Ronnie and Derek live in a Savic Plaza cage, which measures 100cm (W) x 50cm (L) x 50cm (D) and is designed for two adult rats. The cage came with a plastic ‘mezzanine’ floor, accessible by a ramp, which is their main feeding area. It also included a built-in running wheel, metal food bowl and water bottle.
It’s important that rats have somewhere dark and cosy to retreat to, so Ronnie and Derek have a wooden rat house which is a floor-less wooden box with a hole for them to enter through, with a removable lid.
In order to keep them entertained, which is important as rats are intelligent and can get bored, a number of other things have been added to Ronnie and Derek’s cage: ‘lookout shelves’ to provide extra levels; a free-standing ‘flying saucer’ running wheel; ‘coconut shell’ hideouts with ladders; a bamboo suspension bridge; two freely-hanging tiny metal food buckets; wooden vegetables for gnawing and a freely-hanging treat stick. Watch a video of Ronnie swinging in one of the coconut shells here.
All those items, bought from pet shops, are visible in the photos below (click to enlarge). Rats naturally gnaw at things so wooden toys are a good choice, but ensure they’re designed for small mammals to avoid varnished/painted surfaces which could be harmful. Similarly, things like soft or plastic toys shouldn’t be left in their cage as they would likely get chewed.
A fresh and clean water supply is obviously essential when caring for pet rats and this is provided in Ronnie and Derek’s cage using the built-in bottle, which releases water when they lick the connected pipe. A small glass tealight holder, fixed to the cage, is also filled daily as a backup supply. They enjoy having the option of lapping up water from this or using the bottle.
Their water consumption seemed low at first when they were getting used to their home, but increased soon after.
DAILY Food, Diet and Weight
Ronnie and Derek’s main food is Rat Nuggets, which are about 1cm in diameter and contain wheat, maize, oatfeed, chicken, soya bean and meat/bone meal, among other things.
As per the maker’s guidance, 30-35g of nuggets are put in their food bowl daily which is enough for both of them, plus a few nuggets are scattered around the cage and put in the buckets for them to discover. The nuggets are very nutritious (including vitamins, protein, iron and zinc) and are designed to form 90-95% of their daily diet.
It’s recommended that fruit and vegetables form 5-10% of a rat’s diet, so Ronnie and Derek have a small amount each day. So far they’ve tried carrots, cucumber slices, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, apples, pumpkin and plums. Cucumber is clearly their favourite as they go straight for it if other veg is available! I usually wedge fruit or veg into the top of the cage and they enjoy stretching up and pulling it down. They like to eat the main part of cucumber slices first (see below, click to enlarge), then come back later and eat the remains.
In addition, a small mineral lick is supplied which the rats lick every now and then to intake extra nutrients.
In July 2019, Ronnie and Derek were weighed at 470g and 450g, respectively. This is at the upper limits of what male pet rats should weigh (apparently 270g to 450g). When rats are in their infancy, it’s advised to feed them well. However, Ronnie and Derek are now adults and, while I’m always careful not to overfeed them, fewer treats and smaller portions of their nuggets were in order!
On some days, the number of nuggets is reduced and 15g of Rat Muesli is added to provide variety and extra nutrients. The Muesli includes dried peas, wheat, maize, soya pellets, sunflower seeds, oats and linseed.
Occasionally they’re also given other foods such as tiny amounts of cooked meat (e.g. chicken or pork) and cooked/raw pasta. Special rat treats are available, including ‘tropical fruit bakes’ and ‘apple pellets’. These are useful when training rats.
Ronnie and Derek enjoy nibbling on a Tesco carrot nibble stick which is designed for rodents. The packaging says it should be an occasional treat despite coming with a plastic hook to hang it with, so I hang it in their cage just for short periods. They also have a similar Carrefour honey nibble stick, bought during a Calais day trip – this permanently hangs in their cage as they’re not massively keen so only nibble it occasionally. Watch Ronnie and Derek eating the nibble sticks here.
Pet rats enjoy eating certain herbs, including parsley, basil, oregano and mint. I planted a mint plant and occasionally feed leaves to Ronnie and Derek, although Derek’s a lot keener than Ronnie. Rats smell very fragrant after eating mint! Watch Derek eating mint straight from the plant here and here.
Feeding rats sweet ‘human’ treats, such as biscuits, should be kept to an absolute minimum due to the high sugar content which can apparently lead to diabetes.
The image below shows the foods and mineral lick (click to enlarge).
Rats can easily develop respiratory issues, so their bedding must be as dust free as possible, so wood-shavings and similar aren’t suitable. Ronnie and Derek’s cage has ‘back-2-nature’ small animal bedding, which is made of recycled paper and aids elimination of any faeces/urine odour. The bedding is cheaper when bought in bulk from online pet shops.
