All of us, who know and love rats, have at least an inkling of what they are capable of. We watch our rats and marvel at their curiosity and agility, but how often do we actually take stock of our provision for them? As far as is possible, the life of a domesticated animal, should offer the opportunity for exploring all of the natural behaviours of the species, with the obvious exception of reproduction. “Enrichment for rats” essentially refers to the provision of a habitat and experiences that can provide for these behaviours.
Wild rats display a number of behaviours that are meaningful to them, and all can be satisfied in a domestic environment. These behaviours include:
Building and maintaining nests
Moving materials around
Some of these behaviours – like foraging – can easily be offered every day, simply by scattering the food ration, rather than bowl-feeding. Others – like swimming – will not appeal to every rat, but can bring an added pleasure to the life of many rats, as a ‘now and then’ activity.
Easy ways to provide enrichment for rats
A reasonably sized cage, with a thoughtful layout, will make many of these behaviours possible for our rats:
Deep litter allows for digging, and if you scatter feed this will encourage it.
Ropes, perches, barred cages and fruit tree branches all enable climbing, balancing and jumping.
Hammocks, shredded paper, kitchen roll, old telephone directories, hay and fleece all create opportunities to build and maintain nests, and in doing so enables rats to carry material around the cage.
A litter (substrate) with substance, such as chopped card, also enables carrying and nest building.
Boxes, igloos, hanging baskets and hammocks give multiple sleeping choices, but you’ll still always get the odd rat who sleeps in the litter tray!
Food hung up in awkward spots around the cage creates problem-solving opportunities and allows for climbing, jumping and balancing.
Unless your cage has a really big footprint, free range time on the floor will give the best running opportunities. However, in-cage wheels of a suitable size, give a different kind of running experience and are enjoyed by many rats.
Blocks, branches, wood and plastic all give rats a chance to gnaw, as do nuts in their shells.
Rattie company provides for social interaction and grooming behaviours, and these will spill over to favourite humans too!
Swimming may not appeal to all rats, but shallow water play, such as pea fishing or collecting small stones is enjoyed by most. Watching your rats engaged in this kind of play, makes it easy to pick out those who might enjoy the change to encounter deeper water.
If you’d like more detailed ideas about enrichment for rats, you’ll love this FREE pdf I’ve prepared for you:
100 low cost enrichment ideas for rats
100 Free or cheap toys and activities to enrich your rats' lives.
[All photographs courtesy of Lisa Maurin or Pixabay. Used with permission and gratitude. Alison]
Increasingly, humans are exploring meat-free options, for a sustainable diet, with the Telegraph (18.05.16) reporting a 360% rise in veganism in the UK over the past 10 years. Many pet rat owners, are beginning to consider whether they can ethically feed their rats a vegetarian (or even vegan) diet.
There is absolutely no reason why rats can’t be vegetarian, and little reason why a vegan diet couldn’t also sustain a healthy pet rat. The main phase of life that requires special consideration is during reproduction, lactation and rapid growth out of infancy.
A wild rat will eat almost anything and the proportion of animal based protein eaten will vary by habitat. It has been noted that – dependent on location – rats will eat primarily grain based diets, just as readily as feasting freely on tiny fish, seabird eggs or mollusks. However, wild rats are described as eating everything from carrion to earthworms, and insects to cat faeces! There’s definitely the full omnivorous spectrum represented.
Regardless, their delight in most food is so strong that it’s unlikely a rat would suffer any loss of pleasure, enrichment or nutrition by being vegetarian.
A vegetarian pet rat would most likely be fed on a great grain mix, which could be straight grains, or perhaps a suitable muesli-style rabbit food with extras added. This kind of diet should include grain, seeds, legumes, herbs, vegetables and a little fruit and nuts. Extra protein would be available from eggs, while reproduction and growth could also be supported with Lactol (puppy milk).
Nutritional concerns for vegetarian pet rat diets
The usual concerns for human vegetarians are in meeting essential amino acid (protein) needs, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B(12) and D, calcium, iron, and zinc. Lets look at these in turn for how you will feed your pet rat.
Essential amino acids (EAA) – if you feed eggs (and puppy milk to support pregnancy, lactation and rapid growth) regularly, all stages of life can be supported in terms of adequate EAA. It’s also wise to know which plant foods contain all of the EAA in sufficient amounts to be ‘stand alone’ protein foods, so here’s a list:
All this means is that these can be fed alone as a food to boost protein, perhaps for a sick rat who isn’t eating dry mix. Many plant sources contain all of the EAAs, just sometimes one or more of these is in a small amount that would limit the foods usefulness if they were only eating that food. As it stands, most rats will be having a good mix of grain, seeds and legumes, in which case it is extremely unlikely that they would be deficient in any one EAA.
The lesson to take away from this is not to worry about EAA unless your rat’s diet is unusually restricted in terms of variety, and when it is, make sure you include good amounts of one of the foods bulleted above, and/or eggs.
Omega-3 fatty acids – no problem here as seeds, such as, hemp and flax are rich in omega-3. Other great vegetarian sources include, seaweed, green leafy vegetables, mung beans, chai seeds, berries and squash.
