SET UP & HUSBANDRY
Here we will discuss the dos and don’ts of cages, accessories, free roaming and cleaning.
CHOOSING YOUR CAGE
Good floor space
small bar gaps
deep base tray or good scatter guards
door size suitable for your own mobility and reach
Made of sturdy materials
Aquariums and tanks
Small Mouse/hamster/gerbil cages
Large bar gaps
Wood as the main building material of the he cage
When choosing a cage, you need to consider your animals' safety and happiness before your own aesthetic preference. A good rule of thumb is 2 cubic feet of space per rat. Make sure your cage has a reasonable amount of floor space as well, a common misconception leads to people buying tall cages for their rats and sacrificing floor space, even though floor pace is the main priority. Rats like to climb, but in the end they are still fossorial animals.
Unlike mice, hamsters and gerbils, rats cannot be housed in tanks or aquariums, the ventilation isn’t good enough. Ammonia builds up very fast in poorly ventilated enclosures, and as larger rodents, rats urinate a fair bit more than smaller rodents. This ammonia build up will be an unnecessary strain on your ratties' respiratory systems, causing unnecessary vet visits. Cages with fully bared walls and top have great ventilation, this makes them ideal for rats. On top of that, bared cages will allow you to let your imagination lose when decorating the cage. Climbing bars to get from point A to point B is also good exercise!
In the UK, we don’t see that many wire floor cages any more, but they still do exist. Wire floors aren’t great for any animal's feet, including rats. If you do have a cage with a wire floor or wire shelves, don’t throw it out! Many cages with wire floors allow you to slide out the wire floor and you’ll be left with a solid, often shallow base tray. If your wire floor is not one you can easily remove, you can either buy a large plastic storage bin or a cement mixing tub and place it on the wire.This will also allow you to put in a lot more bedding for the rats and protect their feet. If you have wire shelves you can either use fleece liners to cover them(have to be washed more than once a week) or just simply, not use the shelves.
If you are getting young rats, making sure your cage has small bar gaps is really important. Rats are like liquid, they can fit through the most ridiculous spaces. A good rule is “if the whole head fits through, so does the rest of the rat”. If you have already bought a cage, and realized too late how big the bar gaps were, here are a few ways to solve the problem. If the cage is brand new, you can return it and get your money back. If you’ve had the cage for a while or bought it second hand, you can either,
sell the cage.
get a second smaller cage and house the rats there until they’re big enough for the original cage.
If you’re crafty, you can get some hardware cloth and baby proof the cage with it. Do not use chicken wire, rats can chew through it, hardware cloth.
Keep in mind that These are NOT the only cages that are suitable, but some of the commonly seen ones in the rat community in the UK and Europe. Make sure to read the pros and cons of each cage to see which one suits your and your rats' needs the most.
SAVIC ZENO 2
This is a great cage for all ages due to the small bar gaps! Very similar to the FURAT sold at pets@home, but a fair bit cheaper, and in my personal opinion, better quality. This cage is great for a pair of boys or girls. The only down side of this cage is the small-ish door, but the top is easy to take off for when you need to take out the platform. The cage is very light weight and easy to set up on a table or a set of drawers. The biggest Pro of this cage is the affordable price and the deep base ideal for loose bedding.
Total: 80 x 50 x 70 cm (L x W x H)
Bar spacing: 9.5 mm
SUITABLE CAGES THAT MIGHT REQUIRE SOME DIY
Unfortunately, we don't always have access to ideal cages, but no worries, there are many cages suitable after a little bit of DIY. The most common issue with alternative cages has to do with bar spacing.
PREVUE FRISKY FERRET
This cage is a nice little cage that can be found on amazon. Most ferret cages have these same problems, so the fixes can be applied to other cages with the same problems!
The first thing we have to fix is the wire floor. Fixing the wire floor for this cage is super easy! All you have to do is to slide out the wire and not put it back in! Now you're left with a shallow base bin, I recommend getting scatter guards made for it to allow deep bedding.
