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How to Bathe Your Pet Rat Without Stress

Jessica has worked in pet retail for over ten years. She adopted a light-sensitive albino leopard gecko (named Lewlew) in 2019.

Ease the stress of bathtime for you and your rat with these tips and strategies!

Ease the stress of bathtime for you and your rat with these tips and strategies!

Do Rats Need Baths?

You may have noticed that your rat cleans itself dozens of times throughout the day, sometimes right after you’ve been handling it! But don't take it personally. Rats are very good at keeping themselves clean and definitely don't need much help in this department but every once in a while, if they get especially dirty or smelly, it is fine to give them a little bath.

When my rats got older and cleaning themselves got more difficult, I washed them more often. While rats are naturally very clean animals, sometimes they don’t keep up with their routine or simply need a little help along the way. If your rat is older, for example, it may spend less time cleaning itself and more time resting. Furthermore, rats that live alone don’t have a companion to help groom them. If you have multiple rats living together, they may scent-mark each other as a show of dominance. No one likes a smelly pet.

Some rats love swimming and bathing, but for some, a bath can be a stressful experience. Bathing can be stressful for the both of you, especially the first time. Here, you will learn tips and tricks for stress-free bathing, including how to introduce your rat to water over time and the dos and don'ts of the process.

Getting Your Pet Rat Used to Water First

When giving your pet rat a bath, simply throwing them into the bathtub or dumping water on them isn’t going to work. Rats are like cats—they don’t naturally like water (although every rat is different). Bathing your rat will go over much more smoothly if you first introduce your rat to water slowly and gradually. To do this, follow the steps below.

  1. Fill a small container with warm water and put it on a safe surface like the counter or in the bathtub.
  2. Cup some water in your hand and slowly trickle it onto your rat’s fur.
  3. Rub it in gently. You can use a soft sponge if you want. Remember that your purpose at this point is not to clean your rat but to introduce them to water and normalize the bathing experience. Don't overdo it at first and stop if you see any signs of stress.
  4. Afterward, wipe your rat down with a towel until it is completely dry.
  5. Repeat this procedure for a few days or a week, however long it takes until your rat becomes used to the water and the bathing process.

This process will get your rat used to the idea of water and less afraid of a future bath. Next time, you can try letting your rat wade in water in the sink or bathtub. Adding balls, rocks, treats, or other toys that float can make the experience more fun.

Caution: Avoid getting water in your rat's ears and never submerge your rat’s head under water; a rat’s immune system is rather sensitive and they are prone to respiratory infections. Getting water in your rat’s ears can result in illness and an unexpected trip to the vet.

When bathing your rat have a towel, shampoo, and a brush (optional) ready.

When bathing your rat have a towel, shampoo, and a brush (optional) ready.

Bathing Your Pet Rat With Shampoo

After your rat is accustomed to the water, you can graduate to adding shampoo to the routine. Many specialty pet stores sell small animal bathing items such as shampoo and fragrance sprays. However, kitten shampoo has also been recommended for rats due to its sensitive formula.

Whatever your reason for shampooing your pet rat, the process should be slow and gentle. Rushing a bath can stress out your rat more than necessary. When bathing your rat with shampoo, try following the steps below:

  1. Have warm bathwater (in a shallow tub, bowl, or sink), a dry towel and your shampoo ready. Make sure the water is shallow enough for the rat to touch the bottom without having to swim.
  2. Gently lower your rat into the water or pour some water lightly over its fur (avoiding ears!).
  3. Apply and lather the shampoo softly into your rat’s fur, avoiding the head and eyes.
  4. Rinse your rat’s fur until the shampoo is completely rinsed away.
  5. Towel dry until the fur is as dry as possible, even if your rat is being squirmy.

Giving your rat a treat during the process could help preoccupy it and lessen stress. This could be especially helpful while towel drying, as your rat may decide to hide inside the towel and munch, giving you the opportunity to get the fur dry. Running the towel in the dryer beforehand can make the end of the bath more comforting. Your rat needs to be 100 percent dry before going back into its cage to avoid catching a chill.

Gadget huddled in her towel after her bath, eating a yogurt treat.

Gadget huddled in her towel after her bath, eating a yogurt treat.

How Often Should You Bathe a Rat?

