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.

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 http://www.sliptalk.com/pet-rats/

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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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.

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