Vitamin B12 – not usually an issue for rats as B12 is produced by bacteria in their digestive tract. This is passed out in the faeces, which are often eaten by the pet rat if they aren’t immediately cleaned up. It’s probably advisable not to clean out litter trays fastidiously if your rats are veggie. If your rats have Dr Squiggles daily essential 1, or any other B12 supplement there’s no cause for concern at all.
Vitamin D and calcium – both of these should be added routinely to any rat diet. They will be in commercial feeds and should be supplemented for home made mixes for all pet rats.
Iron and Zinc are two minerals essential to a variety of processes in the body, including blood production, transport of oxygen, production of protein, immune system function and fertility. Happily they are both present in abundance in legumes, green leafy vegetables, seeds and some grains and nuts.
Not so happily, they are often difficult to absorb during digestion, and in the case of iron, vegetable sources are all significantly harder to absorb than animal sources. This is to do with the presence of antinutrients in plant sources, substances that bind with the minerals so that the body can’t make use of them.
Soaking, sprouting, roasting and fermenting, all improve nutrient availability. So soaking and sprouting chick peas, for example, is really beneficial in a vegetarian or vegan pet rat diet.
In conclusion, your rats can be happy and healthy as vegetarians or vegans. You may wish to use eggs to support nutrition for the very young and when rats are sick. It’s not so much that egg contains more nutrition than plant sources of protein, iron, zinc and so on, just that it is much more easily digested and the protein breakdown does little to increase the toxic load for the kidneys. This also makes it the perfect protein to support kidney disease in older rats .
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Fruit and vegetable list – source: The Scuttling Gourmet
All listed fruits, vegetables and legumes are suitable for rats within the parameters described.
Aduki beans (sprouted, raw, canned or boiled)
Apple (pips removed if you’re a purist but they really won’t do them any harm unless you feed by the cupful!)
Apricots (no stone – as for apple, dried are usually preserved in sulphur)
Aubergine (eggplant, bitter when raw) Avocado (flesh only, no skin or stone – this one matters)
Banana (fine for oldies in moderation, yes they are high in potassium but the kidney failure suffered by rats causes fluid and electrolyte loss through increased urine productions – so low potassium is a potential problem)
Bean sprouts (make your own from all varieties of beans and peas that can be eaten without cooking)
Bok choy (Pak choi) (great alternative to kale and dandelion)
Broad beans (canned or boiled)
Broccoli Brussels sprouts (raw is fine)
Butternut squash (more palatable cooked)
Cannellini beans (canned or boiled)
Cantaloupe melon (great moisture source for shows)
Carrots Cauliflower Celeriac Celery Cherries (without stone – as for apple)
Chick Peas (roasted, sprouted, canned or boiled)
Clementine (girls only)
Courgette (Zucchini, bitter when raw)
Cucumber (great moisture source for shows)
Dandelion leaves (great ratio of calcium and phosphorus for bone health)
Eggplant (Aubergine, bitter when raw)
Endive (in moderation)
Figs (small amount)
French beans (raw or cooked)
Gala melon (great moisture source for shows)
Garlic (more palatable cooked)
Green beans (raw or cooked)
Haricot beans (canned or boiled)
Honeydew melon (great moisture source for shows)
Kale (curly) (great ratio of calcium and phosphorus for bone health)
Kohlrabi Kidney beans (canned or boiled)
Kiwi (small amounts, without skin)
Kumquat (girls only)
Lemon (girls only)
Lentils (all varieties raw, sprouted, cooked)
Lettuce (small amount)
Lime (girls only)
Mandarin (girls only)
Mango (girls only)
Marrow (more palatable cooked)
Melon (great moisture source for shows)
Mulberry (leaves can be eaten too)
Mung beans (sprouted, raw, canned or boiled)
Onion (more palatable cooked)
Orange (girls only)
Pak choi (bok choy) (great alternative to kale and dandelion)
Parsnips (more palatable cooked)
Peach (no stone – as for apple)
Peas (frozen or fresh)
Peppers (all colours)
Persimmon (sharon fruit)
Physalis (chinese lantern fruit)
Pineapple Plums (without stones – as for apple)
Pomelo (girls only)
Pumpkin (more palatable cooked)
Red cabbage (small amount, more palatable cooked)
Red onion (more palatable cooked)
Rhubarb (small amounts and cooked only)
Rocket Runner bean (cooked)
Shallot (more palatable cooked)
Sharon fruit (Persimmon)
Soya beans (canned, boiled or fermented)
Spring greens (spring cabbage, useful alternative to dandelion and kale)
Spinach (small amounts – high oxalate greens)
Squash (more palatable cooked)
Sweet chestnuts (more palatable cooked, may cause digestive upset raw)
Sweet corn (frozen or fresh, on cob or off)
Sweet potato (more palatable cooked
Sugar snap pea
Swiss chard (small amount – high oxalate greens)
Tangerine (girls only)
Watermelon (great moisture source for shows)
Zucchini (Courgette) – can be quite bitter fed raw.
