Today’s post is all about rat treats! We will be looking at what makes something a treat (from your rats’ perspective) and why giving treats can be a useful and important part of your pets’ care. Then we’ll discuss what makes a healthy treat for rats, before leaving you with some recipes so that you can have a go at making your own rat snacks.
So, what is a treat?
Treats have two broad definitions:
- Something that is sought out because it gives particular pleasure and enjoyment. (“I need a treat.”)
- Something that is given as an expression of friendship or support. (“Let me treat you.” Or “This is my treat.”)
It’s easy to see how these can apply to you and your rats; rats seek out delicious treats because they enjoy them, while you want to give them treats because of the bond it creates between you.
Just like us, rats have pleasure centers in the brain that have evolved to make certain activities (such as eating, having sex, social connection, and physical exercise) rewarding. This is a biological tool in mammals to make sure that the essential things get done.
The range of activities that can stimulate a rat’s pleasure circuits should remind us that treats come in many guises.
Not all treats are food
It’s important to remember that not all treats are food. A rat can seek (and receive) reward and pleasure from activities like social interaction, grooming, wheel running, mating, digging and climbing.
The question of what makes a treat, a treat, also has an element of preference. Just as I find hanging laundry outside on a sunny day a treat, some rats enjoy water play, wheel running, belly rubs, and snuggling up with you on the couch, while others would find these things aversive.
Rats need to learn food preference
Even within the sphere of food – which as foragers, rats find particularly rewarding – there are elements of preference, but this isn’t always to do with taste. Some rats are more neophobic (fearful of new things) than others, and those raised on limited diets will not have learned wide food preferences.
This doesn’t mean they don’t like the treats you offer, just that they have yet to learn their value. Preference is learned socially from other rats, and less neophobic individuals will also try new foods themselves to test their suitability.
It’s important to keep trying new treats repeatedly, to give your rats a chance to learn that they are safe (and yummy). Just because a treat is initially rejected, doesn’t mean your rats don’t like it – just that they have no previous experience of it. It’s worth persevering because healthy rat treats can bring many benefits.
The benefits of giving treats to your rats
Because of the link between treats, pleasure, and reward, there are many benefits associated with good treats for rats. A treat is not just a rat snack, but can also offer:
- comfort during stress;
- nutrition – especially a top up of calories, vitamins or minerals;
- distraction – at the vets or when getting their nails cut;
- reward – allows for positive training;
- a vehicle for the delivery of medication;
- a means to socially bond with you;
- a means to co-operate within their group;
- the motivation for engagement with enrichment and foraging toys;
- an opportunity to gnaw (eg nuts in shells).
Not all treats are equal
As we can see, treats can have a wide range of uses in caring for our pet rats, and it’s important to realize that not all treats are of equal value in different situations. For instance, a reward to use for training will need to be of high value to the individual rat to be useful.
Treats given for nutritional top-ups, obviously need to contain good amounts of the nutrients you are supplementing (for example, Brazil nuts contain loads of selenium). A co-operative example would be giving the whole group a hardboiled egg in its shell to break into.
A treat used to deliver medicine needs to be able to counter any bitter taste, as well as being highly motivating for the individual rat.
While a treat that helps strengthen your own bond with your rats might be something that can be licked off your fingers.
All these different reasons for treating our rats need to consider one important aspect of care, and that is health. Rats are tiny and a few treats a day can end up being a significant part of their overall diet.
Good treats for rats are healthy treats for rats
Due to their diminutive size, giving rats a few treats a day can make a big difference to overall nutrition.
Unhealthy treats (particularly those that are high fat and/or high sugar) can quickly begin to cause negative effects such as weight gain, skin issues, thin coat, depressed immunity or a propensity to tumors.
For example, one or two fries may not feel like much fat to you, but to an animal who needs less than 1g total fat per day, that ‘treat’ will contain way more than your rat’s full daily recommended allowance. So, it’s always best to give healthy treats to your rats.
The benefit of good treats for rats is that they can enhance the overall diet rather than causing nutritional issues. Fats should be limited to the healthy omega 3/6 and 9 that can be found in seeds like hemp, flax, and pumpkin, plus nuts, which are packed with micronutrients.
