Trying to make your own rat food may sound difficult to do and easy to get wrong. However, it can actually be a rewarding and pleasurable job to create a rat food mix from scratch. Once you understand the benefits of feeding homemade rat food, we hope you’ll be eager to give it a try.
Rats love food and they thrive on variety. Making DIY rat food is not about following a specific rat food recipe. Instead, we are going to help you understand the principles that will ensure you can make your own rat food in a whole variety of different ways. This means you can choose a selection of ingredients that suit you, your budget and your rats.
Please note that your rats’ diet needs to change throughout life in three stages:
- Reproductions and growth (up to about 10 weeks).
- Maintenance (10 weeks through to around 18 months).
- Gradual decline (from approximately 18 months).
For the rest of this article, we are only talking about the maintenance period. Early and later diets follow the same principles but with modifications to suits changing needs.
What Are the Benefits of a Good Diet for Your Rats?
Any good rat food mix needs to provide great nutrition, which in turn will help to keep your rats in excellent health and condition. However, a rat’s diet should do more than simply meet their basic needs. Rats are foragers and opportunistic omnivores, which means they will eat almost anything that they come across that is edible. And they have very broad ideas about what edible means! A wild rat will eat anything from horse feed to McDonalds and insects to manure!
For your pet rats, eating is still closely tied to several natural behaviors, such as foraging, climbing, balancing, digging, gnawing and solving problems. You can scatter the food in the deep litter or hide it around the cage for your rats to find, which allows them to engage in these behaviors. A homemade rat food mix will have a good variety of ingredients, offering your rats diverse and interesting smells and tastes. All this increases enrichment, well-being and the amount of pleasure your rats get from their food.
How Can You Tell If a Homemade Rat Food Will Be Healthy for Your Rats?
The best way to be able to judge how healthy any rat food is, is to understand the principles of what makes a great rat diet. Rats need loads of carbohydrate, a moderate amount of protein, a little fat, a range of micronutrients and very little sugar or highly processed food to remain in peak health and condition. Let’s look briefly at each in turn.
The rate at which mammals synthesize nutrients for growth and repair and the rate at which they breakdown nutrients to generate energy, together are called the metabolic rate. Rats have a very fast metabolism, which essentially means that they need loads of energy to keep their body systems going and to maintain their weight. In colder weather rats need extra energy to keep themselves warm, so food quantities need to be higher in the winter in colder climates.
Most of this energy comes from carbohydrate in the rat’s diet, with a little from fat. The best source of carbohydrate for a rat is unprocessed or minimally processed grain and seed. However whole grains also contain antinutrients; chemicals that reduce the bodies ability to absorb minerals like calcium, copper and iron, which are essential for health. So, the best rat diets will have some whole grains and some partially processed grains, with carbohydrates making up about (80% of the diet).
A helpful way to think of protein is as the main structural component (building block) of the body. Protein is needed for reproduction, growth (including fur, teeth and nails), cell reproduction, hormones, enzymes, the immune system, healing and repair. Getting enough protein is essential to health and most adult rats will thrive on a diet that is 12 to 16% protein. More is needed for reproduction and growth.
Not all protein is equal. Rats as a species are prone to kidney disease as they age, and the quality and type of protein will affect the rate that this occurs. The best proteins for rats are egg and soya, followed by fish and chicken. This is something to consider when deciding on the protein element for your mix (more on this soon).
Remember that the protein element you add to your mix will be diluted down by all of the grain (which is typically between 8 and 10% protein) so your protein element needs to be at least 20-25% protein or more to boost the amount of protein overall.
Like protein, fats are needed all over the body as they are used to build cell walls. They also star in the production of hormones and, of course, in storage under the skin and around the organs for warmth and energy. However, they are only needed in small amounts and a fat intake of more than about 5% of the diet can start to cause rats issues with weight gain and tumors as they age.
The fats that are useful and healthy for rats are primarily monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – the kind of fats that are found in seeds, soya, fruit (like olive and avocado) and oily fish. Saturated animal fats are more likely to encourage the growth of mammary lumps, to which pet rats are prone.
These are vitamins and minerals that are needed in tiny amounts for your rat’s body to function properly. Micronutrients are found in food along with factors that are thought to improve health and well-being like phytonutrients and antioxidants. Some minerals (like phosphorus) are widely available in food and are rarely deficient. Others don’t occur naturally in the kind of foods pet rats tend to eat or are only present in small amounts. This can lead to deficiencies if the nutrients aren’t supplemented.
