Investing your time and energy in rat enrichment for your pet will substantially improve their quality of life and guarantee that they’re happy and healthy, both daily and long term. There are several simple elements you can incorporate into your rat care for exemplary enrichment.
Rat enrichment can be provided in numerous ways, including: companionship, a well-balanced diet with diverse foods, and keeping them in a large enclosure that is at least 90cm x 60cm x 150cm placed in an active but quiet room. Supplying a wide variety of interactive and stimulating toys is an excellent option as well.
For many animal lovers, rat ownership is a rewarding experience. Rats are intelligent animals that can be trained to do tricks; they can also be litter-trained and ride in a belly bag.
However, just like any other pet owner, rat owners should provide their pets with adequate care and attention. One area of concern among rat owners is rat enrichment: what it is and why it’s so important in the life of your pet?
In this article we’ll explore the importance of rat enrichment – as well as some simple ways you can go about providing it.
Read on for the beginner’s guide to rat enrichment.
The Importance of Rat Enrichment: What to Provide for a Fulfilling Life
Before diving too deeply into the different ways beginners can provide an enriching life for their pet rat, it’s important to distinguish “enrichment” from basic pet care.
Enrichment is the act of going beyond an animal’s basic needs of survival to create an atmosphere and lifestyle that is positively stimulating and promotes optimal health. Some of the dominant goals of enrichment include ensuring:
- Quality psychological and physical health
- Regular mental stimulation
- Environmental control
- Ability to act on natural behaviours
As intelligent, inquisitive living creatures, rats aren’t the best pet to place in a relatively empty cage and left to live with minimal to no interaction. There are a handful of pets suitable for this lifestyle, but rats aren’t one of them.
Although they can certainly survive in this environment, as long as their basic needs of food and water are met, you might find that they are much less lively in your care or even have a shortened lifespan than what is common for their species in captivity.
This often occurs because the rat is living an unfulfilled life and seriously lacking enrichment within their environment. As a result, they become bored, lonely, or even depressed.
Therefore, it is essential to provide your rat with the most enrichment you can to ensure they live a happy and fulfilled life as your pet for a mutually beneficial relationship.
Rat Enclosure Enrichment: Creating the Perfect Living Space
Possibly the first thing you do before even purchasing your new pet rat is buying them an enclosure. This is the foundation of rat enrichment because their enclosure is the environment your rat will live in for the rest of its days.
To make sure your rat enrichment journey starts on a strong first step, we’ll describe the perfect enclosure you can purchase for any pet rat. The two main factors to consider here are size and levels.
Appropriate Rat Enclosure Size
Firstly, your rat enclosure needs to be big, and we mean big. Probably larger than you planned on purchasing and certainly much larger than the typical pet store employee will suggest.
Ideally, you’ll want to purchase a cage that is at least 90cm x 60cm x 150cm, made of metal wiring, and has bars that are no further than 11mm from each other.
An enclosure of this size and material will ensure you can fit all of your rat’s shelters, toys, bowls and still have decent space to move around. The bars are also close enough together that your rat is unlikely to get stuck or injured between them, and the metal prevents odor and is chew resistant.
When searching for a rat enclosure online or in stores, we recommend keeping your eyes open for the term “rat manor” or double/triple-level tower. These enclosures are typically the recommended size, made of sturdy materials, and multi-levelled, which is another essential factor.
Necessity of Multiple Enclosure Levels for Rats
Beginner rat owners will sometimes make the brutal mistake of purchasing the wrong type of cage meant for a different but similar animal, like a rabbit or mouse.
The biggest issue here is that most of these cages, particularly rabbit cages, are single-levelled and/or much too small for your rat.
On a technical level, it isn’t required that your pet rat have multiple levels in their enclosure, but since we’re dedicated to enriching their lives as much as possible, we recommend that pet rats have at least two levels in their cage, if not more.
The more rats you have, the more levels you should give them, so they have ample space to move, climb, and explore. Rats love to climb and roam around, so you want to give them a lot of vertical space to act on this natural instinct.
