Fresh Food for Rats: Why it Matters and How to Get Started

Have you ever considered what a rat’s ancestral diet might have been? When writing The New Scuttling Gourmet, I researched this in detail. While some of my conclusions were educated guesses, one thing is certain – their ancestral diet was fresh, foraged food – mainly plants. Rats have eaten a fresh diet for most of their ancestral history before they became commensal and started to live off our stored food and waste. So why has the diet of the modern pet rat drifted so far from their natural foods?

A photo showing a carpet of wild garlic in the woods. A favourite for my rats. The history of feeding domesticated rats began in laboratories in the late 19th century. The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia was the first to standardise the laboratory rat (by inbreeding). They were also the first to create pelleted food for rats. This was essential in the research setting as a natural diet would create unwanted variables. It’s important to realise that this was not a diet produced for the benefit of the rats, few of whom would ever reach full maturity. It was a diet to support the experimental model.

Early domesticated rat diet

When rats were first kept as pets in Europe in the 19th century, they were fed table scraps, and later rabbit food, dog biscuits and such were added to the diet. In the 1980s the gradual increase in the popularity of rats as companion animals led to the marketing of laboratory blocks to the pet market. Around the same time, pet food manufacturers like Burgess Pet Care began to market real food mixes for rats – often called rat muesli.

A large rat cage with ropes, tubes, branches, bamboo that looks very natural. Since then, the diet fed to pet rats has been evolving. Many rat guardians now make up their own mixes based on Shunamite Diet principles or other sources. In Europe at least, the whole focus of keeping rats has drifted towards a more natural approach. Large open cage layouts, deep cage litter, bioactive setups, scatter-feeding and increasing amounts of fresh food all support natural behaviours and well-being. This sets the stage for changes towards a more natural diet.

The journey back towards the ancestral diet is happening for humans, dogs, and cats, so it was only a matter of time before we became interested in the same for rats. The voyage is also *away* from ultra-processed or unnatural foods like dog kibble and rat pellets. The rat’s ancestral diet comprises fresh, whole foods, which would have been eaten raw. However, some fresh food can be lightly cooked. Rats even enjoy fresh soups and smoothies.

What fresh food would rats have evolved to thrive on?

A rat’s ancestral diet would not have been grain-heavy, because for most of their history rats lived independently of humans. Add to this that early grain was simply the seed from different grasses and bore little resemblance to the swollen starchy modern grains we are used to now.  Fresh food can provide your rats with optimal nutrition, natural textures, and a host of rich and interesting flavours.

Mushrooms are a great food for rats. Many of these foods are fresh plants that are rich in phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and a variety of fibres which help to support gut health. This means that fresh food is protective against oxidation, inflammation, cancer, and several disease processes. It’s also supportive of vitality, immune system health, and the rat’s microbiome.

Fresh foods should probably make up at least a fifth to a quarter of all rat diets. However, there is a good argument to be made for 100% fresh diets – and there are certainly some rat guardians, including myself, who are currently feeding all fresh. Leafy plants and herbs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, legumes, seeds (including some grains), nuts, flowers, algae (seaweed or microalgae), invertebrates, eggs, and small fish can all be part of a fresh food rat diet.

Why feed your rats fresh food?

Feeding your rats fresh food has several benefits for your rats’ health. These benefits include:

  • Real food ingredients.
  • No artificial additives, preservatives, fillers, or by-products.
  • You can choose sources that are more humane and sustainable.
  • More appealing to your rats’ senses.
  • Available free of charge via human foraging.
  • You can share your own fresh food with your rats.
  • Better quality nutrition; often has a higher vitamin and mineral content.
  • Contains supportive and protective phytochemicals.
  • Provides more nutrition for the gut microbiome, variety matters.
  • Easy weight management.
  • Supports health and longevity.

5 tips for feeding more fresh food

  1. Increase the amount of fresh gradually over a few days. Fresh food has a high water content which can lead to loose faeces for some rats if there is a sudden change.
  2. Because of the water content rats will eat 3 to 4 times greater weight of fresh food. If you want to feed some dry food, every gram of dry food is replaced by 3 to 4 grammes of fresh food. This is based on rats eating approximately 15g of dry food in 24 hours. For example, feeding one-third dry and two-thirds fresh would be 5g of dry mix and 30 to 40g of fresh.
  3. Do your research. There is a shed load of detailed information in The New Scuttling Gourmet about feeding fresh food and its beneficial effects. It will also help you with ratios of different types of food, and recipes for mixed fresh meals.
  4. Don’t stop scatter-feeding just because you move towards more fresh food. Foraging remains an instinctive behavioural “itch” that rats need to satisfy.
  5. Check the cage at least once every 24 hours for stashes and remove any waste.

