rat resting in hideaway in cage
Rats enjoy having a hideaway in their cage, but make sure they don’t chew on it. level17-design/Pixabay

You did it. You chose a pet rat for a roommate. Before you bring home your amazing new friend, an important question to answer is: Where will your rat live in your home? Unlike a dog or cat, rats require their own habitat within your home. This is for their safety as well as yours and that of your belongings. Your rat’s home is a place of his or her own that’s a safe retreat from the world. But what do you need to consider when choosing your new buddy’s abode? Size, material, décor, location, maintenance, and more all come into play.

Types Of Rat Homes

Security, ventilation, size, and ease of cleaning are some of the main concerns when choosing a rat habitat. Rats are agile, they climb, and they gnaw. A proper, fully enclosed habitat prevents escapes. Rats also pee a lot. Unless a habitat is well-ventilated, this can lead to dangerous ammonia fumes in the habitat that cause respiratory illness and stress in rats. Rats also need plenty of exercise, so a spacious habitat is the ideal. The absolute minimum size is about 14 by 22 inches and 12 inches tall, but bigger is always better. This size suits up to two rats. If you have more, the home must be bigger. Frequent cleaning is a must to maintain your rat’s health, so think about how easy a habitat will be to clean. With these concerns in mind, what habitat is right for your rat?

Wire cages offer the best ventilation by far. Any solid-sided enclosure, even with a mesh lid, offers much less ventilation. Aquariums are not ideal as a habitat because of this. Choose a cage with bar spacing that prevents escapes or your rat getting trapped. Opt for bar spacing of no larger than 1 inch for adult rats or just a half inch for baby rats.

A solid floor is preferred, because wire mesh floors might cause injury by trapping a foot or causing foot irritation that leads to the infection pododermatitis (bumblefoot). Cages are available with plastic bottoms, but be sure to get one that has sides high enough to keep bedding, feces, or other debris that falls through the bars inside the cage. Sides about 2 or 3 inches high usually work for this. If a solid floor isn’t part of the cage you select, you can add large tiles, pieces of Formica, or other solid items that are rat-safe, easily washed and resist chewing to cover the floor.

A multi-level cage provides more room for your rat without using additional table space. It also allows your rat to get a level or two above the bottom level where soiled bedding or debris accumulate during the day.

Rats are intelligent and can manipulate items, so the cage needs doors that close securely. Large doors make cleaning, adding food, moving items, and reaching your pet rat easier. Choose a cage with wire that cleans easily and resists corrosion, stainless-steel or powder-coated are two good options. Avoid galvanized wire, as it can be toxic due to embedded zinc.

Accessorizing Your Rat’s Home

Once you choose your rat’s home, outfitting it can be fun! Food dishes, water bottles or bowls, a hideaway, toys, and bedding are the basics required. Add a litter box if your rat happens to go in mostly one location, just place the box in your rat’s preferred spot with a bit of soiled bedding as a hint that this is the place to do business. However, don’t expect 100 percent use of the litter box.

Food dishes should be heavy to resist being pushed around. Ceramic dishes work well for this. If you offer dry food and fresh veggies or fruit, place them in two separate dishes. Water bottles help keep water clean and the cage drier than water bowls. If you do choose bowls, again, opt for heavy ceramic dishes. Water bottles should be easy to clean. Wash bottles daily in warm water with mild soap, rinse thoroughly and fill with fresh water. Choose bottles made from glass or other material that resists chewing. Check the bottles daily to ensure that there isn’t a clog.

A hideaway can be anything from a cardboard tube to a small cardboard box to a PVC pipe to a tiny wood or plastic house. Cardboard will need to be replaced frequently, but rats enjoy hiding in and destroying these. Any cardboard should be free from ink or glue. Watch for signs of wear on anything made of plastic or wood, and be aware that wood items don’t easily wash if soiled with urine or fresh food debris. If your rat begins really gnawing at something made from plastic or wood, replace it with something that’s safe to chew. A hideaway made from fabric, such as a hammock or cube, might work. If your rat chews on the fabric, take it away. Ingesting fabric risks gastrointestinal blockage.

