Proud rat owners may already be aware that rats seem to enjoy burrowing through their habitat’s bedding, especially during the middle of the night. While this behavior can occasionally be confusing or frustrating, there’s a good reason why rats burrow.
Pet rats like to burrow. Burrowing is an instinct present in the majority of pet rats. In the wild, rats burrow to protect themselves from nocturnal predators and to reproduce and give birth safely.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at rat behavior and explore the differences between natural rat habitats and owner-provided habitats. We’ll also examine why rats burrow and how owners can cope with this behavior.
The Natural Rat Habitat
To understand whether pet rats like to burrow or not, it’s crucial first to understand wild rat behavior and habitation. Most types of behaviors observed in pet rats are instinctual and inherited. This means that pet rats act very similarly to their wild cousins.
However, rats aren’t a single homogeneous species. There are two major types of rats, and they differ significantly in terms of preferred habitat and behavior.
Norwegian rats are known by many names. But their coloring is a more excellent indicator, which is why they’re often called brown rats. However, they can also have gray or light-brown fur. Norway rats tend to have a darker spate of hair on their backs and a lighter-colored coat on their bellies.
These rats are excellent swimmers, and they tend to be a little larger than their dark-colored counterparts. Norwegian rats have tails that are shorter than their bodies, which also makes them reasonably identifiable. Though they’re associated with Norway, it’s theorized that these hefty rodents migrated from China hundreds of years ago.
Wild Norway rats tend to live in forests, sewers, and wet fields. They actively build and maintain complex tunnels and often prefer to live underground. These wild rodents may only surface during the late-night hours to search for food.
Black rats can technically also be brown, but they tend to be darker than Norwegian rats. Their tails are the same length (or longer) as their bodies. Black rats aren’t fond of water, but they’re far better climbers than their “Norwegian” cousins. Their bodies also tend to be slightly smaller and lighter than those of Norway rats. These rats are also known as house rats, which may have something to do with the fact that they don’t often burrow for shelter.
These rats build nests out of shredded wood, plant fibers, or human-made materials. They tend to rely on existing human structures for survival. It’s rare to see pet rats emulating this behavior, as most pet rats are fancy rats.
This subsection of rodents is descended from Norway rats, many of which were caught and bred for scientific purposes in the early twentieth century. In fact, it would seem that most modern fancy rats are the leftover result of decades of rodent-based scientific testing.
Pet Rat Habitats
Most pet rat habitats supplied by pet owners encourage borrowing habits. The bottom floor of rat cages is typically several inches deep. This design feature is not accidental. A cage bottom that has a high, protective lip can keep bedding contained more effectively than “flat” floors.
Pet rats can stir-up some bedding during normal activity, but they often cause a tiny mess while burrowing. Fortunately, well-designed habitats can reduce this spillage by encouraging rats to burrow in specific, mess-free areas.
Multi-level cages make excellent pet rat habitats. They allow for freedom and range of movement, as well as plenty of places for your rodent buddy to hide, burrow, rest, and explore. When paired with rotating toys, a multi-level cage can provide an ideally stimulating environment for pet rats.
However, it’s crucial to choose a multi-level cage with an ample bottom. This ensures that bedding stays within the cage when rats decide to dig down deep and get some shut-eye. Still, store-bought habitats that come with tunnels, tubes, and plenty of built-in activities may be the better option.
When considering a “hamster cage” for your rat, size is the most essential factor to keep in mind. Small habitats won’t be comfortable for a pet rat, but larger rigs can provide enough space and privacy. There are several hybrid models that feature wire sides and large, ventilated tubing. These provide climbing space, sleeping space, and room for exploration.
As with multi-level cages, store-bought habitats should consist of several levels and feature a deep floor. While bedding chips may find their way through cage wiring, ventilation is key to maintaining a healthy habitat. And though it may be irritating to find bits of bedding on the floor, it’s important to encourage and support burrowing behavior.
Why Do Pet Rats Burrow?
As mentioned above, wild brown rats are natural burrowers. Younger rodents tend to be more prolific burrowers than elderly ones, but nearly all fancy rats burrow. This inherited behavior stems from a need for safe shelter from predators and inclement weather. Norway rats are great at swimming, and rain doesn’t pose a significant threat to most wild rat burrows.
That’s because rats tend to create elaborate tunnels with multiple entrances and exits. These tunnels may also consist of several layers, allowing rats to seek higher or dryer ground during heavy rains. These underground systems also serve as relatively-safe food storage spaces.
Deeper, well-insulated areas make ideal nesting and birthing sites due to their warmth and security. The entrances and exits rats create and use are typically very small and may only be a few inches wide. This allows rats to escape threats quickly and easily, as most predators cannot fit into the tiny rat tunnels.
When rats burrow, they first create slim, well-supported tunnels that are difficult for other creatures to navigate. They then construct large “atriums” or rooms far along these slim tunnels.
In this way, rats are experts at building underground structures that protect them from hungry predators, provide shelter from extreme weather, store food for later use, and keep infant rats safe from harm.
Do Pet Rats Like to Burrow?
It is difficult to determine whether or not pet rats enjoy the act of burrowing. Still, it’s reasonably clear that they do feel an instinctual need to burrow. In this way, burrowing behavior is somewhat similar to the human fear of snakes and spiders.
Most people do not actively enjoy their fear of snakes or arachnids, and yet the majority of humans experience an inexplicable sensation of fear upon seeing or encountering these creatures. This is an example of inherited behavior.
We evolved to fear spiders and snakes because, in the past, these animals posed a significant threat to the survival of the human species. Pet rats evolved to burrow in order to survive external threats such as predators, environmental dangers, and starvation.
So, while pet rats may not actively enjoy burrowing, it probably does help them to feel safe and comfortable. That’s why it is vital to accept, support, and encourage burrowing behavior in pet rats. It’s not harmful, and it can help your rodent feel more at home in their habitat.
Burrowing is a natural rat behavior that does little harm. Not only is burrowing instinctual, but it can also help a pet rat to feel secure, comfortable, and well-protected. Most multi-level cages and rat habitats have a deep bottom layer that is perfectly designed for this behavior. Rather than attempt to curb burrowing, owners might be better off encouraging or simply accepting it.
- Amazon: New 2 or 3 Levels Hamster Habitat
- eLife Sciences: The Natural History of Model Organisms: The Norway Rat, From an Obnoxious Pest to a Laboratory Pet
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: The Norway Rat, From an Obnoxious Pest to a Laboratory Pet
- Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute: Norway Rat
- The University of Texas at Austin: Can Human Instincts Be Controlled?
- Wikipedia: Brown Rat
- Wikipedia: Fancy Rat