Preparing and setting up your rat’s cage is very important. Your rat will spend most of its life inside this cage and so you need to make sure it is a safe and fun place to live. We will go over each aspect of setting up your rat’s cage.
- Cage Size
- Cage Type
- Litter Box
- Filling the Cage
- Free Range Time
- Sample Cage
Each rat should have at least 2 cubic feet of cage space. To find cubic measurements you multiply the cage length x height x width. There are 1,728 cubic inches in a cubic foot. I will call this our magic number. To make a cage more interesting, I recommend it having multiple levels and ramps. For senior rats that may have difficulty using ramps or for rats that have balance issues or hind-end degeneration, I suggest a one level cage.
How can you determine how many rats will fit in the cage you want to buy? If you enjoy math, it is pretty simple. Here are some examples:
(If you don’t enjoy math, don’t worry, I will give you another option!)
Example #1 : Petco Rat Manor Habitat
This cage measures 16.5″ x 22.5″ x 32″
Multiply those numbers together: 16.5” x 22.5” x 32” = 11,880 cubic inches
Then divide the cubic inches by our magic number: 11,880 / 1,728 = 6.875 cubic feet (3 rats)
Example #2 : Critter Nation Single Unit
This cage measures 36” x 25” x 39”
Multiply those numbers together: 36” x 25” x 39” = 35,100 cubic inches
Then divide the cubic inches by our magic number: 35,100 / 1,728 = 20.3125 cubic feet (10 rats)
For those who hate math, there is a great rat cage calculator here: http://www.rattycorner.com/odds/calc.shtml. Just enter your cage’s dimensions and it will tell you how many rats will comfortably fit in your cage.
There are basically three types of cages people use for rats: aquariums, wire cages, and homemade cages. We do not recommend the use of aquariums for the following reasons:
- The solid sides prevent the circulation of fresh air.
- The lack of ventilation means that the ammonia from rat urine builds up and makes an unpleasant home as well as negatively affecting your rat’s health and shortening their life expectancy.
- In the summer or warmer climates, aquariums can build up heat.
- There are no bars to hang hammocks and toys from and nowhere for your rats to climb.
We do recommend wire cages, or nicely homemade cages with adequate ventilation.
Here are some of my personal favorites:
Martin’s Cages : http://www.martinscages.com/products/cages/rat/
Critter Nation : http://www.ferret.com/cages/cages/887/
The use of wire floored cages, including wire shelves or balconies, has been implicated as a cause of bumblefoot. Many decent rat cages have upper levels made from wire mesh. Owners should consider covering wire balconies with a solid surface (e.g. wood, vinyl, plexiglass, plastic needlepoint canvas, blankets, towels, fleece). However, even rats kept on solid flooring can get bumblefoot, and a new theory has developed that exposure to urine pooled on solid floors (especially plastic) may also contribute to the problem. Therefore, it is important to keep all cage surfaces clean and dry. No matter the cage materials, frequent and thorough cage cleaning appears to be the best defense.
Another potential problem with wire cages is their bar spacing. Some of the best rat cages are actually designed for ferrets and can have quite widely spaced bars. This can be a problem for young rats and small females, who may be able to squeeze through the bars, leaving them free to get into all kinds of rattie trouble when no one is watching.
One solution is to have different cages for the age of your rats. Young rats can start off with a smaller home, with more suitable bars and grow into their adult home. This has the added benefit of being less overwhelming if your new rats are particularly young and may find moving into a large home daunting. It may be a costly solution, but if you find a lovely large cage that is not suitable for the size of your rats and you don’t mind the expense then it is an option. You will still need to choose a cage that has plenty of room for your young rats as they have large amounts of energy to burn and cramping them into a small hamster cage will stunt their development.
I have also seen people cover the cage with a layer of chicken wire to keep small rats in, and then removing the wire once the rats can no longer fit through the bars.
Many people are unaware of which types of bedding should/should not be used.
Do not use cedar or pine.
The use of aromatic pine or cedar may affect your rat’s health in several ways. Long term inhalation of these chemicals may compromise the rat’s immune system making it more prone to the development of respiratory problems resulting from mycoplasma. It has also been shown in the laboratory that the phenols in these softwoods can alter the levels of the liver enzymes in laboratory rats.
It is okay to use aspen, careFRESH, pellets, or cloth.
Aspen is a good choice for bedding. Being a hardwood, there are no toxic phenols in it making it a safe choice for your rat. The only problem with aspen is that it can be messy and difficult to vacuum.
CareFRESH is made from paper pulp. It has the appearance of shredded gray egg carton material. Rats seem to like this product although some owners complain about its odor being unpleasant, especially when wet. It also tends to be dusty.
