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:

100 low cost enrichment ideas for rats

100 Free or cheap toys and activities to enrich your rats' lives.

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.

Supplements for rats


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.

Practical comments

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.

  • Vitamin D
  • Copper
  • Calcium

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.

Dr Squiggles Daily Essentials 1 (AKA The Bird Care Company Daily Essentials 1) is a soluble powder that you add to water. It is a multi vitamin and mineral mix, without calcium, so needs to be used in conjunction with liquid Calcivet. Rats find it highly palatable. Dr Squiggles Tiny Animal Essentials and Calcivet powder are the dry alternatives to mix into food.

High energy alternatives for sick rats

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.

Arden Grange Liver Treat Paste is one useful way to give a drop or two of liver for a copper top up!

Other general useful supplements for rats

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.

supplements for rats
oil is beautiful

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.

Salmopet Salmon Oil is an excellent source of omega 3 and vitamins (A and D).

Supplements for 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.

Vet UKs kidney powder is similar in function to Ipakitine.

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.

Further reading

Vitamin stability in relation to processing food

Interesting review for anyone interested in the role of nutrition on brain health (essentially included for you humans, but rats have brains and neurotransmitters too!)

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 for 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, can we allow our rats 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 foods. 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 behaviours.

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 really sloppy fresh foods. 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 his 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 ultrasonic (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 primarily based on their mother’s food choices and their colony members’ past snacking experiences. Preference is learned in utero, during lactation and socially – always from odorants from the food that has been eaten by the mother or cage mates, rather than by taste. However, some tastes are generally despised by rats, particularly bitter.

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? Extremely neophobic rats may not even sample, and may rely on the preferences of others to make their choices.

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 a corner of your environment, you discover a really tasty morsel. This is emotional enrichment.

Scatter feeding rats not only relieves the boredom that can arise from in-cage living, but it provides for the expression of many natural behaviours, such as, searching, digging, problem-solving, foraging, gnawing, climbing and balancing. Add to this the enrichment of the emotional life of the rat and it’s clear that from the rat’s perspective that 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 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 in a feeding frenzy 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, ultimately 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 foraging for food aids mental, emotional 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 make in 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, the bulk of their nutrition should be offered in a bowl.

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 dessertspoon, per rat, per day and remove any uneaten fresh food after 12 – 24 hours, depending on the ambient temperature.

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.