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The cage

Housing for rats should be made from materials that are easy to clean, resistant to chewing and gnawing, and impervious to liquids (so that urine and faeces are not absorbed). Make sure the lid fits firmly.

Commonly used materials include hard plastic, stainless steel, and glass.

Purpose-built cages of hard plastic are available from pet shops at reasonable prices. They usually provide a box for sleeping and nesting and living quarters. Some provide for additional space if needed.

Wooden cages are not recommended because they may be gnawed, are difficult to sanitise, and may absorb urine, which creates unpleasant odours.

Because mesh floors can cause foot injuries, consider using a cage that has a non-mesh floor.

Ensure that the cage is big enough to accommodate both the rat and furniture comfortably. A minimum size is 80 centimetres × 40 centimetres × 40 centimetres high.

Rats are inquisitive creatures; they like to see out, so choose a cage that allows for side-views, not top views.

Provide a sleeping box and good hiding places in the living area. For example, cardboard tubes provide good tunnels and are easily replaced, and opaque non-toxic jars can be cleaned easily.

Food containers should be gnaw-proof. Overhead-rack types are best because they reduce wastage and do not get contaminated by faeces. Containers that attach to sides are also acceptable because they reduce spillage.

Heavy-duty pottery containers may also be used, but as they can be more easily contaminated by urine and faeces, you should change the food in them daily.

Avoid using open water dishes because of possible contamination by faeces, which leads to disease. Also water in an open dish spills, and this increases moisture in the cage and could lead to dehydration in the rat.

Sipper tubes and bottles attached to the sides of the cage work well.

Provide objects for gnawing, such as a small bark-covered log from an apple tree. Select logs carefully because many garden trees are poisonous.

Rats need stimulation, so include exercise toys, such as exercise wheels, ladders, plastic tubes, and boxes of different shapes.

A male rats should be housed separately from other male rats because they may fight, severely hurt, or even kill each other.


Line the cage  two to three centimetres deep with untreated wood sawdust,shavings, kitty litter, or shredded plain paper. Stay away from using newspaper because the printing ink may be harmful to the rats.

The sleeping box should contain shredded plain paper, such as paper towels, tissues, or cotton wool. Note that cotton wool is ill-suited for breeding because it may entangle newborns' limbs.


Clean the cage two to three times a week, using rubber gloves, a scrubbing brush, dishwashing detergent, and water. Rinse it well and dry it.

If cages are not kept clean, such irritants as ammonia, moisture, and bacteria rise to harmful levels, predisposing the rats to illness. Good hygiene practices reduce both the risk of disease and the smell.

Disinfect cages and furniture twice a month with a weak bleach solution (10-20 millilitres of bleach per litre of water). Leave items in the solution for at least fifteen minutes.

Once a day, clean water bottles and tubes. Use detergent and water.

Once a week, disinfect water bottle and tubes with a weak bleach solution. Soak them for at least fifteen minutes and rinse them well.

Environmental factors
  • The optimum temperature range for rats is 18–29°C. 
  • Keep the cage out of direct sunlight.
  • Rats prefer a light cycle of twelve to fourteen hours of light and ten to twelve hours of dark.

Cage diagram

  • optimum temperature range 18-29°C
  • indirect sunlight


Rat cage diagram

Rat cage: main features


Cage diagram explanation

Made of clear plastic, the cage has a well-fitting lid.

Place the cage out of direct sunlight, and clean it two to three times a week.

The cage floor should have lining and litter.

At one end of the cage there is a small sleeping box.

Inside the cage there are objects for gnawing, exercise toys like a rotating wheel and gnaw-proof, feeding containers for pelleted food, and a container containing vegetables or seeds

There are also tubes for hiding and a climbing branch.

Sipper tubes or bottles are attached to the side of the cage, and these should be washed daily.

How to care for rats

  • The dietary requirements of rats are similar to those of mice, but because of their larger body size, rats consume more food. They do well on pelleted food as their staple diet, and this food is also good for their teeth.
  • Feed them seeds and some raw vegetables, such as carrots, swedes, and apples, as treats. However, if the rats are not used to these foods, they may develop a mild diarrhoea that usually doesn't last long.
  • Store their dry food in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Buy only three months' supply at a time to ensure good nutritional value.
  • Change their drinking water daily. A rat will drink 25–50 millilitres of water a day.
  • Do not lift a rat by its tail. Pick up your rat by cupping your hands around it to make a cradle for it to sit in or gently placing a hand around its chest and lifting it onto your other hand. Stroke the rat gently. Rats will bite when they are handled roughly, frightened, or hurt.
  • Daily handling helps to keep rats tame and provides an opportunity to check on their health.
  • Always supervise children and students when they are handling rats.
  • Wash your hands after handling rats.
  • Do a health check each day. Look for normal activity. Is the rat eating and grooming itself? Check that its fur appears normal and that it has no scabs or bald spots, that its eyes, ears, and nose are clear of discharges, and that its faeces are normal. Know what is usual for your rat.
  • Changes in temperature and an increase in the level of ammonia because of poor hygiene in the cage may cause rats to develop respiratory disease. Stress may also contribute to this.
  • Gastrointestinal problems can be caused by unclean food containers, contaminated food, or eating unfamiliar foods.
  • Rats may be affected by viral, bacterial, and parasitic conditions. If there are any signs of illness, or if you have questions, consult a veterinarian.

Interesting facts about rats

Rats come in many varieties and colours. Rats are rodents and have open-rooted teeth, and so constant wear is necessary to maintain good dentition.

Rats live from two to four years.

Before puberty, two males or two females will usually live together happily in one large cage. However, a single rat may live happily provided it has enough human companionship.

The female rat may breed as early as six to twelve weeks of age.

Gestation is twenty-one to twenty-three days, and the average litter is six to fourteen babies.

Baby rats are born with their eyes closed and are helpless, and so it is important not to disturb the nest at this time. Their eyes open at twelve to seventeen days, and they are weaned when they are twenty-one days old.

Females may mate immediately after the birth of a litter, and so as one litter is weaned, the next litter is born.

Males reach puberty at six to twelve weeks of age.

At four to five weeks of age you can determine the gender of the young and segregate the males from the females.


The text and illustrations for this online edition of Caring for animals: A Guide for teachers, early childhood educators, and students (published on Te Kete Ipurangi for the New Zealand Ministry of Education in 2005) is copyright © Crown 2005. All rights reserved.

Content has been adapted for the web from the printed version, originally published in 1999 by Learning Media Limited for the Ministry of Education. Although no longer available this publication may still be available in some schools.