The second issue with this cage is the large bar spaces; these bars shouldn't be much of an issue with fully grown adult males, but babies and small females will walk right out. What you want to do to make this cage escape proof is to get your hands on some hardware cloth/ rodent mesh/ welded metal mesh. You want to line the outside of the cage neatly with the mesh you chose and tie it down tightly with zip ties, make sure to line the doors separately so they're still functional.
Total: 63.5 x 43.51 x 86.36cm (L x W x H)
FERPLAST PLAZA 160 SMALL PET CAGE
Rabbit cages are often a fairly cheap cage option with huge floor space which is great for rats. Rabbit cages are often available in countries where it is hard to find actual rat cages.
What makes these cages fairly cheap for their size is the fact the bar spacing is massive. It takes less material to make cages with large bar spaces. Thankfully this is very easily fixable! Just like with the ferret cages, you'll need hardware cloth/ rodent mesh/ welded metal mesh to cover all the bars
162 x 60 x 50 cm (L x W x H)
HOW TO ESCAPE PROOF YOUR RAT CAGE!
Zip ties. Metal ones will last you longer. Some rats chew plastic ones so might have to be replaced from time to time.
Wire cutters. These are a lifesaver 1000%, get them for this project, it's worth the few pounds.
Hardware cloth/ rodent mesh/ welded metal mesh. These are NOT the same as chicken wire. A determined rat will chew through chicken wire. In the UK you will have more luck finding it with the second and third name.
Gloves are optional, but a good buy as well to prevent cuts and puncture wounds.
In the UK all these can be found at B&Q, wilko and amazon.
STEP BY STEP INSTRUCTIONS
Step by step:
After you have gotten your hands on all the necessary equipment, clean the bars on your cage if it's a second hand/previously used cage. You want the bars to be as nice and clean as possible before covering them up.
Star from the doors. its easy to accidentally seal the doors shut if you do them later. Measure the right size sheet of mesh to fit each door. Start from securing the mesh to each door (on the outside of the cage!) from the corners and then keep adding zip ties where needed. Make sure the mesh is tightly secured to the cage. It's better to go overboard with zip ties. You want the mesh to be so tight a rat cannot wiggle out of the cage and get stuck between the mesh and bars.
Repeat this same process for each wall and the top of the cage. To make it easier to take the cage apart, it's best to do each wall individually, instead of one really long sheet of mesh.
After finishing each wall and the top, double check that everything is tightly secured. Don't be afraid to add more zip ties if you feel like it, too many is always better than too few!
HOW TO SET UP A CAGE FOR YOUR RATTIES.
Fall breaks are very important, especially if you're using a really high cage. The most common fall breaks are hammocks. Hammocks are great sleeping spots, but more importantly they can catch a falling rat and prevent major injuries. Rats can have bad falls without hurting themselves, but taking unnecessary risks is not worth it. Falling from a low drop can cause bad injuries if the rat lands badly, so providing plenty of hammocks, baskets, ropes and other accessories that can be hung up on different levels will save your rat from severe injuries and your wallet from expensive vet fees that could have been avoided.
Rats are prey animals, so providing hides is very important for comfort. Not all rats care to sleep in hides but you still should always have hiding places in the cage. Hides will give the rats a nice cozy place to build a nest in as well, especially females who really enjoy making nests and carrying things into their little home. Boys do make nests as well now and then, but girls are a lot more enthusiastic about it. A hide should be a safe space for your rats, especially when you bring home new rats. If you have new rats or know your current rats are more on the skittish side, don't just lift the hide while they're sleeping in it, this can give them quite the scare if they are skittish to begin with. On the other hand, if you know your rats are chill and don't really care, they probably won't get too spooked by a hide being lifted. Knowing your rats and adapting to their personalities is the best way to go on about things like these.
