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Dietary Supplements and Treats
Depending on what diet you feed this can be very important. If you are feeding entirely a commercially available mix (possibly rat or rabbit food, note: not rat rations own mixes) or a mix with a significant proportion of them then it is probably already enriched with these to some extent. You can see this on the ingredients; it will often quote calcium, copper etc. though sometimes by different names. With growing they may benefit from extra supplements of vitamin D and calcium as they do need more rich nutrition than adult rats, but only 1-3 times a week. If you are feeding some or all of an un-enriched dry food (rat rations or a home-made straights mix) then you will need to supplement some things.
There are a wide range of vitamins needed for rats to grow healthy and happy, however most are in ready supply in a rats natural food assuming they are fed a balanced diet. As such I won’t go into detail here; however there are a few that are particularly important and can benefit from supplementation.
- Vitamin A - This is mentioned not because it is worth supplementing but because too much can cause vitamin toxicity in rats and it is often found in other supplements. Be particularly careful when feeding liver oil supplements or liver and minimise to once a week. Some vegetables such as spinach are also high in vitamin A so bear this in mind. You can get vitamin A extracted cod liver oils should you decide to use these.
- B Vitamins - These are particularly useful in older rats and are associated with neurological functions and ageing. They are combined with other old age friendly vitamins and minerals in Senior aid, a very useful supplement I keep on hand for all older rats (but is fine to feed in a meal shared with the young too).
- Vitamin C - This vitamin is associated with the immune system and how well it functions amongst other things. As such regularly supplementing this, particularly in older or unwell rats can be useful. You can buy vitamin supplements that specialise in vitamin C, however with all the wonderful high vitamin C fruit and veg it is generally worth focusing on those, unless you believe your rat is deficient (very rare).
- Vitamin D - These vitamins are involved with how the body process Calcium. It is also used to help create early neurological connections. It comes in 2 halves, both of which are required to work. The first is widely found in vegetables and easy to meet a rats needs, however vitamin D3 is harder to get in a diet. Humans and many animals get most of their vitamin d3 from sunlight, rats, which tend to avoid the sun, need to get it in their diet. Unfortunately it is usually deficient in any unenriched diet such as a straights based diet. As such you need to load up with vitamin D rich foods and also often supplement (especially for the young and growing). Cod liver oil, salmon oil (both high in vitamin D unless extracted), oily fish and eggs are all great sources but in reality you usually need a vitamin supplement such as Calcivet and/or Dr squiggles Daily Essentials to satisfy the needs of a rat on an unenriched diet. Young rats fed on an enriched diet will also benefit from extras of this.
- Broad spectrum vitamin supplements - There are a number of multi-vitamins and mineral supplements out there that are very useful. Many focus on vitamin C and probiotics which are more useful in rabbits and guineapigs. For a rat you want one that covers vitamin D, copper and ideally calcium, and as a bonus vitamin C and the b vitamins. The two most useful available in the UK are Dr Squiggles Daily Essentials 1 (water soluble) and Rat Rations Daily 3 (powder for adding to wet food). On an unenriched diet you want to supplement using one of these (and calcivet if using daily essentials) 2-3 times a week and up to 5 for growing rats. On an enriched diet once a week for adults and 2-3 times a week for babies should be plenty. If you opt for a water soluble vitamin supplement use a water bottle that is big enough that the rats can drain it in a day or empty it out after 24 hours (as it can get mouldy if left for long). Also always make sure you offer a second water bottle or bowl without supplements in it to give them a choice.
- Calcium - Calcium is used in the construction and maintenance of healthy bones. It is particularly useful in growing and pregnant rats as well as old rats with failing kidneys (which are not as good at absorbing calcium). It is one of the minerals which is generally deficient in an unenriched dry mix, though is found in a number of other foods. Bones (left-over cooked bones, including chicken bones, roasted dog bones etc.), egg shells and cuttle bones are great naturally occurring sources of this if your rats enjoy them. Calcivet is a very useful supplement form and can be given on wet foods via the powder form or via their water (though make sure you offer a second bottle of fresh water and mix with Dr squiggles daily essentials as most rats dislike the taste on its own). You do need to be careful when supplementing calcium as it is possible to overdose it. Also giving calcium supplements every day of the week actually stops the body processing it properly, so you should allow at least one day off a week.
- Copper - Copper is the other mineral that is generally deficient in unenriched mixes. It is found in large amounts in shell fish, liver (limit to once a week max), dried mushrooms and currants. It is found in smaller amounts in dark green leafy veg and chickpeas. It is possible to feed enough fresh food that it isn’t necessary to offer extra supplements however Daily Essentials and rat rations daily 3 do also contain it which can be very useful.
Oil and fat is an often misjudged part of a rats diet. Peopl get fat rats and automatically blame the fat in the diet. They then cut out fatty foods and wonder why there rat looks a bit rubbish and doesn’t really lose any weight. In reality oil is a healthy part of the diet and needs to be around 5% of the overall diet in order to keep the rats coat and skin in good condition. However not all oils are equal. It is very easy to read a packet of food and just see that the fat content is about right and miss that it is mostly Trans or saturated fat. What you really want in your rat’s diet is a good balance of omega 6 and 3 oils. The omega 6 seems to look after itself very well, but it can be a lot harder to make sure they get enough Omega 3. This is found in high amounts in some nut and seed oils and these can be very useful added to the occasional wet food, as well as the whole seeds being added to a dry mix. You do need to keep the amount fed low, as too much can cause diahorria. Some of the best oils are;
- Hemp oil – high in omega 3, both the seed and oil are very useful in the diet, the seed is one of the few complete protein sources out there too
- Flax or Linseed oil – this is one of those rat superfoods. The oil is known to help with kidney issues as well as having been linked to a reduction in the growth of tumours, the seeds help act preventatively against some mammary tumours and it is high in Omega 3.
- Coconut oil – this has the advantage of being mostly solid at room temperature which means it is both useful grated onto food and rubbed into dry skin. It is particularly good for coat condition.
- Cod liver oil – useful as a potent source of vitamin d, limit this to one capsule a week between 4 and 6 rats unless you use vitamin A extracted cod liver oil tablets.
- Salmon oil – another useful source of vitamin d, also high in vitamin A so a maximum of once a week for adults, twice a week for babies.
There are lots of other supplements out there that target particular issues, some of these are covered in the feeding for health section, but I will mention the most broadly useful ones here
- Glucosamine – this may help with rats experiencing mobility issue, though it will do little if the issue is not arthritic
- Senior aid – mentioned in the B-vitamin section, this is a very useful mixture of oldie friendly vitamins, minerals and other supplements