Rats

20 Free or Cheap DIY Rat Toys

diy rat toys with tube

In this article, we will ask why pet rats need toys and discover the massive benefits that they can bring. We’ll check out the ways that toys can enrich and challenge your rats, before considering why DIY rat toys are much better at delivering these benefits than expensive shop bought items.

Then we’ll give you 20 creative ideas for tried and tested DIY rat toys, many of which can be made for free in less than 10 minutes. With the information we give, you will be able to make great choices about which toys will meet your rats’ needs in any situation.

The benefits of providing toys for pet rats

Rats are curious and investigative little creatures, who are naturally interested in their environment. As we usually confine our rats to a cage it’s important for us to make sure that we enrich that environment with plenty of items to explore and use.

In laboratories, rats have been shown to have complex awareness and reasoning abilities, for instance, they know what they know (or don’t know) and respond appropriately. As well as mental agility, they are also extremely competent gymnasts.

Offering toys can challenge their mental and physical abilities, provide choice, relieve boredom and increase well-being. These are massive benefits. Rats who are challenged mentally and physically tend to suffer less stress and remain healthier for longer as they age.

Toys can help bond groups of rats, encouraging them to work together to solve problems or co-operate to achieve an end goal. With careful selection, toys can also promote most of a rat’s natural behaviors.

To recap, the benefits of toys include:

  • Relieving boredom;
  • Stimulating curiosity;
  • Honing problem-solving abilities;
  • Improving physical fitness;
  • Increasing well-being;
  • Offering choice;
  • Supporting lifelong health;
  • Cementing social bonds;
  • Promoting natural behaviors.

So how can we provide homemade rats toys that will do all of these things?

How your DIY rat toys can provide all these benefits

In common with most mammals, including humans, rats are motivated by two main drives:

  1. The fulfillment of their needs.
  2. Receiving pleasure and reward.

What does a rat need?

Our rats have many needs, the most important of which are probably:

  • To feel safe
  • To find food
  • To find water
  • To develop social connections
  • To be able to stay warm when it’s cold and cool down when it’s hot
  • To be able to make choices and control their environment
  • To be physically competent enough to fulfill these needs.

Fulfilling these instinctive desires is extremely motivating to your rats, so the homemade toys you provide can use this to gain traction. You may think you need to make things easy for your rats for them to engage with toys, but this is untrue.

Rats desire physical competence and fitness so much that if offered two ways to get to a reward – an easy way and a more difficult way – they will often choose the harder option. Before we go any further let’s look at what a reward is to a rat.

What does a rat experience as a reward?

Essentially, a reward is anything that triggers the release of ‘feel good’ hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Rewards may also offer sensory pleasure such as taste, smell, or pleasurable touch (e.g. grooming).

Your rat might experience pleasure and reward when:

  • feeling physically competent balancing at the end of a branch to reach a hanging toy.
  • getting food from a foraging toy.
  • retrieving bedding from a toy to add to their nest when it’s cold.
  • co-operating with a friend and finding a solution.
  • exercising choice and manipulating their environment, e.g. finding open water in their cage that they can use to cool down on a hot day.
  • feeling safe enough to play and have fun with a feather that you’ve given them.

These are just a few examples. The principle is that you need to consider how a toy will provide your rats with pleasure and reward.

When your rats are already experiencing a need (they are hungry, they are hot, they are bored, etc.) the reward – if it is matched to the need – will be even more powerful as a motivator. However, competence in any skill always takes practice.

Practice makes perfect – solving homemade rat toy puzzles

You wouldn’t expect a young child to complete a complex jigsaw without ever having played with simple puzzles first. Problem-solving and play are closely related and need to be practiced, producing competency.

Almost all rat toys have an element of problem solving, in fact, challenging toys are usually the ones that rats (after practice) really enjoy. Practice really does perfect problem-solving skills, but how do we get our rats to practice.

This is easy – just like a beginner piano lesson starts off at a very basic level, so does a rat’s engagement with a challenge. However, if the problem is too easy motivation is lacking in terms of challenge, so we need to provide another reward – such as food.

As rats progress the challenge can get harder and the physical reward can be reduced, but it always remains a balance. Rats simply don’t engage with tasks if they feel the effort needed isn’t worth the reward.

