What should I feed my rats?

Articles relating to feeding rats.
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What should I feed my rats?

Post by Fancy Rats Admin » Sun Jul 17, 2011 12:53 pm

Feeding your rats

Rats are opportunistic omivores and as such are willing to eat just about anything, however, not all foods are suitable if we aim to maintain long term health and condition. There are many successful ways of feeding a rat, and all rats are individuals with specific needs depending on their genetic background, age, sex, health, environment and activity levels. There is no “one-size-fits-all” prescription for rat diet and all diets need to be adapted and modified to suit the needs of the individual. What follows are general guidelines based on my own experience and extensive research.

Generic (commercially prepared) rat food/pellets
There are a number of generic rat mixes and pellets available in the UK. However, these tend to suffer from one or more common problems which mean that there are often better ways to feed a rat. This might be as simple as mixing two or three commercially prepared feeds together, or feeding a larger quantity of fresh food alongside the dry mix.

Some of the issues with commercially prepared mixes and pellets can be:
  • Unsuitable ingredient - many of these mixes contain alfalfa and other hay or straw pellets, which are indigestible to rats and almost always rejected. Other unsuitable ingredients include sugar, very small whole grains (often refused), sunflower seeds (allergenic to some rats) and nuts (high protein/fat and best kept as a treat).
  • Poor quality ingredients – a particular problem where low quality ‘meat’ is used such as chicken derivatives. Issues relate not only to the suitability of the animal parts as a nutritional source, but also to the ethical considerations for the welfare of the animals that provide the meat. Vegetable derivatives are also sometimes used. These tend to be plant parts that are surplus to requirement in other industries, and will vary within a particular feed according to what is available. It is preferable to use a feed that lists specific vegetables.
  • Inaccessible vitamins and minerals – Vitamins A, C, D and E and copper are often supplemented in generic mixes but in some cases are added to the pellet in the mix. If the rat then rejects these, the supplements are wasted.
  • Colourings and flavourings - may be added to make the mix look (to humans) and taste more palatable. Flavourings often add sugar to the mix, while many artificial colorants are linked to behavioural changes and possible tumours.
  • Nutritional suitability – there are a few generic mixes that don’t even match the basic requirements of a rat, being well above the recommended 4% fat and 10-14% protein levels. Some are also high in fibre, often through including ingredients that rats reject.
  • Artificial preservatives – these are common ingredients in any rodent nugget or mix containing animal protein. Where manufacturers don’t add these to feeds themselves they do not always appear on the list of ingredients, but may still be included as the preservative for any ‘bought-in’ animal fat. Preservatives like Ethoxyquin, BHA and BHT are known carcinogens (promote cancer).
  • Boredom - complete pellet diets are favoured by some, but these are a long way from the rat's natural highly varied diet as an opportunitic omnivore. Rats derive a lot of pleasure from food and a varied diet is interesting and can be used to help stimulate foraging behaviours. It is also more likely that a highly varied diet will provide better nutrition than a complete processed pellet.
In view of these limitations many rat owners come up with ingenious solutions to the question posed by this article. Some of the most common are:
  • Selecting a better quality food and feeding alongside a varied fresh diet.
  • Mixing two or three commercial mixes together to increase the number of ingredients/presentation of ingredients (eg flakes corn, whole corn, puffed corn) and to overcome the limitations of the individual feeds.
  • Cycling feeds by choosing 3 or 4 feeds and alternating which one is fed on a weekly/fortnightly basis, which has the same effect as mixing feeds.
  • Using a commercial feed as a base food for a wider mix by adding ingredients like grains, cereals, herbs and dried vegetables.
  • Making up a mix from scratch without a base food.
Selecting a better quality food and feeding alongside a varied fresh diet.
This is a good solution if you can easily obtain a decent commercial feed and are willing to put the effort into providing a suitable range of fresh food. The most appropriate fresh foods will vary to some degree depending on the feed you have chosen and its limitations, but as a general principle it is sensible to choose nutrient dense foods that cover all of the major nutrients - a variety of whole grains and grain sprouts, legumes and sprouted legumes, low fat protein (chicken, egg, fish and legumes), vegetables, berries, herbs and good fats (fish, seed and nut oils).

Unless you are certain of your micronutrient levels, it's probably wise to use some supplements if this is your preferred choice. Calcium, vitamin D and copper could be low in this diet.

Mixing two or three commercial mixes together
If you do this it is important to check ingredient lists and choose feeds that provide variety of ingredients, not only different grains, protein foods etc., but also different forms of the same grain (as varying degrees of processing give different benefits and drawbacks). It often works well to mix a decent commercial rat food with a rabbit or guinea pig food and a higher quality rat pellet or dog kibble. Some of the vegetarian dog foods can be useful in this regard, as well as lower protein feeds based on rice and a protein source.

Because all of the components of this diet are supplemented deficiencies are unlikely, but do check levels of calcium, vitamin D and copper in the chosen feeds.

Cycling feeds
This works in a similar way to mixing feeds, but only one feed is fed at any given time, which meand that there is no need to worry about proportions. Rats are well adapted to deal with changes in diet - and most commercial feeds have some overlap of ingredients, so cycling rarely causes any problems to the rats. If you are going to cycle don't stick with one feed for too long. A week is ideal and two weeks is probably about the maximum if you want to avoid the downfalls aof any one particular feed.

Because all of the components of this diet are supplemented deficiencies are unlikely, but do check levels of calcium, vitamin D and copper in the chosen feeds.

Using a commercial feed as a base food
This is a method enjoyed by many and can be very successful, so long as some care is taken in choosing additional ingredients to add to the mix. Details of this method are outlined in the Shunamite Diet article.

Unless you are certain of your micronutrient levels, it's probably wise to use some supplements if this is your preferred choice. Calcium, vitamin D and copper amongst other nutrients could be low in this diet.

Making up a mix from scratch without a base food.
This is also common practice and is often referred to as a straights based diet. Again variety of ingredients and the form of the ingredient is key, and the easiest way to ensure this is to buy one of the ready prepared straights based mixes available through Rat Rations. making up your own straights based mix is discussed in the Shunamite Diet article.

All straights based mixes are unsupplemented and will therefore be lacking in calcium, vitaminD and copper. Supplementation is essential.

Author: Alison Campbell
Regards,
Fancy Rats Team

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