Pet rats like to have card as a ‘nesting‘ material in their house, such as card from toilet roll tubes or packaging, and Ronnie and Derek are given new card every few days. I leave it outside their house and they pull it inside (watch a video of Derek doing this here). You can also buy special soft bedding from pet shops for this purpose – I tried this once but Ronnie and Derek prefer the card.
Cage cleaning is an important part of looking after pet rats. Once a week, Ronnie and Derek’s cage is cleaned using a special antibacterial spray designed for cleaning small animal cages, then fully dried. The bedding is also discarded and replaced. While this is happening, Ronnie and Derek are put in a small, transparent carrying box designed for small animals. The ‘back-2-nature’ bedding, mentioned above, can be discarded with garden waste.
Rats are very clean animals and spend a lot of their time cleaning and grooming (watch a video of Ronnie grooming here). However, if they get dirty and need cleaning, you can buy specialist small animal shampoo from pet shops and clean them using your bathroom sink with some shallow, tepid water. The photos below shows Ronnie and Derek after being shampooed (click to enlarge)!
Clipping NAILS (claws)
Rats’ nails (technically claws) usually wear down naturally, but may remain rather sharp which is unpleasant when they walk on you! Clipping nails is possible but you have to be very careful when cutting, using small nail clippers, ensuring you don’t cut into the ‘quick’ and only trim the nail. It’s best done by two people – one to hold the rat and one to clip.
When this has been done to Ronnie and Derek, they object by squeaking and screeching – not because they’re in pain, but just because they don’t like being held very still.
Some small pieces of concrete and a brick have been added to their cage, in places where they walk the most, to help wear down their nails (see images below – click to enlarge). Using something like sandpaper as a floor covering for this is not suitable as the rats could graze their feet and get infections.
Derek recently had a dried, browny-red substance around his nose. It looked like dried blood at first, but was actually porphyrin which is a mucus-like substance. It can be a sign of excessive stress or a respiratory infection, but Derek had no other symptoms.
I cleaned his nose and his nose remained clean. The porphyrin release was a one-off, possibly due to temporary irritation in Derek’s eye caused by something such as a piece of bedding or an eyelash getting in his eye, or maybe he scratched it while self-grooming.
During the summer, the inside of Ronnie and Derek’s house gets hot, so one of them (usually Derek) often sleeps elsewhere in the cage.
Although rats don’t benefit from fans in the same way as humans (as they don’t sweat), Ronnie and Derek appreciated the cooling effect of a fan which had an ice pack attached to it and was blowing on their cage. See a video of this, as well as other photos of coping in the heat, in this post.
They were also given some ice cubes to eat during hot weather, and an old jam jar with cool water and ice was put in their cage. Supervised explorations in the garden is another thing they appreciated.
Two cameras are mounted at either end of Ronnie and Derek’s cage. They’re Wansview K2 IP cameras, costing about £25 each, which connect to the internet via Wifi and can be viewed remotely in a browser or a phone app. As they’re HD and have night-vision, they provide a good, clear image of what the rats are up to at all times of day. They can also be set to record at certain times.
Health and Illness
Cyanosis and blue testicles
Derek recently suddenly suffered from cyanosis and his scrotum/testicles were slightly grey/blue/purple as a result, as well as having hypothermia and appearing generally ill (lack of appetite, hunched back and lethargy). He was taken to the vet who hadn’t experienced such a young and otherwise healthy rat be presented in this way. Derek started to improve after being warmed up and it is hoped that it was a temporary issue. More about this can be read in this post.
Ronnie recently started squeaking loudly when he moved in any way that caused his tail to move upwards. It seemed the source of the pain was at the base of the tail where it joins his back.
I took him to the vet and, as there were no other symptoms (he was eating, drinking, defecating and urinating normally and had no loss of energy), the vet was satisfied there were no major problems and that the tail may have been slightly injured, possibly during a play-fight with Derek, and it’d cure itself. Something similar happened to Ronnie’s tail a few months before (but obviously to a much lesser extent in terms of pain) and that cured itself within about 10 days.
The vet prescribed Metacam to Ronnie, an anti-inflammatory and painkiller which is primarily used for dogs. I initially gave the daily dose of medicine in the morning so it’d be in his body while he was sleeping and would assist the healing, but this meant it wore off by the time he was active at night, so I started giving it to him in the evening instead to cover his active hours to ensure he had as little pain as possible during his tail’s recovery.
If your rat seems unwell, ensure you take him/her to a vet as soon as you can so you can get them checked.