Practical ways of making a toy ‘easier’

  • Fewer steps to complete (e.g. a single layer of wrapping).
  • Placing the toy on the floor or in a fixed position in the cage that is easy to reach.
  • Big motivation, such as a great smelling food reward.

Practical ways to make a toy ‘harder’

  • Gradually increasing the number of steps to complete (e.g. a reward inside a small box, placed inside a large box that’s filled with other boxes or shredded paper as a distraction).
  • Placing the toy in increasingly difficult ways in the cage, so that your rats need to climb, balance, dig, jump, etc., to reach it.
  • Reducing the value of the final reward (e.g. dry mix rather than a treat).

The reward doesn’t have to be food. It can be bedding or solving a problem like being too warm or too cold. It might even be a physical engagement or social connection, though these will only work for some individual rats.

Play to your rat’s strengths. If your rat loves water play, create toys around the activity. If you have a wheel runner, try incorporating a physical challenge into the placement of your toys. Or, for the energetic nest builder provide bedding material in your toys.

This capacity to tailor your DIY toys to your rats is one of the things that makes homemade rat toys so superior to anything you can buy in a shop.

What makes DIY rat toys a better option than store bought toys?

There are four main reasons why homemade rat toys are often superior to buying rat toys from a store. These are:

  1. Price
  2. Preference
  3. Destructibility
  4. Flexibility

Let’s look at each in turn.

Price

In a world of competing demands on your money, sourcing cheap rat toys is always a sensible goal, and can actually be great fun. But when it comes to price, nothing can beat free! Most of the toys we include in this article are pretty much free to make. How good is that?

Preference

Homemade rat toys can be tailored to your own rats’ preferences for activities, rewards and even materials used. A toy that is designed for your rats, by you, is far more likely to get engagement than a generic toy from the store.

Destructibility

Rats are rampant chewers, and it can be very frustrating to find an expensive parrot toy has been chewed into pieces in just one night! Making your own rat toys in a matter of minutes using free materials tends to put them into the disposable category, freeing you from that frustration.

Flexibility

Your DIY rat toys can provide you with endless flexibility. Favorites can be offered repeatedly, while toys that don’t engage your rats can be tweaked and offered again. If something is too easy you can find ways to make it harder and vice versa.

So, let’s look at how to make rat toys…

20 free or cheap DIY rat toys

If you want to regularly provide homemade rat toys to your rats, we’d encourage you to source a large plastic tub (with a lid) to hold all your potential toy making stuff. Start saving toilet paper tubes, small boxes, packaging – anything safe that’s hard plastic, paper or card.

Also, household items like wine corks, disposable coffee cups (with lid), feathers, pebbles, scraps of fleece, paper bags, cotton string, garden wire and so on. You’ll need a good pair of scissors and a metal skewer if you have access to a gas flame (perfect for making holes in plastic). Duck tape and Sellotape will also come in handy at times.

1. Rattie Crackers

rattie crackers

You will need:

  • 1 toilet paper tube per cracker
  • 1 sheet of paper per cracker – this can be an A4 sheet of plain paper, an old bill, tissue paper, paper towel or any other suitable sized paper.
  • Some dry food or treats.

Place some food into the toilet paper tube and place it along the long edge of a sheet of the paper. Roll it up. Crimp, twist or tie (cotton string) the cracker ends.  If using soft paper like a paper towel you can just fold the excess into the ends of the cracker to seal.

Give one per rat.

Ways to increase difficulty: The thicker the paper and the tighter the cracker ends, the harder the challenge. Putting the crackers into another bag or box also increases difficulty.

2. Nutballs

nutballs

You will need:

  • Several toilet paper tubes (¾ per rat).
  • Hazelnuts, almonds or pecans in their shells.

Cut each toilet roll paper tube into 4 rings. For each ball take three card rings and one nut. Slip one ring over another at right angles and place the nut inside, holding it in place. Take a third card ring and slip this over the others in a different orientation creating a tight ball around the nut.

Give one per rat.

Ways to increase difficulty: If your rats are very experienced with nuts in shells try using walnuts as these can be very hard to open.

