Rats are curious, active, friendly animals, and they require a lot of mental stimulation to keep themselves entertained and happy. And, a content, happy rat is also more likely to be less stressed and healthier.
So, to keep your pet rat in good health, you should make sure to provide him with stimulating enrichment in his environment.
What Is Environmental Enrichment?
Breaking it down to the simplest form, environmental enrichment is anything that causes an animal to physically and mentally engage with their environment. Often, we consider enrichment to consist of things that are novel and a “change” from the normal.
Just like you might get the urge to rearrange the furniture in the house, put a fresh coat of paint on the walls or just move the pictures around, animals get accustomed to—and yes, even bored with—the things in their environment.
Think about it this way—how would you feel if you were stuck inside the same house for your entire life? You would probably get bored pretty quickly, which is why you should keep your pet rat’s environment engaging and stimulating.
Many people confine their animals to small cages, but rats are inquisitive and can become bored and stressed quickly. Rats are fast to learn what is in the confines of their cages, so they rely on us to provide enough variety to keep them mentally stimulated.
How Can I Keep My Rat Engaged and Active?
1. Keep Several Pet Rats Together
One way you can provide environmental enrichment for your pet rat is to get him a friend. In fact, pet rats are happiest and seem the most content when kept together in small social groups; three to five seem to be the best number.
I never recommend only having a single rat. If you currently have just one, it may—or may not—accept a new companion; however, if you are just moving into the world of keeping rats, definitely plan on having multiple.
Rats keep each other busy; they play games together, cuddle together, groom each other, compete with one another, and in general, just enjoy sharing their lives together as a small social family. No matter how much they like their human companions, it is not the same as having another rat as a friend.
Again, think of the human analogy. You’d be a lot happier stuck in that house with someone to talk to. And, having a pet dog—or a pet rat—is not the same as having a friend to call up when times get tough. Rats simply thrive with other rats, and this is a very straightforward way to improve the environment of a pet rat.
2. Get a Large Cage and Provide Supervised Time Outside of It
Rats are very active. They will always find ways to keep themselves entertained when left to their own devices. It is important to provide your pet rats with the necessary space for them to play and entertain themselves by choosing a large cage.
I recommend nothing smaller than a 3-foot by 3-foot by 3-foot wire, two-story ferret cage for keeping a small group of three rats. Examples of a good-size cage would be the MidWest Critter Nation Deluxe cage or the Prevue Pet Products rat and chinchilla critter cage.
Rats enjoy climbing (but are good at falling as well!), so a two-story cage allows them a vantage point that is safe. Wire cages allow for ventilation, which may help prevent respiratory infections, which are very common in pet rats.
Larger, two-level cages also allow for a wide variety of bedding and toys, all of which are important to keep the sharp mind of a rat active. For bedding, try Carefresh small animal bedding or Kaytee Clean & Cozy small animal bedding.
In addition to a big cage, letting the rat family out to explore a rat-proofed room for several hours every day will further increase the amount of mental stimulation they experience—not to mention the fun, both for the rats and for you!
3. Provide Lots of Toys and Rotate Them Regularly
Pet rats will use toys. They will even invent games to play with their fellow rats using the toys.
There are lots of different rat toys available for you to try, like the Kaytee Simple Sleeper play tunnel. However, you don’t have to spend a lot of money if you don’t want to.
Rats enjoy playing in cardboard boxes with holes cut in them, toilet paper tubes stuffed with shredded paper or hay, small pieces of apple branches cut from a pesticide-free tree in the yard, ping-pong balls and paper bags from the grocery store.
As you can see, the sky is the limit! The only limitation to finding fun toys for your rat family is your imagination.
I do recommend having a large variety of toys on hand and rotating between them. You can put a “new” toy in the cage every few days and take an “old” one out for a few weeks; when you bring the “old” toy back, your pet rats will feel like it is brand new again.
Some of the rat toys can be left in as staples, such as solid-bottomed running wheels and turned-over flower pots or other “hiding lodges,” but even these can be rotated semi-regularly to help provide variety.
4. Remember That Food Is a Form of Enrichment, Too
I strongly recommend that the bulk of your rat’s diet be made up of something called “rodent block,” which looks much like dog food in kibble form and contains no visible seeds, nuts or fruits.
Consider hiding the rat food throughout the cage so that the rat needs to spend some time looking for it. Rats love the “find the food” game and will readily start hunting when they know you have been busy delivering the block.
You can do something similar with small snacks and treats. For example, you can hide treats inside of a stuffed toilet paper roll or place a dime-size piece of carrot under the bedding in a corner of the cage.
Keep in mind that treats and snacks should be a small proportion of the overall rat diet.
5. Don’t Forget the Overall Environment
You may have to keep your rats in a cage for their own safety for periods of the day, but remember that they can see out of the cage. So don’t tuck it away in a boring corner of the house!
They like to know where you are and what you are doing, so you should consider putting their cage in someplace like the TV room. And, they actually LIKE to watch TV—so it is a win-win! Many people will leave things like cartoons on for ratty entertainment when they go to work.
Even novel smells can be interesting to rats—like popcorn being made—and occasionally, it IS ok to share a piece with them.
Keeping rats entertained really isn’t all that hard, but it does take consistent effort and creativity. Your efforts will definitely pay off as you enjoy watching your happy, curious rats explore the new world you have created for them.
There is really no limit on the ideas you can explore as you design—and redesign—the areas where your rats call home!
By: Dr. Sandra Mitchell
Featured Image: iStock.com/dlHunter