One question I seem to see a lot from new rats owners is what kind of cage they should get, and you know what? That’s a great question for all rat owners, and one of the most important aspects in a pet rats homing. Rats, just like all pets, need a well suited environment to prosper and live happy lives and as pet owners we must be committed to give our pets the best treatment and conditions.
There are a lot of different cages and methods out there though, and it can be confusing to know what is best for new rat owners. However I think it would be better to start with understanding rats natural environments first. Fancy rat is just another name for Rattus norvegicus domestica, the domesticated Brown (Norway) Rat. Rats are terrestrial and partially to fully arboreal depending on species. What that means is rats live mostly on the ground, but sometimes in higher locations in certain situations. The brown rat itself is more terrestrial, and so your pet rat will need ample ground space as well as climbing features to run, explore and play. It should be noted that rats are fossorial, burrowing often in nature and in captivity. It is important to offer your new pet the means to both burrow and climb for these reasons. Keep in mind rats are prey animals so do your best to give them a natural environment that they would feel comfortable in, with hides and other places to feel safe when sleeping or stressed.
The Right Cage
Let’s talk about features cage features. There are several important factors in choosing the right cage; size, construction and aeration. As for the later, this is a matter of health for your animal and as such I always recommend any permanent housing for your pet rats be metal bared caging. Yes, they can be expensive. Yes, you could make a diy bin cage for cheaper. But they are seldom acceptable permanent housing for your pet rat. There are still great uses for bin cages, but to make a bin cage a reasonable permanent home for your precious living animals would require a lot of effort, time, very large and/or multiple bins and may end up costing just as much as an appropriate metal bared cage in the end yet still risks not having appropriate ventilation for the rats sensitive respiratory system. It should also be noted they can easily chew through them, and an incorrectly made cage risks escapes. So with that said, for permanent housing, I would always recommend a metal barred cage with out barred flooring(these are unsafe for rats) and a deeper base tray about 4-6 inches deep at minimum with no chewable edges.
Metal bars on cages can vary, so you’ll want to make sure they are not big enough that your rats will slip out. You do not want metal bars for shelves or flooring however. On my main female cage, the bar spacing is .5in and this is a great spacing for any size rat. Two of my other cages have 1in spacing, and they are unfortunately not suitable for young rats. There is something we can do about this though, by using hardware cloth you can easily tighten up those spaces making your cage suitable for all ages. It can be quite a bit of work though. If you do this it’s important to make sure it’s attached securely and there is not any sharp edges where you cut the wire that can hurt your rats, so make sure to sand or seal them off.
Size wise your rats cage should be large enough for them to perform all their normal instinctive activities, such as running, burrowing and climbing. Rats on average leave their nest and travel about 25 to 100 feet to forage for food, and while most people obviously aren’t able to give their rats that much housing space it’s important the cage is big enough to facilitate foraging. It’s also a great reason to give your rats free range time in a room or pen. It is generally believed that each rat needs about 2 cubic feet of space, however I think this is a bit on the small size and would recommend at least 2.5 if not 3 cubic ft per rat. Whether you get a wider or taller cage is up to you, though I highly recommend the cage be both to at least some extent. It is important to remember the taller the cage, the more hammocks and catches you’ll need to keep your rats safe from falls. As you should always be housing your rats in groups, the smallest cage I would personally consider would be 6-8 cubic feet with at least 2 ft in height and width and 1.5 ft depth. The smaller end of that however seems noticeably to small for a pair of adult males. So at the end of the day, bigger is definitely better. There does seem to be a slight balance where a cage can be too large for a small group of especially younger rats, and they may not utilize the whole cage as well as intended. Increasing your mischief size will help balance the space more and they seem to be much more happy to explore and utilize more space, perhaps they are expanding their territory along with the mischief. I have not noticed any negative effects from rats having to large a cage, and usually as they grew they gained the confidence to utilize the rest of the cage with age.
What cages might I recommend for a first time pet rat owner? This will depend a bit on your budget, if you can afford a new higher end brand such as a Critter Nation I would highly recommend getting one. But there’s lots of options to look through. Most my cages have come used from sources such as friends or fb marketplace. You can get great deals on used cages, just keep an eye out and don’t be afraid to try and haggle. A lot of bird cages can often be converted into great rat cages as well. From buying a new cage to finding a used one, there’s lots of ways to find a suitable cage at your price level. I’ll end with a list of examples that I think are nicely suited cages for rats to help guide you in your search.
