I have LOTS of pets! I love animals, art, coffee, and video games.
When I first started keeping rats, I was overwhelmed by the amount of cleaning (I thought) they required to keep their home and mine smelling fresh. There are certain things you must do daily, but with a proper setup, they don't need to take more than five minutes. You should only need to pull everything out for a wash once every seven to ten days, depending on the number of rats you keep and their cage size.
DIY Wipe Recipe
- Start with a Rubbermaid-style container large enough to hold a roll of paper towels.
- Add a roll of heavy-duty paper towels (the cheap ones fall apart; don't use them).
- Add diluted white vinegar until the towels are damp, about like baby wipes.
- Use your wipes to clean your cage daily.
Daily Cleaning Practices
The stinky part of keeping rats is the pee, not so much their poo. Pee from the same day is not smelly, but give it overnight to develop ammonia, and it will snowball into a stifling odor and a risk to your rats' respiratory health. That's why it's so important to wipe down surfaces where urine can accumulate every day.
While both boys and girls will poo in their litter pans, they will not always be so discriminating in where they pee. Girls may or may not urinate in a specific area, and they often go wherever. Boys mark, and while it does not smell any worse than normal pee, it's dribbled all over the place just to make a point.
Everything your pets' feet touch is a potential smell waiting to happen. This is especially true in a small space like a bedroom, which is where my rats live so they can get their eight hours of darkness to stay healthy. These are the spots you should wipe down daily with baby wipes or a homemade equivalent. That's it. That's the big secret to a nice smelling, rat-loving home: Just wipe.
How to Set Up a Cage to Make Daily Cleaning Easier
Running around their cage, rats can get urine on a number of items both inside and out of it. You need to wipe down areas surrounding their cage, like walls and flooring. Fortunately, there are urine and litter guards you can buy or make to eliminate out-of-cage cleaning requirements. These pieces will still need cleaning, but your carpet is safe. You can also use sheets of plastic protectors for carpet and furniture to set the cage on. These are cheap and easily wiped down. Find them in hardware stores.
If your cage has multiple levels, and these levels are comprised of wire shelves, you can bet that what's below them is getting peed on. Not only that, but as drips of urine make their way down, they spatter when they hit. I know from experience that these shelves are not easy to wipe and generally contribute to more mess. My Silent Spinner exercise wheel has been kept under this type of shelving and is not easy to clean. It is one of the main culprits of odor accumulation in my rats' home. It is not easily taken in and out for cleaning, so I had to devise new shelves that didn't allow urine to travel.
Some solutions include:
- Wrapping levels in puppy pee-pads
- Clipping on fleece linings
- Suspending new, solid DIY levels
- Removing levels entirely and replacing with hammocks and/or climbing toys
Fleece and Fabrics in the Cage
These can be some of the smelliest items. I find I need to swap out hammocks every three to four days, which is when it becomes noticeable in my small space. It can be more frequent in my boys' cage than in my girls' because of the difference in their elimination habits. For this reason, I choose not to line the entire cage with fleece, as many owners do. I throw a number of small towels and rags into a tub/pan for a bed and generally use newspaper or shredded paper for regular lining. Some kind of actual small animal bedding should be used in their litter pans. My favorite is Yesterday's News from the cat litter aisle of the pet store.
Because they need changing out so frequently, hammocks and bedding rags should be numerous. You can get a pack of 20 plain white washcloths from Wal-Mart for something like $4. Toss them in a grocery sack as they get soiled and wash with bleach once a week in the laundry.
You can make several hammocks yourself for as little as $5 for six to ten of them without a sewing machine or needle/thread. Just buy one skein of yarn, any color, and one crochet hook. Google how to single crochet and off you go. It's much easier than it looks, and it lets you feel somewhat productive while you catch up on your favorite show during a Netflix binge. Hang them with 1"–2" aluminum carabiner rings, also called D-ring clasps. I have learned to skip some spots in the very middle for little poops to escape so my ratties aren't sleeping in a pile of poo in their hammocks.
The Deep Clean
The deep clean is the part of your cleaning routine that actually takes work and should be done once a week, or every seven to ten days. This is when you pull out the shelves, toys, and cage bottom for a good soaking and disinfecting. If the rest of the cage cannot be disassembled, wipe down the bars inside and out as best you can.