Unless otherwise stated all foods can be fed raw or cooked, but might be more palatable one way or the other, and preference may vary from rat to rat. The fruits that are only suitable for girls are those that contain d-limonene, a compound that can cause a male specific protein to clump together in the rat kidneys, which may affect long-term kidney health.
From daily supplements for rats, to those that support aging and illness, finding our way around which are suitable, and at what stage of life, can be a confusing journey. This post aims to clarify which supplements are most commonly used and recommended for rats. With a link to a purchase point for each item, I have tried to make finding them as easy as possible for you.
Why use supplements for rats at all?
Micronutrients have been studied extensively, and many interesting studies point to their role in terms of ‘wellness’. They help in supporting the immune system, maintaining brain health and combating illness. Nothing replaces a great diet, and the micronutrients in grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, vegetables, fruit, eggs, fish and meat are the basis of vitality and health for all rats.
We know that all commercial rat food is supplemented with a range of vitamins and minerals. These include, vitamins A, D, E (occasionally B group and C) plus calcium and copper. This is necessary because these micronutrients are not found at suitable levels in a grain based mix. Also, some naturally occurring vitamins are sensitive to processing (such as heat extrusion).
Hence, we need to add the right supplements for rats to any straight grain diet. If you make up a mix where straights make up a reasonable proportion, even when a commercial mix is used as a base, you’ll need to supplement. Beyond this, however, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that giving extra micronutrients for other reason may be useful. The prudent use of supplementation during times of stress, pregnancy, illness and for rapidly growing and aging animals can be of benefit.
The following information does not include dosage, as this can vary according a number of variables. Please refer to the Scuttling Gourmet for guidance, or email me. I would also like to note, that where a product link directs to Amazon – should you choose to purchase an item via that link – I will receive a small referral fee from Amazon. This does not affect the price that you pay. I have no affiliation to any product, and have searched each useful supplement for rats, to find the most appropriate in terms of pack size and quality. Many of the products that I have also chosen are also powders or liquids, as these are easier to measure and administer. Finally, I have tried to find the cheapest product that meets these criteria and have considered postage costs too.
Essential supplements for all rats
These nutrients need to be added to all grain based mixes. If you feed a commercial rat mix, these should already be in there. For those of you who feed straight grain mixes, or half straights and half commercial feed, it’s down to you to add them.
NB. If you really don’t like the idea of supplements, cooked chicken bones and liver cake fed regularly, would cover the need for extra calcium and copper, but you’d be hard pressed to get enough vitamin D into a rat without supplementing. It is in ALL commercial rat food.
Rat Rations DailyRat3 contains all off these essential supplements in a palatable powder, which can easily be mixed into wet food, or sprinkled over washed (damp) vegetables or fruit. Designed for anything up to daily use.
Vetoquinol Calo-Pet (previously NutriCal) is marketed for cats and dogs. It has a good range of vitamins and minerals including D3 and calcium – but no copper – in a high calorie, palatable paste. Copper is easily given as liver, liver cake or liver products.
Vetcal Pro Gel is another similar high calorie paste with D3 and calcium among many other micronutrients.
Omega Aid is a liquid supplement that contains omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, plus vitamins A, D, and C. Its remit is to promote healthy skin and coat condition. A diet with a mixture of seeds, fresh fruit and veg and a little fish oil would achieve the same.
Kalm Aid is a blend of specific amino acids and B group vitamins, thought to have a calming effect in high anxiety situations. Could be useful for rats before they travel to shows, in and after rescue, during introductions and during events such as home improvement projects, that can cause fear and distress.
Senior Aid is designed to support aging animals, and it contains glucosamine and chondroitin, omega 3 fatty acids, immune system boosting polysaccharides (complex sugars), brain protecting Phosphatidylserine, amino acids and vitamins (B group and E). You can use this alongside the daily supplements to help support your older rats.
As well as Senior Aid and salmon oil listed above:
Flaxseed Oil is thought to slow the progression of kidney disease and is a great source of omega 3 and antioxidants.
Vitamin B12 Complex Sublingual Liquid contains all 8 B vitamins in a liquid form. May help support brain function and help protect against spinal nerve degeneration (often called hind leg degeneration or HLD).
Chromium Picolinate Solution is easy to add to wet food, and has been shown to support cardiovascular health, glucose metabolism and in one rat study extended lifespan.
Coenzyme Q10 Powder is an expensive supplement, but widely considered to have excellent antioxidant properties and boosts energy. Has been shown to have anti-aging effects in rat studies.
Ipakitine Powder is a phosphate binder that helps to reduce urea levels in rats with failing kidney function. This creates a greater feeling of well-being.
Rubenal tablets can be crushed and are known to support kidney function. They seem to be universally out of stock from outlets around the UK. Might indicate re-branding?
Supplements that may help prevent or slow mammary tumour growth
As well as flaxseed oil, vitamin B complex, co-enzyme Q10 listed above:
CLA Powder (conjugated linoleic acid) is an antioxidant that is thought to hinder the growth of tumours.
Curcumin is likely to effectively slow the growth of any tumour. It is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.
