If you’ve been thinking about getting pet rats but are a bit worried that they might be a bit dirty, we’ve got some great news for you – rats are very clean creatures and they can be taught to use a litter tray to ensure that their cages stay clean too.
The complete guide: how to train a rat to use the litter tray will show you how to set up the litter tray, how to teach your rats to use it and the habits to adopt to reinforce that use in the long-term. We’ll also answer every question you might have about litter tray related behavior.
You’re going to be amazed at how easy it is to get your rats pooping in a hygienic manner and once they do, how easy it is to ensure that they stay that way too. Let’s begin with some litter training basics.
Can Rats Be Litter Trained
There is something of a public misconception around rats. It may be because of literature, horror movies or because wild rats are often found in dirty situations, but many people think rats are filthy animals which love to dwell in dirt and refuse.
This is not true. In fact, rats are very clean animals. Don’t get us wrong, that doesn’t mean that you ought to eat off the surfaces your rats run over without giving them a wipe down but it does mean that if you provide your rats with the opportunity to be clean and you show them the way – they’ll do their best to oblige.
So, can rats be litter trained? Yes, they can. Though there are some constraints on litter training rats (particularly in regard to their pee) and they may never be perfect users of the litter tray in times of stress, but they can certainly learn to poop in one place.
The big advantage to you as a rat owner of teaching you rats to use a litter tray is that it will reduce odors (though rat poop is not especially stinky) and make it much easier for you to clean up after your rats.
Fortunately, as with almost all exercises that involve training rats, litter training is not a very difficult task though it does require a reasonable amount of patience. Rats are very bright for their size, but learning is mainly a matter of repetition.
How To Set Up The Litter Boxes
The first part of litter training doesn’t involve the rats at all. It requires you to set up their litter boxes in a way that’s designed to encourage their use and to ensure their utility. There’s nothing worse than trying to train a rat to use a litter tray that’s not in the right place, is too small for their needs or is stuffed with the wrong substances.
The good news is that setting up litter boxes is neither time intensive nor expensive. In fact, using litter boxes for rats is cheap throughout the life of your rat (especially when compared to larger animals like cats which go through a lot of litter each month).
Pick The Right Rat Litter Box
OK, so now you want to buy a litter box (or more than one) that can comfortably fit your rat. The ideal litter container is going to sit fairly low to the ground (because your rat needs to be able to access it easily – while rats are profligate climbers, they don’t tend to want to poop when they’re in the air).
The rat needs to be able to get in and out easily, which means the sides of the litter box shouldn’t be too high, either, it would be quite distressing for a rat to be caught in a pile of droppings for an extended period of time.
The rat should also be to get their whole body inside the litter tray so that they can do their business without any discomfort.
You can buy litter trays easily and cheaply on Amazon or from your local pet store. However, if you’re short of cash at the moment, you can also make them from a cardboard box (use clean ones) that you’ve cut up yourself – you’ll need to replace cardboard litter trays regularly, though. You could even use a Tupperware container if you have one laying around of a suitable size.
If you do buy one, it’s quite a good idea to buy one that will attach to the sides of the cage, this stops your rats from dragging it around and spilling poop everywhere. You can find the litter tray my rats use here.
Put The Litter Box In The Right Place
Now, one handy litter training is that rats are naturally quite clean, and they don’t want to live in a room full of their poop any more than you do. So, if you take a careful scout around the cage you will find an area (or areas if you have more than one rat) that they tend to poop in (just look for the poop!)
This is good because it tells you where you want to put your litter box or litter boxes. Yes, when you first start training your rats to use a litter tray – you want one litter box per poop pile. You can reduce this in the future as the training progresses but it’s much easier to get your rat to poop in a litter tray if it’s just replacing its normal toilet regime.
Locating the litter boxes in these zones will make it much easier for you to persuade your rats to start pooping in the right places and it’s worth doing just to save on the headaches of more complicated training.
Fill The Litter Box With The Right Kind Of Material
To help your rats remember that the toilet is a different room from the rest of their living quarters – it’s a good idea to ensure that the litter you use is not the same material as you use for lining the cage, for their bedding or in their digging boxes.
This helps them learn the smell of the toilet material and subtly encourages them not to poop wherever they feel like it.
You also need to make sure that whatever material you choose is:
- Capable of absorbing urine and ideally, any smells that come off either urine or poop
- Completely safe for your rats to eat because being rats, you can guarantee that they will eat the litter material at some point or another
- Free of dust or scents or any other type of chemical additive that could cause damage to their respiratory tracts which are very sensitive
That leads us to a non-dusty 100% paper based pellet of some description that is also unscented.
What Litter Should I Use?
Whatever material will be used in the litterbox should not be used on the cage floor; this may lead to confusion as to where the boundaries of the litterbox end and the rest of the cage begins.