- MCage 3 Level Rodent Cage [24x16x24] 2 rats (this one I feel all my rats have grown out of, and also requires alteration to any of the metal wired flooring)
- Kaytee’s My First Home [30x18x30] 2-3 rats
- Prevue 495 Rat & Chinchilla cage [31×20.5×28] 3-5 rats
- Yaheetech 6 Level Critter Cage [25.5×17.2×52] 4-6 rats (.9in spacing)
- Prevue Hendryx Fiesty Ferret Cage [31x20x41.5] 5-7 rats (.9in spacing)
- Midwest Deluxe Critter Nation [36x24x39] 6-9 rats [Most Recommended]
Now that you have a better idea of what kind of cages to look for, let’s talk about all the basic essentials you are going to need for your new ratties home. There are a few things that your rat will need so it’s important to always make sure you have these items on hand.
Bedding or substrate is going to be one of your most important essentials, and as we have discussed before should be a loose, fibrous and a nearly dust-free substrate. Being as dust free as possible is extremely important due to rats sensitive respiratory systems. As well avoid scented beddings. The most popular choices are Aspen, Hemp and paper bedding. Paper bedding is very loose and light weight, making it great for burrowing and nesting. How ever it offers very little to no neutralization of ammonia and odors, so requires more spot cleaning and shorter times between replacing. Litter training your rats can help mitigate this. Still I wouldn’t recommend using shredded paper bedding for this reason, at least as a main substrate (it can make great nesting materials however). I have also noticed most soft paper beddings are not nearly as dust free as they claim and can cause sneezing and possibly other issues, so I would stay away from these entirely. It is important not to use cedar or pine bedding as the phenols and acids (abietic and in cedar plicatic as well) they contain are toxic for rats. Some people still use kiln dried pine bedding, but with the ample studies and proof that pine bedding is toxic to rats and little to no scientific evidence to support that it is safe I highly recommend avoiding it. Wood substrates are still the best, easiest, and cheapest option and Aspen is far better at ammonia and odor neutralization then paper. They aren’t as absorbent though and are suboptimal for burrowing. Another option is hemp, which is an excellent bedding but can be expensive. Coco substrate dig bins are also a great option, but will require cage modification and research on naturalistic set-ups.
Another basic essential that many new rat owners might overlook is hides. It is important to give your rat ample places to hide out and sleep or decompress as they are prey animals. There are so many options out there as well. One thing, avoid any edible pet house products. These are made with sawdust and other materials which just aren’t good for your rat to be digesting in large amounts. When chewing something like plastic or actual wood, the rat won’t actually eat any of this material so they are much safer. I prefer plastic over wood as it generally lasts longer for me as well it’s easier to clean. Instead of buying expensive pet products you can head over to your local dollar store and pick up different types of plastic bins, baskets and the like that make great hides and pseudo-hammocks. Hammocks of course are great as well, rats specially love the multi-level ones. But they require a lot more cleaning so be prepared with multiple hammocks to switch out every couple days while rotating washing. Rats also love carboard boxes and and brown paper bags, and this is a great way to add tons of disposable hides for free, however shipping boxes should be avoided at current times do to the possibility of disinfectants being on them from the warehouse or during shipping.
I go into detail on diet in the basic care article, but food and water are of course basic essentials in any cage. Make sure they have a good balanced diet available to them (lab blocks should generally be available to them at all times) and several water bottles around the cage with fresh, filtered water.
Makeshift Foraging Toy
Romanov, 3 mo
Playing With Wicker Ball
Gwen and Romanov, 3 mo
DIY Free Range Pen
Enrichment is very important for your pet rat, and should also be looked at as basic essentials, even though they may not necessarily be required. These things will help fill your rats life with enjoyment, happiness and most often exercise. Enrichment can also help with development, social and cognitive abilities. For these reason I highly recommend your offer some or all these options to your pets.
One of the simplest things you can do is love, praise and reward your rats. Treats are a great way to let your rat know they did something right, that they are doing well in a situation, or even just that you love them and want to let them know. Give them veggies and fruits often as well. Rats often love to fish for frozen veggies such as peas or broccoli in small pools of water. Praising, petting and tickling are all also widely loved by rats just as they are with most pets.