The Ultimate Guide to the Top 100 Foods to Feed Your Rats – SmallPetJournal.

The New Scuttling Gourmet Alison Campbell – available on Amazon or contact me at

Rats and Choice

Choice can mean many things to many people, and I think that when people say choice, they often mean a choice between available options. So, choosing between the things that they see as possible. This is primarily what I mean when talking about rats and choice. We’re not talking about ‘heart’s desires’ – or the thing we’d do if every possible option was available – we are using a choice to mean showing preference. So, the most important element of this is that choice only becomes available if you give options.

If you create a cage space and you place your rats in the cage environment and it doesn’t offer options, then your rats can’t show a preference. Unless a cage is completely bare there is always some choice, but if options are limited that choice might be binary – do or don’t do – which can barely be considered choice and certainly doesn’t allow for preference.

For instance, if you have a cage and it only has one sleeping place – say a hammock – then the rats have two choices, they can sleep in the hammock or they can sleep in the open on the cage floor or a shelf, neither of which is a common place for safe rest and sleep for a rat – and that’s the choice.

In this situation, if a rat is feeling sociable and wanting to sleep with his friends, then they will likely all sleep in the hammock as that’s the most comfortable, enclosed and safe-feeling place in the cage. But if the rat is feeling less sociable and wants to sleep alone, then the only option is to sleep in the open on a shelf or on the floor.

You don’t need as many beds as there are rats, but you might want to consider multiple possibilities of where your rats could sleep – beds, boxes, tunnels, under a low hanging hammock and on. So, whatever area of your rats’ life you might be thinking about – are you giving options? Are the rats able to make any real choices?

rat beddingThe substrate is a good example – if you put fleece over your cage surfaces, without any substrate and don’t have a digging box then you are not giving the rats any option to engage in several natural behaviours. Not only digging behaviour, but manipulation of the environment, picking things up, moving them, and creating something new like a nest.

These represent big choices – natural instinctive behaviours that almost all rats will engage in, given the opportunity. They are linked to foraging (the emotional seeking system) and temperature regulation for the rat. That feels like a lot to leave out of a rat’s life.

This brings us to thinking about how we make our choices. Are they based on what our rats need or what is easiest for us – our preferences, instead of theirs? Sometimes our choices are based on health issues. It might be that we’re allergic to certain beddings, or that they make us – or our rats – sneeze or itch, or we don’t like the smell of certain beddings.

But usually, there will be usable alternatives. An ideal way to look at preference is to look at the alternatives that work for us and then consider what each will bring to our rats. This usually leads to multiple selections – so, perhaps using chopped card, hay and shredded paper all at the same time in our cage – which allows our rats choice.

jumping ratIdeally, when setting up a cage environment, it’s good to think through the behaviours that you want the rats to be able to engage in (e.g. climbing, digging, foraging, sleeping, nest building, balancing, problem-solving, social engagement, solitude, jumping, drinking, grooming, chewing, running and so on) then try to create a number of options for each.

Now, if the provision for a behaviour – say a water source – is something that can be shared by all the rats, then you only need maybe two or three options. In the case of water, these could be a bottle, an open water source on the base/shelf, and perhaps a crock attached to the cage side.

If you are looking at something like sleeping options, where multiple options will allow for different preferences at different times, more can be better. But rather than lots of hammocks – try giving a variety of options that allow for sleeping in, on and under different items. So, you are applying a thought process to your practice of setting up the cage environment to provide multiple options for your rats. That’s the easy bit!

It’s also important to consider that a rat is not necessarily going to want the same thing repeatedly over time. For instance, an overheated rat will often lay happily on a cool surface with no substrate or cover. This is a behaviour that is rarely seen as the norm. Most rats like to be in or under something to rest and sleep – but not always.

