rat nibbling food
Rats are omnivores, but that doesn’t mean then can eat anything. jarleeknes/Pixabay

Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, omega 3 and 6, cholesterol, sodium — these days different nutrients are praised or criticized on and off in human nutrition. So what about food for your pet rats. What do you need to know about feeding these furry family members? What foods help rats thrive, and what are no-no foods?

Basic Rat Nutrition

Classification rules when considering what to feed a pet rat. Rats are omnivores. Put simply, this means they eat both plants and animals for food.

In the wild, rats generally eat seeds, grains, fruits, insects, and other items. Around people, the diet of wild rats can take strange twists, with Pizza Rat possibly being the most memorable in recent years. Luckily, pet rats don’t need to wonder where and when they’ll find their next meal. Caring owners provide pet rats a balanced diet.

When choosing the main food for your healthy, adult pet rats, look for one that is 14 to 16 percent protein and has fat at 8 percent or less (lower is better). Large pellets or lab blocks make a good base diet. Choose one specifically formulated for rats. Another good option is Rascally Rat Nutri-Berries. Some experts advise that soybeans are a must-have ingredient and corn is undesirable. Young, old, or ill rats have different nutrition requirements, so consult your rat-savvy veterinarian.

Keep several pellets/blocks in the food dish at all times so that your rats can eat whenever they wish. If food becomes soiled, replace it. Mixed diets of seeds, grains, and other ingredients are also available. For rats to receive balanced nutrition from these, they must eat all of the ingredients. If your rats pick through the mix and only eat a few of the ingredients, they won’t receive balanced nutrition. Formulated diets like the pellets/blocks have balanced nutrition in every bite.

Special Notes About Rats And Food

Rats are rodents, so it’s instinctive for them to hide their food. This means that food disappearing from the food dish isn’t necessarily eaten, at least not right away. During cage cleaning, don’t be surprised to find food stashes. Any spoiled or soiled food must always be removed (don’t forget to check for stashes!). Choose a food bowl that attaches to the cage or is heavy to prevent or minimize it being moved around by your rats.

Obesity is a special concern for pet rats, as it’s a common health problem for them. Formulated pellets or lab blocks should make up about 90 percent of a healthy, adult rat’s diet. The other 10 percent should be fresh vegetables and fruit, with occasional healthy treats. While pellets/blocks are free-fed, offer only rat-sized portions for all other foods. Although rats might eat a human-sized treat portion given the chance, they should not be permitted to eat that much.

Adult males typically weight 267 to 500 grams, while females weigh 225 to 325 grams. It’s possible for healthy rats to fall outside these ranges, but maintaining a steady weight is key for adults. This is where a gram scale can be a best friend for your rats and you. Weekly weigh-ins allow you to monitor your pet’s weight. A change of more than about 10 percent, up or down, usually warrants a call to your rat-savvy veterinarian for advice.

Rats practice coprophagy. This isn’t some strange form of exercise; it refers to eating feces. Rats eat some of their own feces to get needed vitamins. This often happens at night, so you might never see this happen. If you do see it, don’t be concerned. Rats aren’t alone in doing this. Rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, and other animals also do this.

Pregnant, nursing, sick, or young rats might require different food. Consult with your rat-savvy veterinarian for guidance on how best to meet the needs of pregnant, nursing, sick, or young rats.

Water For Rats

Water is vital to life. Each rat typically drinks around 22 to 33 milliliters of water each day. Plenty of clean, fresh water should be available to your rats at all times. Water bottles keep the habitat cleaner, but be sure your rats know how to use them, and include two or more in the habitat. Multiple water bottles ensure that water is always available, even if a bottle gets clogged, fails to work, or goes empty. Glass water bottles resist any chewing. Heavy water bowls made of a non-chewable material are another option, although less hygienic. Clean all bottles or bowls daily with warm, soapy water, and then rinse thoroughly.

Rat Food No-Nos

Some of the no-no foods for rats include those with high sugar, high salt, high fat, or high protein. Anything you consider junk food for you is certainly junk food for rats: candy, desserts, salty snacks, etc. Carbonated beverages are bad because rats can’t burp to alleviate the gas. Avoid dairy products and processed foods. Beer, wine, or any alcohol are a no-no. Never offer your rats moldy, spoiled, or outdated food. Avoid any cheeses containing mold, including blue cheese, camembert, Roquefort, gorgonzola, etc.

You’re doing the best for your rat family if you stick with a basic pellet/block diet with some fresh bits of rat-safe vegetables and fruit; offer plentiful, fresh water; give healthy treats occasionally; and never overfeed. Did you notice that vegetables and fruit must be rat-safe? Most are fine, but those that shouldn’t be fed can be quite dangerous. These include: mango, dry corn (fresh is OK in moderation), rhubarb, raw tofu, dry beans or peanuts, seaweed, raw sweet potato, potato peels, green potato skins or eyes, green banana, raw red cabbage, etc.

Treats For Rats

Obesity is a concern for pet rats, so treat choice is important. Treats help enrich the lives of your rats and strengthen the bond between you and can help with training. Fresh vegetables and fruit make great treats for pet rats. Always wash vegetables or fruit thoroughly before giving to your rats. Offer these in rat-sized portions and remove any leftovers from the habitat after a few hours. Any commercially available treat should be low calorie and low sugar. Follow the manufacturer’s suggested portions.

Signs Of Trouble

How do you know if your rat is getting the right nutrition? Looks and actions offer great clues. A healthy rat looks healthy — not too fat; not too thin; eyes bright; coat smooth and full; moves easily with energy. Signs of possible malnutrition include obesity, weight loss, lethargy, poor hair coat, dry skin, and chronic illness. These signs could also manifest from other health problems. Whatever the cause, signs like this signal the need to contact your rat-savvy veterinarian to discuss what might be going on with your rat buddy.

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