So, a healthy treat will usually be fresh food, or home baked treat as many store-bought treats are full of derivatives, fat, sugar and artificial color. There are notable exceptions like a malt-based paste (such as Nutri-Cal by Tomlyn) which is sold for dogs.
This paste can be:
- a useful appetite booster.
- used to hide and deliver medication.
- used to boost micronutrients.
Some good store-bought treats for rats
If you select carefully and stay away from treats with sugar, maltodextrin (also sugar), palm oil, saturated fats, low-quality ingredients, and artificial colors, there are still some great treats available to buy.
Freeze dried or sundried fruit and vegetables
Tip: look for products with no added sugar, sulfates or colors.
Freeze dried insects
For example, Fluker’s Freeze-Dried Crickets Reptile Food.
Look for products with low-fat levels.
Tip: all insects are high in protein but in small quantities make an excellent occasional rattie treat.
Liver treats for dogs
Can be freeze-dried liver or tiny training treats – for example:
- Cloud Star Crunchy Tricky Trainers Liver Flavor Dog Treats
- Stewart Pro-Treat Lamb Liver Freeze-Dried Raw Dog Treats
Tip: liver offers a great top up of copper and vitamin D, both of which tend to be lacking in a rat’s natural diet.
Small bite dog biscuits
- Buddy Biscuits Oven Baked Teeny Treats with Roasted Chicken
- Plato Small Bites Slow Roasted Salmon Dog Treats
Tip: the Plato treats are high in fat but only contain the salmon flesh oil, which is a healthy fat source. Treat size is small (2 calories per treat).
However, most people could make up a good rattie treat box just by raiding their kitchen cupboards!
Common rat snacks from the store cupboard
Dried wholemeal pasta
A firm favorite for most rats and great for their teeth. Don’t overdo it though, as the pasta will cause weight gain if fed in large amounts. Spirals and other textured shapes are easiest for a rat to hold onto and gnaw on.
Raw or unsalted nuts
All nuts contain useful oils, vitamins, and minerals. Feed them in their shells for extra enrichment. A small chunk of Brazil nut fed a couple of times a week, can really boost selenium levels (needed for immune system health amongst many other uses in the body).
It should be noted that peanuts are not nuts, but legumes, and shouldn’t be fed raw or in quantity. They can cause skin and coat issues in rats when fed in excess.
Soaked and roasted chickpeas
most rats love chickpeas and the easiest way to keep them fresh for longer periods is to roast them. Recipe below.
pumpkin, melon, safflower, and sunflower are good-sized seeds for hand feeding. Seeds are little powerhouses of nutrients and can really boost a rat’s intake of micronutrients and healthful phytonutrients.
Dried egg noodles
break these into treat-sized pieces to add to your treat box. These are often enriched to contain good levels of B vitamins and selenium.
Skinny popcorn, puffed grains
Rats seem to really enjoy puffed grains, for example, puffed wheat, puffed rice, puffed quinoa, and puffed millet.
If you can air pop them yourself, or source unflavoured, unsweetened varieties, your rats will appreciate it.
Split red lentils
Another well-received, rat-sized treat that is full of folate, thiamine, copper, manganese, and iron.
Unlike banana chips, these don’t usually have added sugars. Watch out for other dried fruits which can contain sulfates.
Packed with phytonutrients and antioxidants, all edible berries are suitable for rats. Try cutting round smooth berries, like blueberries, in half until your rats get used to what they are!
A hard-boiled egg in its shell
The ultimate group treat for your rats. One of the best protein sources you can give, and an egg provides vitamin A, B group, D, iron, and selenium.
Frozen peas and corn kernels
Useful treats to hand feed or use in water to encourage water play.
Your rats will really enjoy gnawing on bones and they are a great source of calcium and nutritious bone marrow. You don’t need to worry about giving cooked bones (which can splinter and hurt some other species) as rats gnaw the bone to a powder, so this issue doesn’t occur.
Please note that I haven’t included here the full range of herbs and vegetables that should be provided regularly to rats as part of their overall diet. Treats, by definition, should be given in much smaller portions.
The exception to this is when you cook treats for your rats, in which case it’s possible to make highly nutritious treats that can replace a portion of the dry mix, on occasion.
