Preparing and setting up your rats’ cage is very important. Your rats will spend a large portion of their lives inside this cage and so you need to make sure it is a safe and fun place to live.
Each rat should have at least 2 cubic feet of cage space. To make a cage more interesting, choose one with 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.
Here is a rat cage calculator: http://www.rattycorner.com/odds/calc.shtml. Just enter your cage’s dimensions and it will tell you how many rats will comfortably fit.
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 nice 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/
Floors & Bedding
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 fleece. We personally use fleece for our rescue rats.
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. 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.
Fleece is a great alternative to conventional cage bedding especially if the rats or their owners have allergies. I've also used old pillowcases to cover the smaller platforms in the critter nation cage. 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 fleece 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 as much of the floor as possible to protect your rats’ feet. Too often rats get sprains or breaks from getting their feet caught in the cage floor. Wire floors can aggravate bumblefoot. This is when a sore forms on the bottom of your rat's foot.
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. We also recommend fleece - it is reusable and the rats love it.
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.
Keeping litter boxes in your cages will help with maintaining overall cage cleanliness. Rats are usually 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.
The Rat House
You will need to provide your rats with a nest box or a “house” that they can hide in to sleep. You can find items at the pet store such as large igloos and hammocks. 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.
Once you have the bed/s, provide your rats materials that they can make a nest with. Some rats are very avid nest builders and will enjoy setting up their beds. Some good suggestions are fleece, 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. I recommend doing a full cage cleaning at least once a week with smaller cleanings during the week.
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. 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 fleece or pillowcases. 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 fleece after it is hung will allow you to change the surface without having to change out the hammock between full 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 - we usually get ours from Home Depot.
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.
I am not particularly fond of exercise wheels or balls. Rats usually don't like them. I prefer chew toys. 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. For multiple level cages I like to make sure there are ramps for older rats to use.
Food & 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 Oxbow. We use the Regal Rat line for our rescue rats.
Always make sure that clean water is available. My rats enjoy using a water bottle and a water bowl. Be sure to change water frequently (I change it daily) and clean the water bottles/bowls with soap and water at least once a week. Do not use a water bowl with baby rats as drowning can be a risk. 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. 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.
Flouride and chlorine in water are not good for rats. I use filtered water from the grocery store and do not use tap water.
Free RangingRats need time out of their cage to explore and have some fun. Rats need to be let out of their cage to explore and exercise at least once or twice a day for about an hour or two. A designated "rat room" is a great place to free range but is quite a large space commitment. You can also use a play pen or create your own "pen" using cardboard boxes for the walls. When letting your rats out to play check for the following:
– Ensure there are no electrical cords or anything sharp exposed. – Make sure there is nothing available that the rats shouldn't eat. – Place them in a safe area (away from other pets, loud noises, active people, etc.) – Look out for places the rats can escape (no holes exposed into walls or furniture)
Most dangers are usually 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 your other pets with the rats, instinct can overwhelm them and accidents can and will happen. Younger or smaller rats are good at squeezing under doors so be mindful of that and block the gap beforehand if needed.
Here are some additional links as sources for more info regarding setting up your rat cage.