Rat Care Basics for New Owners

by Virginia Simpson


A rat can eat just about anything we can, and they definitely enjoy people food. They should have a grain mix and lab blocks (I use Hagen Nutri-Blocks) available to them all the time as their main diet. Fresh fruits and fresh or cooked vegetables should be given to them as well.

I've found some favourite treats seem to be things like bananas and avocados, peas, corn, kidney beans, chick peas and rice. Pasta cooked or raw is popular too, as is yogurt, cheese and peanut butter. Be careful with peanut butter because they can choke on it - try spreading it thinly on bread or a bit of cracker.

Try not to feed a rat too much protein. Too much will give them itchy little scabs around the ears and shoulders. There's not usually a problem unless they get a lot of protein, but every rat is different.

Since their teeth never stop growing a rat needs things to chew on. The lab blocks help, but things like dog biscuits and almonds in the shell are good too. They love chewing on chicken bones, especially if there's a bit of chicken left on them.

Make sure fresh water is always available. Water bottles are good for keeping water clean, but if you are using an aquarium the bottle will have to be hung on the inside. There are aluminum holders available for doing this. Some of the holders are designed to protect the bottle from chewing as well as hang it inside the tank. This is because some rats will chew a holes in their water bottle. A heavy bowl of water works well, too, but has to be changed quite often because rats will throw bedding into it. The water should be changed daily to make sure it remains fresh.


A cage or an aquarium with a cover make good homes for rats. If you use an aquarium make sure the cover can be attached to the tank because rats are great escape artists! They can knock a lid loose even if there are books piled on it. If you use a cage make sure you keep it in a location that's away from drafts. Keep both types of homes out of the direct sunlight.

A rat should have a place to hide and sleep in, too. A tissue box makes a good bed, and they can stuff tissues or paper towels (white only - no inks) in to make a nest. A plastic juice jug with a hole cut in it can make a good bed as well. If it's hung on the side of the cage or from the edge of the tank it gives the rat somewhere to climb to.

Wire shelves and floors can trap feet, or cause a painful infection called bumblefoot. Bumblefoot is caused because the rat's weight isn't spread across the foot, but is all on one spot. Wire surfaces should have something put on them. Cardboard would work, but must be changed often (put mactac on it, maybe?). Plexiglas would be fine, and probably several other things, too.

Many cages commercially available are designed for mice and hamsters, and while these are ideal for baby rats, they are really too small for an adult rat to live happily in. I have two different sized cages made by Hagen, one is called a Guinea Pig cage, and the other a Chinchilla cage. The bars are spaced too far apart to house a baby rat, but they are excellent for my adult males.


Cedar and Pine shavings contain oils which can damage a rat's (or any small animal's) liver. You shouldn't use these beddings.

I've found a mix of corncob and Yesterday's News works well. I mix 3 scoops corncob, with 1 scoop Yesterday's News. Yesterday's News is a kitty litter made from recycled paper, and has been tried and approved by many rat owners in the United States. Clay based, clumping, or scented kitty litters should never be used because they can harm the rat, especially if it eats any. Just think what would happen if it "clumped" in a rat's stomach.

The corncob litter is relatively cheap, and mixing it with some Yesterday's News makes it stay odour-free longer. That means you have to change it less. I also put a couple of handfuls of aspen litter into favourite sleeping places, and toss in some white paper towels. The paper towels should be changed every 2 or 3 days, and the rest of the bedding at least once a week (less if the rat doesn't spend much time in the cage, more if you have more than one rat). The bedding or combination of bedding you decide to use will probably depend partly on what is available in your area.


Two of the best rat toys are a person, and another rat! Other toys are things to chew, things to climb, and things to hide in. Small cardboard boxes and tubes can make a rat jungle-gym. Part of the leg of an old pair of jeans can be attached to the top of the cage/tank to make a tube hammock. A lot of bird toys, such as the ladders or the wood with almonds stuck in holes (expensive!) are fun for rats, too.

Don't give any treated wood to a rat. The chemicals used on pressure- treated wood and such like can harm the rat.

Last updated December 24, 1998

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