rat walking out cage door
Should you let your rats roam freely outside the cage? Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Many, many years ago, the sight of my pet rats streaking across my living room, bouncing down my hall, diving under a couch, or napping in a closet was common.

That was my life with free-ranging rats. It is a time that I miss very much — and it’s a lifestyle I’m not likely to ever repeat.

The Joy Of Free-Ranging Pet Rats

toddler nose to nose with rat on couch or bed
Rory and Delphiniums were good friends, despite the toy misunderstanding. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

What I loved about free-ranging was the types of experiences I had with my ratties. It was a highlight of my day to suddenly feel soft, warm fur smothering the top of my bare toes whenever a fatty rat decided to take a rest on them. Catching sight of a rat going back and forth from my kitchen to under the couch with pieces of dog food was far more entertaining than any National Geographic special. Especially when our 80-pound dog, Laika, just stood back allowing it to happen, even though she refused our other dog the same privilege.

But my favorite was watching my heart rat (a soulmate rat), Delphiniums Blue, desperately trying to play with my toddler son, Rory, and his toys. Hysterically, Rory regularly misunderstood and assumed Delphiniums was trying to steal his stuff. Rory would then grunt and mumble with major disapproval at the oblivious rat. True story!

Moments like this don’t exist in the same way with rats that aren’t free-ranged, due to the lack of spontaneity. So why did I stop? Because frankly, I realized that there are far more negatives that come with it than positives. It can be unsafe, costly, and is not necessarily in the best interest of the rat.

Before any of you free-rangers start to get angry with me, hear me out first. I’m not telling anyone they are bad owners if they do free-range. But I feel it’s important to know the risks involved and the dedication it takes to provide safe free-ranging.

Types Of Free-Ranging

The term free-ranging or free-roaming is not strictly limited to a 24/7 time span. It can also mean a designated time out of the cage to roam freely on the floor.

Here are a few different ways rat owners usually do free-roam:

• Providing access to the entire home
• Providing access to only one room or a section of the home
• Providing a designated room where the rats live outside a cage

The safest of these options are the last two, especially when the areas have been fully rat-proofed, which I’ll go over at the end of the article.

Dangers That Lurk

So, what makes free-ranging unsafe? Lack of supervision for one, combined with a long list of household hazards. And considering a rat’s size, their instinctive curiosity, and their crazy ability to squeeze into or crawl under tight places, free-ranging is fraught with potential dangers. Being stepped on, hit by a door, sat on, attacked by another pet, getting stuck somewhere, coming across poisonous insects, chewing exposed wires, eating something they shouldn’t, and falling are just a few of the possibilities.

Risk Of Rat Injury

rat climbing a thin, metal pole
Rats can climb things you would never suspect. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Even with proper supervision, rats are more easily stepped on and bumped into than dogs or cats, which can be fatal to a rat. At the very least it could cause severe injury. A moment that still haunts me more than 15 years later is when I accidentally stepped on my boy Ari. He unexpectedly darted in front of me. Thankfully Ari survived, but around a month later I discovered that this accident had ultimately led to malocclusion (a misalignment of the teeth). It made the rest of his life much harder, and I will forever regret my decision to put him on the floor that day. Even writing about it makes me feel sick to my stomach. And this is the main reason I stopped free-ranging, even in a designated room.

Rats are also good climbers and are able to get up on furniture, such as couches and beds. It’s vital to know exactly where your rats are at every moment to avoid sitting on or squishing them. Climbers are also at risk of falling from a dangerous height. Be aware that rats can climb almost anything. I had a rat that liked to nap across the hangers in our closet!

Rats are also jumpers. In case you’ve ever heard the myth that rats won’t jump off a table or couch let me clear it up for you: That’s false! It depends on the rat, of course, but from my experience, rats that spend any time on the floor free-ranging are the very rats willing to jump off furniture to go exploring. Rats that were never on the floor are much less likely to jump off a couch or table, because they have zero experience with the great unknown below them.

Even cautious rats, especially elderly ones, are at risk of slipping off furniture, so never leave one unattended.

