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.
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.
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.