- Pellet Bedding: there are many varieties on the market. Pellet bedding is produced from 100% recycled paper, cellulose fiber, or compressed kiln-dried wood fibers which will expand and absorb moisture on contact.
- Shredded Paper: this material will have to be changed frequently as it tends to turn to mush when wet. Varieties found in pet stores are usually 100% recycled material that is dust-free but be sure to read the label (important for preventing irritation to the respiratory tract of our pet rats).
Add Some Poop To The Litter Box
Now, the thing is rats are generally neophobic, that is they don’t like new things. This is a survival trait which allows rats to avoid being trapped or poisoned in the wild but it does make things slightly harder when training them to use a litter because they’re going to see the litter box and treat it with some suspicion.
To help them get used to the idea of the little box as a normal part of their environment – you can collect some droppings from the floor of the cage and then pop them into the litter box. This will make it smell like rat and thus, it will immediately become more attractive to your rats.
Please, make sure that you put some gloves on before you go collecting rat droppings and that you give your hands a thorough clean after you finish. You’re not likely to catch any diseases from pet rats but it’s not entirely impossible, either, so better safe than sorry.
How To Help Your Rat Use The Litter Box
Now, if you’ve followed our guide to the letter – you’re now ready to introduce your rats to the litter box and to help them to learn to use that litter box. It’s not a tricky process but it does require a little patience.
Sadly, we can’t sit our rats down and explain to them exactly what we want from them, so we have to wait for them to work it out and give them a little encouragement to get it right along the way. Trial and error are very much part of the rat’s learning process.
Give Them Praise/Rewards For Using The Litter Box
We know that some rat owners swear by praise when it comes to training their rats. They offer compliments in a soft voice and, perhaps, a little petting for a job well done. Unfortunately, we’ve found that not all rats will respond to words and that most of them would prefer a different reward.
Treats. Rats are very much motivated by food and that’s good news because it makes training them very easy. When you rat does something that you want it to do – you reward them by giving them a little food and then they associate doing good things with getting good things.
Now, you can’t possibly watch over your rats all the time but when you are around the cage and enjoying their antics and you see your rat using the litter tray for a poop – give them a treat. Do this every single time that you see them on the litter tray.
Over time, this will help your rat firmly cement the relationship between pooping and that location and you ought to see fewer and fewer droppings laying around the rat’s cage.
Help Them Understand That Pooping Outside The Litter Box Is Bad
Can we be very clear at this point – under no circumstances should you ever shout at a rat or physically discipline a rat. Their ears are far more sensitive than human ears and you could damage their hearing by shouting and certainly, you will cause them an enormous amount of distress.
Physical discipline is an even worse idea. You are so much bigger than rat that even a gently tap with a finger might cause it genuine injury. Your rat is very unlikely to learn anything of use if it’s in pain. So, please, don’t do it. There’s really no need.
You can, however, gently scold your rat to distract them when they’re doing something that you don’t want them to do. Our technique is simply to clap our hands together when we see the rat having a poop somewhere that we don’t want it to.
You can add a firm “no” if you like too but remember that this should be delivered in your normal volume and not shouted for effect.
Keep Everything Clean In The Cage
Rats are much more likely to embrace the idea of having a toilet if the rest of their cage doesn’t smell like a toilet. Given that before they are litter trained, they pretty much poop anywhere – you’re going to need to give the cage a regular clean up while they make their transition to pooping in the litter.
That means every time that you see rat poop in the cage, you want to scoop it up and get rid of it. Right then and there. You also want to continue with your regular cage cleaning (daily removal of bedding, weekly deep cleans) so that over time, they only part of the cage that smells of poop (to the rats) is the litter tray.
Once they’re pooping in the tray on a regular basis, you can stop checking for poop in the cage on a regular basis and just go back to cleaning the cage daily.
Put Some More Poop In The Litter Box
Just like people some rats are really smart and some are well, not so smart, and if your rat isn’t quite working out the purpose of the litter tray – it’s time to “freshen” up the litter tray with some of that poop you’ve been collecting in the cage.
This will help intensify the message to your rat that this is where poop belongs. We promise, your rat’s not being deliberately obtuse when it comes to pooping in the right place, he/she is just confused, and this is just going to gently help them along in the right direction.
Other Tips For Litter Training Rats
OK, so now we’re through the basic training and onto the advanced level stuff. Now, none of this is complicated or demanding but it will help the rats continue to use the litter tray appropriately and help to allay some of your concerns around your rat’s behavior.
We’ve found that rats, once trained, will continue to use the litter tray without any real problems unless you change the environment and they become confused or stressed and start to poop in other places because they’re no longer sure of what’s required of them. If this happens, you can simply revisit the litter training process.
Other than that, these tips will ensure that the rats keep on pooping in the proper place without any major effort on your part.
