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Time spent outside of their cage holds many benefits for pet rats. Ideally, all rats should be allowed to spend time in an area outside of their cage daily.
Busy rat owners might find it hard to find the time to supervise their rats, and, not to mention, letting your rat free-range can be hazardous as they might chew on electric wires or disappear behind cupboards or into small crevices. This article looks at all the benefits of letting your pet rat play outside its cage and practical ways to make it happen.
As a general rule, pet rats need to spend a minimum of 30 minutes but ideally 1-2 hours outside of their cage each day. This will help prevent boredom and stereotypical behavior and helps to keep them fit and prevent obesity. Of course, time outside of their cage should always be in a safe and rat-proof environment.
Rats are highly intelligent, social animals, and keeping them inside a cage 24/7 is not doing their health any favors. How about we look at practical ways to add a little more fun to your rat’s day?
Why Does Your Rat Need to Spend Time Outside of Their Cage?
1. It Helps Prevent Obesity
Obesity is one of the most common health concerns for pet rats. Rats will instinctively eat when food is available, and many pet rat owners will provide them with an abundance of food because food is seen as love. This common notion can be hazardous, though, and the effects of overfeeding and weight gain can be subtle and devious. Please have a look at this article about over-eating in pet rats and tips to prevent it.
A little secret that is not widely known or practiced (maybe because it’s not that easy!) is that lower body weight closely correlates with a longer life span across almost every species studied. So, in fact, the best thing you can do to ensure that your rat lives a longer, healthier life is to prevent them from becoming overweight (Holloszy, 1993).
2. It Helps to Keep Them Fit and Lean
Older rats especially might need some extra encouragement to move around. This is specifically important for geriatric rats as they tend to lose muscle mass as they age. Running around and exploring helps to maintain their fitness and muscle mass, which will help support aging joints.
3. Improved Resilience to Stress
Time outside the cage is often accompanied by playful behavior, either by allowing access to new toys or objects that interest your pet rat or providing them with a new and unfamiliar area to explore. For example, a study done by Belz et al. (2003) found that lab rats that had access to toys had lower baseline levels of a certain hormone associated with stress. Not only that, but they had a lower stress response to mild induced stress under lab conditions.
This means that these rats were able to cope with stress much better when compared to their counterparts that are kept in a cage without any environmental enrichment.
4. Improved Immune System Function
A study by Simpson and Kelly (2011) found that rats exposed to environmental enrichment had better functioning immune systems. These rats produced an appropriate immune response when vaccinated and showed significantly less immunosuppression when exposed to immunosuppressive compounds.
5. Rats That Play and Explore are Smarter
Lab rats that had access to environmental enrichment such as Kong toys or running weels were able to navigate a maze quicker and identify a novel object in a shorter amount of time compared to rats kept in basic cages.
I don’t know about you, but I would like the keep my rats’ noggins firing sharp as a missile!
6. Increased Longevity
All of the abovementioned factors combine to have an advantageous effect on longevity. The study by Holloszy showed that voluntary running on a wheel significantly increased the mean survival rate in female rats compared to sedentary rats kept in a simple cage. It will be safe to say that the running that spending time outside of the cage entails will have a similar, if not an even greater, effect on your rat’s survival rate.
How Can I Let My Pet Rat Free-Roam In The House Safely?
Free-ranging is one of the most common ways rat owners implement time outside of the cage. Unfortunately, this means rat-proofing your home. Rats will chew on things and take their toilet habits with them wherever they wander, so if you allow your rats to roam in a designated area of your house, be prepared for the potential remodeling that your rats might be capable of.
When life gets busy, leaving you with little time and energy to spend with your rats, I have found that plopping down on the couch while watching my favorite tv show after work with the rats roaming in the tv room to be a wonderful way to spend the evening. I get to relax and unwind while they get they let loose of all their wound-up energy.
