So, you are thinking of getting pet rats and want to prepare for their arrival at your home. Exciting times! As you get ready to bring them home, you might find yourself asking, “What do pet rats need to live happy and rich lives?” We are here to help you to find your way through the maze of pet rat accessories in order to create the best rat starter kit possible.
What Do Pet Rats Need?
The ASPCA produced a Five Freedoms document to answer this question in general terms. All domesticated animals need:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
- Freedom from pain, injury and disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
Using these needs as a framework we are going to explore the details of what a great pet rat supplies list looks like. However, we are going to rearrange the order to give you a prioritized list.
Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
The first ‘item’ at the top of any list of what you need for a pet rat should be another pet rat! If you feel you can only care for one rat, please consider buying a species that enjoys being alone. Rats are extremely social creatures and – because they live in cages – are without even human company for much of the time.
Humans also cannot replace the details of rat-to-rat social interactions, body language, vocalization and grooming. Research is beginning to suggest that rats might talk to each other, rather than just make sounds that express pain, protest or pleasure.
Many studies have shown that solitary rats are more stressed than those living in stable social groups, so two or more rats are essential. Chronic stress often leads to illness and a shortened lifespan.
As well as socializing and grooming, other natural rat behaviors include:
So, which pet rat accessories will allow your rats to engage in these behaviors?
A big, airy cage (rather than a tank or a plastic tub) with narrow bar spacing will immediately allow your rats to climb. Even without any cage furniture, your rats will climb the bars. This is a great form of exercise, which will help to keep them fit. The cage bars also allow you to easily attach cage accessories to create an interesting and active setup.
An important benefit of using a cage is increased ventilation. Rats are sometimes prone to respiratory illness, which can be reduced if their living area is well ventilated. This helps to keep your rats well and reduce the need for visits to a vet.
What to look for in a cage:
- Narrow bar spacing (up to 1.5cm)
- Powder coated metal.
- Adequate size. This is not just the footprint (floor size) of the cage but also the height.
- Large doors, which are easy to open, for easy handling and cleaning.
- A deep base tray (or fixed panels) that will hold your cage litter well, rats love digging and without a deep tray that creates a lot of mess.
Everything you put into your rats’ cage should in some way enable them to express their natural behaviors. Rat cage essentials that will really enrich your pet rats’ lives are:
- Digging – deep litter (substrate) on the cage floor and/or a digging box. Good substrates include shredded card bedding, kiln-dried pine shavings (no other shavings are suitable), shredded hemp and (for digging boxes) coir coconut fiber compost.
- Climbing – large branches, ropes, wooden wine racks, larva ledges, wooden ledges, perches, log bridges and ladders.
- Balancing – hanging baskets, ropes, swinging bridges and hammocks.
- Running – open floor space and large wheels (35 to 40 cm).
- Playing – feathers, ping pong balls, large wooden beads, small pebbles and shells.
- Foraging – foraging toys, wire basket vegetable holders, skewer Kabobs and treat balls.
- Gnawing – wooden branches, willow sticks, nuts in shells and wooden blocks.
- Nesting – hammocks, plastic or wooden igloos and Sputnik hanging beds.
You don’t need everything – that would be one busy rat cage – but having variety helps to maintain interest over time. Many items can be made at no cost by re-using waste that is destined for recycling, such as toilet roll inners, cardboard boxes, plastic tubs and tubes.
Thrift stores, discount stores and yard sales are great places to pick up safe dog toys, children’s toys and other interesting items that can be used to dress your cage.
One item we haven’t mentioned, which just helps to keep the cage clean is a litter pan. Most rats can easily be trained to use a specific place in the cage as their toilet. If you want to do this, a corner pan is often the best option.
When it comes to cleaning your cage, hot water with mild dish soap is enough. You’ll need a dustpan and brush, large bucket, cloths, towel and a pan scrub for stubborn dirt. A net ‘delicates’ bag to put hammocks into the washing machine is a good idea and baby wipes can do 101 odd rat-related jobs! Don’t use disinfectant wipes or harsh chemicals around your rats.
Your new rats will also need time outside of the cage in a safe and secure area. Depending on the layout of your home, this could be in a small room, a hallway with the doors shut or in a bathroom. A table makes a good free-range surface while your babies are just getting used to you.
Make sure that you give them plenty of things to investigate and retreat to if they feel overwhelmed. Some people use a double bed or a couch but then you do have to be watchful in case your little ones try to get down to the floor.
Many people make a plastic paneled playpen out of Songmics modular interlocking storage, built in a single panel corral to an appropriate height (usually two panels tall) and sit in the playpen with toys to have fun with their rats. Out-time can be used to explore larger toys and activities like pea fishing or a mini ball pool.