Keep The Litter Boxes Clean
Would you want to use a toilet overflowing with your own poop? Well, neither do your rats. So, if their litter boxes aren’t cleaned on a regular basis – they will eventually start to balk at using their litter box and start using the cage again.
You don’t want this to happen because it is very difficult to get a rat re-litter trained once it associates using a litter tray with being dirty, in fact, you would probably need to buy a new litter tray at this point.
So, the best thing to do is to ensure that your rats are always kept with clean facilities. That means you want to take the litter box and empty it out daily or if you notice that the litter box is overflowing with poop at any particular time.
You don’t need to wash the litter box each time that you empty it – you can do that on a weekly basis as you want to preserve some scent on the box when possible.
Then fill the litter box with fresh litter and put it back again. Your rats will be very happy to be reunited with a nice smelling litter box.
Use One Litter Box Per Level In The Cage
While some rat cages will be quite basic, others are a veritable rat mansion with many levels and floors with interesting toys and places to sleep, etc. We think that there’s a lot to be said for a fancy rat cage as it can enable play and make your rats more entertaining to be around.
However, while rats are relatively clean animals – they’re not the hardest working creatures and one thing we’ve noticed is that they’re very unlikely to change floors when they need the bathroom.
That means if you’re going to use a fancy rat cage, you want to install a litter box on each floor of the cage – this will make certain that they keep pooping in the toilet and not all over the place.
Litter Trays Should Be Available For Playtime
One thing many rat owners fail to consider is the need for an extra litter box when the rats come out to play. Now, if you can arrange it – the easiest thing to do is to place the cage on the same surface as the one your rats play on and open the door and leave it open.
If you do this – they’re going to pop back into the cage when the call of nature takes them and use the litter tray.
However, if this isn’t a feasible solution for your rats – then you want to ensure that you place a fresh litter tray (ideally with a little poop on it already) on the surface so that they can go there and not on your carpet or sideboard.
Change The Litter Box Size If You Need To
One thing we’ve found is that when you first start litter training rats, you’re going to use a box that’s designed for the rat as it arrives in your home, which means your rat will be “young rat” sized and as sit grows up – it’s going to outgrow that litter tray.
If you find that your rat is struggling to fit inside the litter box – it’s time to upgrade it for a bigger and better one. If you want to test this theory, you can always make a cardboard one and try it out before you invest in a new plastic litter tray (though given how cheap these trays are – it’s probably not a major issue for most budgets just to upgrade).
Why Rats Can’t Be Taught To Pee On Demand
You can teach a rat to poop in a litter tray very easily using the method that we’ve outlined above but you’re never going to get a rat to pee in a litter tray on a regular basis and that’s not because your rat is going out of its way to spite you.
Rats are not people and they’re driven by different impulses and one of those impulses is to “scent mark” their territory. This is particularly true of male rats, unfortunately, who are keen to spray their scent everywhere to impress the ladies even though their urine tends to have a higher ammonia content and smells more.
So, if you want to keep the urine scent down – it’s best to buy female rats or if you have male rats, to get them neutered (they stop spraying when they lose interest in women). This won’t stop them from peeing everywhere, but it will reduce the frequency of such episodes.
We’d recommend that you put a liner under your cage to absorb any pee that trickles out and accept that this minor inconvenience is part of the fun of owning rats.
What To Do When Rats Stash Food In The Litter Tray
Rats often hoard food when they have too much to eat (you can normally tell that a rat has too much to eat on a regular basis because it will start getting fat as well as hoarding) or when they are pregnant and hoping to store some extra food to help them nurse their babies.
To a rat the litter tray is as good as anywhere else to hoard food. They don’t have the same understanding of food hygiene as we do. There’s not much that you can do about this – if you’re feeding them too much, you should cut down the food you supply but if they’re pregnant you might just need to ride this out.
What To Do When Rats Sleep In Their Litter Tray
This is a bit along the same lines as the hoarding, but you can discourage rats from using the litter tray as a bed. Just clap your hands when you catch them drifting off in the toilet and give them a little treat to encourage them to head somewhere else. This will probably stop them from doing the same thing in the future.
Is Cat Litter Safe For Rats?
There is a bit of a debate over whether cat litter is safe for rats. In our opinion, as long as the cat litter is made of 100% paper and is unscented – it’s perfectly suited for your rat’s needs. Just make sure that you read the description carefully before you buy it as other formulations (particularly scented ones) could endanger your rat’s health.
So there you have it, complete guide: how to train a rat to use the litter tray. We hope that you found it useful and feel ready to help your rats to learn how to use their litter tray now. Don’t feel upset if they don’t pick things up immediately – we did say this job requires a little patience.
However, there’s no reason that in a week or two that your rats shouldn’t be pooping in a litter tray and helping you keep your home fresh and clean. They really are very clean animals when you give them the chance to be.