Recipes for healthy pet rat treats
Variations of healthy treats for rats are endless, so I will just include some of the most commonly used in this section.
Roasted Chickpeas (easy – slow bake)
You will need:
- Half a cup of dried chickpeas.
- A tablespoon of vegetable oil.
- Soak some dried chickpeas overnight in water and then drain thoroughly.
- Pat dry on a paper towel.
- Roll in a small amount of vegetable oil on a large baking tray.
- Bake in a single layer in an oven on the lowest setting (80 to 100 degrees C).
- Agitate a couple of times during baking to encourage even cooking. They are done when they are dry.
- Switch the oven off and allow to cool fully in the oven.
- Tip into an airtight container when completely cool. This will reduce the amount of water vapor in the container.
Eggy rice cake (easy – microwave)
You will need:
- Some cooked brown rice.
- An egg or two depending on quantities.
- A little coconut oil (not entirely necessary – so can be left out if you have overweight rats).
- Any supplements of your choice (seaweed, multivitamin/mineral powder).
- If using coconut oil, place it in a small microwave proof bowl and warm until liquid – just a few seconds on a medium setting.
- In a medium or large microwavable bowl (depending on quantities) place a good dollop of cooked rice.
- Beat an egg in a mug and pour this in. For a firm cake, you want a mixture that has a good covering of egg but isn’t too sloppy. If you want a higher egg ratio that’s fine and the cake will still set in the microwave, just with a less dense structure. Use as many eggs as you need for the amount of rice.
- Add the coconut oil (or other oil) and stir in well.
- Add any palatable supplements of your choice.
- Heat in the microwave on full power until set. Time will vary with quantity. If you don’t stir it, you’ll achieve a ‘cake’ consistency that you can easily break up or cut into neat cubes.
Can be stored in the freezer – spread in a single layer across a baking tray until frozen and then tip into a freezer bag or box. This keeps the pieces separate to allow for defrosting a few chunks at a time.
Sweet potato and apple bombs (easy – no-cook)
You will need:
- A small baked sweet potato – flesh scooped out and mashed.
- I small jar of apple puree baby food.
- Porridge oats.
- 1 heaped tbsp pomegranate seeds.
- Mix the pomegranate seeds into the sweet potato.
- Add the apple puree and stir well.
- Mix in enough oats to create a soft dough.
- Using your hands roll into little balls.
- Offer one ball to each of your rats.
- Freeze surplus on a baking sheet and then pour into a plastic bag or food container. This stops them all sticking together.
Liver cake (moderate – blending/mixing/baking)
You will need:
- 1 or 2 livers (pork/lamb/beef).
- 2-3 eggs.
- 2 cloves garlic.
- Wholemeal flour.
- Puree the liver in a food blender.
- Beat in the eggs.
- Mix in the garlic.
- Mix all together with wholemeal flour to thicken it to a consistency similar to that of a sponge cake.
- Bake in a lightly greased cake tin in a medium oven (Gas mark 4, 180°C, 350°F) for approximately 30 to 40 minutes or until cooked. May need longer with a larger volume.
- Serve in small cubes.
Can be frozen once cooked.
Barmy Baby Fruit Cake (moderate – mashing/mixing/baking)
You will need:
- One small jar of pureed fruit baby food.
- Half a ripe banana – mashed.
- Flour (experiment with a mix of self-raising plus one or two of wholemeal, rice (kidney-friendly), coconut (kidney-friendly and more calories), quinoa (more protein), etc.
- Oil for greasing the container before baking.
- Place the puree and mashed banana into a bowl and mix thoroughly.
- Mix in enough flour to make a soft – not sticky – workable dough.
- On a floured surface, roll into a few short sausages (about 1 cm in diameter).
- Using a sharp knife (floured if necessary) cut each sausage into discs and place them onto lightly oiled baking/non-stick trays.
- Bake on a greased tray at 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4 for around 10 minutes.
- Alternatively, cook in a well-greased muffin tray and chop into sensibly sized pieces when cooked.
Keep in an airtight container once cooled. For longer storage, freeze on an open baking tray then transfer into a plastic bag for free flow treat biscuits.
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