A few toys inside the cage offer enrichment for your rat. An exercise wheel sized for your rat is one must. The ideal wheel has a solid running surface to prevent a foot being caught and is large enough to allow your rat to run without arching his back in a U-shape. Other toys include tunnels, rat-safe chew blocks, hard plastic toys, etc. Any nontoxic object that resists chewing or is safe for rats to chew might make a good toy. Avoid anything that could poke your pet rat, trap a toe or foot, or have tiny pieces that could fall off and be ingested.

Bedding is a must for rats. They enjoy snuggling and burrowing in bedding, and the bedding soaks up urine. When choosing a bedding, you want something that is nontoxic, low-dust, absorbent, and economical. Paper beddings or wood beddings are often used. Paper should be free of ink or glue and wood should be hardwood, like Aspen, rather than softwood, like cedar or pine. Softwood bedding is linked to health problems in rats and other small mammals because it emits toxic hydrocarbons. Kiln-dried pine might be OK. Avoid scented bedding that contains chlorophyll, which irritates the rat respiratory tract. Experiment to find what your rat prefers. Rats are individuals with different likes and dislikes. Perhaps a combination of different beddings will work best. Consult your rat-savvy veterinarian to make a final decision on the best bedding for your pet rat.

With all these accessories, the cage can get a little crowded. Keep that in mind as you accessorize, and try to ensure that there is enough free space for your rat to turn around, lie down comfortably, and have space to exercise.

Always keep in mind that anything you put into the cage could cause some risk to your pet, but a barren cage makes for a sad life. Just consider the risks and benefits of anything you place in the cage, and do all you can to minimize risks. Fabric could be ingested and cause a GI blockage or frayed items could get tangled on a foot or toe and cut off circulation. Items that can be gnawed could pose a choking hazard or cause a GI blockage. Carefully monitor when you introduce something new to see how your rat reacts. Use your common sense and consult your rat-savvy veterinarian when in doubt. All items in the cage need regular cleaning.

Find The Perfect Spot For Your Rat’s Home

Where you place your rat’s home is just as important as the type of home and its accessories. Floors have drafts, so placing the cage on a table or elevated surface is better than directly on the floor. The cage should also be out of direct sunlight, away from cooking fumes, and away from heating or cooling units like space heaters or air conditioners. Areas with excessive noise are also a no-no (so not right beside the television). Areas with excessive humidity or toxic chemicals are another no-no (laundry rooms, bathrooms, garages).

So where can you place the cage? On a table in a room that you use often so that your rat feels like part of the family. An appropriate corner of a family room, living room, or bedroom are possible spots. Your rat will enjoy seeing you or others in the household come and go. The cage should have about 8 to 12 hours of quiet, dark time so your rat can recharge for the next day. Be aware that rats are most active at night, so a cage in a bedroom might disturb the sleep of the occupant.

Cleaning Your Rat’s Home

You can choose the right cage, right accessories, and right location, but if you don’t clean the cage regularly and enough, your rat will get sick. Bedding must be spot-checked daily, with soiled areas removed and replaced. All solid surfaces in the cage need daily cleaning. This includes flooring, shelves, exercise wheels, and toys. Check for stashes of any fresh foods and remove daily. Clean the entire cage out weekly, and do a thorough scrubbing of the cage itself once a month.

If you notice your rat sneezing or sniffling, it could be a sign that cleaning needs to be done more frequently, or your rat is having a reaction to the cleaning products. If a week of more frequent cleaning doesn’t help, consult your rat-savvy veterinarian. Use hot, soapy water for cleaning the cage and accessories, and rinse thoroughly before drying.

Rat Free-Roam

Can rats roam free in your home like a dog or cat? Of course they can, but the question is should they. Rats can get into small spaces where they might get trapped and you might not be able to rescue them. They can also chew things — power cords, furniture, drapes — anything is fair game, and it’s usually bad for both your rat and the item chewed.

This doesn’t mean your rat needs to live his life in his cage! Several options allow your rat to expand his world. You can rat-proof a single room and supervise out-of-cage time. You can use an exercise pen with narrow bar-spacing or solid walls to corral your rat in an area where you set out toys. Or, you can just sit watching TV or reading a book with your rat on your shoulder or lap if your furry buddy likes to sit with you. Other options include setting up a play area in a rat-safe room or even a maze or agility course for your rat to run through.

Each rat is an individual with different strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. Experiment with different experiences to discover what your rat enjoys. Always keep safety in mind, and take it slow, and explain to your rat what to expect. Take cues from your rat about what activities he prefers. Then, enjoy your time together!

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