High antioxidant Complex is a powder that gives a mega boost of antioxidants thought to support immune system function, promoting cellular death and mopping up free radicals that can lead to tumour formation.
Most – if not all – rats who reach old age, will arrive there with some degree of kidney disease. Male rats are more readily affected due to a male-specific protein found in their kidneys. This shouldn’t cause us too much anxiety, as a rat can lose around 70% of kidney function without showing any signs of a problem. That said, we can still aim at supporting kidney health, by feeding kidney friendly rat food for the majority of our rats’ lives.
So what is kidney friendly rat food? Well, in principle it is a diet that:
uses egg or soya as the main protein source
isn’t too high in phosphorus
contains some flax (linseed).
Kidney friendly rat food shouldn’t be used until a rat has stopped all of it’s infant and adolescent growth (around 6 to 8 months). Protein, phosphorus and calorie requirements are higher during this phase of life, and need to be met. But there’s still likely some benefit in meeting most of the protein needs after the rapid growth phase (approximately 10 to 12 weeks) with egg or soya.
The three main factors that delay the onset of kidney degeneration in rats are calorie restriction, low to moderate protein and that protein being mainly egg or soya.
So the biggest dietary influences over the first 18 months of your rats’ life are probably your method of feeding and the amount you feed. By this I mean, feeding at volumes that are less than the amount a rat would eat given constant access to food – but enough to maintain slow growth, lean weight and good condition.
How much food is that? Well, it varies from rat to rat, based of genetics, nutritional background, size, gender, activity levels and such like. There’s a discussion here to guide you, but I would encourage you to learn how to tell whether your rat is under/over weight and be able to spot a drop off in condition for yourself. This will be helpful, not only in your day to day dietary management, but also in detecting illness, parasites etc.
A good place to meet and handle a wide range of rats is at a rat show, and these are held around the UK on a regular basis. They make a great rattie day out and you’ll be able to pick up some rat goodies too. Find out more on the Fancy Rats forum, you’ll have to create an account to see this area, but that’s worth doing as there is so much help and information there. The rat shows are listed under You and your rats, once you log in.
The best method of food delivery to keep your rats in great shape is scatter feeding.
Kidney friendly rat food
Up to the age of 16 to 18 months (when the aim is prevention) the main thing to consider – beyond the amount and style of feeding – is the protein level and source in your food. Protein should be around 10-14% of overall diet, with a gradual reduction over time and around 10-12% being the maintenance level from a year or so onward. Actual requirements are less, but not all protein that is eaten will be fully digested. Most easily digested and with the least toxic load on the kidneys is egg, while soya seems to have some kind of protective effect, especially in male rats. Rats fed a soya based diet in labs, have been shown to show significantly less kidney degeneration by age, than those fed other proteins.
From 16 to 18 months (when the aim becomes slowing progression) more thought needs to be given to reducing levels of phosphorus in the diet, and adding in some flax/linseed.
An adult maintenance kidney friendly rat food
There are a few choices available when deciding what to feed your rat as a kidney friendly alternative.
Make up a mix from individual ingredients (possible recipe below).
Buy in a complete straight grain mix (example: Rat Rations No. 8). This is an easy option, as there is nothing else to do except to add a multivitamin/calcium supplement.
Use a base mix and add to it. Base foods could be Harrison’s Banana Rabbit Brunch (or a similar commercial brand), a suitable Rat Rations base mix such as No. 3, or a soya-based rat muesli like Mr Johnson’s supreme rat and mouse mix. This mix does have a fairly high protein content but this can be diluted with adding cereals, leaves and veg. Various recipes for adding to base mixes can be found in The Scuttling Gourmet book, or the Rat Diet: health, prevention and treatment ebook.
Recipe for a straight grain mix
4 scoops micronized barley flakes
½ scoop pearl barley
1 scoop flaked peas
½ scoop split peas or
½ scoop soaked and roasted chick peas
1 scoop micronized soya flakes
2 scoops flaked maize
2 scoops paddy rice
½ scoop brown rice
6 broken wholegrain rice cakes
1 scoop oat groats
½ scoop whole oats
½ scoop no added sugar muesli
2 scoops mixed millet
1½ scoops buckwheat
1 scoop white milo (dari)
1 scoop Shredded Wheat Bitesize or Puffed Wheat
1 scoop Weetabix Minis
½ scoop whole wheat mini pasta shapes
6 broken sesame seed Ryvita
¾ scoop hemp seeds
½ scoop linseed
¼ scoop pumpkin seeds
¼ scoop milk thistle seeds
½ scoop flaked carrots
¼ scoop red pepper
¼ scoop dried tomato
½ scoop dried mixed vegetables
1 packets rabbit herbs (various)
¼ scoop flaked kelp
1 scoop dried river shrimps
A few chopped cranberries
A few chopped Brazil nuts
A little dried beetroot
A little dried apple
Elderly rats (or those with active kidney problems) would have the mix without the shrimps, Ryvita, Weetabix, Shredded Wheat and oats, but with a little extra soya and an increase in any of the other grains or cereals, to replace the lost volume of grains.