3. Hanging egg box

You will need:

  • 1 card egg box.
  • Treats, dry mix, or fresh food.
  • Cotton string for hanging.

Make a hole through two balanced points in the egg box base. Some boxes have holes already in the projections that sit between the eggs to keep them in place. These are perfect to use. Make two holes in the lid as close to the placement of your first holes as possible when the lid is closed.

Take approximately half a meter of cotton string and knot one end (it helps to wrap Sellotape around the other end to make a firm end for threading). Run the string upwards through the hole in the left-hand end of the base and carry on up through the hole in the lid.

Then take the string through the top at the other side leaving a loop for hanging, before threading it down through the right-hand hole in the base. Tie the other end off underneath after cutting the taped piece off and discarding it.

You now have a box that you can hang with a lid that opens over the string. Open the lid and put some food or treats into each egg holder. Close the lid down again, but don’t seal it shut.

One box will serve up to six rats.

Ways to increase difficulty: hang the box in a place where it’s harder to reach. Wrap the food in some way before placing it into the egg box.

4. Upside down bottle

You will need:

  • 1 plastic drinks bottle.
  • Treats or dry mix, which will easily pass through the neck of the bottle.
  • A bunch of long cut shredded paper or paper towels torn into thin strips.
  • Cotton string, garden wire or duct tape for hanging.

This toy offers foraging for both food and bedding.

Begin by making a hanger for the bottle so that you can hang it upside down in the cage. You can use cotton string or garden wire and fix it by creating holes in the bottle on either side near the base end. Or you can make a hanger around the outside of the bottle using duct tape.

Fill the bottle with paper (loosely packed) and add treats or dry food as you go. Finally, plug the neck with a strip of paper towel. Hang in the cage and add rats!

One bottle per cage is usually enough.

Ways to increase difficulty: hang the bottle in a place where it’s harder to reach. Add more bedding and fewer treats.

5. Chocolate box swinging tray

You will need:

  • 1 robust plastic insert tray from a small box of chocolates.
  • Some squishy soft food that will fill the ‘mold’. We used dry mix underneath a good quality chicken and rice dog food.
  • Cotton string for hanging.

Begin by making a small hole in the center of the tray and thread your length of cotton string through this. You need to make a double knot near the end of the string on the side where the insert tray is the right way up.

Once you’ve done this you can flip the tray and it should hang flat (upside down) if you’ve got your hole in the middle. Now, turn the tray the right way up and fill each of the little chocolate holders with soft food. Squish it down so that it stays in place when you turn the tray upside down.

One tray per cage is enough.

Ways to increase difficulty: hang the tray in a place where it’s harder to reach or adjust the height above the floor (or a shelf) where the rats must reach up to get at it.

6. Toilet paper rope

toilet paper rope

You will need:

  • A roll of toilet paper.
  • A friend to help you braid.
  • A long zip tie to fix the rope into the cage.

Amazingly this creates a strong rope which can be hung horizontally for climbing or vertically as a treat holder. Work gently and handle the toilet paper lightly to prevent tears. You might find it easiest to lay the lengths down on the floor to begin.

Knot three lengths together at one end. Start braiding and continue until you reach the other end, then knot. Zip tie the rope into position. If you are hanging it vertically as a treat rope, slip short lengths of dry spaghetti, dog biscuits or breadsticks between the weave.

Handy tip – if you tear the toilet paper as you are braiding just work the loose end back into the braid and carry on. If you want a mega rope, create three braids roughly the same length and then braid them together.

7. Foraging curtain

You will need:

  • 1 telephone directory (or similar thin paper in approximately A4 sheets).
  • 1 zip tie.

This is a foraging toy for bedding which is extremely popular with many rats.

Take around 10 sheets from the directory and arrange in a neat pile. Using the sharp point of the scissors push a hole through the top left-hand corners of the pages and thread the zip tie through this, but don’t close it.

Make sure the pages are still in a neat stack, then using strong scissors, cut through all the layers, starting about 2cm in from the edge and cutting from one short edge almost to the other.

Stop cutting about 3 cm from the opposite (‘top’) short edge and repeat to create a curtain of 2 cm strips of paper, all held together along the top edge. Use the zip tie to hang in the cage.

