For years cedar and pine shavings (softwood shavings) have been touted as the most popular choice for bedding because of their pleasant scent. It turns out that the very chemicals that give cedar and pine their nice smell are chemicals that are toxic to the system of rats and other animals. These smelly chemicals are called “phenols” and are known to irritate the skin and respiratory tract of rats. As I’ve said earlier, rats are prone to respiratory problems, so using softwood chips as bedding is definitely NOT something you want to do. Cedar is by far the worst and if you look closely at the packaging the companies that manufacture cedar shavings have admitted it can cause irritation. Pine is generally considered the lesser of the two evils but it too has these toxic phenols and should be avoided. There is some debate over whether “kiln-dried” pine has had the phenols removed, but the best advice is still to avoid using softwood shavings as a bedding entirely.
So what are safe bedding materials? Wood chips from hardwood trees like aspen and maple are safe. Some brands can be very dusty though so you should avoid them. Paper-based bedding is an excellent choice and the favourites there are CareFresh or Yesterday’s News cat litter. Personally, I use Yesterday’s News and have found it to be the best option for odour control and for absorbing urine. It is in a pellet form but the pellets are smooth around the outside so they aren’t hard on little feet. Rats quite enjoy pushing them around. The Yesterday’s News pellets are quite heavy compaired to other bedding so much less (if any) ends up being kicked out of the cage. Corncob bedding is a safe material but sometimes has an unpleasant smell and is prone to mould, and I’ve heard of a few incidences of rats choking on it. Shredded newspaper is okay as long as the ink is soy-based (check with the company – most are soy based) but it is not good at all for odour control so should only be used if you intend to change the bedding daily.
Rats should always have a couple of areas where they can go to be on soft materials like cotton rags or pieces of fleece. Most often these are placed under or in a favourite house. These “sheets” should be changed daily since rats like to sleep in these areas so you want them to be as clean as possible. Don’t use towel material with little loops because rats’ nails can get caught in the loops which can lead to torn nails and quite a bit of bleeding.
Bedding should be changed before the cage becomes stinky. This is usually about once a week but will depend on the number of rats, te size of the cage, and the type of bedding.
Rats can be litter trained although I’ve never done it myself. The litter in the box should be a different material than the bedding. Crushed walnut is one example. Never use clumping litter anywhere in a cage because it is dusty and can be dangerous if ingested.