This is not an exact science and you can leave things out or put a bit more of one thing and less of another into it. Only the soya is needed for it’s protective effect. If you don’t want to use soya, I would suggest some EMP mixed in instead, so that at least your mix uses a kidney friendly protein. Egg protein can, of course, also be given as fresh food.
The rat is a natural forager; finding its food wherever and whenever it can. Historically, we have fed our small, caged animals out of food dishes, but only by scatter feeding rats, can we allow them to mimic this natural foraging behaviour. Being a true omnivore and opportunistic by nature, means that despite their neophobic tendencies (reluctance to try new things) – rats will eat almost anything.
A large part of a wild rat’s ‘day’ is given over to seeking, finding, stashing and eating a myriad of different food-items, from roots and leaves, to insects and even faeces. Rats will get their nutrition where they can, but it is well documented that they can often go to great lengths to get their hands on something special. Rats will steal eggs from nests, dive for molluscs, raid stables for stored grain and scavenge for food waste in the rubbish left lying around our city streets. The desire to search for food is an instinct driven by thousands of years of evolution, which has created a small mammal capable of thriving in almost any environment, eating almost any combination of available food sources. Even in a domesticated rat, this instinct remains strong, and creating an in-cage environment that encourages foraging is both enriching and supportive of natural behaviour.
What is scatter feeding?
Scatter feeding refers to the act of spreading the rats’ daily allowance of food around the cage; hiding it under cage litter, in enrichment feeders or small cardboard boxes. When you are scatter feeding rats, there is no requirement for a food bowl other than for fresh foods, but these too can often be scattered. In many ways, the more imaginative the placement of food, the more enriching the experience of finding it can be for the rat.
Food from the rat’s perspective
A rat is in some ways very human-like in its approach to food. Rats don’t just eat functionally – though in times of scarcity they will eat whatever is available – they also derive pleasure from eating. Rats have been shown to emit the same high pitched (above our natural range) pleasure noises when anticipating a delicious treat, as when being tickled and played with.
They often have strong preferences in relation to food, which are based on their own, their mother’s and their colony members’ past snacking experiences.
A rat can make a decision based on whether or not they know something, driven by the likelihood of getting a really desirable (high-value) food reward.
However, their overwhelming pattern of feeding behaviour – whether wild or domesticated – is foraging and sampling. A good chunk of their time is spent looking for food and then sampling anything unknown, in small amounts. This is done in order to establish physiological consequences – is the food safe? Desirable and undesirable food preferences can also be learned as an infant and weanling from the mother, and throughout life from other group members Rats in a colony will avoid the food that a scouting rat smells of, should that rat get sick.
Scatter feeding rats – why?
Imagine for a moment that you are a rat. You are designed to forage and have learned that some foods are both delicious and safe. Imagine your joy when digging about in one corner of your environment, you discover a really tasty morsel.
Scatter feeding rats, not only relieves the boredom that can arise from in-cage living, but it provides for the expression of natural behaviours (such as searching, digging, problem solving, foraging and sampling). Add to this the enrichment of the emotional life of the rat and it’s clear that from the rat’s perspective, this is a preferable way to feed.
Happily, there are also real advantages for us humans, when it comes to managing the different needs of individual rats within one cage group.
Managing the nutrition of a number of rats within a colony hierarchy, when feeding from a bowl, can be difficult. At best, there can be wide discrepancies in the rats’ weights, and at worse, a very low ranking rat can be bullied into not eating enough to maintain his health and well-being.
Scatter feeding rats helps to balance out the needs of each individual. A greedy rat can no longer hog the food bowl, and a dominant rat – distracted by his own search for the ‘best bits’ – is more likely to leave a low ranking rat in peace to feed. In the process of scatter feeding rats, food is distributed around the cage, on different levels and to some extent, hidden in more challenging places. With a little planning, it is easy to offer growing kittens food that larger adults cannot easily reach or gain access to.
Scatter feeding rats, also helps to make food last, especially where the rats have to work to access the food. This is preferable to a group of rats descending on a bowl at feeding time and leaving only scraps within a matter of minutes.
Stashing food is a natural rat behaviour and scatter feeding allows this to happen without a rat jeopardizing their share of the food. When competing around a food bowl, an efficient feeder will remain at the bowl and not leave to stash, thus consuming a larger proportion of the available food than a rat who leaves to stash.
Rats who are scatter fed exercise their minds and bodies in their search for food around the cage. This is one reason why it is a good idea to be imaginative, rather than just placing the food in the same area every day. This daily forage for food aids metal and physical fitness and well-being.
Scatter feeding rats – how?
At its simplest, scatter feeding is taking the food you would normally place into the food dish each day and spreading it around the cage. The more effort you take about making food accessibility a challenge, the better! Only very old and sick rats need food to be readily available, and while these rats will still usually enjoy a rummage in the cage litter for a tasty morsel, their nutrition should be offered in a bowl for the main part.
Trust your rats to do what they have evolved to do. Forage. Caged rats can become lazy, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t revert to foraging if the opportunity is presented to them. Don’t be tempted to overfeed in case your rats don’t find every piece of food. This will lead to selective feeding (eating only the most preferred foods), wastage and the rats becoming overweight.
