How To Bathe Your Rats in 5 Easy Steps

how to bathe a rat
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In this article, we are going to learn how to bathe a rat, and – just as importantly – when to give a rat a bath. We’ll begin by answering some important questions: “Do you need to bathe rats?” and “Do rats like water?” before moving on to discuss the steps needed to clean a rat in a kind and expert manner. We’ll finish off with some frequently asked questions and shampoo recommendations.

Do You Need To Bathe A Rat?

The clear answer to this is – very rarely. Rats are incredibly clean creatures, but you don’t need to take my word for it. The scientific handbook Mood and Anxiety Related Phenotypes in Mice contains a full chapter on grooming behavior in wild and laboratory rodents.

It concludes that between 15 and 50% of waking time is spent grooming. This isn’t surprising because grooming doesn’t just help with hygiene for our rats. It is also essential for efficient temperature control, maintaining social relationships between rats and calming a rat down when they are feeling anxiety or stress.

The result of so much self and social grooming is clean rats! So, while it’s tempting to want to bath your rat, the truth is – they really don’t need this, and it can potentially damage their coat quality and skin. This is because bathing often adds chemicals and strips away natural oils.

An even more important question – because we want to keep our rats comfortable and happy – is “Do rats like water?” The truth is that only a small proportion of rats actively enjoy deep water (a few even enjoy running water), but most really don’t.

If we look back to science, placing rats into deep water is used as a stress test in laboratories – and none of us want to stress out our pets. With all this in mind, we recommend only bathing rats when it is absolutely necessary.

Therefore, we are going to give you a staged bathing “How to…” which will help you to maintain rattie hygiene when needed, without actually immersing your rats in water, except as a last resort.

When Should I Bathe My Rats?

  • We all know that rats are extremely inquisitive, and accidents happen. Consider bathing your rat if they have an accident involving anything that would be harmful if ingested.
  • If you have elderly rats, especially those affected by hind leg degeneration, you may need to bathe them to help prevent urine irritating the skin and to keep them feeling clean and comfortable.
  • If you exhibit white or pale-colored rats, you may want to bathe them before a rat show.

How To Give A Rat A Bath

The preparation for planned bathing should generally begin the day before with a nail trim. This will minimize any scratches you may receive if your rat becomes stressed during bathing. If you need some help with this, check out our article How to cut a rat’s nails.

On the day of bathing your rat, you should warm up the room you are going to use. Rats are generally considered inefficient at regulating their body temperature, so easily get chilled when wet. The room should feel overly warm to you.

Dim the lighting to the lowest level that will still enable you to properly see what you are doing. On a bright day, you can draw the drapes to achieve this. Dimming the lights will help the rat to remain relaxed and comfortable.

Another consideration is what you should wear. A loose-fitting but long-sleeved t-shirt will help to protect you from scratches, while not overheating you.

Gather the following equipment:

  • Two soft, dry towels – one of which can be left nearby warming.
  • A few small, high value treats such as broken sugar-free Cheerios.
  • A soft or baby toothbrush.
  • Water-based, unperfumed wipes or paper towels.
  • Cotton cosmetic pads (not cotton wool balls as these shed too many fibers).
  • A large bowl of warm water. At 5°F to 100°F (37.5°C to 37.8°C), your rat’s body temperature is higher than yours, so the water should feel quite warm but not hot.
  • Some mild, fragrance-free shampoo such as baby shampoo or one designed for small animals.
  • A small plastic jug or pouring cup.

Be prepared NOT to use all the equipment. This is a staged bathing technique and should be concluded at the earliest stage possible. As soon as you feel that you have cleaned the rat sufficiently for the situation, wrap them in the warm towel and give them a gentle rub dry.

Step 1 – Get Yourself And The Rat Comfortable

Sit on a comfortable chair in your warm, dimly lit room in front of a table on which your equipment is laid out within easy reach. Place one of the towels over your knee and the rat on the towel. Give the rat time to adjust – you can offer a gentle ear rub and a small treat to help them settle.

Step 2 – Clean Your Rat’s Eyes, Face, And Ears

Where these need to be cleaned, they should be cleaned first to reduce any risk of contamination. Take a cotton pad, dip it into the water and squeeze. Gently wipe over these delicate areas of your rat using a clean pad for each eye and then moving over the face and ear.

Hot Tip: Skip this step entirely if the rats face is clean – never unnecessarily clean a rat’s face.

Step 3 – Clean Your Rat’s Tail

The tail is one of the hardest parts of a rat for them to keep clean themselves, and many don’t bother. Whether you are exhibiting your rat or just want to spruce up a grimy tail, this is one part of bathing that can be all that’s needed to compliment your rat’s grooming regime.

Offer a treat, then, take the soft toothbrush, wet it, and add a drop or two of shampoo. Then, starting at the base of the tail (where it attaches to the body) work slowly down in the direction of the tail scales, towards the tail tip with a gentle brushing motion.

