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Diet & Feeding

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Diet & Feeding

I firmly believe that the best rat food for my rats is one I effectively make up myself and rat breeders have been mixing their own rat diets for years to see the best growth, quality and health on their rats so primarily I learned from the experience of others soon after I started breeding myself and soon moved away from 'rat foods'. The below is what I refer to as the 'Breeders' Diet', because it is made up in bulk, but it should be perfectly possible for pet rat owners with less rats to be able to follow a similar diet adding and buying things in smaller quantities.

I do not like using any proprietary rat foods that contain meat products as the quality of the meat (usually chicken) used in small animal mixes is usually very low quality and most will have had growth hormones and artificial preservatives added, which can cause tumours and lumps in rats. I prefer to add my own choice of dog kibble or meat products from known quality sources to a vegetarian 'base' diet.

Breeders' Diet Base

I feed my rats on a base dry food alternating between Mr Johnson's Rupert Rat, Harrison's Banana Bunny Brunch, Harrison's Meadow Munch and Burgess Supa Natural. I have tried many other brands of rat/rabbit/hamster feeds, but alternating and giving a variety seems to give my rats what they need and there is very little wasted and I can get all of these easily enough locally. Other suitable base foods suitable for rats are any rabbit food that contains around 11-14% protein and no alfalfa pellets. (Rabbit foods will be vegetarian so hence do not hold the risk of unknown source processed chicken.) Also avoid any foods that have much in the way of artificial colourings or flavourings as these are unnecessary.

Additions to the Base

I mix up a 15kg bag with the additions when I start a new bag, so the below are based on what I would add to a 15kg Base.

The rest of their base diet is made up of: -

Dog kibble - I use fish ones out of choice because of what I stated above regarding quality of meat in pet products. My current preferred choice is James Wellbeloved Ocean Adult Maintenance kibble. Burns, Vitalin or Nutro are brands often used by breeders if you prefer to use a meat based kibble (keep to the 'lite' ones of around 20% protein). I use around 0.5kg of dog kibble, although when I make up several mixes this is reduced for older or fatter rats.

Low sugar human grade breakfast cereals - I add around 250g. Favoured is Asda own brand Malted Wheaties, although I do swap around between similar dietary value cereals.

I also add seaweed powder and garlic powder to the mix (approx 30g of each - 2 small scoops) - the plus of using the fish based kibble is that it is slightly more oily so the garlic and seaweed powder sticks to it quite well. Garlic seems to help reduce skin problems and help boost immunity and seaweed powder helps with coat condition and towards keeping the colour better.

Some people choose to add pasta to the mix, but I feel this makes the rats fat so have not added it for some time now and my rats do look a whole lot better without it. They do get pasta very occasionally as a treat however.

It is worth noting that from a pet owner's point of view where they have a much smaller number of rats, that it is perfectly viable to take the 'base' rabbit food and instead of adding all the extras, just give them a small amount of leftovers/scraps from your dinner table a few times a week, to include things like chicken/meat bones and the greens, but perhaps less of the potatoes! Breeders usually have too many rats to be able to do this sensibly without having to plan to cook a lot extra for the rats, but some breeders do cook for their rats and it can be a perfectly healthy balanced option.

Other additions and dietary notes

I tend to add Dr Squiggles Daily Essentials to their water bottle about once or twice a week. There are quite a number of other supplements out there suitable for adding to their diet. The levels of additions tends to based on the age and sex of the rats. I feel strongly that rats have different requirements from their diet based on age, so it's important not to overfeed the wrong things and it's also important to try and keep the weight down as rats get older. Like in any other species, obesity in rats is going to shorten their lives as much as it would any other animal by putting pressure on the organs, particularly the heart.

Whilst rats need the base diet of dry food, ensure you don't keep topping the food bowl up before they have eaten the bulk of the food - the best way is to work on an '80% day', where the rats are fed once a day around the same time, but a couple of hours before their due feeding time, the bowls should be empty. These base feeds are aimed to be a balanced diet, but they cannot be a balanced diet if the rats are spoiled and allowed to pick the bits they like from it. Also the bits they like best tend to be the higher protein parts of the food and they can get dietary related scabs if they eat too much of the one food group. Rats eat approximately 8g of food per 100g bodyweight per day, so allow accordingly. Before you top up an empty bowl, it is always worth checking the nest or igloo - many rats will empty the contents of the food bowl, piece by piece, into their nest area; they are very clever at stashing food!!

On top of the dry food, fresh fruit and vegetables are good for rats. My rats seem to enjoy apples, melon, bananas and grapes best from fruit and curly kale, broccoli, peas and sweetcorn from vegetables. Other food they enjoy are pasta and noodles as a special treat, and also any meat, fish or eggs (again only as special treats). Chicken bones are perfectly OK for rats, as are any other meat bones, but bear in mind that too much fish, eggs or meat, which are higher in protein, can cause protein related skin problems. If you give the rats lots of leftovers, don't forget to reduce the amount of dry mix you give them to compensate and keep the weight off!

A good diet of dried food and 'extras' should give rats all the vitamins and minerals they need for a healthy life. I tend to work on the attitude of feeding my rat like I 'should' be fed, avoiding all the foods that are unhealthy for me, plus also avoiding as many  artificial colours or flavourings ('E' numbers) as I can.

In addition to a healthy diet, all rats need access to fresh, clean drinking water at all times.

Feeding Growing rats

Some schools of though are that younger rats need a higher protein diet than older rats and also need generally more food. I supplement my kittens base diet as soon as they are eating solids until about 6-8 weeks old, with an 'eggfood',  such as Orlux eggfood, Cede or EMP which are dried egg foods for hand-rearing birds, mixed with a little Lactol powder and about 40% Vitalin Original and stored dry so I can scoop out and soak to porridge consistency as required. The ingredients of the mix can be obtained from most pet shops and is well worth having about as it can be useful for hiding medicines in as well or feeding up older or sick rats. Other soft foods like baby feeds, porridge, pilchards, yoghurt and Nutrical are all good foods for building up younger rats, but also make good food for sick and old rats. How much I feed depends on the number of kittens in the litter. With a large litter of over 10 kittens or where the doe seems to be losing condition, I tend to give them the supplemental food daily, but a smaller litter where a doe is doing well feeding them herself, I may choose not to supplement and just give the usual base dry mix.  As the kittens reach 5-6 weeks old, if I am supplementing, I reduce the supplemental feeding from daily to every other day and then every 3rd day until they reach about 7-8 weeks where I stop the extras completely. On the left you can see a picture of the dry mix made up in a larger bowl and the right hand picture was freshly stolen from the baby rats but gives you an idea of the consistency!

My young rats also always have plenty of the dry 'breeders' mix' available to them and I always top bowls as soon as they are empty until the rats are about 3 months old as they need the food to grow, whereas adults just need it as maintenance.

Additional Information

With regards to diet, I highly recommend purchasing a copy of The Scuttling Gourmet, written by Alison Campbell and available either directly or from several of the rat clubs and online websites. I also recommend reading Alison's own articles section on her website as the diet I feed is similar to Alison's 'Shunamite Diet'.

Article written by Estelle

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Images & Text Copyright 2009 Estelle Sandford, Alpha Centauri
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Last modified: February 08, 2017