When choosing your hides, you want to think about the materials the hide is made out of. Wooden hides can look inviting but they do not last long. Wood absorbs urine and the hides can get stinky pretty quick and they aren't very cleanable , so remember to throw them away once they get stinky instead of trying to clean them. Another danger with wooden hides is that some of them are put together with nails and these can stick out and cause injuries if your rats are big on chewing wood. So when you buy wooden hides, make sure they don't have nails in them, and make sure to eventually replace them when they get nasty.
Another common hide type you see in pet stores, are ”eatable” hides. These might sound great, but aren't. Sure they're technically safe to digest but are often put together with sugary glues and the ”edible” building material is hay which rats can digest. So it is not a smart idea to get your rat an eatabe hide as they will just fill their tummies with empty nutrients instead of their actual food
Plastic hides are probably the most practical option. They can be cleaned very well and easily unlike wood. Some rats insist on chewing plastic, and understandably this can worry some pet owners. But do not worry, rats are quite good at knowing what's edible, so when they chew on plastic this doesn't mean they're actually ingesting it.
As rodents, rat teeth never stop growing so they have to be grinded down. Chew toys will help you keep your rat's teeth healthy and happy! Pet stores have a decent selection of chewing toys, but they tend to be very overpriced for what they are. Many rat owners go to bird stores for safe wooden toys, as birds are very sensitive to all sorts of toxins, so the paints used in bird toys are very safe for rats to chew. Scarletts parrot essentials is a very popular online store for bird toys. Lava ledges aka pumice stone accessories are a very popular cage accessory. These tend to be larger and better value from bird stores! Lava ledges are great for dental health, and for keeping sharp nails under control.
Many rats also enjoy apple tree sticks and willow toys from the rabbit section.
BASICS OF PICKING BEDDING
In this section we will discuss the good, the bad and the stinky of different bedding options and go into detail why something is good and something is bad.
When looking for information online on what bedding is the best, unfortunately most of the information is incorrect due to outdated information. Many places will recommend paper and fear mongers how pine and other woods are super dangerous. Many of these articles aren't ill willed, but are based on misinformation from studies from multiple decades ago that have been
proven incorrect. And a small part of articles that promote paper bedding such as carefresh are sponsored or written by companies that sell these products.
KILN DRIED ASPEN AND PINE SHAVINGS
main substrate – should be changed once a week
Back in the days, wood beddings were not suitable due to the fact we did not kiln dry them. This is a heating process that renders the woods safe by removing phenols from the woods. Phenols are types of oils in the woods that can be irritating to animals and humans. In the current day and age, beddings sold for animals is kiln dried in Europe and North america.
So what makes wood the best bedding? Wood is a natural fiber so it breaks down ammonia just like hemp. Wood has superior odor control as well. Aspen tends to have a stronger natural scent to it than pine. Aspen and pine do the same job, the main difference being the fact you might be allergic to one but not the other! Aspen is usually a tad bit more expensive, but not by a lot. Wood shavings are also a nice size for the rats to also build with as it can be carried around the cage up to hiding places! Wood is the best and most affordable bedding option.
main substrate - should be changed once a week
Hemp is a fantastic option if you have a bad allergic reaction to wood. In rare cases rats can also have allergies to wood! Hemp is hypoallergenic so it's the perfect option for sensitive people and rats. As a natural fiber, hemp breaks down ammonia and holds odor well. On top of this, as a loose bedding hemp allows the rats to dig, build and forage for things hidden in the bedding. Hemp is widely available for a reasonable price from farm and equine stores. In North America hemp is often outrageously expensive and hard to find. The only downside to hemp is that its fine and it gets absolutely everywhere. It's best to have a cage with a deep base if you wish to use hemp. For cages that have poor scatter guards such as savic 95/XL and critter nations, you can easily make high scatter guards from corrugated plastic. In the UK most of our houses have carpeted floors, hemp and carpet are a cleaning nightmare, so make sure you have a cage/set up that keeps bedding in well.