When scatter feeding rats, your aim is to find very little uneaten food around the cage when you come to clean out. Monitoring this waste food alongside the condition and weight of your rats (visually), will help you to get the amounts right. When you feed fresh food (unless your rats are on an entirely fresh food diet), only give about a dessert spoonful, per rat, per day and remove any uneaten fresh food after 12 – 24 hours depending on the ambient temperature.
I’ll be looking at some enrichment ideas for feeding in a future post
Behaviour Components in the Feeding of Wild and Laboratory Rats S. A. Barnett Behaviour Vol. 9, No. 1 (1956), pp. 24-43
Dot Paul, University of Georgia. “Rats Capable Of Reflecting On Mental Processes.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 March 2007.
Brenes JC, Schwarting RK. Physiol Behav. 2015 Oct 1;149:107-18. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.05.012. Epub 2015 May 17.
Individual differences in anticipatory activity to food rewards predict cue-induced appetitive 50-kHz calls in rats.
Before considering the emotional life of the rat, we must begin by trying to define an emotion. This is a really difficult concept to pin down with words, especially since definitions vary between different areas of scientific study. This is my attempt.
An emotion is a conscious experience that is felt. It is essentially a biological reaction to environmental or social triggers; a cascade of neurotransmitters in the brain – and hormones around the body – that creates a felt experience, which is informed by external circumstances and (especially for humans) by thought.
Six basic emotions
It is widely recognised that there are basic emotions which are experienced by many animals, including all mammals, and these comprise:
Why did emotions evolve?
Within social grouping animals (including humans), emotions seem to have evolved to catalyse relationships and allow fluid adaptive behaviours. Social environments are not static, and individuals who are able to adapt in respect to relationships with the group – and individuals within it – are more likely to thrive and reproduce.
Can we measure the emotional life of the rat?
Much scientific study has been done to understand the nature of the emotional life of higher mammals, such as rats. There is a growing wealth of evidence to suggest that rats not only experience the basic emotions listed, but that they can show various aspects of empathy, cognitive bias and other ‘higher’ emotions.
However, because the emotional life of the rat (or any non-human animal) is difficult to measure or quantify, it is also impossible to accurately say “This is how it feels to be a rat.” All we can do, is study the available evidence and draw our own conclusions from it. One way of describing emotion at a functional level – rather than when they are muddied by cognitive processes; as they are for humans – is that an emotion is an evaluation of an event (either consciously or subconsciously) in order to determine how the event will impact a goal. As an example: if the goal of a rat is to be safe – a major goal for all animals, but perhaps closer to the surface for those who might easily become someone’s dinner – then the goal would be impacted differently by different circumstances. If a rat were to smell a passing cat, there would be a negative impact – I do not feel safe – experienced emotionally as fear. If a rat was resting in a warm nest, with a relative asleep beside him, there would be a positive impact – I feel safe – experienced emotionally as happiness (comfort, contentment). In each situation the feeling is driven by different physiology. The cascade of neurotransmitters and resulting hormonal soup in response to smelling a cat, would include stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, to initiate a freeze-flight-fight response. The resting rat, in the company of a bonded friend, would be experiencing the calming effects of neurotransmitters like serotonin and oxytocin, enhancing the feeling of well-being and restfulness, as well as increased relational bonding.
What about love?
Note that love is not considered to be one of the basic emotions shared by all mammals. When considering the emotional life of a social mammal, such as an elephant, dog or rat, I think we would be foolish to discount their ability to experience a feeling of deep bonding. The real difference is that, as humans, we often over think our emotional world, write books about it and make Hollywood films to popularise our fairytale princess version of its expression. Many of us are confused about what love really is. Love is – biologically – a feeling of deep bondedness, and can occur within or across many species. It’s not special as an emotion, in as much as it “works” in the same way as the others; our bodies produce a physiological response to our evaluation of an event that impacts on our goals. In this case the goal may be to belong, to feel safe, to be protected, to nurture, or to reproduce. Grief at the loss of a life long companion is an indication of deep-bonding in rats, as is much of their day to day social behaviour, such as non-self-grooming and the favouring of their familiar human over all others.
The emotional life of the rat
The research available into rat behaviour, shows that rats show empathy, cognitive bias and learned helplessness, as well as some higher cognitive behaviours, such as, being able to base their decision-making on what they are aware that they do – or do not – know. They have some concept of ‘self’ and a sense of ‘other’ in terms of friend, predator or prey. They co-operate socially and demonstrate morality in the widest context of the word – knowing (and often doing) what is right for the good of the group.
Empathy: this is a sophisticated social emotion based on sharing (experiencing) the emotion of another creature, in a given set of circumstances, made more intense by having experienced something similar yourself in the past.
The experiment detailed above, demonstrates that a rat will show empathy in working to help another rat in distress, and all the more so, if they have previously experienced the same circumstance themselves.
Cognitive bias: this refers to the way that decision-making is affected by a pessimistic or optimistic emotional state, at the time of making the decision. Rats who were tickled and played with by their human, before being given a task to complete for either a great food reward, or a mediocre food reward, took a more optimistic approach to their decision making, than those who were not positively primed.