Additionally, you can get by having a smaller enclosure for more rats if you increase its vertical size rather than its horizontal size. This doesn’t mean you should fit five rats in a 90cm x 60cm x 150cm cage, but you could opt for one that is slightly bigger with four levels versus getting a cage twice its size with only two.
They’re more likely to enjoy their enclosure climbing up and down than running around more space on the floor.
Alternatively, if you’re concerned your rats won’t exercise enough from multiple built-in enclosure levels, you can use toys, ladders, bridges, and other elements to create levels that require more physical effort from your rat to reach but are still easily accessible.
Environment Enrichment: Quiet but Active Space
Now that we’ve discussed your rat enclosure’s ideal size and layout let’s move on to where you should place it.
Not many people realise how big their rat enclosure should really be, and once they do, they quickly discover it’s not going to fit on their dresser top or bedside table like they initially planned. This leaves them wondering where to put their giant rat cage.
Our first piece of advice is to place your rat cage somewhere in your home with moderate to high traffic. It might be enticing to place your rats in a quiet or isolated room, but this is actually one of the worst places to keep them.
Rats love socialisation and interaction, so the best room in the house to keep them is arguably the busiest but quietest if you can manage it. This allows them to watch you or other inhabitants in the home for a steady source of stimulation without being overwhelmed by noise.
You should also try to place their cage somewhere high up, like on top of a table or desk, so your rats are closer to eye level. This increases the chances of people interacting with them throughout the day and allows them to see more of the room.
Having a cage off the ground will also help with temperature and reduce or prevent stress for your rat, as they’ll feel safer and more secure.
Some factors to consider is that rats shouldn’t be kept in a room where they’re subjected to:
- Draughts or direct sunlight
- Temperatures lower than 68 °F
- Loud televisions or music systems (some exposure is good for stimulation, but if they are too loud, the vibrations can be stressful)
- Outdoor spaces (pet or domesticated rats cannot survive outdoors, even in an enclosure)
- Constant exposure to other animals, namely cats and dogs
Because rats are naturally nocturnal, they’ll want to be kept in a relatively quiet space during the day so they can sleep and then come out for showtime later in the evening.
Finding this perfect space can be a challenge, but as long as the room is relatively quiet with a moderate level of human traffic, your rat will be pleased.
Socialisation Enrichment: Give Your Rat Companions
Previously we stated the ideal enclosure size for two pet rats, and that’s because it is highly recommended that owners dedicated to rat enrichment have at least a pair of pet rats.
Because rats are social creatures, they tend to thrive when they live in small groups. The ideal number for beginners is two to four rats.
If you’ve had family rats before, but this is your first time owning your own, you might have sufficient knowledge to have three to four. If this is your first time having a pet rat to any degree, we recommend starting with two.
Having a rat companion is good for enrichment because it promotes good mental health and is a constant source of social interaction and stimulation.
A pair or group of rats will act likely a close-knit community or family, so they’ll share in daily activities such as:
Studies have shown that rats that live in pairs and groups are far happier than isolated cases because a singular rat will easily become nervous or depressed when constantly alone.
When buying a pair or group of rats, we recommend that you stick to same-sex groups to limit any domination between members or unwanted breeding.
Ideally, you would purchase these members together, but if you already have one rat and plan to give them a friend or two, you can easily do this by slowly introducing them to each other over several days.
You would start by keeping them in separate cages with minimal interaction, then slowly increase how long they are permitted to have access to one another until all parties seem comfortable.
Can You Just Have One Rat?
The only time it is acceptable or recommended to have one rat is if you know for a fact that this rat will act aggressively towards another rat beyond standard hierarchical demonstrations. This typically occurs when the rat is territorial or fearful of its new companion.
Rats will dominate each other on occasion to demonstrate to the group which rat is in charge. But, if the displays of aggression go beyond this behaviour, it is best to keep them in separate enclosures for the animals’ safety.