Freedom From Discomfort
This freedom asks for the provision of a suitable place to rest and sleep. Rats vary in their preference for beds and bedding, though many prefer to sleep near the top of the cage. The easiest way to achieve this is to provide hammocks hanging from the roof bars.
Hammocks can be as fancy as you like, but they can also be made cheaply from old cotton tea towels strung up with giant paper clips. For an alternative place to retreat, place an upturned cardboard shoe box with a door cut into one side onto the floor of the cage.
The bedding itself can be shredded paper or tissue which comes in many varieties. You can make your own by tearing up sheets of paper towel. Rats also enjoy the natural aspects (scent, texture, even a little nibble) of a soft hay bedding. Some people prefer to use offcuts of fleece to provide a cozy nest.
Freedom From Hunger and Thirst
When creating your pet rat supplies list, you will obviously need to include provision for food and water.
Rats can do well on any one of many suitable diets, but mixed grains and seeds with extra fresh foods are by far the closest to a natural diet.
Ways to provide this include a home-made mix or good rat muesli and rat pellet feed mixed 50/50. If you just want to buy one feed, it won’t offer as much variety, but in this case, a muesli type food is preferable because it is much closer to a rat’s natural (wide-ranging diet). Food can be very enriching to your rats’ lives, so it’s worth learning a little bit about a pet rat’s diet.
What you really don’t need is a bowl for your dry food! Rats want to forage, so many owners scatter the food around the cage for their rats to find. So long as you don’t overfeed, your rats will find and eat all the mix because they are expert foragers. Even pelleted feeds can be scattered to increase their enrichment value.
As a guide, most rats will need about 15g of dry food a day, less when you are also feeding fresh food. Some will naturally need more.
When it comes to water it’s a good idea to give your rats a choice, with one standard lick and drip type water bottle and one water crock. Crocks are open bowls – often sold for parrots – that are attached to the cage bars to prevent spillage.
Most rats will use both types of water holder at different times, and the crock enables them to cool off, wash or just play – as well as drink. Never only have one water source in a cage in case it spills, or malfunctions and the rats are left without access to water for a long period. This can be fatal on a hot day.
Freedom From Pain, Injury and Disease
Before bringing home any animal, it is important to consider how you will deal with illness or injury. Although rats do not need any regular vaccinations it is extremely likely that they will need to visit the vet at some point.
This can be expensive (they are often classed as exotics) and you will need to be prepared. Rather than insurance (which can be costly for rats) many people open a savings account for them and add a little to it each week.
You’ll need a carrier to allow your rats to travel safely when bringing them home, but this can be useful for various things including vet visits, visiting friends, separating a rat out to take medicine or holding your rats while you clean the cage. A small hamster or mouse cage is a useful alternative.
A Rat First Aid Kit
Most rat owners also build up a rat first aid kit, and this may be something you want to add to your pet rat supplies list. It should include things like:
- A small pair of nail clippers.
- 1 and 2ml syringes for giving medication or hand feeding.
- Antiseptic powder.
- Hibiscrub for washing wounds.
- A cohesive pet bandage.
You won’t need pet shampoo – rats are extremely clean and really don’t need to be bathed. You can add to your first aid kit over time, but it’s sensible to have a few items to use in case of an emergency.
This freedom also requires that you think about safety. Rats chew and you may need cable protectors or panels to block off dangerous areas. Also, watch out for poisonous house plants in their free-range area. Rats love to dig and any soil or compost will attract them.
Freedom From Fear and Distress
A lack of fear and distress is something that we all want for our family, including our animals. When you bring your pet rats home, add some cage litter and shredded paper into the carrier. This will help them to feel safe and secure.
You may also like to cover the carrier with a small towel or dish towel. Traveling is scary if you don’t understand what’s happening and a towel will block movement and sound to a degree. Just make sure the ventilation holes in the carrier are not obstructed.
Many things in the home environment can cause a fear response in your rats, such as predator smells (cats and ferrets), ultrasonic noise from LED lighting and chargers, children squealing, dogs barking, strong perfumes and sudden loud noise. Treat them with kindness, understanding and respect and they will gradually become habituated to your home and other animals.
Now that you have a good understanding of what your pet rats need from you to create the perfect rat starter kit, you can begin planning, making and shopping! Most rat equipment will last for many years (other than hammocks and ledges which tend to get chewed), so an initial outlay is only necessary when you welcome in your first rats.
You can save money by shopping thriftily and buying a good second-hand cage if you can find one. They do come up regularly at online auctions and marketplace sites. Enjoy your preparations and welcoming your new rats into your home.
Featured image by Kelsey Bass
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