper towels, and shredded paper – these make great nesting materials but need changing frequently and are not suitable as a digging substrate or in a litter pan.
Hemp Bedding for Rats
Hemp bedding is made from shredding the stalks of hemp plants, which produces natural and highly absorbent bedding. The cut varies from fairly chunky to very fine, and the chunkier pieces may work better for rats. Quality also varies.
Although hemp is marketed for small animals it is also supplied in large bales for chickens and horses, which can work out cheaper if you have storage space. This makes it very cost effective, though you may find the small animal hemp is cleaner.
Hemp is suitable for use as a cage base substrate or in digging boxes and litter pans, and it can be mixed with card or shavings for better structure.
Coir Bedding for Rats
Coir (coconut fiber) is supplied as dehydrated bricks which need to be reconstituted with water before use. It provides a very natural digging experience for rats, while still being clean and safe.
Because it is used damp, coir isn’t suitable for nesting material but can be used in litter pans at a drier consistency, as it is extremely absorbent.
Coir is more suited to digging boxes than the cage base because of its damp presentation. However, this can be a real benefit in hot weather. Rats are not well adapted to heat and having a cool environment to dig into is useful in maintaining normal body temperature.
It will hold structure well, and rats can create tunnel systems and underground chambers when digging in it if the container is big enough.
Soft Hay for Rats
Soft, top-quality meadow hay is excellent for rat beds and useful to mix into the cage floor substrate to give texture and structure. Hay lasts longer than paper or tissue as a nesting material but will become smelly if your rats urinate in their beds.
Meadow hay and mixes that include dandelion, clover, chicory, plantain (or any garden herbs) are excellent, as the herbs offer additional nutritional value. Dandelion is one of the best leafy green calcium sources available.
Chopped Barley Straw for Rats
Straw is generally unsuitable as bedding for rats because the tough stalks can be spikey and result in injuries, particularly to the eyes. However, barley straw is a soft variety and when chopped creates a soft, natural and warm bedding
As such, it can be really useful during colder spells in your rats’ bed. It’s more absorbent than paper but still needs to be refreshed regularly.
DIY Bedding and Reusable Possibilities
If you want to reuse packaging materials or dispose of old office documents, then consider the possibility of making your own rat bedding.
Cross shredded and strip shredded paper are both useful in the rat cage, and when mixed with other beddings can help to increase structure and absorbency. Thin card can also be shredded and used in much the same way.
Paper or card packaging from online purchases, and paper bags from stores can all be reused. Some people even find it relaxing to chop their own card bedding while watching TV! Others use packaging boxes as beds (once any tape is removed), as they can just be thrown out when they start to smell with any old bedding still inside.
For those who are looking for washable, reusable bedding, Vetbed is designed for this purpose. It’s a thick, soft, non-toxic material over a firm base layer that lets any fluid quickly drain through.
Vet bed is best used over an absorbent base (such as paper towels) that are then changed daily as needed. The vet bed can just be washed in a machine when it’s dirty.
Watch out, as there are counterfeit, flimsy, copycat products on the market, which are much thinner and won’t last long. Quality vet bed will last 20 years even with boil washing. Not that it needs boil washing since vet bed doesn’t readily harbor bacteria.
If you use vet bed don’t use it with shavings and other ‘clingy’ products as it will hold onto them forever! It is fine with shredded paper or tissue beddings that will just lift off. Because it’s a fixed substrate your rats will still need a large digging box in the cage.
Some people like to use fleece to cover trays and shelves because it’s cheap, comes in pretty designs, and can be reused. Fleece flooring is completely unsuitable for rats as it contains plastic, which prevents urine from moving through the fabric easily.
This leads to pooling and the potential for your rats to be walking through urine around the cage. Fleece is the kind of bedding that appeals to humans but offers very little to your rats in terms of enrichment or engaging in natural behavior.
Things to Look Out for That Make Bedding Unsuitable for Rats
Some materials start out as unsuitable for rats, others are made so by treatments and additives. It’s just as important to know what makes a poor bedding for rats as a great one so that you are clear which products to avoid.
Good Bedding Used in an Inappropriate Way
To clarify, not all of the great rat beddings are appropriate for all situations.
For example, choosing a hard pellet is great for a litter pan, but unsuitable for use over a larger floor area, where it would be very hard on small feet and too heavy to maintain structure when digging.
Equally, soft tissue may make a warm, comfortable nest, but will disintegrate into a soggy mess if used on the cage floor.
Always choose a bedding that’s great for the use you intend.