All good commercial rat foods are supplemented with calcium, copper, vitamin A and D and this need to be considered when making up your homemade rat food. To overcome this problem many owners simply give a suitable supplement (multivitamin and mineral) to their rats a few times a week.
Why Not Just Feed a Commercial Mix or Rat Blocks (Pellets)?
Now that you have a good understanding of what a healthy rat diet looks like. You may start to see why many commercial mixes and pellet diets fall short. They often contain inappropriate ingredients, which can include saturated fat, sugars, colorants, preservatives, meat protein (rather than fish, chicken or soya) and high fiber pellets (oat feed, alfalfa, wheat feed), which are packed with anti-nutrients.
The quality of the ingredients can also be poor. ‘Meat derivatives’ and ‘vegetable derivatives’ are not actually meat or vegetables, but rather waste products from the human food industry. While this can be okay, such as carrot scraps and peelings, it can also include waste that lacks any real food value at all.
With regards to meat, derivatives are likely to be any part of the animal (no specific animal) that is not used for human consumption. Rats eat carrion and there is no problem with them eating the non-flesh parts of an animal, but this often contains low-quality protein that is much harder to digest.
Block feeds have the added disadvantage of being a long way from the natural diet of a rat. Always eating the same food, with the same texture and taste greatly reduces the enrichment and pleasure that a rat food mix can give to your rats. If it’s homemade rat food, so that you can select the individual ingredients, all the better.
Sourcing Ingredients for Your Own Rat Food Recipe
Just in case you are wondering what happened to the five easy steps – we are almost there! But first I want to address the question of where you are going to source your ingredients. Finding suitable items to use in your DIY rat food can be time-consuming and, at times, frustrating but it can also be fun.
You need to find sources that work for you depending on your budget, geography, and access to transport. Ingredients can be sourced online or in the real world, from supermarkets, feed stores, pet shops, health food shops, kitchen cupboards and specialist bird stores.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Your local large grocery store
- Your local health food store
How to Make Your Own Rat Food
There are several steps you’ll need to complete to make up your homemade rat food:
- Create your recipe. This can be tweaked over time and can even be different every time you come to make up a batch of rat food mix.
- Source your ingredients.
- Gather your equipment. You’ll need a large tub (some people do this in the bath!); how big depends on how many rats you have and how much mix you are making. You will also need a ‘measure’ of some kind – this can be a plastic jug, or a cup or anything in-between, so long as you use the same measure throughout.
- Get a storage box (or several) with a close-fitting lid to keep your mixes fresh.
Now to the five stages of creating a homemade rat food mix.
Stage One – Creating a Base Mix (Carbohydrate)
A base mix is made from grains and legumes. It can be a good commercial feed with other grains and seeds added or it can be entirely made from individual ingredients. The kind of things you might wish to include in this section are:
- Straight grain feeds such as Brown’s Bird Lover’s Blend Dove, Pigeon and Quail or Brown’s Purifier Kafir Racing Recovery Premium Pigeon Food. These can be mixed with a rat food and/or with individual ingredients from the list below.
- Muesli-type rat food such as Tiny Friends Farm Reggie Rat and Mimi Mouse mixed with bird feed and/or with individual ingredients from the list below. Create as much variety as possible as this reduces the impact of the less favorable ingredients in the rat food, such as alfalfa and soya bean hulls.
- Individual ingredients such as brown rice, pearled barley, red split lentils, whole lentils, pearled spelt, quinoa, flaked quinoa, millet, flaked millet, dari (milo), flaked corn, plain popping corn, buckwheat, flaked buckwheat, wild rice, jumbo oats, amaranth and flaked peas. These can be human grade or pet grade.
A few human breakfast cereals are also okay to include in this section. They need to have zero or little sugar (under 5%, which is 5g per 100g), so check the packaging before you buy anything.
If you are creating your rat food mix from individual ingredients, use at least four different whole grains, at least two processed grains or human cereals and at least one of either peas or lentils (but more variety is even better). Make sure some of the choices you make are unprocessed grains and some are processed, as both have different benefits to our rats. Unprocessed grains have extra nutrients, while processed grains supply energy more easily and have fewer antinutrients.
Stage Two – Adding a Protein Source
The protein source needs to have a protein content of at least 20-25% or more, which will generally be written on the packaging. This is diluted by all the grains, which have a protein content of 8-10%. Suitable protein elements are:
- A high protein rat pellet or block such as Mazuri Rat and Mouse Diet.
