American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association

This article is from the July–October 1992 & November–December 1992 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.

Cage Hygiene, Healthy Litters, and Beddings

By Debbie Ducommun

For rats and other rodents, or for any small animal for that matter, it’s very important that their cage, and the litter and bedding in their cage, be kept clean and free from unhealthy products because they live in such close contact with them. Unfortunately, one of the most common litters used, softwood shavings, isn’t as healthy as we’ve all thought.

Through research on the subject, I’ve learned that both cedar chips and pine shavings contain toxic aromatic hydrocarbons—the essential oils that give the wood its scent. These chemicals enter the body and cause the liver to overwork to clear them from the system. Long term exposure to these chemicals can actually cause liver damage and disease. There is evidence that some animals kept on softwood shavings, especially rabbits, cannot tolerate anesthetics, and these animals are at a greater risk of death during surgery.

Exposure to toxic chemicals can also depress the immune system, causing lowered resistance to other diseases such as respiratory infection, to which rats are very susceptible. In addition, wood shavings are fairly dusty, and this dust may also increase respiratory problems.

While many healthy rats may do just fine on wood shavings, others may develop respiratory or other problems related to the litter and thus die early. Therefore, if you want the healthiest environment for your rats, I recommend against using either cedar or pine shavings.

I also don’t recommend clay cat litters because even the 99 percent dust-free types are pretty dusty and contain silica which can cause respiratory problems.

Fortunately, there are healthy alternatives, although they may cost a little more. I tested samples of three litters that are non-toxic, made from natural materials, biodegradable, and dust-free, and now that my rats are on the new litters, the ones with chronic respiratory disease seem to be wheezing less. Another advantage is that I found them all easy to clean up because they don’t have the “fluff” that pine shavings have that seems to get everywhere. The 3 litters are all quite different, and since we all have preferences, you might want to try them for yourself.

Bed-o-cobs: This litter is made from corncobs and I found it to be about as absorbent as pine shavings. It’s light yellow coloring is attractive. My girls have an annoying habit of pushing all their litter to one end of the cage, and this is the only litter they didn’t do it with. It’s made by The Andersons, and is sold through pet shops. A 3 pound bag, lasted two cage changes in my large 12 by 30 inch aquarium housing four girls. The Andersons also makes a bedding from shredded corn husks that my rats liked. A small bag lasts several cage changes. You can order this nesting material direct from the company if you buy in quantity. Call 1-800-537-3370. If your pet shop doesn’t carry these products, give them the number and ask them to order it if you’re interested.

Drawing of beddings

CareFRESH™: This product is almost more like a bedding because it consists of soft lumps. My girls piled most of it into a nest so the rest of the cage got filthy. It’s made of short pulp fibers from a tissue paper factory that normally go to waste. It’s gray color isn’t attractive, but it does hide the poops better! It seems more absorbent than pine shavings, but I had to change it with the same frequency. It can be found in most larger pet shops or you can order it direct from the Absorption Corporation, 1-800-242-2287. Ten quarts lasted 1½ changes in my girls’ cage.

Cellu-Dri and ALPHA-dri: These two litters are produced for the laboratory industry by Shepherd Specialty Papers. Cellu-Dri is also made from leftover tissue pulp fibers so is also gray, but it is formed into hard pellets. My rats didn’t seem to like to lay on it at first, but they now seem used to it and combined with bedding it’s okay. It’s very absorbent and I can scoop out just the wet spots and corners every few days, which makes it last much longer. In fact, I’m finding that Cellu-dri lasts 2–3 times longer than shavings and tends to suppress ammonia formation. I’ve been using the same 35 pound bag for almost two months now for eight rats. This is my litter of choice. Call 1-800-382-5001 for the distributor closest to you. [Cellu-Dri no longer made.]

ALPHA-dri is a high-quality lab bedding made from virgin fibers. It’s white, very absorbent, and may be the ideal litter except for it’s cost. It’s supposed to last as long as a whole bale of shavings, so it might be more economical than it sounds. I haven’t had a chance to test this product.

There are two products similar to Cellu-Dri called Crown Bedding and Discreet that can be found in pet shops. Use these products with caution because they’re not quality-controlled like Cellu-dri is, and there’s a chance they may contain high levels of lead or other toxic chemicals.

No matter what type of litter you choose, changing it when it’s soiled is very important. Bacteria immediately start to work on urine changing it into ammonia, which causes the strong unpleasant odor that comes from a dirty cage. Ammonia is very irritating to delicate tissues, and prolonged exposure to ammonia can cause damage and lesions in the respiratory tract! In fact, ammonia is probably much more responsible for contributing to respiratory problems in rats than either softwood shavings or dusty litters.

