10 Jan 2021

Enrichment For Rats Part 6 - how it works in practice

So, after all our discussion about enrichment and how it works from a rat’s perspective – we are ready to dig down into the nuts and bolts of how we provide enrichment for our rats. How can we enrich their lives?

I order to provide some structure today; we are going to look at enrichment from the perspective of a rat’s natural behaviours. We discussed why behaviour is a good diving board into enrichment in the second article in this series. Today, we are going to get practical!

Social behaviours

Behaviour that falls under this heading would include grooming, snuggling, vocalising, altruistic behaviours and co-operative behaviours. The most obvious enrichment that almost every rat needs is the company of other compatible rats.

A compatible grouping is peaceful almost all the time and no individual is excluded from group interactions (though they may choose to remove themselves). Within a compatible group, rats will naturally display positive social behaviour regardless of what you do.

However, providing several suitable places to hang out together, snuggle, groom and sleep will allow for social behaviour in comfort and warmth. There is a great deal of pleasure in this for your rats.

Offering complex foraging activities that require co-operation between group members can help cement social bonds. An example would be a hanging pinata toy over a rope in the cage.

The youngest and fittest rats in the would be able to balance on the rope and begin to tear open the pinata, eating tasty morsels as they go. But also releasing the contents down to ground level where even the oldest rats can forage the treats.

Calming behaviours

Calming behaviours (stress reducers) are rarely considered when discussing enrichment, probably because these are behaviours like self-grooming, gnawing, and yawning – activities that will occur whatever we provide for our rats. Indeed, rats spend 30-40% of their waking time in grooming alone.

However, just because a behaviour will occur spontaneously, doesn’t mean that we can’t support it through enrichment. Gnawing is an excellent example, which can easily be provided for, and in doing so, we support our rats’ management of stress.

Using natural wood in your cage set up has several advantages:

  • Providing a more natural environment.
  • Providing excellent climbing opportunities.
  • Providing endless gnawing opportunities.
  • Increasing proprioception and fitness.

Providing living – or freshly cut – herbs as enrichment, not only gives a fragrant and nutritious snack but allows for interesting behaviours to crop up. Many rats have been seen to ‘bathe’ in mint or lemon balm by chewing on it and then grooming the scent through their fur.

Foraging behaviours

Foraging is the backbone of enrichment because it naturally employs so much of a rat’s waking time. Seeking, problem-solving, exploring, investigating are all key components of foraging, which also builds the proprioceptive behaviours that we will discuss shortly.

Foraging enrichment can vary from scattering the food into deep litter to offering toys and puzzles to solve, or hiding bedding around the cage. Rats are foragers! They actively enjoy the process of seeking, and the anticipation that goes with it.

The seeking system in the rat is strongly supported by dopamine and reward pathways in the brain. It’s not just the “getting” that gives pleasure and contentment – the whole process of seeking and expectation engages all of the senses and provides positive feedback and enjoyment.

Contra freeloading research has shown that rats who have the choice, will choose to work for food rather than get it from a bowl. This makes sense if much of the pleasure is in the anticipation of reward.

My rat doesn’t like…

So often, around all aspects of enrichment, I hear people try something once and then declare “My rat doesn’t like x” because there has been a lack of immediate engagement. Rats who are not raised with enrichment, or are new to a particular type of enrichment, can often show a lack of interest initially.

Sometimes this is just lack of practice or it can be down to their natural fear of newness. But whatever then reason, many rats need time to adjust to a new form of enrichment. This doesn’t mean that they don’t like it, just that they are not sure of it.

It can also mean that you have moved too fast in terms of challenging them. Take things slowly and offer the same enrichment several times (or leave in the cage if appropriate) until they begin to engage. 

Foraging enrichment ideas

  • Food in toilet roll inners, card egg boxes, small boxes, etc.
  • Hanging toys that hold food like vegetable balls and ‘kebab’ sticks.
  • Larger boxes and containers filled with hay, shredded paper, or safe packaging material with loose treats or small boxes with food in them mixed in.
  • Hay racks or any container with holes filled with bedding.
  • Tubes stuffed with paper or bedding material and food.
  • Parrot foraging toys, dog treat balls, and rabbit toys.
  • Paper bag piñatas, and a myriad of homemade variations.

