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Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Staple Diet to Feed the Rats?

With the recent recall of Innova dog foods, we've been forced to revisit this question. And that is probably not a bad thing. It is not enough just to make a decision, but it is also important that we keep reviewing the effects of that decision.

Most commercial diets that are available in pet stores and are marketed towards rats are not nutritionally appropriate for them. Anything in the form of a mix, with seeds/nuts/grains, is not appropriate as the staple diet for a rat. It might be suitable for an occasional treat, but not as the main source of sustenance.

As far as commercial diets marketed for rats are concerned, there are only three that meet with general approproval from the pet rat community:
  • Harlan Teklad (also referred to as HT or NativeEarth)
  • Oxbow Regal Rat
  • Mazuri Breeder 6F

Harland Teklad

Harlan Teklad diets are manufactured as diets for lab rats. As such, they need to be nutritionally complete, because lab rats are fed lab blocks and only lab blocks. Introducing other foods can cause disparity between control and test groups and it is important that dietary variables are kept completely constant so that they do not affect the results of the trial. Thus, not only is the Harlan Teklad diet guaranteed to be as complete as our current knowledge can make it, it is also manufactured consistently across batches.

Harlan Teklad is also available in multiple formulas, each with different protein levels, but the only one commercially available is 18% protein. The other formulas are available from some rescues.

Harland Teklad is the choice among many rat lovers because it is nutritionally complete. However, there are a few drawbacks. First, it is only truly balanced if that is the only food being fed to the rats. Once we introduce anything else (fruit, veggies, cereal, treats, table scraps), that balance goes out the window. Most pet owners enjoy introducing their rats to a variety of healthy foods and a few guilty pleasures.

Second, Harlan Teklad isn't readily available. It can be purchased in very large bags from some online retailers in the form of Native Earth, but that incurs high shipping costs, or it can be purchased from some rat rescues, who buy the larger bags and then divide it up into smaller portions for sale to support their rescue.

Finally, Harlan Teklad is not made with the finest ingredients. Just because it is balanced and consistent does not mean it has to be wholesome. One of the biggest drawbacks is the inclusion of dried corn, which may contain a fungus known as aflatoxin. With last year's very dry summer, aflatoxins are going to be an even more prevalent problem than usual.

Oxbow Regal Rat

Oxbow Regal Rat is more readily available, being sold in pet stores and online and being packaged in smaller quantities for those of us with only a few rats. The ingredients are not perfect, but okay, and it is free of corn. At one time, the big complaint about Oxbow was that the rats wouldn't eat it. It used to be apple-flavored, and apparently, that was not a popular choice - no surprise to me, as my rats have never been particularly fond of apple slices. They have since changed to a cheese flavor, and most rat owners now report that their rats like it. We have tried feeding this to our rats, but they still didn't eat it, even with the new flavor. However, they have likely been spoiled by the high-quality dog food that we normally feed. When we adopt new rats, I would like to try this food again. This food is probably not the best for young rats, as the protein content is too low. If feeding this to young rats, be sure to supplement with foods high in protein, like some hard boiled egg.

Mazuri Rodent Breeder 6F

First, it is important to note that this is not the same Mazuri block that is available in pet stores. The block available in pet stores is much higher in protein - somewhere around 23% - too high for any but the youngest of rats. 6F is available from online sources and may also be available from feed stores. This food also suffers from poor ingredients, with corn being the first ingredient on the list. It also includes the preservative BHA, which many people like to avoid in pet foods.

Other Options

If the quality of ingredients is more important to you than the nutritional balance of a food designed specifically for rats, then you have two options. You can look for a high-quality dog food with human grade ingredients that also has the approximate fat and protein contents appropriate for rats or you can attempt a fresh diet.

Dog Foods

High-quality dog foods are also more readily available than many of the approved rat diets, so you may have an easier time finding them in a pet store or in more remote regions.

In general, when selecting a dog food, we like to avoid anything with corn. Read the ingredient list and look for human grade ingredients and avoid anything with byproducts and artificial preservatives/chemicals/additives.

We look for something with a fat content close to 6%. Ideal protein content depends on the gender, age, and fitness of the rats. For large males, 14% is ideal. For females, 16% is ideal. For young ones, 18% or even higher is okay. However, it is unlikely that you will find any dog food with protein contents so low. Innova Low Fat used to be at 18%, but then changed its formula and went up to 20%. Blue Buffalo Healthy Weight comes in at 20%, which is about as good as I have been able to find. Dogs, in general, need more protein than rats, and the dog foods are formulated accordingly. The best dog foods for rats tend to be low-fat, weight maintenance, or senior varieties. However, all is not lost. When feeding a dog food, it is usually recommended that the diet be supplemented with other foods, including cereal/grain mixes, that can help bring down the total protein content in the diet. In other words, dog food should not be fed as the only source of nutrition.

Fresh Diet

If you don't care for commercial diets at all, you can try your hand at feeding a fresh diet. When we reviewed this option, it seemed too risky to attempt to meet all their nutritional needs this way, and difficult to try to prepare enough foods they will eat with the necessary nutrients. If you would like to try your hand at it, check out Debbie Ducommun's fresh diet


When Innova was pulled, we switched to the Blue Buffalo Adult Healthy Weight dog food. The rats like it and it has healthy ingredients, 6% fat content, and 20% protein. I would like to try the Oxbow to see if I notice any changes in health/fur/behavior on a diet formulated for rats, but my rats won't eat it. We are not a fan of corn, so the other options are out for us. When we get new rats, though, we would like to make Oxbow a part of their diet to evaluate the effects of a rat-specific diet.

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