Husbandry refers to the care for your rats, more specifically here the environment you make for them. When referring to husbandry for rats, we are typically talking about their bedding, cage type, and enrichments.
Contrary to popular belief, paper-based beddings and fleece liners make horrible options for rat bedding. Both paper and fleece lack proper absorbing materials that reduce the ammonia levels in the cage, and with rat urine having such a high concentration of ammonia, using either of these options long-term can be detrimental to your rats' respiratory health. (Source) Both options are also quite expensive, and need to be changed frequently. Fleece will also usually get ripped to shreds by your rats, causing you to constantly need to buy replacements.
The best option for fabric is furniture moving pads, which are far more absorbent than fleece, and much cheaper. Furniture pads make excellent hammocks and nesting material.
Furniture pads should be changed every 24-48 hours when used as shelf liners, and weekly when used as hammocks.
If you choose to use paper bedding, it must be fully changed out every 2-3 days, dependent upon cage type and number of rats.
Fleece liners must be changed daily, and every 3-7 days when used as hammocks.
Wood-based beddings such as aspen or pine are recommended. There is a lot of misinformation floating around about pine bedding specifically, but the reality is that all commercially available pine bedding in the US has been kiln dried, which removes dangerous phenols from the shavings.
Cedar bedding is also commercially kiln dried, but cedar phenols are much stronger and still incredibly toxic to our small animals even after kiln drying.
Cedar bedding should be avoided at all costs.
Many people find that pine or aspen bedding are much more cost effective than paper or fleece besides. Often, pine bedding can be purchased from a farm supply store in large bulk packages - intended for horse stalls - at just $5-$10 per bag. A popular choice is the pine shavings from Tractor Supply, which comes in large and small flake.
Pine and aspen can also be purchased at PetCo, Pet Smart, and Walmart for decent prices.
Using pine pellets is another fine option, but most pet owners prefer not to use it because it isn't as soft as shavings. Pellets are however very absorbent, so placing a layer of pellets under your shavings is a great way to get an extra couple of days out of your bedding.
Pine and aspen bedding should be completely changed out every 5-8 days, depending on cage type and number of rats. When using pine pellets under the shavings, you can typically get 7-10 days out of your shavings.
Pine pellets when used alone can go 7-10 days between changes.
Another option would be hemp bedding, which can be quite costly up front, but makes for a great alternative to those allergic to pine or aspen. Hemp is more absorbent than pine or aspen, and therefore can typically go a little longer between full changes, but it may not reach its full potential if the room your rats reside in has high humidity, as the hemp will soak up the humidity from the air as well. Placing a dehumidifier in the room can help, but dry air can also cause respiratory issues for your rats, so this "fix" becomes a bit of a slippery slope.
Hemp bedding should be changed every 7-14 days, depending upon cage type, number of rats, and room humidity level.
There are SO many options available for long-term cages for your rats. There are pre-built ages of all sizes and shapes, and making DIY cages is an excellent option as well.
The most popular type of cage among pet owners is the MidWest Critter Nation, which is a very large, horizontally wired cage with a shallow bedding tray in the bottom and a shelf included. This cage can be stacked to create double or even triple level palaces.
Many pet owners love this cage because it is large enough to house multiple rats (6-8 adults fit comfortably in each single level), ease of access to the rats provided by the large double doors on the front, and horizontal bars which make it easy to hang and attach accessories.
The downsides to this cage include initial cost, difficulty to deep clean, and you must upgrade your bedding pan or add scatter guards when using shavings, pellets, hemp, or paper in order to avoid it being immediately kicked from the cage.
Some other popular cages include the MidWest Ferret Nation (which is identical to the Critter Nation with the exception of bar spacing and orientation - although most females and young rats will be able to escape this one without reinforcement), the You & Me Rat Manor, the Prevue 528 (which looks much smaller than it actually is!), and the Prevue Rat and Chinchilla cage.
As far as DIY cages go, the bin cage is absolutely a favorite for many reasons. Bin cages are relatively cheap to build, extremely customizable, and very easy to keep clean.
