Bedding is extremely important for your rat's enrichment and health. Your choice in bedding really matters and there are definitely better choices than others.
The most important role bedding has is ammonia control. When urine breaks down the concentration of ammonia increases. Ammonia is a strong irritant to lungs and respiratory health. When we discuss rats having sensitive lungs, ammonia often plays a major role in their respiratory health. Ammonia buildup can lead to issues such as lung scarring, myco flair ups, and URIs. Sometimes the damage is not even immediately obvious but could lead to long term damage that will lower their immune system and make them more at risk to issues or only pop up when it is too late and the damage has been done.
It is important to note that this can be a health risk to you and your family as well if you let it build up. And for the rats living in, right there with their noses right at that level, it is extremely harmful to them.
There are so so many myths out there on bedding. You ask advice in many pet groups or look up info on websites and you will see a ton of mostly wrong information. I am not quite sure how many of these myths began but the biggest issue is that new people hear these myths and without understanding the why, the facts, the studies behind any of it, they just repeat what they are told. So these same myths just continue on and on and on and are held up as facts.
I fell into this same issue as a new pet owner myself! So don't beat yourself up for this but I encourage you to actually open your mind to factual evidence.
Another role that bedding plays is odor control. As bedding controls ammonia it will also handle odor pretty well. Some beddings have zero qualities to control ammonia or odor and others may just try to cover them up with scents. These are bad choices. The goal with bedding should be that you do not ever really smell it. I always tell people, if you can smell it then it is definitely past the point where you should have cleaned. By the time you can smell it, the rats have already been living and breathing that in for days.
The last role bedding plays is enrichment. Rats are naturally nesting animals who burrow. This is their natural instinct and plays a major role in their enrichment, play and beds. This is their home and bed and they are very content to have nesting material. It is amazingly fun to watch rats build tunnels, dig and hide in bedding.
Types of bedding choices-
*There are many more types of bedding out there but these are the most common and available!
Fleece can often be a popular bedding and some pet groups will push it on you heavily. We want to spoil our pets & so we often think about what we would prefer rather than what they want or what's best for them. So we compare - soft blanket vs hard rough wood pieces, yeah I would obviously rather have the blanket. But we are not animals. We don't have the same preferences. I prefer a hot bubble bath vs licking myself clean for example! Rats actually love sleeping in and on good bedding. Their entire natural insinct is telling them to do just that!
But is fleece actually a good bedding? The answer is no, it is not.
Fleece has zero (absolutely none) properties for ammonia or odor control. While the urine may get wicked into an absorbent layer to keep them dry, it still breaks down and turns into ammonia and then is just sitting there right in their faces. It is maximum exposure which means it is extremely risky to their health.
Fleece also has zero odor control properties. The smell is just sitting there. Just imagine if you had a blanket sitting on your floor in the middle of the living room and a cat or dog peed on it. Would you leave it sitting there for days? I sure hope not. It would smell and be gross!
A common issue people have with fleece is also they pull it up. "How do I keep the fleece down?" is asked over and over in groups. Why? Because as I said, rats are naturally nesting animals. Fleece takes away that need. While fleece may look good to us, it is not appropriate for them at all.
Fleece is really a horrible choice in bedding. I can not stress it enough. If someone insists on using fleece they need to completely remove all bedding and change it out to fresh DAILY. This is still risky in my opinion and you need to consider the fact that life can get busy and you get sick or busy and miss a day or two, your rats are at risk. They should also have most of their cage filled with dig boxes with acceptable bedding choices.
!! Other types of fabrics should NEVER be used. Using old clothing, towels, etc... is extremely dangerous. Fleece is used because 1. it wicks away moisture. So they are not sitting in wet pee. But this doesn't even always work well, as fleece can be a pain to get it to wick correctly. 2. Fleece stretches and doesn't fray. Other types of cloth can fray into little strings and injure your rat. Everyone thinks it won't happen to them, but it does often. I have seen it countless times where rats get caught in strings or holes and get seriously injured or die.
What about fleece beds/hammocks?
These can be used as long as they are changed out every few days and cleaned. If your rats are big chewers or insist on peeing in the hammock often, I would not use them. Instead hang up baskets full of bedding!
Laundry detergent and fabric softner can be very dangerous to rats health. Please take caution! Never use fabric softner, and even if you don't use it for your rats fleece, if you use it for your other laundry it can still be built up in the machine. This can cause health risks. All laundry detergent used should be scent free and sensitive formulas. I suggest using ones made for babies, like ALL Free & Clear for example.