Safety Enrichment: Provide Ample Secure Spaces for Hiding
As prey animals, it is common for rats to feel scared or stressed in an environment. This could be caused by a wide range of simple stressors, like sudden loud sounds, unfamiliar smells, and significant changes in their enclosure or surrounding environment, to name a few.
When a rat feels stressed, anxious, or ill, it is important that they have a safe space where they can feel secure and calm down. Without this escape, your rat will live in a constant state of stress as it is continually subjected to the stress-inducing source with nowhere to hide.
If this becomes a regular occurrence, it could have serious mental and physical repercussions to your rat, such as debilitating or life-threatening illnesses and harmful behaviours, including:
- Chewing the cage bars
- Harming other rats
- Exaggerated escape attempts
- Refusal to eat or drink
- Avoiding social interaction
To prevent this and enrich your rat’s everyday life, make sure you have multiple shelters and hideouts for your rats scattered around the enclosure. Ideally, you should have at least one shelter or hideout for every rat you own.
These don’t all have to be large igloo shelters. A key element of rat enrichment is diversity, so try to give your rats one large, main shelter for sleeping together as a pair or community, and then add other safe spaces like hammocks, space pods, nest cubbies, or even small huts for comfort and escape.
In addition to those mentioned above, another reason you want more than one shelter or hideout is that rats will sometimes become stressed from their own companions. Therefore, if your rat is trying to escape another cage member, you don’t want to force them together by only giving them one shared space to sleep or hide.
Having more than one option will help them more easily avoid each other and get the space they need for a healthy relationship until they’re ready to socialise again. This allows your rat to feel they have an element of control within their environment, which will make them more comfortable and confident.
Rat Diet Enrichment: Diversity and Sufficient Nutrients in Food
When it comes to food, rats are actually quite similar to humans in the sense that they too have tastebuds with five distinct taste categories:
Rats will even perform what is known as “quality checks” on their food to ensure it is safe to eat. Now, knowing this, imagine if you ate the same food multiple times a day every day for your life like your rat. You’d get pretty bored of eating, wouldn’t you? Well, rats are the same way.
Although the base of their food should typically consist of rodent block, it is good for rats to have a balanced diet that incorporates other ingredients as well for optimal health and a more pleasing meal experience.
Having daily diversity in their food will not only increase your rat’s overall happiness but will also better ensure they are receiving all of the necessary nutrients in their diet for a long and healthy life.
The average balanced diet for a rat should consist of a mix of ingredients in amounts stated below:
|Base Mix (10mg of copper or more)||50-60%||This is the bulk of your rat’s diet. Usually consists of minimally processed grains and supplements like vitamin d, calcium, and copper and easily bought in stores.|
|Processed Grains with less than 5g of sugar/100g (try to find some high in copper)||20-25%||These grains are easier to digest and can be found in common, low-sugar cereals like Mini-Wheats or Rice Pops. You can also use broken-up egg noodles or wholegrain rice as an alternative.|
|Protein||5-10%||An essential element of the rat’s omnivore diet. Protein provides the necessary nutrients to keep your rat healthy longer. Shrimp are an exceptional option.|
|Herbs and Vegetables||5-10%||Provides additional vitamins and minerals to the diet and adds an element of flavour for your rat. Try using kale, green peppers, and squash.|
|Seeds||5%||Great for adding valuable Omega 3 and 6 oils to your rat’s diet. Start with hemp, linseed, and pumpkin seeds.|
If you’ll notice, there is one very common food group missing from this chart, and that’s fruits. Rat caretaker can’t seem to agree on the degree that fruits should be incorporated in rat diets. Some believe it should fall under the category of herbs and vegetables at 5-10%, and others claim it should only be provided two to three times a week as a treat or diet boost.
What’s best is ultimately up to you and your rat’s preference. If you find that your rat really enjoys eating berries, like strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries, these are the safest fruit options to give. You can also offer watery fruits without the seeds, like kiwis, apples, and peaches.
Avoid feeding your rats oranges, grapefruits, and lemons due to their connection to cancer in male rats.
