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Do not use hamster cages, habitrails, small plastic storage bins with lids, or 10-gallon aquariums as permanent housing for your rats.
Cleanliness is a must for rat housing. Providing a litter box will help to keep the cage cleaner and most rats learn quickly how to use them. Occasional wiping down of surfaces with a mild safe cleaning solution and changing cloth bedding as needed will keep the cage manageable in-between cleanings. Sterilization of the cage weekly will help eliminate odor, parasites, and bacteria.
If you can smell that the cage is dirty then it is past time for a cleaning. Ammonia buildup can cause damage to their delicate respiratory systems and is easily controlled with a proper cleaning schedule.
Once you have decided on the housing that is best for you and your rat, the next step is to purchase the items that will go into the cage. You will need a water bottle (two is better in case on gets a leak), proper bedding, hide away areas, toys, nutritional food, and accessories to provide a healthy and stimulating environment for your rat.
Whatever you choose for your rats home be sure to keep on hand a small cage or aquarium in case you have a rat that is ill or injured and needs to be kept isolated and quiet.
Also consider where you will be placing the rats new home. You will want to keep your rat in an area of the home that is away from direct sunlight and heavy drafts. Air movement will not hurt the rats, but excessive drafts such as from a close fan or placing the rats beneath the air conditioning/heating vent may adversely affect their body temperature.
The room will need to be dark at night for them. Rats do need periods of total darkness or else they can experience health and even reproductive problems.
The temperature of the environment is also an important consideration. Keeping the room temperature between 72-80 degrees will ensure their comfort. Temperatures that are too high, or low, can stress the rats and lead to health problems. Laboratory guidelines for temperature are 20-26 degrees Centigrade (68-78.8 Fahrenheit). For breeding situations the recommended temperature is 24-26 degrees Centigrade (75.2-78.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
Placing the housing on a stand or a table is better than putting it directly on the floor. Your rat will be happier if it is placed in an area that allows interaction with you. Once the best spot is chosen you will need to make sure your new housing fits in the space you have designated for it.
There are advantages to having a wire cage for your rat. The most important one is ventilation, the open wires keeps ammonia fumes at a minimum. Cages also offer the rat more stimulation than some other types of rat housing by providing levels and ramps for them to move around on, places to hang accessories, and open access to daily interaction with the household.
Unfortunately there are also downfalls to cages. The rat’s food and litter tend to end up on the floor more than with other types of housing. Wire floors in cages can also cause foot injuries and can aggravate a condition known as bumblefoot in some rats. Solid flooring or the placing of linoleum, cloth, needlepoint mesh, or tiles on the wire floors can alleviate this problem.
(It is important here to note that there have been comments to the effect that galvanized steel wire cages when chewed on can cause zinc poisoning in rats. This has not been effectively proven. Powder-coated cages are preferred for ease of cleaning.)
Some people prefer to house their rats in aquariums. Many find them easier to clean than bulky cages. Bedding and food stay contained within the rat’s home instead of ending up on the floor. For people with multiple rats in small groups aquariums generally take up less room than cages. Also, aquariums tend to be less drafty than cages, which is often good if you have a hairless rat, a new litter, or an ill rat that needs to be kept warm and quiet.
Those who cite aquariums as a poor choice state valid reasons such as elevated ammonia fumes, lack of space, overheating, condensation, and breakage issues. It is true that aquariums need to be cleaned more often than cages for health purposes. And glass is certainly more prone to breakage than wire. A small aquarium is never an appropriate home for a rat. But a large aquarium that has toys and plenty of room can make an appropriate rat home as long as great care is taken to keep it clean.
One of the most wonderful things about the cabinet cage is the fact that the rat room remains much tidier than with a conventional cage system. Also with many levels it gives you plenty of places to hang toys and hammocks to keep your rats environment stimulating.
The cabinet cage does have its drawbacks. Being heavy it isn’t always easy to get it outdoors for a full sterilization and periodic cleaning (or when there are signs of illness or parasites) Adding wheels for moving can make this easier. One of the important things to keep in mind with a cabinet cage is that the wood needs to be protected. Bare wood can soak up urine and in time this can become rather unpleasant for you and unhealthy for the rat.
Some of the pros cited for using bins are: ease of cleaning, optimization of space by stacking, ease of storage when not in use, and the containment of bedding/litter.
Some of the cons are that interaction with owners is minimized, activities for enrichment may be lessened, climbing behavior is limited, floor surface is lesser than in cages with ramps and levels, and ventilation is lessened unless the bin has multiple “cut outs” to ensure air circulation.
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