“You are What You Eat!”
We hear this a lot and I believe, in many respects, that it’s pretty accurate. Having type 1 diabetes, I am always having to watch what I eat and I get to see how different foods affect my blood glucose levels. This is directly associated with my overall health and well being so it doesn’t surprise me that what you put into your body, or your pet’s body, would have a direct effect on their overall state of being. Much like people, rats can get bored of the same stuff if that is all they have day in and day out but it is important for your rats to have a stable and well balanced primary diet. To this end, the common rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule which is 80% plain, high-quality block feed and 20% fresh/other. In addition to these basics, you’ll also want to think about chew toys and treats.
So let’s start with the basics and talk a bit about the block diet. Yes, this may sound *very* stale and boring for your rat but rats, like humans, will tend to choose things they like to eat over things that they should be eating. A high-quality block diet is designed to give them everything their bodies require in each and every wholesome bite! So what constitutes a “high-quality” diet? Well, to be perfectly transparent, this will vary from person to person depending on who you consult! Generally speaking, in my humble opinion, there are different needs for “growing” rats than there are for “maintenance” rats. “Growing” rats include pregnant/nursing mothers and young rats up to about the age of 6-8 months. These rats need slightly more protein to supplement their changing bodies and I typically look for block diets that have about 18% protein and low fat. Maintenance/adult diets should be a little lower than that and I typically look for around the 14% protein and low fat. For senior rats, their needs will be dependent on their overall health at the time and I’ll be dedicating a blog to senior and special needs rats in the future.
The importance of a healthy block diet is to help prevent obesity which can lead to all sorts of other health issues and to ensure they are getting a nutritionally complete diet. There is plenty more that can be discussed with regard to a rats’ basic diet but, for the sake of this article, I’ll leave it here. The keys to remember when looking at diets are LOW fat, 12-20% protein depending on the age and condition of your rat, and an ingredient list that makes you comfortable (ie vegetarian or not, soy/no soy, corn/no corn, no mineral oil, etc).
With 80% of their diet out of the way, let’s move onto the other 20% of their diet – fresh and other. This is where you get to make food interesting for your pets! Rats, like many other animals, can NOT eat some items and a quick Google search will come up with many lists of items to stay away from so I won’t go into detail on those here. For me, I supplement with a human-grade, organic grain mix that I make myself and I do make this grain available to others via TheRatShop.com. I’m sure there are plenty of other rat enthusiasts who also make grain mixes that you can buy. You can also make your own but, if you only have 2-3 rats, that can prove challenging since a lot of the ingredients are in bulk. Rats are omnivores by nature and love a mix of different foods. I typically think of the rats as mini garbage disposals as I often feed them the better left overs from my own dinner plate. Peas and fresh corn are great for rats too. Unlike dogs and cats, rats can enjoy things like poultry bones. I always consult the list of foods to avoid, just to be certain that I am not offering them something that might make them sick. Rats are unable to vomit so anything they eat must go all the way through so we want to avoid things that may cause stomach upset. In nature, we often see that rats will be hesitant to try new things because of the fact that they are unable to vomit if they get sick. In captivity, that is less likely the case because our rats trust us and trust that what we offer them will not make them sick. My general rule of thumb is that, if I will not eat it, don’t feed it to the rats AND moderation is always best. Rats are small animals. Only give them enough fresh food (fruits, veg, meats, etc) to consume quickly, since you don’t want these things going bad in the cage and your rats eating them later. Also remember to remove any leftovers right away.
So, 80% of their diet should be the free-fed, high-quality rodent block and 20% should be fresh foods and/or a high-quality cereal/grain mix. Another thing to consider are chew toys for the cage. Rat teeth grow continually and the block diet will help maintain their teeth but offering chew toys in their space not only gives them more stuff to chew but also more stuff to be entertained by. I like to have a selection of chew toys to pick from and, when I do the weekly cage cleaning, I will swap out and move around the chew toys in their space. When looking for quality chew toys, I always pick toys with wire frames because there is nothing more disappointing than getting an awesome toy and having my rats chew one part of the non-wire frame and the whole toy falling apart on the bottom of the cage As a matter of fact, I typically keep extra wire or pipe cleaner on hand to re-work chew toys that have fallen apart! I prefer to buy and use toys that are made from more natural products like wood, loofa, coconut, manzanita, fruit wood, etc. Many toys also have plastic components, which are ok as the rats are not eating these things – just chewing on them, but I prefer as natural as possible. Some toys also include mineral stones and such which rats in my care have typically enjoyed as well. Chew toys are not really part of a rats’ diet but they do play a role in your pets’ overall well being.
Finally, we get to my personal favorite which are treats! General treats and training treats. As stated before, rats are SMALL animals and thus, do not need huge treats or even a lot of treats. When most people look for treats, they specifically look for treats marketed to pet rats/rodents and, to be perfectly honest, most of those types of treats are horrible for your pet rats! Rather than focus on all the horrible treats available on the market, let me teach you about how I evaluate treats. Much like their food, I look at the ingredients and I pay close attention to sugar content and overall size. Most of the time, I simply steer clear of the “rodent treats”. Instead, I give my rats small pieces of nut, tiny yogurt drops, pieces of the kids’ cereal, and often pieces of treats made for dogs, cats, or other animals. There are plenty of amazing treats out there that are fantastic for rats but marketed for other animals. Just because something is specifically marketed for rats or rodents does *not* mean it is the best thing for them. Fruitables are a wonderful example of a dog treat that is excellent for rats too! Plenty of little snacks for babies and toddlers would also be great for your pet rats. My point is that, you are not limited to the pet store! There are plenty of safe and healthy treats out there. For training, just use even smaller pieces since you will want to reward the behavior your are training for and you don’t want them to fill up their tummies before the training session is over. I find rice crispies to be excellent for training but things of a similar size would work well too!
Much of your rats’ overall happiness is completely dependent on you as their caregiver. They rely on you for a nutritionally complete block diet, fresh foods/cereal mixes, chew toys, and treats! You are responsible for providing them with everything they need to live happy and healthy lives. Just like you wouldn’t take your kids out to fast food every night, you also don’t want to feed your pets things that are not good for them. Play around and mix it up. You’ll quickly figure out what things they prefer and it’s fun to find new things that your rats enjoy. One important thing to conclude with is NEVER feed your rats anything through the bars of the cage! EVER!! Rats are associative, just like dogs, and if you feed goodies through the bars of the cage on a regular basis, then they will associate anything (including fingers) coming through the bars as being food/treats or something otherwise tasty to eat. Set your rats up for success and always put their food into their food dish or, if you are training them to gently take treats from your hand, be certain the door is open while you are offering them things to eat. Rats are amazing animals. Just like people go on dinner dates to meet others and get to know them, bonding with your rats using food and treats is a reliable way to gain/maintain trust and attachment.