Vinegar will neutralize ammonia, so I soak all my rat rags and hammocks in a tub of diluted white vinegar before running it through the laundry. This also has the benefit of removing food crumbs and pellets that could clog up your washer later. It comes out smelling fine. I soak other items, like toys and wheels, in vinegar for a few minutes first, then add bleach to disinfect. Make sure everything is rinsed well and totally dry before you put your ratties back.
References and Further Reading on Cage Hygiene
In addition to my own experiences, I found the following sites were particularly helpful in developing proper cage cleaning routines.
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: I spot clean almost every day and deep clean once a week, but my rat cage still smells. I’ve even purchased a special spray to help get rid of the odor. I’ve also used diluted vinegar. Even after all of that my cage still smells what should I do?
Answer: Sometimes the cage itself is to blame. Wire cages can trap odors in joints, bends, and pitted spots in places we can't see. Cheap cages are especially prone to this. A weekly scrubbing with a baking soda paste (water + baking soda), then spraying with full strength white vinegar can help. Occasionally, a lingering smell is from the surrounding carpet, walls, or furniture. Be sure to give these items a cleaning now and again. Cheap carpet protectors from Walmart can be used to surround the cage, or trimmed to line it.
Question: Do you know of any pet rat rescues? My daughter left for college and was not able to take them with her and I have two cats and a dog. Not a safe environment for the rats.
Answer: Easy! You can post on ratforum.com to get them in a good home. It's a community of rat lovers who may be able to direct you to a specific rescue in your area, or you might find an individual able to take in the pair. The fast and dirty way, well that's always via free classifieds like Craigslist or a Facebook group. You can still be responsible, ask potential adopters questions about how the little guys will be cared for. Those two options work no matter where you are in the states.
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Question: After cleaning, what else could keep a rat's cage smelling bad?
Answer: It's probably the cracks, crevasses, and bar joints that smell. It may be time for a new cage. Try changing cloth items daily. If your ratties are male, my experience is that neutering does help.
Rhyanna on June 20, 2019:
Hi! So, I have 3 lovely rat girls. I’ve been doing the white vinegar trick to take care of the odors and I always deep clean once a week anyways, but I’ve come across a problem. My boyfriend and I (being long-distance) now spend long periods of time together here. He absolutely cannot stand the smell of vinegar. It makes him want to throw up and he can’t help it. Do you have any ideas for alternatives to help at least for semi-short term (2-3 weeks) with ammonia smells without vinegar? Thanks in advance!
Barbara J Tyler on February 09, 2018:
Great post. I used flannel and fleece with my ratties, but no litter. Litter was just too messy. I change their "linens" at least every other day and wipe down the cage wires with diluted vinegar. My 3 ladies don't seem to like being inside anything like past ratties have; they make a nest on a shelf with their linens so I give them plenty of loose pieces. Like you said, I put their laundry in a bag until I have enough to wash after shaking off the loose the raisins over a waste bin.
Runin1wild on January 21, 2018:
I always use white vinegar cleaning everything, even my floors in my house . Vinegar is also a disinfectant and safe on my other pets paws. I rather see them lick the vinegar then the other chemicals that are dangerous and more harmful to pets.
Deb on October 10, 2017:
Great tips and advise. I've heard of using white vinegar but not apple cider vinegar. Also putting the entire cage in the shower, is the way to go!
Lins on September 26, 2017:
A really interesting and helpful
article, thanks :-)
Irene on April 24, 2017:
Please don't mix vinegar and bleach together, EVER! Not safe. (Google it). Thanks for the rest of the article!
KokoNikole on September 12, 2016:
Did you ever find an answer to your question? I've never heard of the apple cider vinegar solution!
Andrew on July 19, 2016:
Good Article. One trick I found for cleaning the cage wire is to put it in the bathtub and run the shower (Adjusting the shower head periodically to get the whole thing rinsed.) Once its been completely rinsed i set it on a towel with the fan running and play with my rats until it dries.
Tammy on June 29, 2016:
We will soon have our very first rat friends and I am trying to learn as much as I can. We add a little apple cider vinegar to our pet rabbit's water and that eliminates about 98% of that bad ammonia smell from her little box - seriously! It also seems to entice her to drink more water. I know it is OK for bunnies to ingest vinegar but wonder if you know if it is OK for rats to have?
jennifer on June 03, 2016:
fantastic article. I am using vinegar now and it makes such a difference. Lots of great advice here!