A rat who shows little interest in an object or activity can suddenly decide to engage. The reasons why rats do anything only have to have meaning to them… we may not be able to rationalize these changes from day to day, but a rat still has the right to want what has meaning to them in the moment.

Most behaviour is reward-driven, and variety (novelty) and reward are intricately linked. It is known that an uncertain and varied reward is a stronger motivator than repeating a high-value reward until it becomes an expectation. It’s really about remembering that:

  • just because a rat shows a preference for something today – doesn’t mean that will always be their preference.
  • it’s best to keep offering new things even when your rats show a strong preference for something.
  • It’s good to keep offering an option even when your rats have yet to show much interest in it. Today might be the day!
  • if you are training, it’s always worth swapping treats to renew interest!

There is another way of offering choice and that is by setting up zones – anything from a particular hammock to a place in the free-range area – and attributing meaning to these zones. A couple of examples should explain what I mean.

One rat guardian told me that she always placed a certain style of hammock in a certain place, hanging from the roof of the cage, and the meaning she attributed to it was – if one of her rats is in that hammock she would not engage with them in any way (look at them, talk to them or go to lift them out). This meant that, over time, they could always opt-out of whatever she was offering to her rats.

Another guardian clicker trained her rats and she always used a particular table in the free-range area that she didn’t use with the rats for anything else. Over time she noticed some of her rats would use the table to ‘ask’ for a training session, a request that she tried to respond to positively, whenever time allowed. This is a common behaviour in dogs – certain contexts will trigger them to offer a learned behaviour to get an anticipated reward.

rat whiskers I, myself, am in the habit of asking my rats whether – or not – I can pick them up from the floor of the room where they live. I do this by first offering my hand to sniff and then stroking them once on the head and shoulders. If neither of those actions elicit any kind of withdrawal behaviour I place my hand around them and, even then, I only lift them if I can do so without any physical resistance on their part.

By that I mean no retreat, no struggle and certainly no vocalisation. All my rats will allow me to pick them up – but not always every time I ask. Sometimes ‘heat cycles’ affect their resistance. As might, being unsettled by a squabble within the group. Some of them don’t wait for me to ask but climb my leg to hasten the process!

Now, if our rats always opt-out of any behaviour that is likely to be essential to their well-being (and basic handling is one of those in my opinion) we would probably want to work with them to improve their compliance. That might mean training to jump into a pet carrier first to get them from A to B – while all the time using trust training to encourage them to accept our hands-on attention. Most individuals will get there with patience and respect.

Sadly, especially where small animals are concerned, we can get used to dictating when and how they will do what we want them to do. Okay, so now it’s free-range time… time for you to come out of the cage. Now I’m taking you to a rat show. Now I want you to sit on the sofa with me. Now it’s time for play, for learning, for a photo opportunity, to get weighed.

rat carrierEven if you try to work with an opt-out (say – stay in the opt-out hammock) or opt-in system (say – jump into the carrier to be carried to the free-range area), you’ll still find that many rats are up for just about anything most of the time. But not all… and not all of the time. It’s down to us to work out when a rat is saying no!

It’s also important to realise that all rats have stable temperamental traits and can express the traits of extraversion and introversion – requiring very different things from their human. It’s also plausible from the current research that some rats have traits and behaviours that would mirror autism, PTSD and depression. Scientists talk in these terms about rats – maybe, as pet guardians, we need to consider them too?

Hopefully, all our rats are experiencing choice, preference, and control over their environment. So, they can opt-in to the things that are meaningful to them at the point where they choose to do them. And they can opt-out of the things they don’t want to engage with.

Our rats are with us through our choice, not theirs, and with that comes a weight of responsibility. Such responsibility includes us offering them as much control over their lives as possible, because without us, within a cage environment, they’re unable to do that for themselves.

Alison Campbell © 2020

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Social Stress in Rats

As humans, we often think about social stress in terms of the anxiety we feel in anticipation of a social encounter. For rats, social stress occurs as a response to a negative social confrontation. It is experienced by both sexes but tends to occur more often in males.

In the wild, male rats live within two different systems depending on the population density of rats in the area. At low population density, they are territorial – defending and holding territory and a group of females. This involves fighting off challenging males.

In areas of high population density, male rats are hierarchical. With the highest-ranking rats having primary mating rights to any female who is on heat. Maintaining position involves fighting off challenging males.