It the tail is very dirty, you will need to rinse the brush regularly and apply another drop of shampoo. When you are done, take a wipe or piece of paper towel and wet it in the water. Squeeze lightly. Wipe over the entire tail from base to tip to rinse away any residual soap. Repeat if necessary.

Hot Tip: Giving your rats access to an open water source such as a crock in their cage or an activity like pea fishing in shallow water can often help a great deal in keeping tails clean without the need to bathe.

Step 4 – Clean Your Rat’s Body (low-stress option)

Offer a treat, then take a wipe or piece of paper towel and wet it in the water. Squeeze lightly. Wipe over your rat’s body paying attention to any particularly dirty areas. The wetter you leave the wipe, the more effective this can be, but don’t drench your rat.

Repeat if necessary, but don’t prolong the bath or your rat may get chilled. Then remove the damp towel from your lap and wrap the rat loosely in the warm towel and gently rub to dry. Offer treats and only do as much rubbing as your individual rat is happy with.

Hot Tip: Most essential cleaning can be done without the use of any soaps or chemicals. This preserves the coat’s natural oils and is unlikely to lead to skin irritation.

Step 5 – Clean Your Rat’s Body (last resort option)

This step is unnecessary in most circumstances but might be needed if:

  • Your rat has something potentially poisonous in their fur.
  • Your rat is soaked with urine or feces (resulting from illness).
  • You want to exhibit your rat, and their coat is stained with something that water alone won’t remove.

Offer a treat, then take a wipe or piece of paper towel, and wet it in the water. Don’t squeeze out excess water, but wipe quickly over your rat’s body (avoiding the head), repeating until they are wet. Work quickly so that your rat doesn’t get chilled.

Dip your hands in the water and then put a few drops of shampoo into your palm and rub your hands together to generate a lather, work this quickly through your rat’s coat, particularly the areas that most need attention.

Hold your rat in one hand over the bowl and (avoiding the head entirely) use the jug to gently scoop warm water over your rat’s body until they are fully rinsed. Then wrap them up in the warm towel and rub gently to dry. Offer treats again at this stage – try to make the drying fun. Most rats will groom furiously after a bath.

Hot Tip: Never use a hairdryer to dry a rat. Not only is the sound usually aversive and scary, but the heat settings are generally either too hot or too cold for this purpose.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you bath a rat?

Yes, you can, but for most rats, a full bath – where they are dunked into the water – is a stressful event, which should be avoided wherever possible. Even if you have a rat who likes water, it is best to let them get in and out voluntarily during playtime, as offering them control removes the stressful element of bathing.

Do rats like water?

Most rats don’t like anything beyond a shallow paddle, and some will refuse to enter the water at all. Therefore, being forced to do so during a bath can be quite traumatic for them.

Do rats need baths?

Very rarely! I have shared my life with many rats who have never needed a bath over their entire lifespan. A few I have bathed in old age because their bodies let them down. I’ve never had a rat get dirty to the extent where they wouldn’t just wipe clean. A lot of rat bathing takes place because of what humans want, not because of what the rats need!

How often should I bathe my rat?

As infrequently as possible, if at all. Depending on your rat’s state of mobility and health, this could be anything from every day to once a year. If you need to bathe your rat frequently for health reasons, be sure not to use shampoo unless it is prescribed for a skin condition. Usually, plain warm water will be enough.

Can I use a no-rinse shampoo?

These are not suitable for pets that groom as they contain chemicals and perfumes that get ingested when the rat licks their fur. Like any shampoo, they could be used on occasion if needed so long as they are rinsed off; however, a lathering shampoo might be more effective.

Is there a specific shampoo for rats?

Not really. It is possible to buy shampoo that is manufactured specifically for small animals such as Kaytee’s Squeaky Clean Critter Shampoo. However, this type of shampoo is not really suitable for a species that grooms as much as rats do, due to added chemicals and fragrances.

Is baby shampoo safe for rats?

Yes, baby shampoo is mild and suitable for use on rats. As with any shampoo is it essential to rinse well after use. We really like Babo Botanicals fragrance-free natural organic option.

Is dog shampoo safe for rats?

You do need to be careful about using dog products on rats, as dogs do not groom to the same degree, so some dog shampoos would be too medicated or perfumed to be suitable.

If choosing a dog shampoo to share with your rats if needed, go for something like Pro Pet Works All Natural Organic Oatmeal Pet Shampoo Plus Conditioner, which is unfragranced and made from all-natural ingredients.

Winding Up

We hope that we have not only shown you how to bathe a rat in several easy to follow steps but also answered the questions you may have around bathing your rats. Remember, some or all of steps one to four are enough for almost all situations where your rat may need a little hygiene help. Less is more when it comes to keeping a rat’s bath time relaxed and stress-free.

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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