September 13, 2019

What Should I Feed My Pet Rat?

How to Support a Rat’s Omnivorous Diet 

by Dr. Cayla Iske

Rats are unique, nocturnal, social critters that make excellent pets. In the wild, rats are both prey and predator, naturally consuming am omnivorous diet including a huge diversity of foods such as vegetation, seeds, grains, and occasionally invertebrates and animal proteins. For your furry little friend, it is important to offer a similar level of dietary diversity to meet nutritional requirements and provide enrichment. Like hamsters and gerbils, the largest part of a rat’s diet should be a well-balanced, uniform, fortified pellet/rodent block free of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives. This serves as the foundation of the diet to ensure nutrient and caloric needs are met. A uniform pellet or block also prevents selective eating of high fat and high-calorie items, which rats will naturally gravitate towards. Controlling caloric intake and coupling to stimulating activity is essential to their overall health and wellbeing as rats are prone to obesity which has many negative secondary effects.  

Fortified Food  – The Foundation of Your Rat’s Diet  

When evaluating a fortified food, it is important to evaluate the guaranteed analysis for macro and micronutrient amounts. Start with the macros such as protein, fat, and fiber, but don’t forget that you really need to evaluate and understand all of the ingredients to get the full story of the diet. Ingredients in the food are required to be listed by order of their inclusion. It may be tempting to just look at the first 2-3 ingredients and assume they make up 95% of the diet, but that can be a mistake! All ingredients, independent of inclusion amount, will have an impact on the overall nutritional profile of the diet and understanding this is key to understanding what you are feeding your furry friend. We recommend looking at all ingredients on the label and focusing on minimally the first 8-10 ingredients and what nutrients they are contributing, keeping in mind they are declining in inclusion as you read. 

Protein And Fat are Essential, But Don’t Overlook Fiber! 

As omnivores, it is commonly understood that protein and fat are critical in a rat’s diet. However, fiber is an often overlooked, yet crucial dietary component. The two major types of fiber to initially consider are soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber comes from many different sources (e.g. oats, barley, flaxseed, some fruits and vegetables, and many others). Functionally, as it passes through the body, soluble fiber attracts water to form a “gel” that helps you stay fuller longer. Soluble dietary fiber, in appropriate amounts and types, has been shown to be beneficial to many species of rodents and contribute to improved colon health, stool quality, and may help reduce cholesterol.  

Insoluble fiber comes from sources such as wheat bran, cereal hulls, and grass hays and does not absorb water. Instead, insoluble fiber passes through the digestive tract relatively unchanged, promoting gut motility and supporting overall gut health. Research has also shown that rodents benefit from insoluble dietary fiber via improved insulin sensitivity (mitigation of diabetes), control of weight gain, and reduction of fat mass (mitigation of obesity). While soluble and insoluble fiber are both beneficial to rats; in reality, rats need both kinds of fiber and research has suggested a combination of the two types leads to more beneficial effects than soluble fiber alone. 

To summarize, a high-quality, fortified pellet or rodent block will ensure the protein, fat, fiber, vitamin, and mineral requirements of your little furry are being met. With a good baseline diet, supplemental foods can contribute additional micronutrients to your little one’s overall diet, along with the added benefit of providing nutritional, mental and physical enrichment.  

Supplemental Foods For Your Rat 

Rats are naturally opportunistic omnivores and are willing and able to ingest a larger diversity of foods than many species. This is one reason they are one of the most widely distributed species across our planet. Given rats tendency to preferentially consume high fat, high-calorie dietary items, these foods should be limited. Therefore, greens and veggies should be a predominant proportion of the supplementary foods along with a variety of grains, proteins, fats, and fruits. Some great options for each of these categories and feeding recommendations are listed here: 

Veggies & Greens (1-2 tsp daily)

  • Diversity of Lettuces 
  • Kale 
  • Squash 
  • Green pepper 
  • Cucumber 
  • Zucchini 

Grains (0.5-1 tsp daily)

  • Cooked brown rice 
  • Whole-grain cereal (unsweetened puffed rice or wheat) 
  • Cooked whole-wheat pasta 
  • Oats 
  • Barley 
  • Whole-grain crackers 

Proteins (2-3 times/week 0.5-1 tsp)

  • Hard-boiled eggs 
  • Mealworms 
  • Cooked beans 
  • Cooked chicken 
  • Crickets 
  • Cottage cheese 

Fruits (2-3 times/week < 1 tsp)

  • Apple (no seeds) 
  • Melons 
  • Banana 
  • Blueberries 
  • Strawberries 
  • Kiwi

Fats (2-3 times/week 0.5 tsp)

  • Pumpkin seeds (unsalted) 
  • Sunflower seeds (no shell, unsalted) 
  • Pistachios (no shell, unsalted) 
  • Pecans (unsalted) 
  • Brazil nuts (unsalted) 
  • Avocado (no skin) 

Offering your fur baby a diversified diet is essential, but may require some patience and finesse. Rats are generally neophobic, meaning they will avoid new foods or even foods they have previously consumed if they are placed on or in a novel object. Thus, it is very important to slowly and gradually introduce new foods. To avoid overwhelming your rat, it is best to offer new foods in small amounts (no larger the size of a pea) in common feeding places or mixed with food items they are fed normally. Once your rodent friend has become used to a new food, you can try hiding or scattering the food throughout their enclosure for an added level of enrichment. As always, it is always best to consult your veterinarian to determine the specific feeding regimen appropriate for your individual animal.  

Enrichment is Essential for Rats 

Enrichment is vital to supporting any animal’s wellbeing, no matter what they eat. By exploring new supplemental food options, you are enriching your animal via their diet and keeping mealtime interesting to avoid picky eaters. As we’ve discussed, neophobia can sometimes make it difficult to offer new foods to rats, but a slow introduction is key. Beyond nutritional enrichment, rats also need mental and physical enrichment. Given rats are incredibly social creatures, many experts and rescues highly recommend housing at least 2 rats together. Keeping a small mischief (group of rats) will ensure your little friends will have the interaction needed to keep them mentally fit, as well as provide them an outlet for physical enrichment through play. Toys also offer great enrichment and can come in the form of store-bought toys such as natural chews, or homemade toys such as toilet paper/paper towel rolls or cardboard boxes. An enrichment option many pet parents don’t often think of is loose hay. Providing hay to rats can encourage foraging and nesting, and offering grain hays, such as oat, can provide nutritional enrichment via the small grains or seed heads. 

The first step to caring for your pet is knowing what they need and how they thrive. Ensuring you are aware of the nutritional, physical, and psychological needs of your little furry can set them up for a long, high-quality life.