Pet rats live in the conditions of high population density and live within a hierarchical system. They have been bred for docility and (often) with no mating opportunities at all, hierarchies are typically easy to establish and can be maintained for life.

Most pet males tolerate incoming young males well, and introductions involve a bit of posturing and pinning of the newcomers before the hierarchy is established. However, sadly, this is not always so.

Rat relationships are complex, and hierarchies rely on more than one individual to maintain the structure. The outcome for the whole group depends on the temperament and confidence of everyone within it.

Rats can have issues accepting unrelated rats into the ‘in-group’. This is an unnatural thing to do and runs against instinctive behaviour. Age is another factor – with testosterone fluctuations in late adolescence (10-12 weeks) and physical maturity (8-10 months) often being flashpoints for introducing newcomers.

To learn more about this important subject check out this Social Stress PDF in the Ratwise Store.

What is social stress?

Social stress refers to any stress that an animal experiences as part of having social relationships. It is usually experienced between members of the same species, but it is likely that domesticated animals can also be triggered by their relationships with humans.

The most severe social stress that a rat will experience is losing in a social encounter with another rat. There is a great deal of research that informs us of how threatening this scenario is to our rats.

Because this research is studying stress it often makes difficult reading, but it’s important for us to learn from it. Doing so, can bring some rat-centric purpose to these studies, and can help us to improve the way we manage the care of the rats we are responsible for.

By measuring physiological responses in rats, researchers have found that being the losing rat in a conflict situation is more stressful than stressors like immobilisation, forced swimming, or electric shocks. Pause for a moment and let that sink in.

The stress a rat feels in losing in a social power struggle is so intense because the loss of position and place in the hierarchy is a threat to survival and reproduction – which are the driving forces behind all life.

It is essential as rat guardians that we understand the importance of social stress, recognise it in our own rats, and can mitigate against it. The research indicates that for some rats only one incident of intense social defeat is needed to induce a PTSD response.

In a world where we sometimes repeat ‘failed’ introductions several times over a period of months, the impact of social stress can be intense. Understanding this can help us interpret our observations and know when to change our approach.

To learn more about this important subject check out this Social Stress PDF in the Ratwise Store.

Animal sentience, pain and emotion

Are animals sentient, emotional beings? The research says a resounding “Yes!” They are sensate, feel pain, and have a rich emotional life.

I am sure that most of us are, by now, aware that the British government voted to reject a request for the inclusion of animal sentience and pain protection in the Brexit Withdrawal bill. There was some debate that this area was already covered in UK law, a claim that has since been confirmed as untrue by the RSPCA.

Animal sentience

So, what is sentience and why is this important in relation to the UK’s treatment of pets, farm animals, laboratory animals and those in the wild? defines sentience as the capacity for sensation or feeling. The earliest use of the word that I could unearth, was in 1796 (from Latin), when it was used by scientists to separate out the faculty of sense, feeling and consciousness – from rationality.

sentient animals
The philosophy that surrounds sentience is that of consciousness, which is probably best described as an ‘umbrella term’ that has many facets and meanings, about which there is much discussion and large volumes have been written. Under that umbrella we can find “awareness”, which refers to the physical act of perceiving something, and “sentience”, which is more the subjective experience of the world through sense.

One definition from Philosophy Stack Exchange is helpful:

“Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive, or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences… Sentience is a minimalistic way of defining “consciousness”, which is otherwise commonly used to collectively describe sentience plus other characteristics of the mind.”

In July 2012, at Cambridge University, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness published this:

 “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

This is really just science speak for saying that animals have the same brain apparatus and chemistry when it comes to experiencing consciousness (including sentience and awareness).

That animals sense their world in all the ways that we do to a greater or lesser degree is certain, and having studied rat sensing for the past few months, I have to say they are superior to us in their development of almost every sense.

animal sentience

Their capacity for pain is also certain, and I doubt there is a researcher alive who would still throw doubt on that.

Animal emotions

There’s another word, which I think has done a great deal to bolster the thinking of humans whose interests are served by rejecting the hefty weight of evidence for animal sentience, awareness, emotion and pain. That word is anthropomorphic – a word which essentially means ascribing human characteristics to non-human things

This word is often used, to deny non-human animals traits and emotions that are not – and have NEVER been – the sole domain of humanity. For centuries many people, from the religious to the scientists, believed that animals were ‘soul-less’ – the soul comprising the mind/will and emotions of humans, at least in Christian dogma.