If you find that your rat friend doesn’t seem interested in some of the foods you provide for diversity and enrichment, don’t give up right away. Rats are often neophobic, so they don’t really enjoy trying new things like unfamiliar foods. You’ll want to introduce them to these ingredients slowly and in small quantities.
As they become more comfortable with the food, you can offer it to them more frequently, but remember to change things up every now and then for optimal enrichment. You can also turn feeding time into a fun game by hiding your rat’s food for them to find. They enjoy the stimulation of foraging and the reward of finding their scrumptious meal.
Roaming Enrichment: Provide Supervised Time Beyond the Enclosure for Your Rat
Just because your rat is a pet doesn’t mean they have to stay in the enclosure all the time. In fact, regular bouts of freedom out of their cage can be extremely beneficial to your rat’s mental health.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should let your pet rat out of its cage and leave it to run freely through your home. A great way to provide enrichment is to take them into a safe, controlled environment with ample space where they can freely roam.
We recommend that pet rats be given at least an hour to explore and run around a room outside their cage. Before you let your pet rat out, make sure the space is safe by closing any doors and windows, removing any plants or electric cables, and securing objects that might fall over.
Provide several of your rat’s favorite toys in the room so they will engage with them over opting for unwanted behaviors like chewing furniture or climbing unsafe obstacles.
Rats love to explore and climb, so it’s likely they’ll be active in whatever space you place them, but being proactive with providing toys can reduce stress from these outings for both the pet rat and its owner.
Rat Toy Enrichment Through Stimulating Toys
We have now stepped into the territory of possibly the most important tool of rat enrichment, toys.
You’d be astounded by the vast number of toys and toy types that are available to owners to enrich the lives of pet rats everywhere. The necessity of fun, interactive, and stimulating toys for a rat’s mental and physical health can’t be understated.
Rats are one of the smartest species worldwide, and with this intelligence comes curiosity and the need for mental stimulation. The best and easiest way to provide this is through toys. Not only will toys work your rat’s mind, but it is also a constant source of physical activity through exploration and play.
Without toys, your pet rat will quickly become bored and possibly resort to some undesirable or even harmful behaviors. They could also become overweight and depressed without an outlet for their energy and inquisitive minds.
There is an astonishing number of toy types you can buy for your rat’s enclosure, so make sure you invest in a good number for the enrichment of your pet.
Types of Rat Toys
Rat toys fall under various categories, and each stimulates your rat differently. Some might play on a particular natural sense your rat has or stimulate them mentally, or it could be created solely as a physical outlet. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a toy or two that does all of these for your rat.
To help you find the best toys to incorporate into your rat’s daily life, here are the main categories of rat toys you can either purchase in stores or create easy DIY versions yourself.
This is an example of a toy that plays on a rat’s natural senses. In this case, their desire to forage for food or objects.
We briefly touched on the concept of these toys in our diet section, where we recommended that owners hide their rat’s food, so they’ll forage for it rather than getting it from an easily accessible food bowl every time.
Luckily, you can buy toys to help you hide the food in a manner that is more challenging and interactive for the rat than trying to hide the food underneath or above something in the enclosure.
You can purchase foraging feeders or pots that your rat will have to climb or solve to access their food. Another option is to purchase a cholla or bamboo branch (often used for bird enclosures) and stuff some of the food inside for the rat to get out. If you can’t find these, a paper towel roll is an easy alternative.
Rats are rodents, and most rodents have a natural urge or necessity to burrow holes for safety or shelter. Tunnel toys will help satiate this natural urge in your rat and provide them with a dark, hollow space to run around or even hide inside.
If you have a cage tall enough that you can give your rats 6 inches or so of the substrate, then you can bury some PVC pipe or a toy tube in the substrate and allow your rat to dig for it or just leave it open for them to access freely.
If your cage doesn’t have the base space for that amount of substrate, you can purchase tunnel toys that connect and create an elaborate maze in the enclosure, or some can even clip to the top of the cage.
Tunnel toys are great for free-roaming time as you can connect multiple pieces and lay them out on the ground for the rats to play with where they have more space.