When making bin cages, the most recommended bin to use, is the Sterilite Latch Box tote in 105 quart size. This tote has smooth sides that discourage chewing and are easy to cut windows into, and the latching lids are added reinforcement for escape artists. The 105qt size is ideal for 2-4 rats by itself, but these cages can also be easily stacked and modified to create multiple levels.
Tools and products needed for a DIY bin cage include wire mesh (1/2" or 1/4"), wire cutters, a Dremel tool or hot cutter to cut windows, and zip ties or wire to attach the wire mesh to the bin. If making multi-level bin cages, 4" elbow PVC pipe will also be needed to connect the bins.
Click here to view our tutorial on stacking bin cages!
Here at LFNP, we use bin cages exclusively and have for nearly 4 years!
Rats are fossorial, which means that they dig and burrow rather than climb, swim, etc. Due to this status, rats do best in environments that allow them to dig - such as cages with deep pans filled with loose bedding. (This is also one of the many reasons we discourage the use of fleece liners.)
Besides proper bedding, there are many other options for enrichment for your rats. One of the most popular and easiest options is cardboard, such as boxes and toilet paper or paper towel tubes. Empty pasta or other food boxes or tissue boxes (with all plastic removed) or small shipping boxes are usually highly enjoyed by the rats!
Paper towel and toilet paper tubes can also be turned into treat puzzles very easily - in two popular ways:
- Putting the treats in the tube and simply folding the ends in to create a closed "box."
- Cutting the tube into rings, and then wrapping the rings around themselves with treats hidden in the middle.
Other acceptable forms of enrichment include hammocks, typically made from fabrics such as fleece, flannel, or (our favorite) shipping blankets.
There are options for making hammocks; you can cut your chosen fabric into a square, and then cut diagonal slits in each corner, allowing you to tie the hammock directly to the cage bars, or you can cut holes approximately 1/2"-1" in from each corner and hang them on the cage with shower curtain hooks,
There are also hammock stores that you can find on Facebook or Etsy, or you can make your own washable/reusable hammocks that are more complex, but utilizing the easier/cheaper options first to ensure your rats aren't the destructive type before you spend too much time and/or money on "luxury" hammocks is always a good idea!
Space Pods or balls are another option that a lot of people use, and hang them in the cage via zip ties.
Please note that balls (no matter the size) are not recommended for rats to use in the traditional sense. Rats rely on their whiskers to find their way around, which the ball renders impossible. Balls also often have small holes or slits for air flow, which the small toes of rats can easily get caught in, causing injury.
Wheels are an enrichment item that can be controversial. The right wheel can be an excellent addition to your cage, but certain wheels can be dangerous.
The proper wheel needs to have an absolute minimum diameter of 14 inches, although larger is definitely preferred. Smaller wheels can cause significant damage to your rats' spine from the way they have to contort their bodies to use it. "Wheel tail" is also a common side-effect of a too-small wheel, and this is when a rat's tail begins to curve upwards rather than lay flat. For this reason, some people prefer the saucer-type wheels instead.
Wheels also need to be solid on the place where the rat will run, because much like the ball, the small holes in wired wheels can lead to injury.
An excellent example of a proper wheel for rats can be found here.
Bird toys, cat toys (without stuffing), and chew logs (free of dyes) are also great toy options you can purchase for your rats. Be mindful though, that wooden toys can get stinky and gross quite quickly. For this reason, we recommend avoiding large wooden accessories such as huts.
You can also offer the occasional bone or other food treat like a small pie pumpkin or piece of watermelon to keep them busy for a while. You just want to make sure that when you offer food enrichment items, the amount you offer is relative to the amount of rats in your cage - i.e.: don't give your cage of 3 the same amount of pumpkin that you would a cage of 8! It is also suggested to offer this type of treat just a day or two before cage cleaning to ensure you don't forget to remove the leftovers before they go bad.
If you ever have any questions about whether something is appropriate or not for your rats, please feel free to reach out to us here at LFNP! We are always willing to help you ensure that your ratties have the best, safest life possible!