Paper bedding is another very common choice in bedding. It seems softer and can come in fun colors. The bags always claim lots of good odor controlling facts! But not so much.
There are different types of paper bedding:
Newspaper- often can be free. This is an absolute horrid choice! Go wet some newspaper... it turns into a soggy gross mess. It has NO properties for odor or ammonia control. And can be risky for bumblefoot as well, causing infections on their feet from walking over the peed/pooped on paper.
Loose paper such as carefresh or the like- Paper is very ineffective at controlling ammonia. There was a study checking the ammonia levels of different beddings and carefresh was involved as the biggest paper brand. It had to be removed from the study early because the ammonia levels were so high and at unsafe levels! Many paper bedding products also may add unsafe ingredients such as dyes, perfumes or baking soda which are all dangerous to the rat's health. They do it because the paper is so poor at controlling odor! It has even been found in the past that some of these brands do not list the ingredients on the package at all! There was a big issue with a brand adding baking soda and causing health issues in the past.
Paper Pellets- While I still feel this is not a great option, they can be a good choice for people who are unable to use wood. I have heard good things about the sunseed brand.
Paper that is scent and color free can be used in addition to other beddings for fluff and nesting materials. Stay away from baking soda being added.
Wood Based beddings
Wood based beddings get so much hate! It really blows my mind and I can not understand why. Almost everything you have been told is filled with misconceptions or silly rumors or even lies.
I HIGHLY recommend the use of wood based beddings.
Dust is not the monster it is made out to be. Excess dust can, of course, be an issue but all loose beddings can contain some dust. Overall it will be nothing to worry about. In nature rats live in burrows and play in the dirt, if a little dust was an issue they would be extinct! While our pets are surely less hearty to nature, honestly dust is the least of their worries. The major issue with bedding is ammonia control and NOT dust.
There are three main types of beddings- Aspen, Pine & Cedar.
Cedar should NOT be used under any circumstance. It is always unsafe.
Aspen is a very safe bedding and quite ideal. It is a hardwood, which is completely safe. It is excellent at controlling both odor and ammonia.
Pine is a softwood which does have natural oils which can be harmful. But this is entirely blown out of proportion. Many of the studies people quote that warn of pine are not both very old studies and not properly done or controlled. It gave misinformation and misleading information. It is why this information is important to read in context. All pine is not that risky but when pine is kiln dried, it is perfectly safe! Almost all pine in the US is kiln dried.
Pine is what I most prefer. It does the absolute best job at controlling ammonia and odor. The very best! It is perfectly safe and healthy.
I would not put my rats at risk and even more so have the babies being raised in bedding that is dangerous. By far most breeders use Kiln dried pine. The health of our animals is the most important thing, unhealthy animals do not breed well. People sometimes suggest breeders just use pine because it is cheap, which it is! Pine is very inexpensive. But that is not why. I feed my rats Oxbow, which is the most expensive brand! I spend $200 a month+ on food for my rats, I'm not about to cheap out on bedding that may put them at risk.
Responsible breeders spend so much time researching, sharing studies and looking into the actual facts so we can do the very best for our animals. I can promise pine is very safe :)
I do think pet owners should feel free to choose the right bedding choice that works for them and their cleaning schedule and if they have allergies themselves. But from my own experience and knowledge and having done so much research on the topic, I do feel wood based beddings are definitely the best out there and the safest. I have it in my contract that not using wood based bedding will completely void any health guarantees I offer.
Using bedding in a Critternation-
For some reason, these lovely cages have the most shallow pans imaginable! There are two great options.
The more expensive but nicer option are metal pans from Bass Equipment. They are designed for the cages and are well loved!
Another option is that Atlantis Rattery has very nice pans for sale for the cages as well.
My personal favorite option is to use cheap 21 gallon cement mixing tubs from Home Depot . These fit in the cage perfectly, are very deep and work awesome! Do not trim these pans, you do not need to. The key to using them is to sliding them in straight and flat against the floor of the cage. You will feel like you should tilt it but don't! Do not trim them as it will leave an edge that rats may chew. I have only had rats chew on trimmed ones. If they do chew, they are inexpensive enough to easily replace.
I highly suggest not using the addon critternation scatterguards, they are absolutely awful and do not work at all.