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. If it smells bad when you put your head down over the cage, imagine what it must be like for a little animal living directly in contact with the litter.

To avoid letting the ammonia build up, set up a cleaning schedule. For instance, you might need to clean the cage out every four days, or maybe every five or six days. The schedule will vary depending on the size of the cage, the number of residents, the type of litter, and the temperature and humidity.

You’ll need to clean it more often during hot and muggy weather. Whatever the schedule you decide on, stick to it. Maybe even write it on the calendar. Don’t be tempted to “let it go just one more day” to try and save money on litter or because you just don’t feel like cleaning the cage that day. The more often you let the litter get to the “pee-yoo!” stage, the more risk of your rat developing respiratory problems.

Wire cages do have an advantage over aquariums in this respect. With more air circulation the ammonia won’t build up as fast, but it is still produced. Wire cages also usually have a removable tray which simplifies changing the litter. In fact, if the wire floor of the cage is raised above the tray (to prevent legs getting caught in ½ by 1 inch mesh, cover it with ½ inch square mesh), you may not need to buy litter. Try using sheets of newspaper in the tray and just folding them up and throwing them in the trash every few days. Combining newspaper and litter can cause a big mess at cleaning time, so stick to one or the other.

To ease cleaning an aquarium, buy a small dustpan and broom to remove the litter. If you own a shopvac, you could use it to suck out the old litter. While most of you probably throw the old litter in the trash, keep in mind that all but clay litters can be composted. That’s what I’ve been doing with mine. Also, if you’re connected with a sewer system instead of on a septic tank, it’s possible to flush small amounts of CareFRESH™, Bed-o-cobs, or Cellu-dri down the toilet.

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. Then wipe out or rinse the cage well to remove the soap. If you’ve been having trouble with disease, or you’re cleaning out an old cage before putting new rats in, you might want to disinfect the cage with bleach. Mix the bleach with ten parts water, and let it stay on for 15 minutes before rinsing VERY thoroughly. Let the cage dry before replacing the rats.

Now it’s time to put the clean litter in. You only need a layer about ½ inch thick. Any more is a waste 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 certain corners or spots for a toilet, try scooping just the wet spots every few days. This is hard to do with wood shavings, but it works quite well with Cellu-dri.

Now that the cage and litter are clean, you’ll probably want to give your rats some bedding or nesting material. This is less necessary in the summer, but during cold weather rats enjoy sleeping in a cozy nest. Paper strips are great and inexpensive. Tear them yourself, or, if you know of an office with a paper shredder, ask them to save some for you. If you use computer paper, try the strips that are torn off the edges. I don’t recommend using newspaper inside the cage, because the ink will rub off on your rats, but you can buy rolls of unprinted newsprint from newspaper offices for a few dollars.

Other choices for bedding include paper towels, tissue, cotton, rags, or packaged beddings sold in pet shops. For the ultimate in luxury, unravel the yarn from an old sweater! Choose the hand-knitted type—machine knits won’t unravel. You can get them cheap at thrift shops—no need to worry about the color or size!

Some rats have clean bathroom habits and never soil their bed. Others aren’t so fussy. Sooner or later though, all bedding will need to be replaced. Rags can be washed and reused, and so can yarn if you tie it inside an old nylon stocking. Keeping your rat’s cage, litter, and bedding clean is the best health insurance you can buy.

NOTE: When using yarn or fabrics as bedding, be careful as a thread may get caught around a toe and amputate it—it has happened! Also, the ink in newsprint can irritate the skin, see “Beginners’ Corner,” Sept./Oct. ’86, (Nadia Coburn in Bend, Oregon, says unprinted newspapers aren’t that good as they contain chemicals, so be cautious in what you use). A couple other beddings to consider are Sani-Chips, a screened hardwood cube cut (whitish/yellow in color) by P.J. Murphy Forest Products Corp., Montville, NJ 07045-9444 (201) 316-0800; Aspen Shavings, a lab grade shaving 9.0 cubic foot compressed to 3.0 cubic foot by Northeastern Products Corp., Warrensburg, NY 12885 (also in Caspian, MI, and Columbia, KY); Shredded Aspen from Harlan Teklad, and Lab Sorb. Many of the Southern California members use Sani-Chips mixed with Gentle Touch™ or Aspen Shavings/Shredded Aspen mixed with Gentle Touch™. *

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Updated May 9, 2020