Risk Of Destruction By Rats

a photo album that had binding chewed badly by rats
Anything can become a rat chew toy. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Letting rats roam freely can also cost you a lot of money. As adorable as our ratties are, they have a seriously bad chewing addiction! You may have seen your rats destroy their hammocks. Imagine that happening to your furniture, carpeting, walls, wires, laundry, shoes, baseboards, random stuff in your closets, and so on. They can also make a mess. Pretty much anything they can reach becomes their chew toy. My free-ranging rats destroyed so many things.

And let’s not pretend that our rats aren’t walking pee machines. “No, not my rats!” Yes, your rats!

I worked hard to keep my house clean when I allowed free-range, but I admit I regularly had to throw out things after they had been grossly marked by rats.

Risk From Other Pets

Some rats do well with other pets, but consider this a rarity, not the norm. Even if your cat or dog gets along with your rats, never become complacent about it. Animals are unpredictable, and anything unexpected can happen. The slightest scuffle between your pets could be fatal.

I make great effort to train all my dogs to be around my rats. I teach them that the rats are above them in our family “pack,” which is why my dog Laika let our rats steal her food. But I also watched her like a hawk whenever it happened.

Rules For Free-Ranging

a rat standing beside a dog that is rolled on its back
Rats and other pets may or may not get along. Even those that get along must always be supervised when together. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

If you decide to let your rats run freely throughout your home, live by the following rules:

1. Never leave rats unsupervised. This means watching them, not just being in the same room with them.
2. Never wear shoes when your rats are roaming free. I was barefoot when I stepped on Ari, which I believe is what saved him. But even stepping on a tail with shoes can cause serious damage.
3. Alert everyone in your house, including guests, that the rats are out. Everyone must be cautious of where they step, sit, and move.
4. Close all doors and windows. And having screens does not equate to being closed, because rats can quickly chew through screens.
5. Rat-proof the entire area where your rat will be (info below).

Extra considerations:
• Free-range in only one room rather than the entire house. This gives you more control over unknown variables.
• For absolute safety, free-range rats in a different room than your other pets.

Rat-Proof For Safety

using a mirror to look under cabinets
Use a mirror to look under cabinets and check for openings your rats might disappear into. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Whether you rats roam your entire house or a single room, you need to provide them a safe environment. That means getting down on their level and thinking like a rat. Look around. What do they want to chew or eat? Or inspect? Or jump off of? Or climb into, behind, or on?

Thoroughly block off holes and all tight spaces that a rat can squeeze into or behind. A mirror can help you find the many holes under the cabinets in your bathrooms and kitchen that your rats will climb into. And they can and will get under your appliances, including the dishwasher or stove, and behind the refrigerator or a radiator.

Houseplants can be highly dangerous as well and need to be removed. Having plants up high isn’t enough to keep your rats safe. One little nibble of a fallen, poisonous leaf (dead or alive) can kill a rat. For a list of toxic and non-toxic plants check out the ASPCA.

Remove all candles, table fans, and anything else dangerous that your rat might be curious to sniff or touch.

Sweep, vacuum, or mop the floors regularly to remove any fallen items, such as food, medication, cleaning products, or harmful liquids. Even lotion, toothpaste, beauty products, and skin care items are potentially unsafe when ingested. If your rats get access to containers of household items, they might chew into them.

There is so much more to rat-proofing, so please take time to research this topic thoroughly.

To Free-Range Or Not?

rat inside cage holding on to cage bars
A cage is home to rats, but they also need safe time outside the cage daily. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Rats actually consider their cages home and feel safe in them. But they also need time out of their cage every day, and require mental stimulation. Luckily, you can provide that without fully free-ranging.

Not too long ago, I took my rats into my rat-proofed bathroom and sat on the floor with them while they ran around. Being such a small space, I chose to stay sitting so no one got stepped on. Now I create a play area on my couch instead. Plus, my rats can access a homemade play area that sits in front of their open cage while I’m home and awake.

If you have the space, you could create a dedicated room meant only for your rats and their cage. As long as you don’t mind the walls and floor getting chewed on, that is. If rats were less destructive, I would consider doing this.

When it comes to free-ranging, I encourage you to sincerely consider what’s best for your rats and your specific living situation. I know having them roaming about is awesome, but are you willing to take the extra steps required to ensure your rats’ safety?

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