This article is from an earlier edition of the Rat Health Care booklet. Order one today! Check out the info at Rat Books
by Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun
Because rats live in such close contact with their litter and bedding these must be kept clean and free from toxins. Litter is a product put in the bottom of the cage or litter box to absorb wastes. Bedding is nesting material used for sleeping and is usually confined to the nest box. Bedding obviously needs to be a soft material, but litter can be made from hard pellets or granules. Some rats don't like the hard pellets at first, but they quickly get used to them. See the article on litters for more information.
Although I don’t recommend cages with a raised wire bottom because this can lead to bumblefoot, if your cage does have a raised floor you could use newspaper in the tray underneath. Use newspaper inside the cage with caution. Use old papers so the ink is less likely to rub off onto your rats' fur. Even non-toxic ink will turn your rats black and force extra grooming. Combining newspaper and litter can cause a mess at cleaning time, so stick to one or the other.
A tiny dustpan and broom can aid in cleaning an aquarium. Or, you can suck it out with a wet/dry vacuum. While most of you probably throw the old litter in the trash, keep in mind that it can be composted. (That’s what I do with mine.) Or, if you're connected to a sewer system instead of a septic tank, you can flush small amounts of some litters down the toilet.
Rats usually enjoy some type of bedding, although it isn't necessary during hot weather. Most of my rats sleep in hammocks, so they don’t need any bedding product on the floor of their cage.
If you want to give your rats some bedding to go into a house, you can use paper strips, aspen curls or Eco-Bedding, small crinkled strips of brown paper. Pretty much all newspapers are now printed with soy-based ink that is non-toxic, but light colored rats will get the dark ink in them and look dirty. I once bought some shredded cornhusks that my rats liked. Clean dust-free hay or straw can also be used.
One commercial bedding is CareFRESH, which is made of short pulp fibers from a paper mill that used to go to waste, and looks like shredded egg cartons. Many people like this product for bedding, and for litter as well, although in my experience paper products without an added odor control factor don't control odor well, despite the claims on the package. In addition, although products like CareFRESH say they are low dust, they are actually quite dusty and can cause many rats to sneeze.
Many people like to use rags, cloth diapers, or towels for bedding, but threads can sometimes get wrapped around a rat's leg or neck. I definitely don't recommend using fabric or yarn for a maternity nest or for babies. A safe and very warm alternative is felt, which is made from very short fibers.
Most rats have clean bathroom habits and never soil their bed. Others, especially some males, aren't so fussy. When you clean the cage, check to make sure the bedding is still clean and replace it when necessary.
The Cleaning Schedule
Changing your rats’ litter when it's soiled is vital. Bacteria starts to work immediately on urine, changing it to ammonia, which causes the strong unpleasant odor that comes from a dirty cage. Ammonia is very irritating to delicate tissues, and prolonged exposure can damage the respiratory tract. This means you must change the litter in your rat's cage BEFORE the ammonia builds up. If the cage gets stinky, you've let it go too long. Don't rely on the appearance of the litter either. Get as close to it as you can and take a big whiff. If it stinks to you, imagine what it must be like for a little animal living right on top of it! Also, if you let the litter stay wet, there is more risk of fungus growth. One type of fungus, aspergillus, can invade the lungs if rats are exposed to high levels of its spores. The danger of fungus growth is especially high for natural products such as corn cob litter, aspen shavings, hay, or straw.
To avoid letting the ammonia build up, set up a cleaning schedule. For instance, you might need to clean the cage out every 4 days, or maybe every 14 days. The schedule will vary depending on the size and type of cage, the number of residents, the type of litter, and the temperature and humidity. You'll need to clean more often during hot and muggy weather.
Washing the Cage
Once the old litter is removed, wipe the cage out with a damp rag or sponge and a liquid anti-bacterial soap such as Dial brand. Then wipe out or rinse the cage well to remove the soap. Wire cages tend to get quite grimy, so you may occasionally have to scrub them with a brush.
It’s not necessary to disinfect the cage each time you wash it because soap and water removes most germs. But if you’ve been having trouble with disease, or you’re cleaning out a cage before adding new residents, it’s a good idea. You can use either bleach or Lysol mixed with 15 parts water. You must wash the cage with soap first and rinse before applying the disinfectant. Allow the disinfectant to remain on for 15 minutes and then rinse very thoroughly before drying the cage.
Now it’s time to put the clean litter in. Use only a layer about ¼" thick. Any more is wasteful because the ammonia will build up just as fast. It’s better to use less litter and change it more often. If your rat uses just one corner for a toilet scooping the wet litter from that spot every few days will extend the time required between cleanings. Or, you can put a small litter box in that corner and leave the rest of the cage floor bare. Rubbermaid makes a plastic drawer organizer tray (6"X9"X2") that works great for a rat litter box.
Keeping your rat's cage clean and toxin free is the some of the best rat health insurance you can buy!
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