Best Bedding for Rats to Reduce Odor & Keep Them Safe

You’re ready for your rats to move in – you’ve bought the cage, toys, and beds. Now all you need is bedding material. Easy, right? Yet there are so many choices on the market, and it’s hard to understand the benefits and pitfalls of each bedding type.

What bedding is best for your rats’ health? And which rat bedding produces the least odor?

The choice of bedding is not only important for your rat’s well-being, but also for your comfort. Some bedding types (like cloth bedding) will need to be changed more frequently or might create stronger odor. Yet other bedding materials – cat litter, for example – are downright dangerous for your rat’s health.

To find out which type of bedding suits you and your rats, read right on!

Rat Bedding 101

Why Does Bedding Matter For Rats?

Among the most frequent illnesses rats are diagnosed with are respiratory tract infections1.

Aromatic, scented or dusty bedding predisposes rats to develop upper airway infections, along with high ammonia levels (which are also influenced by the choice of bedding)2. Cleaning frequency plays a role as well, but has not been shown to have such a big impact on rat welfare as the choice of bedding3.

So, what seems like a trivial question – which type of bedding to buy – can greatly influence the health and lifespan of your mischief.

What Bedding Should Rats Avoid?

While most bedding types have their pros and cons, some are clearly a no-go.

These bedding materials are known to cause health problems in rats and should not be used: Cat litter, cedar, and pine bedding.

Cat litter is very dusty and often scented. It tends to clump together when wet, and can cause gastrointestinal obstructions if swallowed (and we all know rats like to chew everything…).

Cedar and pine bedding contain aromatic oils that smell great, but can cause respiratory tract infections and can even be deadly to young rats4.

These aromatic wood shavings should never, ever be used as rodent cage bedding!

What Do You Put In The Bottom Of A Rat Cage?

Pet rat in cage with paper pellet bedding

Now that we’ve seen which bedding materials are absolutely not suited for rats, let’s have a look at the options you do have.

First off, some people question whether bedding is necessary at all. Is it possible to not put anything in the bottom a rat cage? I would strongly advise against leaving the rat cage bottom bare. Even if your rats are litter trained, most of them will still show urine marking behavior, and you will need something to bind that pee.

Additionally, it’s far more comfortable for rats to walk and lie on bedding than on a bare cage bottom. And last but not least, the right type of bedding can satisfy your rats’ desire to dig and hide food.

There are several types of suitable bedding on the market, such as aspen bedding or paper bedding.

Some beddings can be DIY, like cloth/fleece bedding.

Let’s have an in-depth look at rat bedding types.

Rat Bedding Materials

Aspen Bedding For Rats

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Aspen bedding is a special type of wood shaving that is processed to eliminate dust. As opposed to cedar and pine shavings, it does not contain aromatic oils. It is frequently used in research facilities around the world, and it’s available in pet stores at an affordable price. It’s natural and bio-degradable and rats usually like it.

However, a study that compared Aspen bedding to paper bedding found that rats kept on aspen sneezed more often and showed more signs of lung disease3. While aspen is a great choice, paper pellet bedding might thus be slightly superior.

Corncob Bedding For Rats

Corncob pellets are sometimes used in laboratories as an alternative to aspen. They produce little dust and keep ammonia levels in the cage low5.

However, they are not very comfortable for rats. Research has shown that rats never opt for corncob when given a choice of different types of bedding6. A study that looked at rats’ sleep quality on corncob bedding showed that they had less restful sleep7 – granted, this is probably not too relevant if you offer your rats hammocks and cozy hideouts.

Rats Cuddling in Cage

Another downside of corncob bedding is that its water-binding abilities are lower than those of aspen bedding6.

Overall, corncob is a cheap choice, but not really recommended.

Paper Pellet Bedding For Rats

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Paper pellets are a fantastic choice of bedding for your rats. They are hygienic and comfortable to walk and sleep on. Of all the commercially available options, paper pellets are probably easiest on your rats’ respiratory tract5. Paper is very absorbent and produces virtually no dust. Paper pellets also make great digging and burrowing material, which your rats will love.

