Foraging is the act of searching for food. In the wild environment successful foraging is a key element of survival, and a wild rat employs the vast majority of its time in this pursuit. By necessity, foraging involves many natural behaviours including, rummaging, digging, whisking (the act of scanning the environment using whisker sweeps), hunting and climbing. As well as the whiskers, a rat’s sense of smell is the primary sense engaged in finding food and choosing what to eat and what to leave.
Domesticated rats have been traditionally fed from bowls or hoppers, which provide a ready supply of food, in a given location at all times. For many years I fed like this and never considered an alternative, until that is, I started to read about and research scatter feeding. Some rat owners have been feeding like this for many years, and as attitudes have evolved regarding environmental enrichment and efforts have been made to provide opportunities for the expression of natural behaviours, it was only a matter of time before scatter feeding made it onto the rattie agenda.
Initially I heard reports from a number of people who always scatter fed and whose rats seemed happy and healthy, so I began to look for research into the area of enriched feeding opportunities for caged rats. Everything I read was positive, including evidence that scatter feeding can help a rat to maintain a normal weight, and that it increases the amount of time spent in food seeking (natural) behaviours. I found myself in an interesting position; intellectually I was convinced that this was a positive change in husbandry, which was of benefit to the rat and seemed to have no ‘down-side’, yet I still felt reluctant to give it a try. I had a number of reservations, which might be common to anyone considering scatter feeding for the first time. It took me months to decide to give it a go – and now I wouldn’t choose to feed any other way, although I do feel it is probably best used in conjunction with the added enrichment of “hide and seek” type techniques (eg piñatas, toilet roll ‘crackers’ and treat balls) for extra challenges.
Possible objections to scatter feeding
How will I know they are getting enough? - Before beginning scatter feeding it is worth getting a good feel for how much a particular group of rats should eat in a 24 hour period. Rats tend to be healthiest when not fed ad lib, and when a comprehensive, varied diet is consumed. A rat’s day should generally include a lean period when the rat is awake and active, but does not have food available, or no more than a few whole seeds (e.g. oats) that would normally be rejected in favour of other foods. However, the primary way of getting the volume of food just right for a particular group of rats is to look at the rats over a period of time. They should be active and in good condition and neither under nor over weight. Once the needed volume is discovered you can simply dispense with the food bowl and scatter feed the same amount of food. You don’t need to add extra to compensate (so tempting to do), and you can check under the cage litter where you should find nothing edible – just chaff and food dust – if you are getting it right. Nutritional needs do vary with stage of life and environmental temperature (amongst other things) so monitoring your rats’ progress is an ongoing affair.
What if the rats don’t find everything and eat an imbalanced diet? - This is where you need to believe in your rats. They are designed for the job, and will spend earnest hours in search of food if they are hungry. I feel we have all been successful if I clean out the cage and don’t find any wasted food – I have got the volume right, and the rats have done what they have evolved for. Bear in mind that if you clean out only part way through your 24 hour feeding period there may well be a little food left from the previous night’s feed – but only a very little. If you find lots of edible stuff under the bedding you are feeding too much and your rats will feed
selectively and may become fat and malnourished on an imbalanced diet.
How will the skinny/elderly/sick rats fare in competition with their stronger, healthier cage mates? - Skinny rats seem to fare well even in colonies of mixed size, probably because they have as much chance of finding food as their fatter cage mates, who suddenly have to work hard to eat. If you are at all worried you can feed on multiple levels and you will find the leaner (generally fitter and more agile rats) can source food in the higher levels more easily. I have to say that variations in the weight of cagemates in my groups have decreased since I began scatter feeding. The rats more likely to get fat stay leaner and the leaner rats maintain a good weight. Sick and elderly rats generally need some extra nutritional support, and often more soft foods. I often continue to scatter feed dry food and bowl feed just the fresh food for the elderly and moderately disabled/sick. If a rat is struggling to maintain weight I put all their food in dishes. But you have to work with what is best for the colony... and sometimes feeding a needy rat separately works well and prevents obesity in younger friends.
Won’t the food get soiled amongst the litter? - With the use of litter trays, a thick layer of bedding shouldn’t get too soiled in a week or so. It might help to bear in mind that rats are also designed to practice coprophagia – that is, eating their own faeces and gaining extra nutrition from it. The issue of food mixing with the odd poo in the cage litter is really only a problem to us as humans.
Practicalities of scatter feeding
- use as deep a layer of substrate as possible.
- scatter as widely as possible. If your scatter area is too small the principle of scatter feeding (i.e. the need to work to find food) is (largely) lost.
- vary your technique. Novelty is extremely stimulating to a rat and having to solve new problems relieves boredom and sharpens a variety of skills.
- try a plastic hanging ‘planter’ from the cage roof and filling it with cross-cut shredded paper into which some food is mixed.
- scatter feed on different levels.
- experiment with a variety of substrates. Even if you always use (say) chipped card, you can add an extra layer of shredded paper, or good quality soft hay.
- scatter feed alongside hidden food games such as placing some of the mix inside a toilet roll cracker, or small cardboard box (like a
- check you’re not over-feeding by looking at what is left under the substrate before you feed.
- feed extra “just in case” - the rats will find it all.
- worry if you can’t see any food in the cage within a few minutes of feeding.
- scatter only in a very limited area, e.g. a small tray.
- feed in the same place in the same way every day.
Author: Alison Campbell