Several basic elements ensure that your pet rats are living their best life. The obvious needs include a safe, comfortable and fun place to live; suitable rat food; cagemates; and good veterinary care. What newer owners might not recognize as another major necessity is adequate socialization and time outside the cage. It’s recommended that rats get at least 1 or 2 hours daily out of their cage, which should include time with you. Not only is cage-free time important for their mental health, but time with owners helps facilitate strong bonds between pet rats and their people.
Discover Life Beyond The Cage
How do you let your rats out to play? Free-ranging is one of the most popular ways. This means letting your rats roam free in a safe area. For all the freedom that this gives your rats, it requires rat-proofing all the areas they can access. And it comes with a cost. You must accept that things will be destroyed, either from chewing or toilet habits. Let’s not kid ourselves — as great as our rats are, they have no desire to give up their natural, destructive instincts. Free-ranging rats undoubtedly “remodel” any space in which they are let loose. I allowed free-range for several years, back when I first started with rats, but I long ago lost the energy to keep up with all that it entails.
Another option for playtime is to build an extension of their cage. My husband and I built a shallow structure out of plastic storage bins that sits on top of a low table in front of the cage. A ramp connects the cage to this play area, allowing the rats to safely come and go as they please with little supervision, and without actually letting them run wild through my home.
If you don’t plan on giving your rats access to a single room or your entire house, and you can’t build a cage extension, you still can provide temporary play areas. Some ideas include:
1) Buy a pet playpen that you set up on a floor. I’ve personally never found one that really keeps my rats contained, however, and it’s more difficult for me to hang out with them in one.
2) Use a bathtub. Be forewarned, because many rats are able to jump out of them.
3) Use your furniture to build a playground on. I’ve known people to clear off their dining room table or a large coffee table and then cover it with something protective as the base to create a makeshift romping area. My preference is either a couch or bed, because these are the largest and most comfortable areas to spend a good length of time.
Keep Safety First
Any rat play area must provide a place that lets both you and your rats move about freely, while still keeping them safely contained to one area. No matter where you decide to set things up, be sure that your rats are safe from other roaming pets and can’t get to the floor or other furniture. If you have brave little darlings who might attempt to jump, then your play area is probably too close to the ground or other objects. Rats have very poor eyesight and they tend to avoid jumping onto anything unknown if they can’t gauge their landing.
You must continually supervise your cuties while they are out, to avoid any rats slipping off the edge and injuring themselves. This is especially imperative if you have elderly rats that are losing their balance.
How To Protect Your Furniture
When using furniture for a rat play area, I highly encourage using several layers of coverings to keep your furniture safe. Old blankets, sheets, comforters, and quilts work great. My secret to keeping urine from soaking through is to start with a waterproof bamboo mattress topper. This has saved my couch! You’ll want multiple layers though; inevitably a rat will try tunneling or chewing through to the bottom layer. The instinct to burrow is very strong.
Keeping my couch/chaise safe from rat accidents and destructive chewing requires several layers of bedding done in a specific order. See photo.
1. Use a bamboo waterproof mattress cover for the first layer.
2. Add a thick, queen-sized quilt to cover the entire chaise.
3. Top with a queen fitted sheet as the third layer to prevent burrowing. This truly keeps my chaise dry and unchewed!
4. Finish with two large pieces of fleece over the sheet, and then a smaller blanket draped in the corner to create a “cave”. I can’t stop my rats from wanting to burrow under the coverings, but offering them a few layers they are allowed to go under really helps.
Amp Up The Fun With Accessories
After you cover your furniture it’s time to bring out a few necessities. I suggest a food dish, a heavy, untippable bowl for water, and some type of hiding area. Igloos, space pods, and some fleece scraps for escaping under are good options for this. Bonding pouches or other items to hold your rats in are also a great idea. If you don’t plan to include a litter box, then I recommend keeping a pack of unscented wet wipes or tissues nearby.
Once you have all the fundamentals out, get creative and include other fun items you think your rats might enjoy. I tend to switch things up. Sometimes I bring out a new toy the rats got, or a large plastic ferret tube, a food forager, or even just something as simple as a random box. Toilet paper tubes and paper towels area also a hit. My rats love to carry off paper to shred! Whatever your rat fancies is perfect for the playground. This is also a great time to bring over extra snacks, like fruits and veggies.
Delight In The Joys Of Bonding Time
I’ve set up play areas on all different sorts of furniture over the years, but my current and most favorite preference is our new sectional couch. Well, the chaise part of it anyway. If I pull the longer section away from it, leaving only the chaise free, it gives me enough room to sit, while still providing enough space for an entire group of rats to run around or nap. What I love most about it is that I can comfortably watch TV, work on my laptop, or even draw, while still having quality time with my four-legged babies. This also allows me the opportunity to bond with my more skittish rats, who don’t entirely enjoy being held. They don’t mind using me as a human jungle gym however! And anyone I’ve had who is perpetually anxious, is usually willing to hide under a blanket next to me.
Once my rats are all tuckered out from playing, then the joys of naptime can start! I get an immense amount of pleasure being surrounded by sweet, snoozing rat babies stretched out on all sides of me. To be honest, it’s one of my most cherished times of the day.
Even if you do free-range or have a built cage extension, I still highly encourage creating one of these temporary play areas where you can comfortably interact with your ratties. It gives you the perfect opportunity to learn more about their individual personalities and humorous quirks. Plus, a consistent amount of dedicated time with you encourages and strengthens the important bond that we all hope to have with our rats.