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Pet Rats - Cage and Tanks!

Which is Better - Tanks or Cages?

Most rat owners choose one of two housing options: aquariums tanks or wire cages. No matter what you choose, it should have adequate ventilation, and no sharp edges or places where a foot or head could get caught.

Aquariums (large fish tanks)

Aquarium tanks are an attractive way to house rats, because there are no cage bars to block the view. They are easy to clean - you just sponge them out with warm soapy water.

Aquariums Tanks Are Poorly Ventilated

Aquarium tanks do have the disadvantage of being poorly ventilated though - they need a wire lid (not glass!) to let the air in, and may not be suitable for warmer climates. The warm, humid, still air of an aquarium allows ammonia to build up rapidly, so it is important to make sure that the lid allows plenty of air to circulate.

Typical aquarium tank for pet rats with mesh lid

The lid should be composed entirely of wire mesh, perhaps on a home-made wooden frame. A fan close to the tank will help. Fish tank hoods and vivarium lids, or wooden lids with a few drilled holes, do not encourage air movement. Because of this poor ventilation, they also need to be cleaned out more often to control ammonia levels.

Aquarium tanks can be an option if, for some reason, a cage is not suitable or available. Aquarium tanks offer less climbing opportunities, but this can be overcome with a little imagination and the use of some of the items listed above.

Tanks do have the advantage of keeping the rats bedding, food etc. in their home and away from your furniture and carpets, and they provide extra security for rats who live in cat-owning households (although make sure that the lid is cat-proof!).

Benefits of Aquarium Tanks

Aquarium tanks can play a useful role for housing mothers who are rearing their young, baby rats, the elderly, and the sick as they are sheltered from drafts and stay warmer. Sometimes, baby rats will be able to squeeze through wire cages, so tanks may be the better option for these young ratties.


Superpet Ferret First Home Deluxe - suitable for adult rats!

Wire cages are by far the best housing for rats. In addition to providing good ventilation they are a ready-made rat climbing-frame, and they allow you to interact with your rats -- you can feed and stroke them through the bars. Rats have keen senses of hearing and of smell; a cage provides extra stimulation as your rats can pick up new smells and sounds which they find interesting. Don't worry about cages being draughty - all that is needed is a warm, sheltered nestbox for a sleeping place.

A cage can be easily converted into a rat adventure playground with a little imaginative use of ropes, ladders, tree branches, shelves, hammocks, and flowerpots attached to the sides.

Tall Cages

In addition to a minimum of two square feet of floor-space, you should try to get a nice tall cage for your rats: they love to climb, and you can maximise the available space by making shelves. The simplest shelves are melamine boards which can slide between the bars of the cage; they are convenient to remove and can be wiped down.

Don't get a really tall cage without putting in levels to break falls though. My rat Jump climbed all the way up to the top of my 80 cm tall cage, and fell down. My heart skipped a beat, but thankfully he was okay. In fact, he immediately stood up on his hind feet and sniffed the air like nothing happened. You can create a level with a piece of plastic tied onto the cage with wire or put in a hammock (which can simply be a piece of fabric.)

Cage Bars / Grilles

If you have babies or young rats ensure that bar spacing is not so great that they can squeeze themselves out. Maximum gap should be approximately 19mm (0.75 inches).

Powder coated wire cages are better than galvanised wire cages, which can retain smells and are harder to clean. There is also a concern about zinc poisoning from galvanised wire.

Ferplast Brio Mini aviary, but great for pet rats!

Hamster Cages Are Not Suitable

A hamster cage, no matter how 'large', is not suitable for adult rats: even the three-storey 'hamster-palaces' do not have enough floor space or climbing opportunities. Fer-Plast and other companies make excellent, reasonably priced parrot or cockatiel cages (such as the Fer-Plast Sonia 24" long x 15" wide x 25" high or the Immac Gabbie Dora ) that are suitable for adult rats.

It is worth shopping around, as prices can vary by as much as 100%; animal exhibitions are a great place to get large cages at wholesale prices. Used ads papers and classified ads are also good places to find cheap cages. Just make sure that you disinfect and rinse any second-hand cage thoroughly.

Plastic Tray Cage Bases

Any cage you buy should have a plastic tray at the base so that you can fill it with litter. The bars will preferably go right down inside the tray to prevent the rats chewing the plastic.

Wire Cage Floors

Some wire cages made especially for ferrets, chinchillas, or laboratory use, have wire floors with a pan below to catch droppings. These wire floors can be dangerous for rats; they may trap feet, and can also cause, or aggravate, a condition called bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis). This leads to severe irritation and swelling of the hocks, and cannot usually be cured.