CORRUGATED CARDBOARD / HORSE CARDBOARD
main substrate - should be changed once a week
Corrugated cardboard such as bedkind is the only type of ”paper” that isn't a hazard. This bedding is mainly a European thing and next to impossible to find in North America and the rest of the world. Corrugated cardboard is not shredded like paper, so it holds its shape even when soiled. Corrugated cardboard is highly absorbent and keeps dry unlike paper. As this bedding is made for horses it is well dust extracted due to horses having very sensitive respiratory systems like rats. As a loose bedding, corrugated cardboard allows for natural digging, foraging and nesting behaviour. Natural insulation is a big sales point for cardboard as well, it helps animals keep warm during winter, and cool during summer. Corrugated cardboard is ideal for harleys, rats with bad allergies and for hospital cages.
SHREDDED PAPER SUCH AS CAREFRESH AND KAYTEE CLEAN AND COZY
This bedding is widely available in pet stores and online. It is marketed as 99% dust free, fantastic odor control and over all as if it was the golden option. Unfortunately, these claims don't hold water as well as we wish they did. Paper in fact is dusty and the odor control is beyond horrid. Paper has no ammonia control, which is the most important job of bedding. Ammonia is the biggest contributor for respiratory issues flaring up as it destroys cilia. Cilia are small projections extending off of cells that line the respiratory tract which is covered in mucous. The mucous traps dirt, dust and pathogens trying to enter the respiratory tract. While the mucous traps all the unwelcomed things, the cilia pushes it out. If cilia are destroyed due to ammonia, nothing will remove the harmful things entering the respiratory tract.
On top of being hazardous, the bedding gets stinky FAST. Shredded paper bedding needs to be changed roughly every 3 days to keep it acceptable.
Paper bedding is also very expensive in comparison. You might as well be lining your cage with cash.
There are no benefits in using paper. Using paper will cost you a lot long term in vet bills.
Are there any situations when shredded paper is a good option?
No, not really unfortunately. If you have bought paper bedding, it is okay to use it until you get proper bedding as this will only be temporary for a few days.
Fleece is a popular option, especially on pinterest, instagram and other social media. Unfortunately, fleece is not suitable. The only benefit to fleece is that it looks aesthetic. Fleece has zero odour and ammonia control, some people will try to argue that if you have u-haul pads or other absorbent layers under the fleece liners, this will fix both issues. Fleece has to be changed every 2-3 days even with absorbent layers. By having to clean the substrate this often, you are going to cause your animals to over mark, which creates even more ammonia. On top of this, fleece doesn't allow the animals to part take in any of their natural digging and foraging behaviour. Digging and foraging is an important part of natural behaviour and an easy way to add enrichment to the animals daily life.
Are there any situations where fleece is acceptable?
Yes! Hospital cages can benefit from fleece so you can monitor the animal easily and any possible discharge, blood in pee or weird bowel movements. Especially the first 3-6 days post surgery is when fleece is welcome. Fleece wont go into surgery wounds like loose bedding and will allow you to monitor for any bleeding or other discharge. Once the wound is sealed, the animal should be moved back on to lose bedding.
PAPER PELLETS SUCH AS BACK2NATURE AND YESTERDAY'S NEWS
litter - should be changed twice a week
Pellets don't make good bedding, it's uncomfortable, expensive and, well it is still paper. The only use for paper pellets is as litter in the litter tray. Paper pellets are marketed as litter specifically. Litter trays should be changed at least twice a week, this keeps things fresh. Paper pellets do not break down ammonia like natural fibres such as wood. A cheaper and more effective option for litter is wood pellets such as pine pellets.
litter - should be changed twice a week
Pine pellets are not suitable to be used as a main substrate, but they make amazing litter for the litter box. Being a natural fibre, it breaks down ammonia and has fantastic odour control. Pine pellets are affordable and can be bought in bulk in equine and farm stores. Pine pellets are widely available in both europe and north america
STUDIES ON BEDDING
EVALUATION OF CAGE MICRO-ENVIRONMENT OF MICE HOUSED ON VARIOUS TYPES OF BEDDING MATERIALS.
