Keeping Playtime Safe
I am a member of many online rat groups that generally talk about the same things; rats are smart, rats are cute, rats are clean, rats are loving and loveable, rats can be hard to find medical care for. Every once in a while another familiar topic comes up: toys.
It can be relatively difficult to find toys suitable for rats, because they chew more than a lot of other animals. For a long time, there weren’t a lot of stimulating rat toys out there, just sticks with bells on them, like you’d give to birds, or maybe a basket you could hang in the cage. Both of these items are food dispensers that encourage movement, investigation and brain power to a certain extent, but rats need other kinds of stimulation too. They are big on nesting and need nesting boxes and plenty of comfortable places inside of their cage to snuggle down for the afternoon. For these needs, hammocks, soft tent-like structures, fuzzy beds, nesting boxes and various types of large tubing are typically used for rats. They are becoming more and more common in pet stores, where you can usually walk in and find something packaged with the picture of a rat on it.
In my many years of rat ownership I have found that what I get for a certain rat doesn’t always work for another rat. One pair of rats may love the plastic running wheel, while others may hate it and use it only as a bed. Some rats loved running in the plastic tubes we bought many years ago, others only used them to get from point A to point B and ignored them otherwise. Almost all of my rats like soft, snuggly places, but some could not stand hammocks to be in their cage and would rip them apart as soon as they saw one. It makes sense, really. Humans have preferences too. Some people love Minecraft, others would rather stick to Neverwinter. Some of us are readers, some of us focus better on movies and television. Different strokes for different folks works differently for rats though.
Rats have a tendency to reuse items that are given to them. It is quite possible that your rat will look at your hammock and decide that you have given them a nesting blanket, but have stupidly stuck it to the ceiling where it is useless for nesting. They will promptly cut it down and drag it away into their nesting box. It is just as possible that your rat will love your hammock, but hate the hard plastic stuff that you cluttered their cage with and expect them to run through. Those rats probably think their humans are nuts, not allowing them open space to drag their nesting materials around. They may find themselves struggling to pull a soft nesting toy through an opening in a plastic toy that isn’t anywhere near large enough.
The fact is that all animals have the ability to break their toys, either because they are natural “Destruct-o-cons” or out of pure accident. Whatever caused the toy to break, once the integrity of the product is compromised, it becomes hazardous to your animals.
Almost every toy I have ever purchased has had some kind of warning on the package. The manufacturers encourage supervision with toys, even if the concept behind the toy doesn’t exactly fit with the warning. Who is honestly going to take everything out of their rat’s cage before going to work every day? Yes, the warning is mostly to protect the people who make the products, but it is also meant to be taken seriously. A damaged toy left within reach of an animal can do some serious harm when you are not around to notice. I have heard horror stories of people going to work with healthy rats and coming home to one that had strangled itself in its own nesting materials.
It is tempting to take a toy that has caused your pet distress and display that product on social media sites as unsafe and dangerous. Many people will then jump on the bandwagon and start campaigns to have the toys removed from the shelves. While there are some times when this is appropriate, we can’t forget that text on the back of the package.
So what exactly is “excessive wear?”
When it comes to answering this question I prefer to apply a rat-sized twist on the preschool regulations for playground equipment. On a preschool playground gaps in objects are measured by what can fit through them, which basically means that a hole has to be small enough that nothing fits through it or large enough that everything can fit through it. It is a more complicated process than it sounds, but the basic concept is that children can easily fit their legs through appropriate openings, but not their heads, which prevents strangling. It also means that holes must be small enough that their feet can’t slip through, trapping their legs, or large enough that their entire body can fit through so that they do not trap their shoulders. Our school has two separate playgrounds, measured for two periods in a child’s development. The youngest children cannot come to the playground with the older children because their body measurements would not match those of the older kids. An opening that is not dangerous for a five year old could be hazardous to a much smaller two year old.