Just remember that this is not the safest option unless you are confident that your space is rat-proof or at least are available to keep a hawks eye on all the potential rat-hazards
I know of a rat owner who likes letting his rats play in the dirty laundry basket as he sorts the washing. That way, his rats have a fun time, he has some entertainment while doing a monotonous task, and the small amount of urine marking is not bothersome as the clothes are getting washed anyway.
A word of warning for when you first let your pet rat out of the cage- they will go bonkers exploring every nook and cranny they can! However, I have found that most rats usually get used to being outside and preferring to be near their owners after some time.
How Can I Let My Pet Rat Play Outside of Its Cage Without Letting it Free-Roam In The House?
The Play Pen
Building a designated play area or pen, even using a plastic kiddies pool with toys and obstacles in it, is an excellent way to allow your rats time to roam outside of their cage. Even a bathtub will work wonderfully as a play area. The tricky part is finding an area that will contain playful rats, as most rats will eventually figure a way to escape from the playpen or kiddies pool.
On The Furniture
A large piece of furniture such as a dining table, lounge sofa, or bed can also be a wonderful play area. Rats can not see very well and will avoid jumping if they can not ascertain the landing area.
To protect your furniture from the unavoidable natural tendencies of rats, I recommend covering your furniture with at least two layers of material. A waterproof mattress cover followed by a piece of fleece or a large towel works well. Be aware that your rats will likely have a nibble, so consider adding a third layer if you know that you have especially nibbly rats.
A Cage Extension
Using either a separate cage that you can attach to your rat’s usual cage or a plastic container with a ramp from the regular cage can also serve as a playtime area. This is a great way of adding environmental enrichment by providing your rats with an interesting and ‘new’ area without letting them free roam.
The reasoning behind keeping this area separate and not letting your rats have permanent access to this area is that it stays novel and interesting. You can add ramps and tunnels and re-arrange this area regularly to associate the cage extension with playing and exploring instead of seeing it as the usual familiar territory where they rest and relax.
Make The Play Area a Fun Place!
Probably one of the best parts of having rats is seeing how they interact with new toys or navigate new obstacles. Get creative! Tissue boxes are a hit, and so are toilet or paper towel rolls. Food puzzle toys such as the slow feeding ball puzzle toy or this sliding puzzle toy will definitely keep your rats busy for a while.
Add hideouts such as caves made out of blankets or boxes and areas to climb onto, such as a cage ladder propped up against a disposable plastic container or cardboard box.
Just remember to make sure they have access to water and snacks and, if your rats are litter trained- the litterbox, of course!
Not only is time outside of the cage necessary for optimal health, but it is also a great opportunity to spend time with you and for you to get to know your rat’s special personality quirks.
I hope this article inspires you to find new fun and creative ways to allow your rats to spend time outside their cage. After all, a happy rat is a healthy rat, and the memories built during playtime moments are the moments you will treasure forever.
- Belz, E., Kennell, J., Czambel, R., Rubin, R. and Rhodes, M., 2003. Environmental enrichment lowers stress-responsive hormones in singly housed male and female rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 76(3-4), pp.481-486. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0091305703002752
- Holloszy, J., Exercise Increases Average Longevity of Female Rats Despite Increased Food Intake and No Growth Retardation, Journal of Gerontology, Volume 48, Issue 3, May 1993, Pages B97–B100, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronj/48.3.B97
- Hutchinson, E., Avery, A. and VandeWoude, S., 2005. Environmental Enrichment for Laboratory Rodents. ILAR Journal, 46(2), pp.148-161. https://academic.oup.com/ilarjournal/article/46/2/148/910186?login=true
- Kasper, C., 2013. Animal Models of Exercise and Obesity. Annual Review of Nursing Research, 31(1), pp.1-17. https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgrarnr/31/1/1.abstract
- Simpson, J. and Kelly, J., 2011. The impact of environmental enrichment in laboratory rats—Behavioural and neurochemical aspects. Behavioural Brain Research, 222(1), pp.246-264. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166432811002890