The progression of neurobiology reveals the evolutionary truth; that all mammals (and some other animals studied) share the anatomy and physiology that creates emotion which is felt in the body in response to environmental circumstance (stimuli).

Most researchers recognise at least 6 basic (or primary) emotions as outlined by Darwin; fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness and joy. These emotions are automatic responses (cascades of neurotransmitters, hormones etc), and often occur without thought. They are experienced by all mammals and many other animals.

Secondary emotions are more sophisticated, occurring after some processing in the cortex of the brain. They involve thought. Thinking about an emotion increases the flexibility of an animal to response to the nuances of the circumstance. Many mammals have now been shown to demonstrate sophisticated secondary emotions such as a sense of unfairness, empathy and compassion.

Animal love

Since Darwin, other researchers have added to the core group of emotions by including jealousy, contempt, shame, sympathy, guilt, pride, envy, embarrassment, indignation and admiration. It intrigues me that no one dared to include love!

Only very recently, studies using dogs demonstrated that a joyful dog, greeting his human companion, is experiencing exactly the same activity in the emotion generating systems in the brain, as a human greeting another human whom she loves.


Why should love be some mystical domain where only human animals get to play? Love is simply physiology and bonding (informed by thought and action). A woman immediately loves (bonds with?) her baby on the back of the same hormonal rush as a cow bonds with (loves?) hers. The only difference is the word we choose to use. Why should a cow feel any less pain when her calf is removed?

And isn’t this why it serves humanity to keep on believing that an animal’s experience of the world is somehow less intense than ours? Isn’t it because we want to continue to dominate, control, farm, hunt, research on and exploit them.

Yes, non-human animals probably do not have the same degree of cognition, but there is no reason to believe that they feel less pain, fear, depth of bond/love, grief at loss, empathy and so on. Indeed, there are researchers who have spent a lifetime working alongside individual species, who ask us to consider that some animals may feel more empathy or grief than humans, and – get this – possibly experience some nuances of emotion that we do not!

So, I can’t see any logic other than to say that animal sentience and pain should be protected in law and should be explored and considered in depth by all those of us who share our lives with animals, or influence their well-being in any way.

Questions matter – like, how can we give our animal friends real choice (so essential for well-being)? Can we promote a full and healthy emotional life for them? Respect their bonds? Encourage experiences that they will find genuinely meaningful and so on? Let’s keep the discussions open and honest and see if we can progress.

Alison Campbell

Rats on the web

Here are some of my best finds on the internet from the past few months. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Rats as Therapy Pets – Lincoln Animal Ambassadors

Cynthia Stuart was a professor of psychology, medical law and ethics, and has written many articles on the interaction of rats as therapy animals. She writes, “Human – animal bonds can be utilized in a therapeutic context in work that is geared towards developing positive relationships with fellow humans.” Her love of rats began in 2003 as an environmental educator for a mini-zoo that featured a family of rats abandoned on its doorstep. She’s the co-author of The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief. Thanks to her allowing me to reprint her article about rats as therapy animals.

A child’s ability to make friends, grow and maintain friendships over time not only reflects his current psychological health but his future psychological adjustment and success as an adult. When children are not progressing socially, this is a strong cue that something serious is going on. In fact, lack of friendships is often indicative of an underlying behavioral, emotional, psychological, and/or neurological problem. A meticulous evaluation is essential to sorting out not only what is going on but what therapeutic interventions are warranted. However, often, after only a brief interview, a diagnosis is formulated and a prescription is written. This is usually where treatment stops. Although medication may alleviate some symptoms, it does not teach coping strategies or skills absolutely essential to learning about relationships.

So, how do children learn to make friends? Their brains provide an internal framework for social learning but interaction and modeling fine tune the process. Yet, some kids do not naturally learn the essentials, namely social judgment and social skills. For those of us in the pet rat community, these rodents are considered one of the best pets available in terms of social interaction.

Cynthia and her supervisor
Cynthia and her supervisor 

Read more: Guest Post: Rats as Therapy Pets

Best rat tricks

25 Reasons Pet Rats Are The Best Pets Out There

1. Rats really are super lovable. They absolutely love to cuddle!

2. Rats make great pets, especially if you are in an apartment because they don?t need a big yard or lots of exercise. Or any exercise!