Usually you won't need to bathe a rat, since most do a good job of grooming themselves. On occasion, if a rat gets into a really big mess or starts to get a little stinky, you might consider giving it a bath, but this should be a rare occasion (and no more than once a month). When you bathe a rat, their fur loses its natural oils that protect the rat from the environment.

Bathing Your Pet Rat With Waterless Shampoo

If your rat is particularly squirmy and unruly when it comes to water, using waterless shampoo might be a better option. Waterless shampoo is a foam spray that cleans your rat’s fur without the need for water. Small animal waterless shampoos can be found in most specialty pet stores. If your rat despises water, this method is a useful shortcut. Simply follow these steps:

  1. Have a dry towel and your waterless shampoo ready.
  2. Gently spray your rat with the waterless shampoo, avoiding the head and ears. The waterless shampoo should never be sprayed onto your rat’s face.
  3. Lather the shampoo into your rat’s fur generously, spraying more if needed. After lathering in the shampoo, you can let it sit in your rat’s fur for a minute before drying it.
  4. Towel dry your rat until the fur is completely dry—there is no rinsing involved with this method. The drying process should be quicker, but shouldn’t be overlooked; remember your rat’s respiratory system.

Again, treats can help distract and calm down your rat during the process. You should find, however, that using waterless shampoo makes bath time less of a hassle for you and your pet rat. Remember not to rush the process; being slow and gentle will help your rat to feel more at ease.

Patches enjoyed her treat after her bath while snuggling in her warm towel.

Patches enjoyed her treat after her bath while snuggling in her warm towel.

Tips for Bathing a Rat

There are some actions you can take before bathing your rat that can make the experience more stress-free:

  • If your rat's nails are long and sharp, you can clip them before a bath. This will prevent a terrified rat from leaving gashes in your hands and arms. Clipping your rat’s nails is a stressful process and doesn’t have to be done on the same day; try doing it a day before washing your pet rat, or many hours before.
  • It also helps to wear a long-sleeved shirt while bathing your rat to avoid scratches.
  • Be sure that the room where your rat(s) stays is warm and cozy; rats can easily catch a cold, especially if you didn't dry your rat’s fur completely before putting it back in its cage.
  • Letting your rat relax after the bath will help calm it down; give your rat a break before any more playtime.

Do Rats Like to Swim?

Although it's true that some rats do enjoy playing in water, it can also be scary. Some have fun splashing, but others get extremely stressed out. And no matter how much an individual rat might like water play, any rat forced into water will get scared and anxious. For this reason, you should never force a rat to swim. Never push a rat under water and never keep it in water against its will.

On the other hand, if you have a rat that likes water, there's nothing wrong with letting them splash around in the sink as long as you're there to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Patches is older than Gadget, and her tail has gotten much dirtier over time.

Patches is older than Gadget, and her tail has gotten much dirtier over time.

Dirty Rat Tail: What to Do

Keeping your rat’s tail clean is important. The tail helps the rat regulate its body temperature, so keep it healthy! If not cleaned regularly, dirt and gunk can get stuck and build up. While rats are very clean, they don’t always spend enough time cleaning their tail, which they then drag around the entire cage. A good way to get your rat’s tail clean is to:

  1. dampen a washcloth in warm water,
  2. cover the tail in the washcloth and rub it gently, and
  3. repeat this process for a few minutes every couple of days.

The warm water will help loosen the gunk on your rat’s tail and clean it off little by little. Remember, however, that a rat’s tail is sensitive; be gentle when rubbing or simply let the warm water soak into it on its own. Your rat might even join in on cleaning its tail with you!

No matter the method, be sure to take things one step at a time with your rat. If you start off baths early in your pet rat’s life, bathing will get easier over time. Just remember—baths don’t have to be stressful for you or your rat.

Gadget's tail is far less dirty than Patches' tail, as she is many months younger.

Gadget's tail is far less dirty than Patches' tail, as she is many months younger.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why is my rat breathing heavily?

Answer: What kind of bedding are you using for your rat? Things like cedar wood shavings can bring on respiratory infection. Use paper bedding instead. Some people also line the cage with fleece, but this has to be frequently washed. Rats can also get sick if it's too cold, or of the cage is in a drafty area. Either way, I would find an exotic vet in your area and bring the rat in. If it has a respiratory infection, it will need antibiotics to treat it. Respiratory illness does not get better on its own.

Question: What food can I give my picky rats?

