Monday, June 3, 2013

Wire shelving rat cage

Edit: We changed the rats' food to a better brand and they lost weight, allowing them to squeeze out of their cage. I would now recommend using the "pantry shelving" if you build your own rat cage, which has 5/8" spacing.

I'm back! "Vacation" was awesome and I am still in the love phase of summer. I did lots of stuff and have lots of posts to write, so let's start with building a rat cage.

When we got the rats I was at a bit of a disadvantage; I had thoroughly researched hamsters and gerbils but had read zero on rats. So when the lady at the store assured me that a 20 gallon (long) aquarium would be fine I didn't know enough to know that she was wrong. Rats have delicate respiratory systems and need lots of ventilation and air flow in their habitat. You know what has lots of ventilation? Not an aquarium.

I've been keeping my eye out for a good deal on a cage on Craigslist, but everything was for hamsters or I thought the spacing between the wires was too big (more on that later). Also, everything was very expensive. I do not shop Craigslist to pay 10% less than retail.

I've thought about DIYing a cage from day one. I assume that most people who have researched rat cages on the internet are familiar with The Grotto. But for every DIY cage out there, there are ten people warning you that it just can't work. Rats will chew wood and even if they don't, it'll smell like rat pee soon enough. You won't save any money on it, so you might as well buy one. The usual reasons not to DIY anything, really.

Then one day I found someone that had made a cage out of wire shelving. It was like the heavens opened and the angels sang. Well, not really. It was like someone had finally let me know about a cheap solution to a problem I had. So I did more Googling and found this tutorial. That was my jumping off point, and here is the cage I built.

Basic supplies: bolt cutter or tin snips and hacksaw, tape measure, something to mark with, one or two bolt snaps (the clips at the end of dog leashes) or something similar to hold the cage door closed, three 6' x 12" wire shelves from Home Depot cut into three-foot lengths at the store, one 4' x 12" wire shelf, one package of 200 zip ties (not pictured) and one underbed storage container. This one is a 34 quart from Wal-Mart, but if you want a bigger cage you can get a bigger container. Optional: messy room and child's feet.

The tutorial I linked above talks about using vinyl J-channel (found with the siding) to finish off cut edges. Another tutorial I read said to use U-channel, found with the lattice. I didn't like any of the J-channel at the store (it was way too wide to stay on the cage), and they had gray U-channel for fifty cents an eight-foot piece because the color was discontinued. It also looked too big, but I figured for fifty cents I'd give it a shot. It was too big. I think I'm going to buy some of those report covers with the sliding plastic piece that covers the spine and glue those pieces around the top edge and door opening. I'll show you what's on there now towards the end of the post.

Another place where I deviated from the tutorial was with the size. They call for 16" deep shelving, which would theoretically perfectly fill your 34 quart storage container, which is something like 16" x 26". I even made sure to get one that had straight sides, since the tutorial warns about that. However, I'm not sure where Sterilite measured their sides, because the 16" shelving didn't even come close to fitting. We bought the storage container first and brought it to Home Depot with us specifically so I could test the shelving out and make sure I got the right stuff. I'm really glad we did.

Start by zip tying your corners.

These shelves are the standard wire closet shelving, with one side that's L-shaped. Because I was using 12" shelving, I needed to overlap the ends of the shelves in the center front and center back of the cage, so both L-corners were overlapped together. Repeat with the other pieces; you'll end up with two halves made up of three pieces each, with two corners on each half.

Oh, you will also need to trim the ends off your zip ties once you've used them on the cage. You can do it as you go or at the end. It doesn't matter. Remember that they can be pokey, though. I tried to turn all the cut ends of the ties toward the back, bottom or sides of the cage.

Once you have your four corners, put them in the storage container to form your cage. You want them in the storage container so you can make sure you size everything to fill as much of the container as possible.

Make sure you're getting both sides when you zip tie.

It should be tighter than this, but I wanted you to see how it went around the wires.

Now you're ready to start your opening for your cage door. With the cage still in the storage container, decide how high up you want your door. You want it to be able to open comfortably and not get bound up on the edge of your storage container, which will have a lip and would therefore hold the cage door out a little if it was too low. Your 4' shelf is going to make your cage door (and the top, and a shelf) so I held it up to the cage to decide where I wanted the door opening to be.

Use your tin snips to start cutting away the wire.

I only cut away a few pieces to start since I wanted to have my door attached to make sure I didn't cut too much.

This is where it sucks not to have bolt cutters. The tin snips will cut through the small wires pretty easily, but they (mine, at least) won't even touch the thicker wires. You have to do those with the hack saw if you don't have bolt cutters. It took the guy at Home Depot maybe three minutes to make the cuts I needed, but it took me anywhere from 10-30 minutes to cut with the hack saw at home.

Attach your door with the zip ties. Make sure the L-shaped edge is facing out.