Learned helplessness: this is a feeling that arises in many species, when all choice and control over their environment is removed. When bad things happen, regardless of what we do to try to stop them, learned helplessness kicks in and we stop trying. It’s a “shut down” state of passive acceptance of whatever happens, akin to depression. Loss of control over one’s environment will lead away from mental and physical well-being, towards stress, passivity, social anxiety and aggression. This happens across many species. Elephants, for example have been shown to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), when orphaned as youngsters in violent circumstances. Choice is considered to be so important to well-being, that simply knowing there *is* a choice is enough to help overcome adverse situations.
Before closing, I would like to suggest that although we might have a superior cognitive ability than other mammals, many species are superior to us in other ways. Rats hear and communicate in ranges we can only experience with electronic help. Dogs smell vividly and their experience of the world through scent is so much richer than ours, that it would be hard for us to imagine – let alone experience – it. Bats can catch an insect in the pitch black while flying! To see other mammals as ‘lesser’ than us is an inaccurate evaluation. In many ways the emotional life of the rat may be far richer than ours, because it is probably less affected (and devalued) by thinking. Rats, in common with many mammals, *feel* life. We, very often, *think* it!
Rat diet can be so varied and interesting that it is really easy to think of ways of giving rats food that are stimulating and fun. With a bit of thought and imagination anything is possible. Here are a list of 10 rat diet enrichment games for rats to play with food.
Rat diet enrichment 1: Hide and seek inverted planters
Place upside down small plastic plant pots around the cage, with little portions of food or treats placed underneath. The rats will upturn them or dig in underneath them to get to the food. If they need a nudge in the right direction make the food something smelly like sardine.
Rat diet enrichment 2: Cat litter tray pea fishing
A rattie favourite. Place a selection of small pebbles and shells in the base of a deep cat litter tray and half fill with water. Throw in a handful of peas and another of sweetcorn and add some rats! Most rats love water once they get their confidence and will have a splashing time trying to reach the food.
Rat diet enrichment 3: Hazelnut balls
Get a toilet roll inner and cut it into 2cm rings. Take three rings and one hazelnut in its shell and create the ball by placing one ring over another at roughly 90 degrees. Push the hazelnut inside and add a third ring, adjusting all three to completely encase the nut. Make one for each rat and then offer them.
Rat diet enrichment 4: Boiled egg in its shell
This is a really easy one that rats adore. Hard boil an egg for about 10 minutes, then leave to cool and give to the rats in the shell. They will go a little crazy trying to get “into” the egg, but may be unsuccessful, in which case, once they are beginning to tire of it, crack open the shell and watch them go wild!
Rat diet enrichment 5: Egg boxes
Now that you have used the eggs, you can use the egg boxes. Open the box and fill each little egg ‘cup’ with some rattie treats. close the box lid and if you want to be really mean then seal it with some tape. Give the whole thing to the rat group. They will try the lid and the proceed to chew their way in through the cups.
Rat diet enrichment 6: Popcorn strings
Thread a large dining needle with some thick thread and – using the needle – create a popcorn garland using sugar free popcorn. Tie across the cage.
Rat diet enrichment 7: Deep litter digging box
Fill a suitably sized deep plastic storage tub with substrate. Add some dry rat treats and mix into the substrate. Place into cage and add rats!
Rat diet enrichment 8: Little boxes
Collect some little boxes – toothpaste, face cream, cheese etc. – and fill with dry mix or some dry rat treats. Seal with a little tape and give to the rats.
Rat diet enrichment 9: Feeders
There are many feeders (mostly designed for birds) that can be used for rats. All you need to do is hang from the cage and add some rat mix.
Take any mini chest of drawers and fill the drawers with tissue and treats. If the drawers are too challenging to open, leave them slightly ajar and ensure that some of the food is strong smelling, eg. dried fish.
I’ve put together my answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about feeding pet rats. Find out whether fresh food should be included in your rat diet, what time of day to feed, whether pellets are a good idea and so much more.
1. How much should I feed my rats?
This is a little tricky, because it’s a bit like saying “how much should I eat?” That depends on who “I” am – my age, my height, my build and how fat I am already. Many people feel that different breeding lines of rats may also have different requirements, so asking your breeder is a good place to start.
There are 2 ways of estimating how much dry food to give a rat. One is based on the weight of the food and the other is just a simple volume measure. The really useful thing about a rat is that by the time he is ready to live in his new home (about 6 to 8 weeks) he is also growing really quickly, so he tends to eat approximately the same amount as he will eat as a fully grown rat.
So each rat will eat between 12 and 20g of dry mix a day unless you are giving a lot of fresh carbohydrate and protein; then you will need to reduce the amount. Vegetables can be fed as extra. As a small, human female I also find that one handful of food is roughly the correct amount for two rats. You may not be able to use handfuls (if you have bigger hands), but it’s convenient not to have to measure the food out, so try to find a small container that holds roughly the total amount of dry rat diet for your cage group.