3. Rats can be smarter than dogs and cats. They can be taught to come to their names and do tricks.

4. Rats love to eat treats.

5. Rats like to play games, like hide and seek and tug-of-war. They will also wrestle with your hand

6. Rats are nocturnal so they will sleep while you are away at work or school and play in the mornings and evenings.


7. Rats are incredibly clean animals and bathe themselves several times a day.

8. Rats can grow very strong bonds with their owners and can be extremely affectionate.

9. Unlike wild rats, which do not make good pets, domesticated rats have been selectively bred to be affectionate and gentle.

This article was first published BY Kristy on

Read more: 25 Reasons Pet Rats Are The Best Pets Out There

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.


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


Enrichment for rats and why it matters

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.

enrichment for rats
Climbing and balancing
Natural 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:

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

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.

enrichment for rats
Diving for peas
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:

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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 .



Fruit and vegetable list for 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)
  • Asparagus
  • Aubergine (eggplant, bitter when raw) Avocado (flesh only, no skin or stone – this one matters)


  • Bamboo shoots
  • 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)
  • Beetroot
  • Bilberry
  • Blackberries
  • Blackcurrant’s
  • Blueberries
  • 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)
  • Chicory
  • Clementine (girls only)
  • Clover leaf
  • Coconut
  • Collard greens
  • Courgette (Zucchini, bitter when raw)
  • Cranberries
  • Cress
  • Cucumber (great moisture source for shows)


  • Damson
  • Dandelion leaves (great ratio of calcium and phosphorus for bone health)
  • Dates


  • Eggplant (Aubergine, bitter when raw)
  • Elderberry
  • Endive (in moderation)


  • Fennel
  • Figs (small amount)
  • French beans (raw or cooked)


  • Gala melon (great moisture source for shows)
  • Garlic (more palatable cooked)
  • Globe artichoke
  • Gooseberry (cooked)
  • Grapes
  • Green beans (raw or cooked)


  • Haricot beans (canned or boiled)
  • Honeydew melon (great moisture source for shows)


  • Jerusalem artichoke


  • 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)


  • Leek (cooked)
  • Lemon (girls only)
  • Lentils (all varieties raw, sprouted, cooked)
  • Lettuce (small amount)
  • Lime (girls only)
  • Loganberry


  • Mandarin (girls only)
  • Mange tout
  • 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)
  • Mushrooms


  • Nectarines


  • Okra
  • Olive
  • Onion (more palatable cooked)
  • Orange (girls only)


  • Pak choi (bok choy) (great alternative to kale and dandelion)
  • Papaya
  • Parsnips (more palatable cooked)
  • Passion fruit
  • Peach (no stone – as for apple)
  • Peas (frozen or fresh)
  • Pears
  • Peppers (all colours)
  • Persimmon (sharon fruit)
  • Physalis (chinese lantern fruit)
  • Pineapple Plums (without stones – as for apple)
  • Pomegranate
  • Pomelo (girls only)
  • Potato
  • Prunes
  • Pumpkin (more palatable cooked)


  • Radish
  • Raisins
  • Raspberries
  • Redcurrant
  • Red cabbage (small amount, more palatable cooked)
  • Red onion (more palatable cooked)
  • Rhubarb (small amounts and cooked only)
  • Rocket Runner bean (cooked)


  • Savoy cabbage
  • Shallot (more palatable cooked)
  • Sharon fruit (Persimmon)
  • Soya beans (canned, boiled or fermented)
  • Spring greens (spring cabbage, useful alternative to dandelion and kale)
  • Spring onion
  • Spinach (small amounts – high oxalate greens)
  • Squash (more palatable cooked)
  • Strawberries
  • Swede
  • Sweet chestnuts (more palatable cooked, may cause digestive upset raw)
  • Sweet corn (frozen or fresh, on cob or off)
  • Sweet peppers
  • Sweet potato (more palatable cooked
  • Sugar snap pea
  • Swiss chard (small amount – high oxalate greens)


  • Tangerine (girls only)
  • Tomato
  • Turnip


  • Water chestnuts
  • Watercress
  • 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.

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