A variety of environmental factors can affect the outcomes of studies using laboratory rodents. One such factor is bedding. Several new bedding materials and processing methods have been introduced to the market in recent years, but there are few reports of their performance. In the studies reported here, we have assessed the cage micro-environment (in-cage ammonia levels, temperature, and humidity) of mice housed on various kinds of bedding and their combinations.
EFFECT OF BEDDING MATERIALS ON CONCENTRATION OF ODOROUS COMPOUNDS AND ESCHERICHIA COLI IN BEEF CATTLE BEDDED MANURE PACKS
The objectives of this study were to determine the effect of bedding material (corn stover, soybean stover, wheat straw, switchgrass, wood chips, wood shavings, corn cobs, and shredded paper) on concentration of odorous volatile organic compounds (VOC) in bedded pack material and to determine the effect of bedding material on the levels of total in laboratory-scaled bedded manure packs.
THE EFFECTS OF CHRONIC EXPOSURE TO COMMON BEDDING MATERIALS ON THE METABOLIC RATE AND OVERALL HEALTH OF MALE CD-1 MICE
This study looks at the effects of 3 types of bedding (CareFRESH Original, cedar, and pine) on the growth, food intake, oxygen consumption, IgE antibody concentrations, and general appearance and behavior in male CD-1 mice. Mice who were housed on these beddings for approximately 4 months did not show significant differences in any of these variables. This suggests that these 3 materials provide equally healthy substrates for long-term rearing of mice and possibly other rodents.
BASICS OF CLEANING
Vinegar and dish soap are a rat owner's best friends. Both are great cleaning products and aren't filled with harsh chemicals like many other household cleaners, like bleach for example. 50/50 water and vinegar solution is amazing at removing odours, while dish soap gets all the nasty stains off without any trouble. Having sponges and scrubbers dedicated only for the rats is always a must as well, you do not want to mix your kitchen sponges with your rat ones. Rubber gloves are not mandatory, but will keep your skin in better condition and make the cleaning experience over all nicer.
When washing things in the washing machine, you want to use unscented products. Generally a good rule is, if it's good for infants and babies, it's suitable for rats. If you have some very stinky hammocks you can let them soak in 50/50 water and vinegar solution 30minutes before putting them into the washing machine. Putting hammocks into a washing bag when using a washing machine, will help your washing machine to last longer and stay clean.
Spot cleaning means cleaning small things along the week before your big weekly clean up. Wiping platforms, changing litter in the litter tray, scooping up soiled bedding etc helps to keep the cage nice and clean along the week. Some rats really love making platforms nasty and this can stink up the place surprisingly fast. Rats that aren't well litter trained will require more spot cleaning than ones who have been litter trained.
Your weekly clean should be a full cage clean. This means removing all the bedding in the cage and replacing it with clean bedding, cleaning platforms, cleaning all the hides, throwing away things that have been destroyed beyond saving, taking out soiled cardboard boxes, checking if hammocks need washing, changing the litter and so on.
LARGE METAL CAGES
This is specific to large metal cages like the savic suite and critter nation for examples. These cages should be cleaned in this manner every 6 months. You'd be surprised how much dirt and nasty stuff builds up in the cage joints. At some point you'll notice that you just cannot get the stink out of your cage no matter what you do, this is a sign it's time for a mega clean. The easiest way to do this is by steam cleaning the cage and really focusing on the joints and corners where the different panels connect. If you do not have access to steam cleaning, in this case you'll have to take the whole cage apart to get your hands on the gunk between the joints. If possible, the best place to do this is outside. Take the cage apart and hose it down! Give the cage a good scrub with 50/50 water and vinegar solution all around, this should get rid of the stink for good.
If you buy a cage second hand, it's good to do this before using it, who knows the last time it was given a good scrub!