Start with around 17g per rat and see if they eat it all. You need to check under the cage litter to make sure that any small seed or grain cases are empty. Increase the amount if you feel the rat is underweight, or the tail has squarish ‘edges’ near the root. A well nourished rat has a round tail. Reduce the amount if you are throwing away a lot of actual food with the cage litter come cleaning time, or if the rat visibly looks plump.
2. How often should I feed my rats?
Rat babies are often fed two or three times a day, but by the time they are homed, this is usually down to once or twice a day. Again, check with the breeder what they have been doing. If you feed your new rats twice a day, don’t continue this beyond about 10 weeks as this is when their growth slows and they will benefit from having some lean hours each day, when food is not freely available.
3. Should I feed them in the morning or evening?
Preferably in the evening, and late evening is helpful. Rats will naturally be most awake in a diurnal pattern at dawn and dusk. Most rats are very active from around 5-6am for a few hours and then again from around 5-6pm. This means that if you feed in the morning when you get up (say around 7-8am), they will be eating at their most active time. If however, you feed them before you go to bed, they will have the whole evening when they are both awake and fasting and this is a healthy pattern for a rat, and helps to maintain a good weight. Don’t let it get too late though, so that they have a chance to digest their food before they are ready to sleep again. I feed around 10pm. The rats are extremely wakeful at this time and are able to forage, graze and digest, before settling to sleep for a few hours. If you really need to feed them in the morning, then try to push it back to 9 or 10am. In reality, your rats will fit in with any schedule – and so long as it’s regular, their awake periods will be predictable.
4. Is it necessary to feed fresh food as part of rat diet?
No, it’s not strictly necessary, but it is advisable, at least a couple of times a week. Your rats will survive quite happily on a good dry mix, but our aim is to help our rats to thrive and to have a long and healthy life. The micronutrients found in fresh foods are helpful for maintaining a really robust, healthy immune system. Add to this, that rats get great pleasure from food and many types of enrichment involve fresh food, such as offering a whole boiled egg in its shell or fresh peas, still in the pod.
5. How much fresh food should I give?
Green leafy vegetables are a great daily staple, the best of which – in terms of nutrient balance – are kale, broccoli, dandelion leaves and spring greens. These provide a good balance of easily digestible calcium and phosphorus, and they can be given freely.
Protein and carbohydrate foods can also be fed as part of the fresh element of a rat’s diet. Growing, moulting, breeding and sick rats, all need extra protein. Giving oily fish or chicken two or three times a week will supply this, and it can be mixed into rice or any other cooked grain if extra calories are needed too. Most fatty or highly processed food should be kept to a minimum, the exceptions being oily fish, coconut and avocado. These contain very healthy and helpful fats. Other than vegetables, think about fresh food in terms of around one dessert spoon full per rat.
6. My rats seem to leave a lot of their food. Why?
Almost certainly – assuming they are well enough to eat – you are feeding them too much food and/or too little variety. If they look well covered in firm muscle under the fur, then you can try simply feeding less. Try to judge the amount by giving only what you can see they are actually eating. Use a bowl for a few days until you get the amount right, but remember to check for stashes around cage. Watch their behaviour after they have been fed, and then assess how much uneaten food is in the cage 12 hours later. At this stage it should be very little; just some grains and tiny seeds, which might be less desirable for the rat. by the time you look again sround teatime, there should be almost nothing edible left. If you are feeding the right amount and they become reluctant to finish it, consider how to make the mix more interesting. Rats have a huge amount of variety in their natural diet.
7. Do I need to give my rats supplements?
It really depends on how you feed them. Many generic rat and rabbit muesli feeds have supplements added. Straight grain mixes, such as those from Rat Rations, don’t have them added, so you need to do this yourself. Calcium, Copper and Vitamin D are the three main nutrients that could be lacking, even if you feed a variety of fresh foods.
8. How do I change my rats from one feed to another?
This is easy, because rats thrive on variety and no real changeover period is necessary. If you wanted to mix the two feeds together for a couple of days that’s fine, but there’s really no need. A rat is an opportunistic omnivore and will try most foods, though he won’t like anything that tastes bitter.
9. What is scatter feeding?
Scatter feeding is a way of delivering food to rats that helps to stimulate their natural behaviours, such as foraging and digging. It can help with equal food distribution in a group where the rats have different needs, such as old and young, or thin and fat. A very food oriented rat will have to work much harder to feed if the food is distributed around the cage and mixed into the substrate. Scatter feeding is excellent for all but the weakest old or sick rats. It is an effortless form of enrichment.
10. Should I feed a complete rat pellet so that I am sure my rats are getting all they need?
Definitely not, because rats are opportunistic omnivores and will eat almost anything edible they come across. Rat diet should be full of variety and plenty of raw food, which is packed with micronutrients that pellets simply cannot match. Indeed, a rat’s attitude to food and the pleasure he derives from it is similar to ours. Pellets also deprive rats of the enrichment of various smells, textures and tastes, not to mention finding a tasty morsel buried in the substrate. A varied rat diet is more likely to give your rat “all that they need” (which is more than just nutrition), than pellets ever will. Some people add pellets to a richly varied dry mix.