Filling food dishes is always a moment of excitement for my rats. Just the sound of the food container opening perks everyone’s ears. Before I can even finish unlatching the cage door, I have eager little rats dancing around in anticipation of the savory goodness I’m about to bestow on them. Within seconds, the rats dig through their dish to determine exactly which morsel they want. Once an item is chosen, they immediately dash off to a private corner to gobble down their prize.
This is how mealtime starts anyway, but it usually ends with one or all of the rats — I’m not exactly sure — stashing food around their cage. Other owners undoubtedly experience the mealtime frenzy as well. I mean rats seriously love to eat! But do all pet rats hide their food?
Rat Stashing Styles
I suppose it’s possible that some rats might not stash, but usually rats are little hoarders. This is mostly instinctive behavior from their wild ancestors, and it’s not targeted to just food either. Paper goods are often squirreled away for nesting, and items stolen from you are most likely taken out of curiosity or possibly just the desire to possess it. If I have my rats out with me when I’m drawing, they steal my art supplies and chew them to bits. So, add “the need to chew” to the list of reasons as well.
I think food distribution around the cage occurs for various reasons.
It could be one rat storing a small bite for later or hiding it from the cagemates. For some it could be from fear of not having food in the future. I’m also inclined to believe that some hoarding is due to enjoyment as well, in that it provides them an activity.
Not all rats hoard to the same level. I don’t have any scientific evidence as to what makes one rat more obsessive about stockpiling than another. And I don’t know whether females stash more than males, or if there’s concrete reasons why some items are smuggled away more than others, but I do have decades of personal observations about my own rats’ habits.
Favorites Items To Stash
I don’t always witness my rats in the act of stashing, so I can’t tell if it’s a group effort or not. But in almost 27 years with rats, I can say for sure that stashing is always happening in my rats’ cages!
The most commonly hidden foods I find are: dried noodles, dried fruit chunks, dog food, and grapes. I’m not sure if some foods are chosen as their way of throwing them away, or if they just enjoy collecting them.
I’ve also observed that really popular treats I offer become a source of greed and gluttony. As loving as rats can be, they can be really selfish as well. A favored snack, like sweet potatoes, bananas, or butternut squash, turn my rats into squabbling little brats! They usually grab as much as they can physically stuff in their mouth and paws at once, with no regard to how much is left. Then they run off to hide part of their treasure while they eat the rest. Plus, rats often take more food than they can consume in one sitting. I suspect some food piles are “leftovers” that they forgot about.
Favorite Stashing Spots
It’s not uncommon for me to find their treasure-trove in the most random of places throughout the cage. But overall, I think igloos are my rats’ favorite hiding spots. In a corner, under their bedding, would be a close second. The places I’m least likely to find a stash is in a hammock or a space pod.
The ickiest place though, where they literally bury their food, is their litter box. It always grosses me out to find a browning banana chunk after it’s been rolled around in the litter. Blech! Despite the cringe factor of storing food in the litter, it thankfully won’t harm your rats. They have been known to mark favorite snacks, so it’s just one of those things you have to accept as an owner. It is important, however, to remove any perishable food items from the cage after a couple of hours, to avoid spoilage.
Leeloo And Tru’s Style Of Stashing
I’ve had far more male rats than females. It could just be a coincidence, but I think my girls are the most determined when it comes to hoarding food. Their stashing quirks are the most noticeable and proved to me that there are different reasons rats do it.
Way back when I was feeding my rats lab blocks, my beautiful little Siamese Leeloo and one of her cagemates Tru, meticulously removed each block from the food crock attached to the side of the cage and piled them inside an igloo. The igloo sat on the level below the crock, which meant both girls had to transport each block one by one, down a ramp, and around to the front of the igloo’s entrance until the crock was empty. Keep in mind that they did this with the blocks meant for every rat in the cage.
Once, when I was curious what the girls would do if the stash was removed, I placed all the blocks back in the crock, and then sat back and watched. They quickly discovered the igloo was empty and set out in search of their inventory. Once they found the crock full, they didn’t hesitate to start the process all over again.
And just for fun, I once placed the entire container of lab blocks in the cage just to see what would happen. I swear Leeloo was lugging blocks into hiding for over 15 minutes. I didn’t let her keep it all.
After Leeloo had passed on and old lady Tru was dealing with hind leg degeneration, that hooded agouti still managed to keep her igloo filled!
Pi And Cinder’s Reason For Stashing
My girls Pi and Cinder were also major hoarders, but for a very different reason. To me, Leeloo’s purpose almost seemed like she was fulfilling a job requirement. She was a busy rat who always needed to be on the move and it provided her mental stimulation. Tru was just straight up food obsessed! Pi and Cinder on the other hand, I’m sure, stashed food as a survival mechanism.
Both girls were part of a large group of baby rats that were abandoned outdoors during the summer in Phoenix. Many of the babies, my Pi included, had birth defects, and were missing feet and/or limbs. A few also had tumors and some were even hairless, making them all much more vulnerable outdoors. I don’t know exactly how long they were living outside or if some in the group had perished before they were finally found and rescued, but it was long enough to cause very severe emotional (and some physical) trauma.
Both my girls suffered from anxiety like I have never observed in rats before. They even had to be put on medication for it. Despite medication and doing everything I could possibly do to help them feel safe, they spent the majority of their lives hiding under blankets. It took maybe two years and the help of cagemates before they would regularly move out in the open around their cage.
Sometimes fresh snacks kept them out of hiding for a while, but most of the time they ate next to the pile of food they had under a blanket in the farthest corner of their cage. After three years in a safe home and never again going without a meal, their hoarding habits only slightly diminished.
Is Stashing Bad?
There’s no reason to worry about hoarding, unless it’s accompanied by nervous or bored behavior. In those cases it’s really the behaviors that need to be attended to, not the stashing.
To avoid overfeeding rats, I recommend checking the cage daily for stockpiles of food, especially if you have obsessive hoarders. I also recommended looking through the bedding when you’re cleaning the cage. If it’s not perishable, you can put found food back in their dish rather than throwing it away.
For the most part, I suggest taking the time to observe your rats and this interesting habit. See if that pile of hidden food tells you more about your own rat’s personality.
So, what’s your rat’s favorite stashing spot?