- A high-quality dog kibble such as Taste of the Wild grain free dry food. Choose the salmon-based varieties for easily digestible protein and extra healthy oils. Also, select for ‘salmon’ or ‘salmon flesh’ as the primary ingredient. Try to avoid those with chicken fat added as this is saturated fat. You don’t need much, so if you can source a small bag it will last a good while.
- Soya flakes (animal feed), roast soy nuts (unsalted – sold for human consumption).
- Freeze dried shrimps, dried small fish (dog treats), dried insects (often sold for other species).
You can use a single protein source or two mixed together for extra variety.
Stage Three – Adding Healthy Oils
Oils are added in the form of mixed seeds such as hemp, flax (linseed), pumpkin, rapeseed, sesame or safflower. Sunflower seeds can also be used with caution, as some rats can have skin reactions if fed too many.
Use a mixture of at least three types of seed in equal amounts that (preferably) includes hemp and linseed. Greater variety is better as each seed will have different strengths in terms of providing minerals in the diet. For example, sesame seeds are very rich in copper amongst other nutrients.
Stage Four – Adding Vegetables and Herbs
Green leafy vegetables like dandelion leaves, kale, rocket and watercress are excellent for rats because they contain readily digestible balanced amounts of calcium and phosphorus, along with good amounts of other minerals such as copper and manganese. These can be fed fresh alongside other herbs, vegetables and fruit, but many people also like to add greens and herbs (dried) to their homemade rat food.
You can dry your own in a very low oven, dehydrator or warm cupboard or you can purchase them already dehydrated. Herbs and greens are sometimes sold for rabbits (not hay) but you can find great mixes of greens, dried vegetables and dried insects sold for bearded dragons. These are great to add greens and interest to a mix.
Spinach is not the best green leafy vegetable to feed to rats because of its high levels of oxalic acid. However, in small amounts it is fine so don’t be put off buying a mix of dried greens just because it contains some spinach.
Stage Five – Adding Healthy Treats (Optional)
To add interest and extra micronutrients to a DIY rat mix, many people like to add a few foods in small “treat” amounts. Broken unsalted nuts, pasta, dried fruit, puffed rice crackers (broken), puffed corn crackers (broken) or a few small dog biscuits are the kind of things that make good additions.
How to Measure Your Ingredients
Think of your complete homemade rat mix as being made up of 10 measures of your jug or cup. Let’s say you have three rats and are making up a moderate amount of mix. A 500ml jug used x 10 as a measure might generate too much feed, so a cup would be more appropriate. But you can scale up (or down) as much as you need to. It doesn’t matter how much your measure holds, just that you use the same measure throughout. So, choose a measure that will create the amount of food you want to make when multiplied by 10.
Start by mixing your base mix (the carbohydrate). How you do this depends a little on what you are using, but essentially you need 8 measures (e.g. cups) of the base food. So, if you are mixing together two commercial feeds but want to add four individual ingredients too, you could use 3 cups of one feed, 3 cups of the other feed and half a cup of each of the individual ingredients.
It doesn’t matter how you divide it up, so long as you end up with a good mixture of grains and pulses (mostly grains) and have used a total of eight cups. Another example would be using only individual ingredients. Let’s assume you have ten ingredients that you want to add, eight of them are grains or cereals and two are pulses. Measure 6 full cups of six grains/cereals, then ½ a cup of each pulse and ½ a cup of the two remaining cereals.
The total remains 8 cups and it doesn’t matter which grains you choose to get the full cups, but if you are using two versions of the same grain (e.g. whole quinoa and flaked quinoa) then use a whole cup of one and half of the other, rather than quinoa taking up two full cups. If you have eight ingredients it’s easy – just a cup of each one. The pulses should be no more than ½ to 1 cup in total.
In each of these scenarios add your 8 cups to the mixing tub and mix them together thoroughly. Now add 1 cup of your protein food (or half a cup if using two protein foods) and mix well. Next, you want half a cup of your seed mix – here it will be easier to mix all your seeds together in a storage container and then scoop out half a cup into the mixing tub. Finally, add half a cup of greens and/or herbs. Mix well. If you are adding any treats do this now, but keep these at small quantities only, for instance, a tablespoon of dried cranberries in the whole mix.
That’s it – you’ve created your first homemade rat mix which will need to be stored in an airtight container to stay fresh. Your rats will enjoy foraging for this around the cage at tea time. As we discussed earlier, you will need to supplement this kind of mix with a multivitamin and mineral designed for small animals.