Answer: Will they not eat rat blocks at all? There are seed diets out there, but they aren't very healthy and can be fattening. I know some people actually make their own rat diets by combining different food items, but I've never done that. Have you tried different brands of foods? It could be they don't like the taste of a particular brand of block.

Question: There is no pet shampoo in our pet shops. Is it OK to bathe my mouse with dish soap or sulphate-free baby shampoo? This mouse has a permanent head tilt from a babyhood ear infection, so he can't clean himself properly.

Answer: Dawn dish soap would be okay, but you'd only need the tiniest amount. I'm unsure about baby shampoo.

Question: Is it OK to give your rat a bath if the water is contaminated/has a chlorine smell?

Answer: Is it your tap water that smells like chlorine? If it is a strong smell and enough to concern you, could you use room temperature bottled water instead? Many pet stores also sell waterless shampoo for small pets that you just spray on and rub in, or grooming wipes for a quick clean.

Question: How do I feed my rat?

Answer: You can keep a full bowl of rat food in its cage. They tend to eat when hungry, or hoard food in a special spot.

Question: How many times should I wash my rats? Should I give them a bath once a week or like every day?

Answer: Rats are very good at keeping themselves clean, and do not need to bathed constantly. If they get especially smelly, every once in a while is fine. When my rats got older and cleaning themselves was more difficult, I washed them more often.

Question: is there any way to re-introduce my rat to water?

Answer: You could try only filling up the bathtub slightly, so there is hardly any water, and increase the amount over time. My rats never enjoyed water, so I don't have the best hands-on advice!

Question: What do I wash my rat with?

Answer: Most pet stores sell small animal shampoo - if your rats have an aversion to water, you can try waterless spray shampoo.

Question: What happens if I have had my rats for over two years and they hate the bath tub? I know I could use the dry shampoo stuff but I don’t know where to find it.

Answer: My rats have always hated getting wet. Do you have any pet stores in your area? Or can you order the dry shampoo online?

Question: Can I use small animal grooming wipes on my rats?

Answer: Yes, small animal grooming wipes are fine for rats. I wouldn't wipe them all the time though, to avoid drying out their skin.


Jessica Peri (author) from United States on August 25, 2020:

@Miapegasi You don't have to wash your rats much at all. If they get accidentally dirty, or have trouble cleaning themselves due to age, baths may become more necessary. Rats are otherwise very good at cleaning themselves. If you'd like to get them used to water, you can draw them a warm water bath without shampoo.

Miapegasi on August 09, 2020:

I have four male rats around 5 weeks old. I'm thinking about giving them their first bath. Should I use shampoo the first time I bathe them or no? How many times should I wash my rats a week?

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on January 10, 2020:

If you had a rat live to 4 years, you've been doing something right! Most rats don't have such a long lifespan. The oldest I ever had was between 2.5 and 3 years old. But you can always message me with more specific questions!

Tinariva on January 04, 2020:

any and alll info. on rats is very much appreciated, my last boy just passed he was going on 4 yrs old so after 2days of filling up crossword grids with cuss words, my b.f bought me a baby Russian blue i just want to be more knowledgeable this tme thnx!

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on September 12, 2019:

@Brooke I've read that they are actually really great swimmers! I never tried to teach mine, though - they always freaked out at the introduction of water.

Brooke on September 05, 2019:

If you fill your tub with luke warm water, just about an inch, and plug the bottom of the tub, the rats will learn to swim! Just bring them in slow, and never put shampoo into the water, because they might swallow it!

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on November 23, 2018:

@Dave That's great! Mine would destroy our sheets, run around all night, and probably sneak onto the floor.

Dave on November 16, 2018:

I still have a rat who just spent the night with me and snuggled into my sheets with me

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on December 21, 2017:

@Emma Rats are so sweet, I'm not surprised to hear you've never been bitten! Thanks for reading.

Emma on December 16, 2017:

Rats are not as much trouble as people hype about. I have an Autistic grandson I'm raising and 5 other grandbabies in and out at different times,ages between 13 and 2 months. I've never been bit. Nor has my grandchildren.I supervise. And all is well.

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on June 07, 2013:

Thank you! I love my rats to pieces. Introducing them to friends and seeing their reactions is always fun.

moonlake from America on June 06, 2013:

Great information. I had a pet rat when I was a kid. Voted up.