Of course, make sure that any piping or tunnel toy you purchase is wide enough for your rats to fit and still have ample room. You don’t want to risk your rat getting stuck or outgrowing the toy if they’re not yet full-sized.
These are very common rodent toys and will fulfill your rat’s need for physical exercise when they have a ton of excess energy they need to burn off and rare confined to their cage for long periods.
When buying your pet rat an exercise wheel, make sure you purchase one suitable to their size. Mice and hamsters also have wheels, but theirs are much too small for a rat. We recommend your rat’s exercise wheel be at least 11 inches in diameter.
The wheel should also be made of solid material and not bars, so your rat’s feet and tail won’t get caught while it’s running.
Some wheels can be hung from the ceiling of your enclosure, but we recommend it be on the ground or as close to the ground as possible if you’re using one that clips to the side. This will inhibit injuries from jumping or falling off the wheel from too high off the ground.
If you’re looking at this category hoping to learn about exercise balls, we’re sorry to say that these toys aren’t really recommended for rats. Or any animals, for that matter.
Exercise balls are often too small for their users and cause rats, mice, or hamsters to arch their back to run properly, causing serious physical complications and irreparable damage.
Additionally, exercise balls inhibit your pet’s natural senses, like smell, vision, and hearing. As a result, they have an extremely difficult time navigating where they are and where they’re going while on the ball. This could lead to a series of accidents, such as falling down stairs, bumping into objects, or getting stuck.
Ultimately, it is safer for pets to avoid exercise balls and opt for better alternatives.
Rats love to climb, which is why we recommend giving them a large enclosure with multiple levels to explore vertically.
There is a wide range of climbing toy options you can purchase for your rat, including:
These toys can either be placed on the ground of the enclosure or clipped to the sides or ceilings for various play possibilities.
Pet rats need to have these toys in their enclosures, but make sure you take precautions in your placement to ensure their safety. You don’t want to clip a ladder or bridge at the top of the cage without any solid ground for several inches.
Rats might be smart, but accidents can still happen, and if they fall from a climbing toy that is placed too high, they could seriously injury themselves upon landing.
To prevent this, try to keep the toys only an inch or so above a level platform or place climbable nets underneath that they can safely land on and climb from if they slip from their toy above.
Chewing and Shredding Toys
Those rat teeth aren’t just for show; they’re serious chompers that love to chew and shred.
Your rats will have a natural urge to chew objects to help keep their teeth worn down and prevent them from overgrowing. For maximum dental health, the safety of your inhabitants, and overall enrichment, you should give your pet rats some toys they can easily and safely chew.
Chewing toys are usually made of more substantial material to wear down your rat’s teeth. Some examples are wood, rawhide, and Nylabones. You should give your rat a few of these options and replace them if they are chewed to size or shape that is unsafe.
Shredding toys are more for stimulation and are made from materials that are easy to rip and tear, like straw, paper towels, and fabric. These toys will keep your rats entertained and active for quite some time before they should be swapped out for new supplies.
Toy Enrichment Through Variety and Rotation
Having enriching toys is fantastic, but there are two things you should keep in mind when purchasing and placing these toys, variety, and rotation.
Your rats should have a wide variety of toys that will provide them different sources of stimulation and activity throughout the day. You don’t want to fill your enclosure with a couple of foraging and climbing toys and call it a day.
Try to have two or three different kinds of toys within each category to keep your rat happy and occupied.
Additionally, we recommend having a toy rotation where only certain toys are in the enclosure at a time. This will prevent your rats from getting bored of playing with the same toys over and over because every time you rotate, they’ll think brand new, exciting toys have arrived.
The steps to enrich your rat’s life are ultimately easy and simple, but they can make a world of difference in your pet’s mental and physical health. Make sure before you purchase a pet rat that you can give them as many enrichment tools on this list as possible, so they start on a happy and healthy note.
If you already have a pet rat and have had them for quite some time, it’s not too late to start incorporating rat enrichment into their daily lives. You might be surprised how much visibly active and happier they are after making just a few changes.