When I look at the wear in any toys I give to my rats, I use some of the same criteria, but I have to take into account the nature of a rat’s body. The trick with rats is that their heads can fit through much smaller openings than you think. This is great for rats in the wild, who can squish their bodies through cracks in solid objects, but rats playing with softer toys can easily get trapped in the same sized opening, since fabric reacts differently than something like a cement block does. As a rule with all soft toys, as soon as I see ANY evidence of a hole where it shouldn’t be, it is time to remove that object. Any opening large enough for your rat’s nose to fit through can be hazardous to the rat that uses it. Once they can push their heads far enough into said opening, they can very rarely get the rest of their bodies through and the more they struggle the worse it can become for them. Even the smallest holes can choke a rat in this way.
When looking at human-made openings in soft toys, the ideal size is one that an animal larger than yours can fit through. If a manufactured opening looks to be too small for your pet, pick a different toy for them. Trying to alter the toy to their needs by expanding the opening can be very dangerous, as it can compromise the structure of the toy and lead to fraying. The same is true with toys that have been damaged by your pet. Simply sewing up an opening is not going to make the toy useable again, in fact, it can make the object even more dangerous.
It must seem that the process of looking for “excessive wear” involves discarding a toy the minute any flaw is discovered, making your purchase a waste of your time and money. This isn’t necessarily the case. Toys that are inappropriate to use in your rat’s cage, where they stay when you are away at work and unable to supervise them, might still find uses elsewhere. Some of the toys we remove from the cage become objects to be used in our play area, where our rats are being SUPERVISED at ALL times. This does not mean we allow hazardous items into the play space, it only means that things like a bed with a hole that COULD become dangerous are moved to where we can see them every minute that they are being used.
IMPORTANT NOTICE TO ALL READERS: Our play space is within arm’s reach of where we typically relax as a family. When we come home from work the rats go to the play space and we sit down to our evening’s activities. Typically this is the time when we interact with our rats through play or training and they are NOT using the slightly worn toys in the same ways that they would if the object was in their cage. A soft tunnel that has been chewed on will be re-purposed as a tunnel run for training and is removed if a rat begins nesting inside it. Having all of the toys within reach also means that if there are any signs or sounds of a struggle within the play space, the rat can be helped out of the situation within seconds. They are never left alone with these items and I do not recommend that a toy be used in any situation where it is unsafe to do so. When in doubt if the damage to your toy is “excessive”, discard the object. Better safe than sorry.
It isn’t only the hole in an object that pet owners need to be worried about. Soft toys that are frayed can become a hazardous. True a frayed object isn’t as dangerous as one that could trap your rat’s head, but as something comes unravelled it is much easier for your small pet to get their toe nail or toe caught up in the strings. Every type of object is different in its use, making some types of fraying more dangerous than others. The easiest way to prevent injury from this type of damage is to keep an eye on your rat’s movements when they use the toy. If their nails catch on any part of the fabric, or if they seem to be tugging their foot a little bit as they walk around, it probably means the toy is catching their nails or toes. I have seen many rats have their nails ripped off because the soft bedding has caught the nail and the rat has pulled the foot free, leaving the nail behind. Though this is a minor injury and your rat will recover, I have always found it better to prevent the stress of the injury by removing anything that is damaged enough to cause movement issues.
Basically the issue of soft toy safety falls on the pet owner’s shoulders. Even the best soft toy ever made can become dangerous to your pet if it is mistreated or neglected. The manufacturers include warnings like “supervision is advised” and “discontinue use if you see signs of excessive wear” because they know there are dangers involved when giving a soft toy to a nesting animal. Like you, they want your pet to have fun, but they also want your pet to be safe, and the best way to make certain both of those things happen is to remind you, that having a healthy pet means caring for them AND their toys.
Mirrani Houpe, our Small Animal Editor, has had rats since she took home her first little boy once they both completed the second grade. Since that time she has owned, rescued and bred many kinds of rats, from many backgrounds. She may not be a vet, psychology major, or scientist, but her babies have her very well trained when it comes to how to care for them. She is constantly working with her family’s veterinarian to come up with new and innovative ways to love and care for the most often misunderstood rodent in the pet world. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org