Any product with added scent is rendered unsuitable for rats by the perfume. Rats have extremely sensitive noses and they find many perfumes aversive. Just because you find a smell pleasant doesn’t mean that your rats necessarily will.
Imagine having to live with your own nose close to a smell that you found irritating, for long periods of time. Then multiply that massively and you get a feel for how a rat might struggle on a scented litter.
Tips: If you want to add a pleasant smell to the rats’ cage, try adding a bunch of fresh mint to one corner of the cage. Then watch to see how your rats respond. Many rats find fresh (not synthetic) mint an attractive scent and, if yours do, you can use fresh mint to reduce odors.
Untreated Cedar or Pine Shavings
Standard softwood shavings (cedar and pine) should never be used with rats as they release phenols over time (which creates the pine smell). These volatile chemicals have been shown to irritate the sensitive mucous lining of the rat’s respiratory system, often leading to sneezing and wheezing or making existing problems worse.
Kiln dried shavings are becoming more popular for horses – who are also prone to respiratory illness – and the heated drying process causes the phenols to evaporate leaving a rat safe alternative.
Sawdust and other dusty beddings are unsuitable for rats because the tiny dust particles irritate the respiratory tract and eyes and can cause chronic issues. Many beddings are dust extracted and some are less dusty naturally.
Always check the pack to see if the bedding looks dusty – if it’s been dust extracted it should say so on the packaging. Most beddings will contain a little dust and this will naturally settle to the bottom of the pack, so be willing to discard any dusty remnants at the end.
Risk of injury
Some beddings can pose a physical risk of injury and should be avoided. These include coarse straw, poor quality wood products with large sharp pieces and fabrics which – when chewed – create loose threads. Little nails and toes can get caught in threads and constriction injuries can result.
Some beddings, primarily corn cob, can be prone to mold growth when damp, which can be hazardous to your rats’ health. With many other beddings available, this is probably one that’s best avoided.
The pros and cons of 6 great beddings
AirLite USA Chopped Card Bedding
AirLite USA is a Florida based firm, who are leading the way in offering pre-consumer chopped card bedding for horses and small animals across several states in the US.
Their website has loads of information about University studies that show that the product out-performs other beddings in terms of (no) dust and high absorption.
We’re including this as our first great rat bedding based on 20 years of personal experience in the UK with various chopped card beddings (all excellent) alongside many other types of bedding.
AirLite is lovely bedding to use alone or mix with others for added textural enrichment and higher performance. It holds structure and readily carried and manipulated by rats. And for those worried about their rats eating it, there is no negative impact on digestion if nibbled.
Small Pet Select – Premium Small Animal Natural Paper Bedding
A soft, recycled paper/pulp bedding similar to Carefresh, but cheaper. The paper used is unbleached and unprinted. Great to mix with chopped card or kiln dried shavings for more structure.
Dr. Hemp – All-Natural Pet Bedding
A clean, shredded hemp bedding, which comes in a small chunk size that is marketed for – and highly suited to – small animals. Hemp is a natural product that is grown with minimal use of pesticides, so the bedding has little or no chemical residue.
Sold in a small bag only, which makes it expensive for use as the main cage substrate, but ideal for use in the rat’s litter pan.
Living World – Aspen Shavings
A clean, kiln dried, hardwood shaving, which is excellent quality. Suitable for anyone looking for a natural product that is safe and clean with great structure. Mixes well with chopped card or wood pulp bedding for greater structure and textural enrichment.
Living World also produces a kiln-dried (safe for rats), dust extracted pine shaving for small animals (see details).
Back-2-Nature – Small Animal Bedding
A firm, clean, pelleted litter made from recycled paper. This is a softer than average pellet litter but still works best in litter pans, rather than on the main cage floor due to its lack of structure. Back 2 Nature has great performance in litter pans.
Eco-co – Coir Fine Grade Seed Starting Mix (brick)
A Coir (coconut fiber) brick, which, when water is added, expands to 10 quarts. A big digging box will need 3 or 4 bricks. Eco-co bedding is finely ground coconut fiber, which is used as growing compost. This bedding gives your rats a close-to-natural digging experience.
Because Coir is damp when presented to your rats it’s a cool substrate that can only be used in part of the cage, enabling the rats to move away if they are cold.
There is no single “best” bedding for rats, and we hope we have given you the tools to decide for yourself which beddings are suitable, and which are not. Try a few and see which you and your rats prefer. You can always cycle them over time to give your rats extra variety and enrichment.
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