How Can You Encourage Natural Burrowing Behavior in Pet Rats?

March 11, 2024

Rats are intelligent and social animals often kept as pets. One of their natural behaviors is burrowing. This activity is part of a rat’s instinctual drive to create a safe and comfortable home. However, pet rats, particularly those in small cages, often lack opportunities to engage in this behavior. Encouraging burrowing behavior is a vital part of providing a good quality of life for your pet rats. We will delve into why burrowing is critical for rats and how you can help your pets maintain this behavior.

Understanding the Importance of Burrowing

Burrowing is more than just a fun pastime for rats. It satisfies their instinctual need for security and personal territory. In a laboratory setting, researchers have found that rats deprived of the opportunity to burrow exhibit signs of stress. This highlights the importance of burrowing for the well-being of these animals.

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Rats, like many other animals, use burrowing as a survival strategy in the wild. They create complex burrow systems for shelter from predators and extreme weather conditions. These burrows also serve as a place to store food and raise their young. In a way, burrows are like a rat’s personal fortress – a place where they feel safe and secure.

While pet rats are safe from predators and harsh weather in your home, they still retain their burrowing instincts. They are eager to dig and explore, and if they can’t satisfy these instincts, they can become stressed and display abnormal behaviors.

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Selecting the Appropriate Cage

Choosing the right cage for your pet rat is a crucial first step towards encouraging their natural burrowing behavior. The cage should be large enough for your rat to move around freely, and it should have ample space for bedding material where they can burrow.

A cage with a deep base is ideal, as it allows you to add a generous amount of bedding. Avoid cages with wire bottoms, as they can be uncomfortable and even harmful to your rat’s feet. Also, ensure that the cage has enough ventilation to keep your rat healthy and comfortable.

The cage should also be easy to clean, as rats are clean animals and can become stressed in a dirty environment. Regularly cleaning the cage and changing the bedding will help keep your rat healthy and happy, further encouraging their natural behaviors.

Providing the Right Bedding for Burrowing

The type of bedding you provide can significantly influence your rat’s burrowing behavior. Rats prefer soft, comfortable, and easily movable bedding that they can shape to their liking. It’s also essential that the bedding is safe for your rat to dig in and chew on, as they will often do both while burrowing.

Paper-based beddings are a good choice because they are soft, absorbent, and dust-free. Avoid cedar and pine beddings, as they contain natural oils that can irritate your rat’s respiratory system. Remember to provide a thick layer of bedding to allow your rat to burrow deeply.

Enrichment Activities to Encourage Burrowing

In addition to providing the right environment, offering enrichment activities can further encourage your rat’s burrowing behavior. These activities can also help to prevent boredom and promote mental stimulation.

An easy way to do this is by hiding treats or food in their bedding, encouraging them to dig for their rewards. This mimics the natural behavior of food foraging and storage in the wild.

Another activity is to provide tunnel tubes or small hideouts in the cage. These can be made from safe materials like cardboard or untreated wood. They not only provide a place for your rat to hide and rest but also add an extra element of exploration and digging.

The Role of Social Interaction

Never underestimate the importance of social interaction in promoting good animal behavior. Rats are social animals and often enjoy burrowing and playing together. Keeping rats in pairs or small groups can help them express their natural behaviors more freely.

However, monitor your rats for any signs of aggression or stress when introducing new rats into the cage. Rats are territorial animals, and a newcomer might be seen as an intruder. It’s important to introduce new rats gradually and supervise their interactions until they are comfortable with each other.

In conclusion, encouraging burrowing behavior in pet rats requires a combination of the right environment, suitable bedding, engaging activities, and social interaction. Keeping these factors in mind will help you provide a fulfilling and happy life for your pet rats.

Observing Your Pet Rats’ Behavior to Promote Burrowing

Observing your pet rats and understanding their behavior is crucial for creating a suitable environment for them to express themselves. Rats will look for spots in their cage where they feel safe to start burrowing. They are also likely to use their natural instincts to create a cozy nest for themselves using bedding or nesting material.

In the wild, rats are known to use their hind legs to kick out dirt while burrowing. Pet rats can exhibit similar behavior when they are enjoying their burrowing activities. Watch out for these signs as it’s a confirmation that your rats love their new environment.

It’s noteworthy that male rats may exhibit marking behavior in their surroundings. This is a natural instinct and a part of their burrowing habits. Scent marking helps pet rats identify their territory and can be a sign that they feel secure in their environment.

In terms of observing interactions, it’s essential to watch how your pet rats interact with each other. Rats housed in a group (also known as a rat pack) can burrow together and create an intricate burrow system, similar to what they would do in the wild. Group housed rats are generally happier and show more natural behaviors, contributing to positive animal welfare.

Introducing Environmental Enrichment for Pet Rats

Environmental enrichment plays an essential role in promoting burrowing and other natural behaviors in pet rats. It comprises modifying the environment to stimulate the rats’ mental and physical health, thus significantly improving their quality of life.

Environmental enrichment can be as simple as introducing a variety of textures in the cage, such as different types of bedding or nesting material. This concept is similar to guinea pigs, another species of small pets that enjoy burrowing and nesting.

Research on laboratory animals indicates that environmental enrichment, such as providing a variety of toys and tunnels for burrowing, can significantly reduce stress levels in rats. For instance, you could put toys like paper towel tubes, cardboard boxes, or untreated wood blocks in the cage for your rats to explore and burrow into.

Another form of environmental enrichment is providing food puzzles. Hiding treats in the bedding or in toys encourages your rats to forage and dig, closely resembling their natural behavior in the wild.


In essence, encouraging burrowing behavior in pet rats is much more than a way to keep them entertained. It’s about ensuring your rats lead a good life and that their natural instincts are satisfied.

Promoting burrowing behavior in pet rats involves multiple elements, including selecting a comfortable cage, providing the right bedding, observing your rats’ behavior, and introducing environmental enrichment. Importantly, it also involves the social aspect – rats interacting together in a group housed setting can enrich their lives significantly.

Keeping pet rats can be a fulfilling experience. Just like us, each rat has its unique personality and behavior. By providing the right environment and stimulation, we can ensure our pet rats feel secure, happy, and lead a life that’s aligned with their natural instincts. With time and attention, you will understand your pet rats’ unique behaviors and create a home where they can thrive.