Pellet bedding is also popular. A common brand is Yesterday’s News. It is manufactured from recycled newspaper and was originally intended to be an alternative cat litter. Many pet owners use it satisfactorily. The one problem with Yesterday’s News is that it does tend to crumble and get dusty after it has been wet and then dried out.
Other pellet bedding products on the market are made from different materials such as compressed aspen, wheat grass, and cellulose fiber (Cell-sorb Plus).
Cloth is a useful alternative to conventional cage bedding especially if the rats, or their owners, have allergies. Old clothing, fabric diapers, fleece, and pillowcases or sheets make good choices. Be sure to use cloth that does not unravel easily. Long strings can get caught around the rat’s appendages and cause injury. This is particularly a concern with babies and young rats.
Wash the fabric bedding with a hypoallergenic laundry detergent using warm or hot water. Occasional washing with a small amount of bleach is fine as long as the load of laundry is washed again using detergent only or put through two rinse cycles. If you can detect any bleach odor after washing then please run them through another complete cycle. Refrain from using perfumed fabric softeners which can irritate a rat’s respiratory tract.
If your floors are made from wire mesh you should cover most, if not all, of the floor with something to protect your rats’ feet. Too often rats get sprains or breaks from getting their feet caught in the cage floor. Having a floor that wire spacing is ½” x ½” will help to reduce injury. The other problem with wire floors is that it can aggravate bumblefoot if your rat is predisposed to it.
There are many good options for making the cage floors safe. One very good one is linoleum (non-glued for easy cleaning) cut to the size of the floor. It cleans easily and looks attractive. Other floor covering options are placemats (cloth, fleece, plastic, needlepoint canvas, and non-stick rubber shelf liner).
Cardboard, plywood, and carpet are all poor flooring choices. These are too hard to keep clean and cannot be wiped down.
Rats enjoy multiple levels in their cages. A few products that can add levels are movable bird platforms, hanging baskets, and hammocks. Ferret tubes connected together can be attached to the side (both inside and out) or top of the cage and used as a way to get from one platform to the next. You can also cut coated wire shelving to size and attach it to the cage using wire ties.
Keeping litter boxes in your cages will help with maintaining overall cage cleanliness. Rats are, for the most part, easily trained to use a litter box. Using a different material in the litter box from the normal bedding in the cage will help the rat differentiate between its floor and its toilet area. Remember to not use pine or cedar. Find the corner or spot in the cage where your rats usually go to the bathroom and place the litter box there. Rats can further be encouraged to use the litter box if you leave a bit of soiled litter and a few droppings with which to scent while training. Place your rat(s) in the litter box to show them it’s there, and offer them praise and healthy treats when they use the litter box. During those times when they do not use the litter box remind them by saying “No” and gently sit the rat in the litter box along with the droppings you picked up and placed in there.
Unfortunately most rats will not urinate in their litter boxes regularly. But even if it only catches the feces it is still a great aide in helping your rat’s environment stay cleaner.
Filling the Cage
You will need to provide your rat with a nest box or a “house” that he can hide in to sleep. You can find items at the pet store such as large igloos, chinchilla bathhouses, roll-a-nest beds, ferret ball connectors, roll-a-nest balls, and log cabin homes among others. On a more creative side you can use plastic bowls turned upside down with a large hole drilled in it, 4” PVC pipe, sturdy cardboard boxes, and even plastic storage boxes with holes notched into them. There are many possibilities.
Once you have the bed/s provide your rat with material that he can make a nest with. Some rats are very avid nest builders and will enjoy setting up their beds. Some good suggestions are non-stringy fabric, CareFRESH bedding, shredded paper, paper towels, tissues, pillowcases, etc…
Be sure to change the nesting material often. Ammonia resulting from urine can be harmful to the rat especially in a small confined area such as a nesting bed.
Rats love to get up high off the ground. This is one of the reasons that so many companies and individuals are offering hammocks, soft sleeping tubes, and hanging hideaways. Hammocks are a must for a rat cage. They come in many sizes and styles. You can purchase cozy fleece lined hammocks, ones with pockets, or lightweight lounge hammocks. Many pet stores offer ferret cage accessories, these can be used and are particularly good for larger rats. One of the advantages to having a wire cage is that it provides a good place where you can hang these versatile beds.
I have loved the hammocks I have ordered from Janis Stern at RatAttackTeam Hammocks.
Making your own hammocks and soft tubes is easy. If you sew it is possible to really go all out and design fancy ones. If you aren’t able to sew you can fashion hammocks out of towels, scrap fabric, cloth place mats, cloth diapers, or old clothes. Tubes can be fashioned from pant legs cut off and hung within the cage.