Don’t forget about water!

Water is a source of enrichment which is often overlooked. We tend to offer rats water in a bottle, and maybe do some pea fishing during free-range. However, open water sources in the cage are strongly favoured by some rats.

The easy way to stop them spilling is to use crocks sold for large birds, which attach to the cage bars. Rats will often bath in these as well as drink. As with all enrichment, offer a choice so that your rats can control their environment and exercise preference.

Proprioceptive behaviours

Having a large open and active cage set up will encourage proprioceptive behaviours such as climbing, balancing, running, and jumping. Given practice, all rats – male and female alike – can become expert in these natural activities.

‘Lazy buck syndrome’ is about our expectation and habitat management, not about the capability of male rats – who can be just as able and physically competent as females.

Offering ropes, branches, ledges, swings, perches, and cargo nets can greatly improve proprioception. As can expecting your rats to climb expertly, rather than giving them easy routes that allow them to bunny-hop from one level to another.

Start slowly and let your rat build fitness and confidence over time. You can increase the difficulty by gradually increasing the climbing angle, the width of the rope, and the mobility of the equipment.

As expertise increases you can make all of your hanging foraging toys harder by placing them in less accessible areas of the cage, or over a rope or moving platform. Rats are excellent climbers and naturally engage in climbing activities in the wild to access food.

Social, safety and comfort behaviours

It’s probably worth saying out loud that one of a rat’s primary needs in terms of enrichment, behaviour, and well-being is to be part of a group. The research indicates that preferred and natural group size is around 5-7 rats, with more being preferable to less.

Being social animals, safety, and comfort are intricately linked to social connection, snuggling, and social grooming. We need to ensure that our rats have areas within their habitat where full group contact can take place (if desired) and where while relaxing and sleeping the rats can be comfortable and warm.

The social bonding behaviours that come on the back of this need no help from us humans but give great pleasure and contentment to our rats, under the influence of oxytocin and serotonin.

Hammocks work well for some rats, while others like to rest and relax under cover, either on the ground or up in the rafters. Some like an open shelf – especially in hot weather. Preferences change and various options should be available so that choices can be made.

Digging, manipulating the environment, nest building

Wild rats dig to create underground burrows and tunnels and digging seems to be one of the instinctive rat behaviours that doesn’t have to be learned. In the UK, naturalistic habitats with deep Perspex base trays full of digging substrate are becoming more common. These trays can be anything up to around half a metre deep!

The result is rats who, from a few weeks, old engage with the opportunity to dig, tunnel, and create chambers and burrows. It is truly a joy to see rats digging in a large space and with a substrate that can hold its structure. Most people use a coconut coir-based compost.

Nest building is another behaviour that people frequently tell me their rats “don’t do” - often because they offered bedding in the cage a couple of times and it was left untouched. However, most rats will nest build – especially in colder weather – providing they have suitable conditions to do so.

What this means can vary from rat to rat. Some like to nest in or under something, and some prefer one nesting material to others. Options to try are:

  • Soft hay,
  • Shredded paper,
  • Fleece strips,
  • Toilet roll or kitchen paper,
  • Packaging paper torn into strips,
  • Soft cardboard strips.

Rats forage for bedding material in the same way that they forage for food. Try placing the bedding material in bags, tubes, or boxes within the environment for the rats to find. Like any new foraging toy – your rats may be suspicious at first, so be willing to leave it placed in the environment for as long as it takes.

Play behaviours

Play behaviours are most abundant in juveniles through to young adults, and they can include chasing, mounting, and mock fighting. Young rats will usually play, even where they do not have adequate space to do so. Play is a useful social tool, that strengthens bonds and allows youngsters to play out immature adult behaviours.

Cage floor space is the safest space for youngsters to play, though once they start chasing, they can cover the whole cage in a few leaps and bounds! It’s tempting to use up floor space with toys and cage furniture, but open space should be provided at all ages.

As well as play, it also enables scatter feeding, substrate diving and rudimentary digging for all rats, and increased accessible habitat for the elderly and infirm.

Alison Campbell © 2020