Are you interested in getting a rat wheel for your pet?
Not sure how to start?
Here’s everything you should know.
In decades past, the phrase “pet rat” might have caused genuine confusion. But today, we know that rats make super pets!
Rats are smart, sociable, compassionate, caring and loving. Some rat rescue groups call them “tiny dogs that don’t bark” because they are capable of forming deep bonds with human carers.
Rats are so cuddly and will happily hitch a ride in your pocket or on your shoulder. And rats enjoy playing and running and digging and learning to do tricks.
Often that means rat owners will get a rat wheel to give these petite pets more enrichment in their habitat.
But is a rat exercise wheel safe? Do rats need a wheel?
What is the best rat wheel for different size rats? Can you find a truly silent rat wheel?
For that matter, do rats need wheels or will other toys serve the same purpose?
We tackle these questions here so you can feel confident in choosing your rat’s enrichment toys!
Rat exercise wheel size
Most pet rats today can trace their lineage back to the Norway brown rat, or Rattus norvegicus.
They actually have a rat enthusiast named Miss Mary Douglas, a.k.a. “mother of the fancy rat,” to thank for their popular pet status today! In 1901, Miss Douglas introduced rats to England’s National Mouse Club and it was all uphill from there.
Like people, rats come in all sizes, from 5-inch dwarf rats to cat-sized giant rats! Generally speaking, however, most pet rats will grow to between 8 and 10 inches in length as adults.
Some rats are tailless, while others may be teensy but have really long tails. Some rats are hairless, while others are quite furry. Your pet rat’s size, tail length (if any) and hair (if any) can all impact your choice of rat wheel size.
Regardless of size, most pet rats are considered nocturnal, which means they do most of their feeding, running and socializing at night. For this reason, many rat owners vastly prefer the quietest possible running wheel!
There is one golden rule in terms of rat wheel size you should always remember:
The right size rat wheel should allow your rat to run with a flat back. If you see your rat running on her rat wheel with her back arched, the wheel is too small!
Rat wheel safety
Experienced rat owners know that the issue of rat wheel safety is a big one.
Some rat owners feel strongly that the best exercise wheel for rats is no rat running wheel at all. This is totally valid for anyone who has ever had a bad experience with a rat on a wheel.
Do rats need wheels for exercise? The answer is “not necessarily.”
What rats need is options for exercise – a healthy rat is an active rat. As long as your rat has ample floor space to run and dig and play, you don’t necessarily need to provide a rat running wheel.
Here are some good questions to think through when choosing a rat wheel:
- What size rat wheel fits my rat – is a small or large rat wheel the best choice?
- Will the wheel protect my rat’s long tail (if any) and sensitive skin (if hairless)?
- Is the wheel sturdy enough to let my rat run to his heart’s content?
- Does the wheel have an easy entry/exit to avoid injury?
These questions are best answered by studying each wheel and talking with other pet rat owners about their experiences. Look for a rat wheel that is sufficiently sizable, sturdy, safe and (whenever possible) silent.
Otherwise, as devoted rat lovers remind us – when in doubt, go without!
Rat exercise wheel options
The rat running wheel has come a long way from its early days as a knock-off hamster running wheel. Looking back at the early hamster wheels, it is easy to see they were not designed with running rats in mind!
But today’s rat exercise wheel options include wheels designed specifically for rats:
- Larger wheel size: Having a roomy wheel interior means your rat won’t hurt her back hunching over while running.
- Non-metal interior: A solid, single-piece non-metal wheel won’t rust or corrode and there is no mesh or wire that could trap your rat’s sensitive tail or feet or abrade her skin.
- Solid running track. A solid surface track will safeguard your rat’s sensitive foot pads, which can’t tolerate running on harsh metal or mesh.
- Open-top wheel. Often called “saucer wheels,” these open-top wheels will never trap your rat inside – he can jump on or off safely at any time.