One ‘curtain’ per cage is usually enough.

Ways to increase difficulty: Place the curtain in a place where it’s harder to reach.

8. Pringles’ tub perch

You will need:

  • 1 empty Pringles tube with lid.
  • Duct tape.
  • Metal skewer or sharp scissors.
  • Garden wire.

Take the Pringles tube and wrap it completely using lengths of duct tape. This will strengthen it and give a wipeable surface. Use the sharp point of a skewer or scissors at the lid end of the tube to create 4 small holes (2 pairs of 2 that are about 1.5 cm apart and opposite each other).

Feed a separate 12cm length of garden wire through each of the pairs of holes with the wires sticking out of the side of the tube. These will attach the perch to the cage bars.

Using a piece of duct tape, stick one end of your string onto one end of the tube and wrap around the tube in a crisscrossing random design. Once done, stick the other end of the string down securely with tape.

This texture is to give the tube some grip. It can easily be replaced when dirty. Now you are ready to attach your perch to the cage using the wire so that the plastic lid end presses up against the bars.

Repeat for as many perches as you need.

The perch already has a rounded surface so is quite different and challenging in comparison to many rat perches. No need to increase difficulty.

9. Toilet paper tube foraging bridge

rats playing with toilet paper tube foraging bridge

You will need:

  • 8-10 toilet paper tubes.
  • A sharp metal skewer or scissors for making holes.
  • Cotton string.
  • Sellotape to firm up the end of the string for threading.
  • Green leafy vegetables and herbs.

About 2 cm in from each end of each toilet paper tube pierce a hole through one wall and then through the wall opposite. The two holes at each end need to be in the same position to allow for threading all the tubes together in a straight line.

Take your string and cut two lengths of about a meter. Use the Sellotape to create a firm end on each to help with the threading. Thread the string through both holes in one end of the first tube, then repeat for all the other tubes in turn.

Then repeat right down the other end of the tubes to create a bridge. Push the tubes together with a good length of string hanging off at each end. Tie a knot in the string just before the first toilet paper tube and just after the last tube on both sides. This prevents the tubes from slipping along the length of string too much.

Stuff some of the tubes with greens and herbs, then use the loose string to tie the bridge up in the cage. Don’t tie it too high as your rats may chew through the string.

Ways to increase difficulty: Hang vertically in the cage.

10. Lucky dip box

lucky dip box

You will need:

  • A whole pile of toilet paper tubes.
  • A cardboard box that is around 20cm square or a metal biscuit tin.
  • A selection of interesting items, e.g. a feather, a willow stick, a couple of nuts in shells, a dog biscuit, a wine cork, some carrot sticks, a sprig of mint, and a couple of strands of dry spaghetti. Any safe item that will fit into a toilet paper tube is okay.

Take the box and fill it with as many tubes as will fit comfortably on their end. Put an interesting item into each tube. Offer to your rats either in or out of the cage.

Ways to increase difficulty: have several high value (to the rats) items that sit quite low down in the tube as these are much harder to reach.

11. Rattie piñata

You will need:

  • A thin paper bag.
  • A few yummy treats.
  • Cotton string for tying and securing.

Place a little shredded paper/paper towel in the bag and add the treats. Squeeze the paper bag neck and tie it off with the string leaving a long piece to attach it to the cage.

Hang it up giving thought to the position you place it in.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Use a thicker bag or hang the piñata in a difficult place to reach.

12. Scenting game

scenting game for rats

You will need:

  • 8 toilet paper tubes.
  • Some strong-smelling treats like dried fish (sold for dogs).

Leave 6 of the toilet paper tubes empty and just squish in the ends to seal the tube. Put some of the treats into the other two and seal by squashing in the ends. Place all the little parcels into a shallow dish or tray and give to the rats.

You’ll be amazed how quickly your rats select the tubes with the treats.

Ways to increase difficulty: Use less smelly food.

13. Spool of thread forager

You will need:

  • An empty spool of thread (real or sold for crafting).
  • Some malt paste, low-fat liver pate or cream cheese.
  • A zip tie for hanging up.