Homemade hammocks and soft tubes can be hung with safety pins, diaper pins, grommets, chains, hooks, or any other method that holds them secure. Lining the hammock or soft tube with a towel after it is hung will allow you to change the surface without having to change out the hammock in-between cleanings.
Hard tubes can be bought in the ferret section. These tubes connect and hang with chains. They come in different colors and are transparent so that you can view the rat. Large PVC pipe and drainage pipe will also work and can be drilled and hung.
Rats just want to have fun so provide them with things to play with. The best toy they will have, of course, is you. Interaction, hand wrestling, training and play time out of their cage with you are the most important activities that your rats can have. During the times that you are not around though, other toys will make the rat’s life more fun.
An exercise wheel is a great cage accessory if your rat will use it. Typically females are more inclined to be wheel runners, but that isn’t always the case. Some males will use them, too. Be sure to provide only a non-wire large wheel to prevent injury such as the plastic Wodent Wheel or one of the solid metal type wheels.
Treat toys are always a big hit. For a simple homemade treat toy you can put treats in a small cardboard box and watch as your rats busily demolish it to get their treat. You can also attach fruit or hard treats with holes drilled into them to a large binder ring and attach it to the side of the cage.
Rats love to climb. You can outfit your cage with such things as ladders, ropes, wooden bird branches, and climbing tubes. You will find many good climbing toys in the ferret and bird department of the pet store. Take care to not use climbing toys in the cages of elderly or ill rats.
In the wild rats forage and dig. Giving them a digging box is a safe way to let them indulge in this natural behavior. To create a digging box all you need is a plastic box, such as a litter box for cats or a low plastic storage box, and a bag of sterile potting soil. Make sure the soil has no fertilizers or other additives. You can add seeds to grow oat grass, wheat grass, millet, rye, or even use birdseed. Add enough moisture to grow the grass, but not enough to cause fungus or mold growth. Assorted rocks and a PVC tunnel partially buried create an even more interesting environment. For fun you can hide treats in the digging box for your rat. Your rats digging box can either be in or outside of the cage. If you leave it in the cage you will have to clean it and replace the soil regularly.
Food and Water
Rats are free feeders and require a constant supply of food. Food dishes need to be heavy and low so that they cannot be spilled. If you have rats that stash their food be sure to not overfeed them and remove any perishable food before they begin to decompose. The best food option for rats are lab blocks. I recommend Harlan Teklad, Oxbow or Mazuri.
Water is the most important thing your rat needs. Always make sure that clean water is available. Do not put water in an open bowl. Your rat will either tip it over or fill it up with bedding. There are several good types of water bottles. Most mount on the outside of the cage with a sipper tube that fits in-between the bars. If your rats have an open cage it may be necessary to protect the top of the plastic water bottles from chewers. You can do this by putting an empty can or a small plastic bowl over the top of it.
Multiple water bottles are a good idea so that if one bottle leaks or is empty they will still have another to drink from. Always make sure that the bottle’s seal or gasket is in place and that the bottle does not drip. Be sure to clean and sanitize the bottle thoroughly each week. Make sure you have the water bottle on the lowest level of the cage. As the rats, age, they may be unable to climb ramps and need to have access to the water bottle.
Just like a dog, a rat needs time out of the house (or in this case, the cage) to exercise, explore and have some fun. How would you like being cooped up in your house all day, and only being allowed out when some giant came and picked you up? Not very much, I am assuming. Rats need to be let out of their cage to explore and stretch their legs at least once or twice a day for about an hour or two. I find a rat room to be the best way to go about free ranging, this way the area can be always 100% rat-proof and you don’t have to set it up with proofing and toys every time. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the extra space for this kind of thing. The second best way to do this is to have a room that is rat safe:
- No cords or anything sharp exposed
- Nothing bad that the rats could eat
- Nothing that would scare them (other pets, loud, active people, etc)
- No holes exposed into walls or furniture where the rats could get stuck or lost
- Nothing for the rats to hide under or behind out of your reach
Most dangers are quite obvious, though there are things you may not have thought about.
Many houseplants are toxic to rats. Either remove them or ensure the rats cannot chew on them.
Always be careful where you sit, especially if you have a rocking chair or sofa bed… rats love to explore dark hidden places. Remove shoes before walking in a rat zone and learn the “ratty shuffle” so you don’t accidentally tread on anyone. Ensure all other household pets are locked elsewhere. No matter how much you trust them with the rats, instinct can overwhelm them and accidents can happen. Taping some cardboard so that it projects over the edge of bookshelves will prevent your rat from climbing up too high. Smaller rats are good at squeezing under doors so be mindful of that and block the gap beforehand if needed.
Central Texas Rat Rescue has wonderful cages for their rats.