You can see that I have a few more pieces to cut. Go ahead and do that now, but don't cut it so there are no wires crossing with the door. I left one at the top so I had something to use when latching the door.

Now add your top. I laid the remaining length of 4' shelf on top and marked where I wanted to cut. My cage wasn't entirely square, so measuring and cutting probably would have been a bad idea.

Zip tie the top at the back edge. Mine fits really tightly so I didn't use anything to hold it shut, but you might want to use bungee cords like they do in the tutorial, or more bolt snaps. I'll probably grab a couple more bolt snaps just to be safe. Here you can see that I attached it so that the wire at the edge of the top sat between the wires that make up the corner.

I read in several places that cages made of wire shelving are heavy enough not to be knocked over easily, which is probably true, but I still wanted it attached to the underbed container just in case. This one has handles that flip up onto the lid and lock in place. I popped those out and was left with two small holes on each side.

I threaded zip ties through the cage and through those holes, two on each side. You won't be able to tighten them, at least not if you get the same storage container I did, and if your rats like to chew things having the zip ties out in the open like that might be a big temptation. Ours don't chew on stuff too much, though, or they haven't so far. I did see Regulus sniffing at it, but he left it alone. While I was standing there, anyway.

Now it's time for shelves and ramps! I have one shelf made of the remaining piece of four foot wire shelving, then I have two more made from Dollar Tree cooling racks cut in half. The cooling racks are two for $1; I bought two sets and used two for shelves, cut one in half and made two ramps, and I have one left over. I messed up a little; I didn't really plan my layout before I started putting stuff in. The bottom shelf is a touch high for the length of the cooling rack ramp. Eventually I'll have to take these out to clean or rearrange, so when I do that I'll lower it a wire or something.

Slightly pouty helper break!

OK, Daddy's done mowing the yard and is back on baby duty, so let's finish this cage.

Since you don't want rats to be on wire all the time (they can develop bumblefoot), I put vinyl shelf liner--the thick, non-adhesive stuff--on the shelves. I also used it to cover up the cut edges by the door. All the shelf liner is taped in place, which I hope will work since the boys don't usually chew on stuff, but like I said, if your rats are chewers then this would probably be a very temporary solution. Some people use place mats to cover the shelves, which is what I wanted to use, but the ones at Dollar Tree were hideous. The backs didn't seem like they would be very easy to clean, so I grabbed two rolls of vinyl shelf liner instead.

Slightly blurry rat face. You can see here I did have the liner on the ramps, but I took it off. They didn't seem thrilled about walking on them with the liner on, and I figure they have the shelves and bottom of the cage to be away from wire, so they'll be fine.

Also, remember earlier how I said I thought the spacing between the wires on the other cages was too wide? I noticed--after I finished the cage and had moved the rats over--that the spacing on this cage was one inch. The recommended spacing for rat cages is half an inch. Our rats are full grown, and kind of fat to boot, and I watched them try and fail to get out for half an hour, so I'm not too worried. If you have small rats you'll want to use different shelving or wrap the cage in poultry wire or something. Rubbermaid has a shelf called Tightmesh that is half inch spacing, but I didn't see it at Home Depot. It's listed on the Lowes website.

I don't really plan on this being a temporary cage, although some people use something like this to hold them over until they can get a Critter Nation or a Martin's Cage. I like it and it seems sturdy, plus I don't know if we'll own rats after these boys pass away, so I'm not sure about making a big investment in the more expensive cages. They may chew some of the zip ties as time goes on, so keep some on hand. I have a little less than half of my package of 200 left over, so I just put that under the table the cage sits on now.

The cost for the cage was roughly $52: $25 for the three large wire shelves, $9 for the smaller shelf, $6 for the cable ties, $2 for the bolt snap, $6 for the storage container and $4 for the inside wire shelves and shelf liner. The finished cage is roughly 3' tall x 2' wide x 1' deep. It is technically still a little shallow, which is why I would have preferred to have the 16" shelving, but it's better than the aquarium. If I want to expand in the future, Lowes has 2' square flat (no L-shaped end) wire shelves for $4 that I could add in to the centers of the sides, or I saw small stacking shelves (made of the same type of covered wire) at Dollar Tree that could work if the legs were cut off. If you're going to make this, I'd definitely recommend using the 16" shelves if possible. It'll cost more, but not a whole lot.


  1. You are such a good mom. It would be hard for me to put my heart into this. My brother and I had a pet rat when we were kids. The thought of that now is not appealing. Your kids are lucky to have creative, fun parents.

  2. Wow. I never though I would read a blog post about how to build a rat cage, but I did! You did a great job - I love thrifty, diy solutions to problems!

  3. I wish my mom would let me have rats... she hates every animal I bring home but there's a special issue with rats. she HATES them. and I'm all into DIY projects and I want to do this so badly!!!!