Enrichment for rats – from a rat’s perspective

It’s wonderful that pet rat guardians, often try very hard to create a pleasant and interesting environment for their rats. However, dressing cages can sometimes become as much about our preferences, as theirs. So I thought it would be helpful to think about enrichment for rats – in the cage and external environment – more from a rat’s perspective.

Why is enrichment a positive thing for rats?

In a nutshell, quality enrichment alters behaviour and increases (the rat’s) control over the environment.

Behaviours can increase or decrease, depending on their nature and cause. Natural behaviours (such as foraging) are given a means of expression, while behaviours driven by anxiety and stress (such as bickering and fear responses) are often reduced.

A caged rat without enrichment has very little control over her environment. She cannot determine when or how food arrives, and may not even have a safe shelter to use to avoid cagemates or visitors if she chooses.

This lack of control extends to the wider environment surrounding her cage, and she will be affected (in terms of stress) by the lighting, temperature and noise she experiences. Enrichment considers these aspects of the environment too.

The goals of enrichment for rats

The goals of enrichment for rats could therefore be summed up as:

  • Promoting pshychological well-being.
  • Promoting physical well-being.
  • Allowing for natural behaviours.
  • Allowing for control over the environment.
  • Allowing for mental stimulation.
  • Allowing for social interaction and avoidance.

Enrichment stimulates a rat’s physical abilities, mental ablities (eg problem solving) and senses. It’s doesn’t over stimulate, as this can increase stress.

Increasing psychological space

Increasing psychological space is a concept that has been developed in respect to all kinds of animals in captivity. It involves using the available space (however small), so that more of the actual space is used for activities that are meaningful to the animal. It aims to fill ‘dead’ space with the potential for stimulation.

enrichment for rats

This is a tool that is already often employed by rat owners, as without it, most cages are often more dead space than usable space. But there is another clause in there that may not always be fully explored – “activities that are meaningful to the animal.”

In my last blog post I listed many of the activities that rats naturally engage in, in the wild. Let’s look again at that list:

  • Problem-solving
  • Foraging
  • Digging
  • Climbing
  • Building and maintaining nests
  • Moving materials around
  • Sleeping
  • Running
  • Social interaction
  • Balancing
  • Jumping
  • Gnawing
  • Grooming
  • Swimming

It’s very clear when reading that list that not all of these activities will have equal meaning to the average domesticated rat. Take a look at the list and pick out the six that you feel have the most meaning to your rats. That’s a tough one, but I’ll have a go.

  1. Foraging.
  2. Sleeping.
  3. Social interaction.
  4. Grooming.
  5. Problem solving.
  6. Climbing.

This would make a great discussion topic on Facebook, and I am sure there is no definative right answer. So here’s my explanation for my choices.

Foraging – Any species specific, food seeking behaviour that has been established over milennia, is going to be hardwired within an animal. It is unlikely that 120-ish years of domestication has impacted it much. Foraging is the number one food finding behaviour of wild rats, and is extremely likely to be meaningful to our own.

Sleeping – All mammals seem to be biologically programmed to sleep, and without sleep will experience stress. Sleep is therefore a meaningful activity.

Social interaction – As colony dwelling social creatures, rats are strongly driven by relationship with each other. This impacts many areas of their lives including which foods are safe to eat and how stressful they will find a situation. Social interaction is meaningful to a rat.

Grooming – One part of social interaction, which specifically helps to maintain connections and hierarchy within a group, is grooming. This is an essential rat behaviour that has a greal deal of meaning.

Problem solving – There is convincing research to demonstrate that rats have cognitive and reasoning abilities, at least to a degree. They are excellent problem solvers, and stimulating these abilities relieves bordem and enhances psychological well-being.

Climbing – Rats are agile and physically robust. They fully explore their environment and make use of height, even if only given cage bars to climb. The addition of branches, ropes and other similar cage furniture serves to fill up the dead space and create psychological space. Climbing increases fitness more than most other in-cage activities and therefore boosts physical well-being

The benefits of an enrichment for rats, are directly proportional to the degree that it allows the rat to engage in a meaningful behaviour. Therefore, to benefit the rat greatly and increase well-being significantly, we should probably aim to provide for the most meaningful behaviours first. As many natural behaviours as possible should probably be offered, but it would be somewhat topsy turvy to provide a rat with the opportunity to swim, while only feeding food from a bowl.

Stress and control

enrichment for rats

Whilst we can’t replicate truly natural surroundings, we can offer the important componants of that environment. Additionally, we can aim to reduce stresses to healthy levels. Note that seemingly positive things, like having a cagemate, can also cause pressure on an individual, if relationships are strained. Providing enough shelters and hideouts can reduce stress in such circumstances, because it allows the rat to take back control of her environment and escape unwanted attention.

A great question to ask about any enrichment for rats is, “does this increase the rats’ control of their environment?” In measurable terms, this really means, are the rats now more able to:

  • get where they want to go?
  • avoid contact (rat or human) if they wish?
  • find (discover) food (in a variety of ways) when hungry?
  • sleep (undisturbed) when tired – alone or in a group?
  • engage in a meaningful activity when bored?

In the wild, a rat would have some control over many of the variables in her environment. For instance she could move away from a noise that she found disturbing, or choose to trail a smell she found intriguing. Control reduces stress and lack of control increases stress.

Take a minute or two to consider how you might increase the control your rats have over their in-cage and wider environment. Do they have choice? There might be times when you will need to take action for them. For instance, if they are sleeping, reduced lighting and protection from sudden noisy stimuli mimics, what they would try to achieve for themselves during a daytime sleep in a wild environment.

Archer, J. (1979). Animals Under Stress. London, Edward Arnold.

Environmental Enrichment: A Review, A.S. Chamove, Stirling University Psychology Dept.

Wikipedia

Chamove, A. S. (1989). Cage design reduces emotionality in mice. Laboratory Animals, 25: 215-219.

 

Can your pet rat be a vegetarian?

[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.

pet rat
Raising vegan babies requires special consideration.

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.

General principles

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:

  • quinoa,
  • buckwheat,
  • soya,
  • amaranth
  • quorn.
pet rat
Diving for peas

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.

vegetarian rats
Mung bean sprouts

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 .

 

 

Kidney friendly rat food

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:

  • restricts calories,
  • restricts protein
  • 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.

  1. Make up a mix from individual ingredients (possible recipe below).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

 

Scatter feeding rats

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

scatter feeding rats
Out and about foraging

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
Any food up here?

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.