Rat running wheel pros and cons
Of course, while rat wheels have come a long way and the newer modifications certainly help with safety concerns, the debate over rat wheel vs. no rat wheel continues to rage.
There are pros and cons to each modified running wheel that you should be aware of. Overall, it is always best to offer your rat a running wheel only under close supervision until you feel satisfied that it is a safe toy for your rat to enjoy.
Here are some popular rat running wheel designs, along with pros and cons to think through.
Wire vertical rat exercise wheel
This wheel most closely resembles old school hamster wheels with its mesh wheel and wire base.
- Pros: inexpensive, non-chewable, provides a natural vertical (upright) running position, can be more durable, usually can be secured to the side of your rat’s enclosure.
- Cons: can get bent easily, harder on your rat’s feet pads, may rust or corrode, noisy, can present safety issues.
Plastic vertical rat exercise wheel
This modified wheel uses a solid plastic wheel with either a plastic or metal base.
- Pros: quiet, easier on your rat’s feet pads, natural vertical (upright) running position, base can be removed to attach to the side of your rat’s cage, safe for your rat’s tail.
- Cons: can get chewed, may not hold up as well under intense running, often pricier than metal wheels.
“Flying saucer” open-top rat exercise wheel
This is the newest type of rat running wheel and has a curved surface with no top.
- Pros: very safe for your rat’s feet pads/tail/skin, quiet, easy access/exit with the open top.
- Cons: can get chewed, may not hold up as well with intense use, unnatural near-horizontal running position, impossible to secure to the side of your rat’s cage.
Best rat exercise wheel
While no rat exercise wheel to date is completely silent, these wheels definitely offer a less-noisy operation than the rest. Adding some rat-safe lubrication (cooking oil can work well) can also help with quiet operation.
In addition, a 12” wheel is the best choice for all but dwarf rat breeds to give them the most space possible to run without arching their backs.
Exotic Nutrition 12” Silent Runner
This highly rated rat exercise wheel can be floor or cage wall-mounted with the included attachment. It features a solid plastic running surface and no center axle – both safety and comfort musts for pet rats.
Kaytee 12” Silent Spinner Exercise Wheel
One of the big safety perks with this wheel is the enclosed axle, which makes for quieter operation and increased safety. This wheel come with a stand but can also be cage wall-mounted. It features a solid base for comfortable running.
Kaytee Giant Chinchilla Run-About Ball, 11.5”
While some rat owners steer clear of exercise globes or balls, this one comes highly recommended by rat owners. This is not designed for unsupervised play but can be a safe way to let your rat run around free-range inside. It will be quiet when used over a padded surface.
Exotic Nutrition Chew-Proof Metal Treadmill Flying Saucer Wheel, 14”
This wheel’s unique “flying saucer” design uses a ball bearing system to keep the wheel quiet while in use. The open design ensures a flat back for your rat. And because it is metal but flat, your rat can use it safely but can’t chew it apart!
Wodent Wheel Senior 11” Plus Tail Shield
This unique wheel comes highly recommended by rat owners who say the semi-enclosed design is preferred by rats over a full open design. The axle is covered for a total tail shield to avoid injuries. It can stand on its own or be attached to a cage wall.
Are you interested in offering your pet rat a running wheel to play on? Or do you already have a rat wheel your rat loves?
We would love to hear from you about your experiences with a rat exercise wheel! If your rat is happily running on a wheel we didn’t mention here, please let us know and we may feature that wheel in an upcoming article here!
Resources and Further Reading
Frazee, K. (2018). Wheels. New Ken Rat Rescue.
Royer, N. (2015). The History of Fancy Rats. American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association.
Bradford, A. (2015). Facts About Rats. Live Science.
Musser, G. (2018). Rat/Rodent Genus. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Stewart, K.T., et al (1985). Interactions between nocturnal feeding and wheel running patterns in the rat. Journal of Physiology and Behavior.