One of the most frequent questions I see asked about rats is if they smell badly or how to deal with the odor.
The truth is that pet rats should not have an odor issue and if there is one it is easily corrected!
First lets state the obvious fact that most pets have a scent to them. They are an animal. Even us humans don't always smell that lovely lol! But go ahead and grab your pet, put your nose up to their fluff and inhale! It shouldn't be a bad smell. Many people say they smell like grape soda, which I don't get that but its not a bad smell.
Rats are clean animals, they groom themselves and I would say they smell similar to my cats. My dogs smell far far worse then my rats. And omg wet dog smell!
Rats do not have a scent gland like that of a ferret, where even after being descented they just have a musky odor. It is not like that at all with rats. The rat on their own does not stink. They will not have any more odor than a cat or a dog.
Sometimes people are more sensitive to odors than others. People who don't own pets may notice it more. Just like with cats and dogs, if someone isn't a pet person they may feel like your home smells like dog or smells like cat. But by far for most people it is not going to be anything noticeable really or an issue.
But.... urine and feces is never going to smell good. If that wasn't obvious! My cats litter box doesn't smell like a rose garden and never will. But as long as I have good litter and keep the box clean, then there is no real smell issue. This works the same way with rats. If you are using proper bedding and keeping their cage clean, then you will not have any odor issues! It isn't magic, it is just practicing good care and husbandry or your pets. This should be common sense, but there are issues that cause a lot of confusion.
1. If there is a really bad feces odor or a smell to the rat themselves, it is most likely a diet or health issue. Diet plays a major role in this. Feed them a good healthy diet and don't over feed fruits/veggies that could cause diarrhea. Many very cheap foods and some very rich foods or too much protein could be the cause.
1A- FEAR POOPS! When rats become nervous or afraid they will release a stink bomb of poops. These are softer and smell worse than their normal poop. This may be the case when you first bring home new rats before they adjust.
2. There is often confusion over males, marking and their urine smelling very bad. I think part of the confusion comes from mice, which do indeed smell just awful. So so bad. It is just so strong. But with rats it is not the same and even with males it should not be an issue. I have a lot of male rats and they don't smell any worse than the girls. Both male and females mark! If a male is extremely hormonal it may be a bit worse but still with proper bedding and cleaning it should never be an issue.
3. Don't add a magic bandaid to their water please. Adding vinegar or vanilla is an often repeated "magic trick" to fix the smell. This isn't a fix, if you are having an odor issue the actual problem needs to be fixed not just covering it up. On top of that adding something to their water may mean they drink less or refuse to drink all together. Just don't do it.
4. Can you litter train rats? The truth is that by far most rats will never be fully litter trained. You can direct most of their bathroom to a litterbox if placed in a good location that they usually frequent and using a pee rock (a pee rock is a large garden type stone that is helpful with focusing where they pee because they will love to pee and mark the rock). But it is really dependent on the individual rat and rats do mark and most rats will never ever fully use the litterbox 100%.. Using a litterbox can still be helpful cleaning wise to help get most of the mess in a location even if not all of it.
Ok so there are three main issues if there is an odor issue: overcrowded/too small of a cage, wrong type of bedding, poor cleaning practices.
1. Overcrowded/too small cages. The rats cage is their home, they eat, sleep and potty all right there. The smaller the space and/or the more rats in it means it is going to get dirty faster. This will mean that proper bedding and cleaning will be all that more important and you will likely need to clean much more often.
- easy fix. Split the rats into multiple cages or get a bigger cage. Really think about what bedding you are using and your cleaning schedule. Missing a day in your routine with a smaller cage is going to make a much larger difference in smell.
2. Bedding choice. All those oh so lovely cages covered in pretty fleece designs or colorful paper bedding, may look nice but are doing nothing for ammonia or odor control.
Ammonia control is so important for healthy rats. This is why you need to keep rats in well ventilated cages and not use tanks, because ammonia can build up very quickly. Ammonia can cause respiratory issues leading to URIs, Myco flair ups, and lung scarring.
What bedding you use makes a huge difference in how it controls ammonia and the ammonia levels.
Fleece does absolutely nothing. The urine either sits there or even if it is absorbed into cotton underneath doesn't magically go away. The smell and the ammonia is still sitting right there at nose level for the rats. This is so unhealthy for them and it is why so many have odor issues. And it is important to remember that far far before the odor becomes an issue for us, it is already an issue for the rats. It is suggested that if you use fleece you change the fleece out daily. Even if someone has the time to replace the fleece daily, cage size and how many rats you have will affect this and who hasn't missed a day here or there? This puts your rats at risk and can cause odor issues in your home.
Paper is no better. In some studies paper did so poorly at controlling ammonia levels that it had to be removed early from the study because it was at dangerous levels! Many of the big name brands have also been known to add fragrance and other additives like baking soda to their bedding - sometimes without even mentioning it on the packaging at all!! This is unsafe and again puts your rats at risk for health issues.
What should you use?
I highly recommend wood based beddings- aspen or kiln dried pine. There is a lot of misconceptions and myths out there but the truth is they are not only safe but superior and far healthier for our pets than most other options. Pine is really great at controlling ammonia levels.
Almost all pine bedding in the US is kiln dried and this does make it safe. There are countless studies out there showing this. I use kiln dried pine and my rats are very healthy and do not get URIs or respiratory issues.
What about the dust! I am not sure how or why "dust" became more worrisome to some people over ammonia lol but it is really not an issue. Sometimes poorer cheap brands of bedding can be very dusty. But even paper bedding is dusty. Dust is not in itself a major issue to be concerned with. I use the Tractor Supply Brand of Kiln Dried Pine.
3. Cleaning routine. You need to set up a good cleaning routine and stick to it. Make cleaning your rats cage part of your routine just like brushing your teeth or going to work. There is no option on not doing it.
How often you clean depends on many factors such as how large of a cage you have, how many rats and what type of bedding.
On average I suggest every 5-7 days. I would not go more than 7 days as your normal cage cleaning routine, even if you have a huge cage the urine and feces shouldn't be left to sit. One way to determine a good time of cleaning is to see when the cage starts to smell when you are right up in it, and clean one day before that. If you are waiting to clean when it starts to smell... you are waiting too long. Remember it is going to be worse for the rats before you ever notice the smell not only are they living right there in the smell but they have far superior noses.
4. Cleaning properly! How you clean matters too. Don't just change bedding but clean the cage down. Use a safe cleaner. Rinse it off. Dry it. Clean toys, beds, hides, food dishes and water bottles. Things like wood can absorb urine and you will not be able to remove the smell.
Cages often have little nooks and spaces that can catch urine and be difficult to clean leading to an odor issue. Large cages like critter nations need to be fully taken apart and cleaned often (I suggest once a month) to make sure they are properly clean.
Also remember to clean around the cage- the floor and walls can end up covered in pee.
It really is pretty easy to keep the smell under control just with proper care and cleaning. I do suggest using an air purifier can be very helpful as well.