Choose a paper pellet bedding that is unscented and made from unbleached paper. While it’s generally a bit more expensive than aspen bedding, it’s still reasonably priced in most pet stores. Many rat-owners report that they can go two weeks without cleaning out the paper bedding in their cages, as it’s very good at binding odors. However, you should still aim to change the bedding once per week.

On a side note, some websites will advise you to make your own paper bedding by shredding newspapers. While this is possible, the ink on newspapers is potentially toxic if ingested. If you want to make your own paper bedding, you can shred unbleached, unprinted paper – but I doubt this will be cheaper than buying paper pellets in bulk.

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Cardboard Bedding For Rats

Cardboard is a safe alternative to paper bedding. You can make your own cardboard bedding by shredding unprinted cardboard. Aim for the smallest pieces you can manage. This works best if you add a layer of unshredded cardboard as a liner on the bottom of the cage.

There are also commercially available cardboard beddings for rodents. Most are produced using off-cuts from the cardboard box-manufacturing industry, making it an environmentally friendly option.

Fleece Bedding For Rats

Many rat owners choose to make their own bedding using strips of fleece. This will certainly look very pretty, especially if you choose colorful patterns. It’s also soft to walk on, making it a good bedding for older rats or those with pododermatitis.

Fleece bedding doesn’t produce any dust, which is a plus in terms of respiratory tract health – but there are some concerns that it doesn’t absorb urine very well, thus leading to high ammonia levels in the cage.

To avoid odor and ammonia build-up, you will need to swap the fleece out every 2-3 days, as opposed to the usual weekly bedding change.

Another downside to fleece is that it does not enable rats to dig or burrow at all.

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Cloth Bedding For Rats

As an alternative to fleece bedding, various fabric can be used as bedding. Natural fibers like cotton or hemp are always best, and they are more absorbent than fleece.

Cloth bedding also needs to be swapped out frequently.

The big danger with fabric as rat cage bedding is that threads can unravel and pose a strangulation hazard. Rat nails will also get stuck on fabric quite often. Overall, cloth bedding is not the safest option.

Best Rat Bedding To Reduce Odor

The bedding materials that are best at binding odors are cardboard, paper, and aspen bedding.

A study that looked at ammonia build-up with different beddings found that paper pellets work better than aspen and corncob bedding at binding ammonia8, which is the main component of rat urine that produces an unpleasant odor.

Although aspen is slightly cheaper, this tips the balance in favor of paper pellets as the best bedding for your rat cage.

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Resources:

1. Turturro A, Witt WW, Lewis S, et al. Growth curves and survival characteristics of the animals used in the Biomarkers of Aging Program. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 1999;54:B492-501. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10619312/.

2. Benato L. Respiratory diseases in rats. Companion Animal 2012;17:47-50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7162205/.

3. Burn CC, Peters A, Day MJ, et al. Long-term effects of cage-cleaning frequency and bedding type on laboratory rat health, welfare, and handleability: a cross-laboratory study. Lab Anim 2006;40:353-370. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17018207/.

4. Burkhart CA, Robinson JL. High rat pup mortality attributed to the use of cedar-wood shavings as bedding. Lab Anim 1978;12:221-222. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/732264/.

5. Koontz JM, Kumsher DM, Kelly R, 3rd, et al. Effect of 2 Bedding Materials on Ammonia Levels in Individually Ventilated Cages. J Am Assoc Lab Anim Sci 2016;55:25-28. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26817976/.

6. Krohn T, Kornerup Hansen A. Evaluation of Corncob as Bedding for Rodents. Scandinavian Journal of Laboratory Animal Science 2008;35:231-236. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279581894_Evaluation_of_Corncob_as_Bedding_for_Rodents.

7. Leys LJ, McGaraughty S, Radek RJ. Rats housed on corncob bedding show less slow-wave sleep. Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science : JAALAS 2012;51:764-768. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23294881.

8. Tataryn NM, Buckmaster CA, Schwiebert RS, et al. Comparison of Four Beddings for Ammonia Control in Individually Ventilated Mouse Cages. J Am Assoc Lab Anim Sci 2021;60:37-43. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33121563/.