Most pet rats spend the majority of their lives, up to 22 or 23 hours a day, in their cages. Even following the cage calculator, this can mean as little as 2 sq ft per animal. How we set up the cage, and allow them to use this space is therefore crucial to their welfare – space is useless to a rat if it is inaccessible (e.g. dead space in the middle of a high cage), or if it doesn’t fulfil their needs (e.g. a toy they never use).
A recognised problem in keeping animals in captivity, which applies to everything from elephants in the zoo through to pet dogs, is that owners / carers are tempted to set up the space with what they like, rather than with what an animal genuinely needs. This can be seen in old-style zoo enclosures, in tiny plastic hamster cages, or in dog toys that don’t appeal much to the dog, but have been designed to attract the humans buying them.
There are two very good reasons we want to avoid this in rats – firstly, a rat shut in a cage with limited opportunity for exercise, and no mental stimulation or challenge is a rat with a poor quality of life – they are more likely to get bored, to sleep all the time, and develop unhealthy behavioural patterns. Secondly, there is plenty of evidence from all sorts of species that animals who have good engagement in their environment are healthier, more active, have lower stress biomarkers, stronger immune systems, and are more likely to live actively for longer. So getting the cage right may help your rats keep fit and healthy, and even if it doesn’t lengthen their lives, it will make them much more enjoyable.
So what can we do to help? There are two main principle to follow. Animals in captivity have been shown to have better health and lower stress levels if they can control their own environment and make choices. So the first is that the cage is their home not ours – where they sleep, where they toilet, what they build their nest with, how they manage their food supply and so on, needs to be under their control. For example, we might see a cube hammock with a hole chewed in the back as damaged. But what the rat is actually telling us is that the cube hammock didn’t meet their needs so they adapted it – they wanted an exit in a different place. A rat sleeping in his litter tray and pooing on a hammock isn’t a rat doing something ‘wrong’, he’s a rat using his space how he wants – maybe the plastic walls of the litter tray and the paper pellets to dig in make a nest he prefers.
The second principle is to look first at what behaviours a rat might need or want to express in their home, and then choose our purchases to meet them, rather than buying things we think would be nice in the cage and hoping they suit. Here are some examples.
Essential for: health and exercise. In the wild rats naturally run in giant enthusiastic bunny hops, something you’ll see in a big enough free-range space, but rarely in a normal cage.
What we can do: a cage with as large a foot print as possible to allow natural movement; at least one good sized wheel - the 12 ad 13" wodent wheels and silent spinners are popular with rat owners, and some people make big bucket wheels of their own. Not all rats will use wheels, but those brought up with them from kittenhood tend to be keener.
Climbing, jumping and balancing
Essential for: health and exercise, core muscle strength, mental stimulation. In older rats with HLD, physical function seems to last longer if the rat is encouraged to keep climbing, rather than having their life made easy (like all fitness, it is use it or lose it). Rats in the wild can climb sheer walls – they are not naturally helpless animals who need a ladder or ramp just to reach a shelf.
What we can do: as large a barred cage as possible with good height; ropes, branches, perches, boxes and baskets for climbing up, balancing on, and hopping between. Take out ladders and ramps which remove the need to climb (except for very elderly infirm rats). A complex cage layout with obstacle courses, tippy ropes, gaps and jumps will also give rats a 3D puzzle to work out. Blind rats, or pink eyed rats with poor vision may need a modified layout with smaller gaps, as they ‘see’ through their whiskers so need to be able to make contact with each obstacle, but even my blind 2 year old doesn’t have a problem going across the cage on a wobbly rope maze.
Essential for: mental stimulation, control of their environment. In the wild rats dig for food, dig to make burrows, dig to find nesting material, dig to remove waste. They are natural diggers.
What we can do: provide large areas filled with diggable substrate – this can be the cage base, or it can be other large containers within the cage. Providing a range of substrates – large pieces like cardboard, smaller grained like hemp or coconut mulch – gives the rats more experiences and more closely mimics the range of surfaces they would encounter in the wild.
Essential for: mental stimulation, paw dexterity and co-ordination, metabolic regulation, control of their environment. In the wild most of a rat’s time, energy and intellectual effort is spent on finding food. Handing it over in a bowl at regular times may seem a kind thing to do, but it actually promotes boredom and over-eating, and has been shown in zoo animals to promote stereotypical and obsessive behaviours.
What we can do: scatter feed all suitable food in substrate so rats have to locate it by smell, dig, and manipulate the food (the exception is very old or ill rats who need their food intake monitoring – I still do cage scatter feeding for these guys for interest, but give their main food separately). For other food, vary the location and timing in the cage, and use toys such as kabobs and piñatas to give the rats an interesting and ever-changing challenge associated with obtaining food. Even my two year + boys will balance on their hind-legs on a wobbling rope to take fruit from a kabob on the roof of the cage. Feed a range of food daily (not just lab-blocks) so rats experience a range of tastes and textures and can choose what to eat and in what order.
Burrowing, nesting and sleeping
Essential for: mental stimulation, a sense of security, control of their environment. In the wild, R. norvegicus mainly live in burrows, which they dig to create complex nest structures. Being able to nest and hide away creates a safe place for retreat.
How we can help: provide a range of different things to burrow in – diggable substrate, enclosed hammocks, boxes, tubes, so rats have the choice of where to go. Provide nesting material in different parts of the cage (paper or safe material) so rats can find it, process it, and build their own nests where they want.
Essential for: health, control of their environment. Rats are quite clean animals (for a given value of clean) and in the wild remove the waste from their nests. However, they also like to mark their territory with familiar smells.
What we can do: provide litter trays, and be willing to move them round the cage to suit the rats' toileting habits (one near their favourite sleeping place is a good idea!). Clean the cage regularly to remove waste matter and prevent bacteria and ammonia build up, but not so frequently that the rats are always needing to prove it is their territory again.
Essential for: mental stimulation and well-being, health, control of their environment. Rats are very smart, very curious animals, who need intellectual challenge. Furthermore, mental fitness is as use it or lose it as physical fitness, and rats who have an interest in life and have grown up being challenged are more likely to stay active and bright in old age.
What we can do: we are limited only by our imaginations, however, there are a few principles that help. Novelty is a big one – studies in zoo animals have shown that things only stay new and interesting for about 24 hours after the animal takes notice of it (which may not be straight away, as many animals avoid new things until they are sure they are safe). So a toy that is used a bit one day, may then be completely ignored for the rest of the week. Change things about – change the cage layout every week so there is a new environment to explore. Put something new in every day and take something old out. Be creative – my rats love playing with bowls of water, they don’t necessarily swim, but they drink it, wash in it, play with the ripples and so on. The same goes for the free-range area – make it different, use different toys and layouts each day, and choose things that will stimulate the above behaviours.
Essential for: mental health. Last but very definitely not least. Rats are naturally social animals evolved to live in groups. Kept alone, they may cope and bond with their owner, but they won’t fulfil their full ratty potential, and some develop abnormal behaviours including depressive lethargy and on the flip-side, hyperactive attention seeking.
What we can do: keep them in groups. We aren’t rats. No matter how much we love them, we can’t speak rat, we can’t hear rat (most of it is in the ultrasound range), we don’t communicate by smell, we don’t respond to the same social, fear, and reassurance triggers, and with the best will in the world, we can’t spend 24 hours a day in their cage. Rats need rat society, and will bond to their humans just as well, if not better, if kept in happy well adjusted groups.
Pt 2. (coming soon) Fidgit’s photographic guide to his cage layout.
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Edited 17/01/14 to bring wheel information up to date.
Articles relating to cages and habitat enrichment
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