Research shows that ammonia levels remain many times higher in cages with wire floors than in those with solid floors plus litter. ('Differences in the microenvironment of a polycarbonate caging system: bedding vs raised wire floors' by Raynor, Steinhagen & Hamm, Laboratory Animals Vol 17, pp85-89).

In any case, there is no advantage to having wire floors. A litter is still needed beneath the wire floor, to absorb urine and stop smells. The study above found that when litter was placed beneath the wire floors, the ammonia level was approximately halved - but still remained many times higher than that in cages with solid floors. This is probably because the movement of the animals mixes waste products with litter, thus drying them out more effectively.

Cages with wire floors are not even any easier to clean, as droppings get stuck to the wire. If you do buy a cage with a wire floor, remove the wire floor and set the cage in the litter tray. Wire shelves can be easily covered with off-cuts of linoleum, cardboard or carpet, which can be replaced when dirty.

Making Your Own Cage

You can also build a cage yourself. The benefit of making your own cage is that you can make it to your own specifications, according to the room that you have available, how many rats you have etc.

Remember that rats will chew on wood, so if you use wood for the frame, be prepared for it to be gnawed on. Wire mesh should be small enough that the rats can't get legs or heads stuck, and if you keep your rats outside, the mesh needs to be able to keep snakes and birds out.

Cabinet Cages

Cabinet cages are a bit more difficult to build and take some know-how. To start, you need an old cabinet, bookcase, or desk. I have seen them made out of old dressers as well.

Custom DIY homemade cabinet cages for pet rats

Clean the cabinet well. Cut openings in the floor of each level for the ratties or mousies to move from level to level, then laminate the floors/shelves with vinyl tiles and shelf paper for ease of cleaning.

For the doors you can use a frame of 1 by 2s or dowel rods; you can even use pieces of wooden or plastic molding, nailed together, attached with small hinges. You can then stretch chicken wire or hardware cloth over your frame and attach it with staples from a good staple gun. Whenever you use chicken wire and hardware cloth you need to remember to turn sharp edges back on themselves to protect yourself and your animals.

After the cabinet cage is completed, you can then decorate at will. Furniture for ratties does not have to be expensive; something as simple as a tree branch can provide hours of fun and be a useful accessory to any cage. For more ideas, look at my page on Pet Rats Toy Ideas.

Combo Cages!

Pets rats tank with cage toppers extend your aquarium tank!

If you want the good looks, convenience, and insulation of the aquarium, but want to give your rats climbing space and a breezy place to sleep in summer, consider combining tanks and cages into one big combo cage. By building a "cage topper" for your aquarium, you instantly have two levels for your rats to explore, and it allows them to choose whether they want to sleep downstairs where it is warm, or upstairs in the cool.

Plastic Rabbit or Cavy Cages

Plastic rabbit or cavy cages are sometimes used for rats. They all have thick plastic base trays, but the top half may be either all wire, or else clear plastic, containing a wire top door.

Cages with a raised wire top half include the Ferplast Cavia range. These offer good ventilation and climbing opportunities. Shelves and toys can be attached to the wire on the sides. The larger versions allow lots of floorspace - sometimes 3 feet long or more - and they make good rat homes.

Plastic cage for pet rats

Cages with a raised plastic top include the Savic Rody and Ferplast Duna, a large (approx. 30" x 19" x 23") plastic tank with clear plastic top half. These cages offer limited climbing opportunities and poor ventilation, but are extremely easy to clean (they can be taken apart). While the Duna is super as a nursery for baby rats as it is secure and draught-proof, it should only be used for adults when there are no other feasible options. Determined chewers make short work of them.

Rabbit Hutches

Rabbit hutches are sometimes used by fanciers who keep their rats in outdoor sheds. In such cases hutches provide extra protection against the elements, as well as a readily defensible space, as all the walls barring the front are solid: this is similar to the type of space that rats would choose to nest in in the wild.

As with all housing for rats, it is imperative that the hutches are generously sized and that climbing and play opportunities are afforded. Many fanciers find that a non-toxic paint (like yacht varnish) applied to the inside of hutches will extend their lifespan. Chewed holes can be repaired with ceramic tiles.

A Good Nestbox

In addition to a cage, your rats will need a nestbox. This is a place to hide or sleep in which allows the rats to feel secure, and to build a warm nest. A nest box can be improvised from many objects: a small empty cardboard box, a large clean empty jar, or a small flowerpot or bucket laid on its side.

Check out more cages on the rat cages page, or go directly to browse cages at last updated 1 Oct, 2017


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