Foraging is something I talk about quite a bit, and that’s because it really is pretty important for your rats enrichment that you give them the means to do so. After all, this is one of rats most basic and natural instincts and they essentially live to do just that. One great way to support foraging are using foraging toys. A variety of them is always nice, things like balls they can get food out of, bins they have to open, compartmented disks that spin and have different foods in them, et cetra. You can also do things that don’t require purchasing items or diy projects, such as scatter feeding by hiding food in bedding and nesting materials around the cage. I like to hide them in bins attached to the walls and under and around items. I found a bingo set at the dollar store and the sphere for pulling the numbers has worked as a great foraging ball for super cheap. You can also put treats in a cardboard tube and bend in the ends.
Climbing has also been a big topic here, and again falls into the enrichment category. Fill your cage with ropes, ladders and bridges, hammocks, catches, and even bins, boxes and tunnels! Create an interesting and diverse structural environment with hides, passages and climbs. Giving your rat the ability to go to different levels and areas not only gives exercise and foraging benefits but also more control over their comfort in nesting, for instance giving the option of sleeping higher on cooler days and down low in a floor hide on warmer ones. Also, utilizing pumice stones such as Kaytee’s Lava Ledges (advise making sure bolt is secure in pumice), you can give climbing resources as well claw and teeth grooming tools to your rats.
A lot of my rats have also always enjoyed small toys and chews. I find the little wicker balls you can get at the dollar store are perfect and my rats play with them often. You get a bunch for $1, so if your rats aren’t interested it’s not a big loss. I also like to give my little ones willow/apple sticks and other safe wood chews, never anything from outside though as you can bring in pest, parasites and other things from the out doors. I know it seems silly to pay for a bag of sticks, but just do so it’s really not worth the risk to save a buck or two unless you actually know what you’re doing. There’s a whole bunch of products marketed as rodent toys, but honestly I find the rats enjoy things geared towards birds often, such as wooden, rope and fabric hangs. Again, brining back one of my favorite topics, foraging toys are also great options and I highly recommend them.
Free roam time is also a great out of cage enrichment activity, and all rats should be offered the opportunity to do so. Rats should generally get at minimum 30-60 minutes of free roam time every or at least every other day. There are many ways you can go about this, just make sure the area you choose is safe for your rats and clear of objects you don’t want them to chew. Several methods include using beds/couches or tables, pens, whole rooms or sometimes even unrestricted indoor access. Beds, couches and tables are all pretty self-explanatory. Just make sure there’s no electric cords or anything, putting down a sheet or plastic tablecloth if you want. I like to use a pen most times, and mine is made out of presentation boards from the dollar store. You can buy pens as well, but they tend to be pricey or often don’t hold rats well. As far as using a whole room, apartment or complete free range of the house goes you’ll have to make sure everything dangerous is secured or removed, all potential escapes are sealed appropriately, and you aren’t worried about anything getting destroyed by rats chewing. Fill up your rats free roam area with hides, toys, tunnels and what ever else you might think your little ones would enjoy having to play with. Make sure there is food and water available to them, and I also highly advise placing some litter boxes in corners as well.
- Rat are terrestrial(ground dwelling), as well as arboreal(climbers) and fossorial(burrowers).
- Your cage size and build are very important in homing happy and healthy rats. I recommend at least 3 cubic feet for your first two rats.
- Aspen and Hemp bedding are generally popular. Do not use cedar or pine.
- Have plenty of water sources and food (pref. scatter fed) available.
- Fill your cage with things such as hides, toys, hammocks, beds, bins, ropes, hangs, ladders and bridges.
- Free roam time is important and I recommend rats get at least 30 min a day.
A Final Thought
Thanks for sticking it out to the end, I will admit it was a bit of a long article. But there is a lot of important information to learn about your rats environment and your rats will thank you for it. It’s hard to know what’s right when the majority of products aren’t properly made to house the animals they are meant for. Information from pet stores can be misleading and even down right incorrect. That’s why it’s so important to understand your rats needs and and give them the best home possible, and I hope this article helps in spreading more knowledge to new and prospective pet rat owners.