Fill the holes in one end of the spool with the paste. Thread the zip tie through the center hole of the spool and fix it to the cage. If you buy a crafting pack of spools you could do one for each rat and just let them carry them off to enjoy.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Hang the spool in a more awkward place to reach.

14. Foraging cup

You will need:

  • A clean disposable coffee cup (like McDonald’s).
  • A few yummy treats.
  • Cotton string for tying and securing.
  • A sharp pair of scissors.

Using the scissors make a hole in the base of the cup and another in the center of the lid. Thread the string through the bottom of the cup and up through the lid. Tie a double knot in the end and pull tight so that the knot sits under the base of the cup.

Add the treats and pull the lid down over the cup but don’t clip it in place – make sure the hole in the lid is large enough for it to move easily over the string. Tie the free end of the string onto the roof bars. The rats will need to move the lid up the string to dive into the cup and get the treats.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Clip the lid on a little or hang the cup in a difficult place to reach.

15. Bag of bags

You will need:

  • Several brown paper grocery bags.
  • A few yummy treats.
  • Cotton string for tying and securing

Fold some of the bags into quarters and place them inside one large open bag, adding some treats in there as you go.

Hang the bag of bags up by one of its handles giving thought to the position you place it in.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Fold and add more bags or hang the bag of bags in a difficult place to reach.

16. Spinner

You will need:

  • A thin piece of wooden dowel that will pass through the center of an empty spool of thread with enough space to let the spool spin and a couple of cms longer than the depth of your cage.
  • Several empty (thread) spools.
  • Garden wire for fixing.
  • A little malt paste or cream cheese.

Thread the cotton reels onto the dowel allowing plenty of spacing in-between and place the dowel across the depth of your cage laying horizontally on two bars but next to two vertical bars.

Use the garden wire to lock the dowel onto both the vertical and horizontal bar at the front and the back of the cage. The dowel should now be fixed, and the cotton reels should spin but also move sideways along the dowel.

Press some paste into some of the end holes in the cotton reels to encourage the rats’ interest.

Ways to increase difficulty: this is already a challenging and highly interactive toy. No need to increase difficulty.

17. Plastic ball foragers

You will need:

  • Plastic balls with holes. Various sizes.
  • Some vegetable sticks, greens, and other small treats.

Prepare the vegetables and stuff into the holes in the balls along with other treats. Place into the rats’ cage.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Hang the balls from the cage roof or wire to the cage bars in interesting positions.

18. DIY ball pit

You will need:

  • A deep cat litter pan – can be disposable.
  • 20 or so balls made from scrunched up paper.
  • Some linseed, pumpkin, sesame and/or hemp seeds. About a teaspoon per 4 rats

Scatter the seeds across the base of the litter pan and cover over the top with the paper balls. Add rats!

If you have ball pool balls for your rats this also works really well with real balls.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Fewer treats or a deeper tub (so the balls can’t be pushed out).

19. Dunk and dive

dunk and dive

You will need:

  • Any cardboard box that has rat-sized holes in the lid.
  • Some scrunched up balls of paper or shredded paper.
  • A few yummy treats.

Half fill the box with the paper and close the lid. Seal shut. Drop some treats or dry mix through the holes and shake gently. Give to your rats who will dive through the holes to rummage for the treats.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Add fewer treats or more paper.

20. Stuffed pepper

stuffed pepper

You will need:

  • A red bell pepper.
  • Other vegetables like kale, broccoli, and carrot sticks.
  • A zip tie for fixing the pepper in the cage.

Cut the top off the pepper and stuff the inside with other vegetables. Use a skewer to make two small holes about 1.5 cm away from the top of the pepper. Thread the zip tie through these and fix to the bars.

Ways to increase difficulty:  Attach in a more challenging position in the cage.

Conclusion

We hope to have shown you how easy – and fun – it is to make your own DIY rat toys. Most of these have been free or very cheap and can be made with a minimal amount of equipment or fuss. Now you can enjoy creating homemade toys for your rats at their own level, for maximum flexibility and fun.

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Alison
About author

Alison has been living with rats for the past 22 years. She researches and writes within the international rat community. Author of The Scuttling Gourmet and Ratwise Membership, she has recently launched the Ratwise Store and library.

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