New rat owners often purchase exercise balls and wheels and are disappointed when their rats will not use them. Sometimes, rats are even brought to veterinarians by well-meaning owners concerned about their health because they don’t run in an exercise ball or on a wheel! The truth of the matter is, many rats simply don’t like wheels, and exercise balls are a poor choice for rats.
Some rats love to run on wheels. Others do not. Most female rats will use a wheel if provided with one that’s designed for rats and of a sufficient size. Most young rats of both genders will use a wheel at least occasionally. Adult male rats, however, rarely run on wheels. Some individuals do enjoy exercising in a wheel, but most full-grown males would rather laze around on your lap or sniff around the bedroom floor for a snack.
If you want your rats to try wheeling, I recommend purchasing a Wodent Wheel. Unlike most other brands, these wheels have a solid running surface and are of adequate size for rats. The Wodent Wheel Senior is best for females, while the Wobust Wodent Wheel is large enough for male rats. This is the only brand I use with my rats, but other owners have successfully made their own wheels using 5-gallon buckets, and Petsmart carries another brand of wheel with a solid running surface, although it’s harder to clean in my opinion than the Wodent wheel.
Whatever you do, just don’t get a wheel with bars! Rats can break toes, tails, and legs when using exercise wheels with bars, which are designed for hamsters. Hamsters have shorter legs and no tails at all. Avoid wheels that are on the small side, as they may make running painful for rats.
As for exercise balls: Just don’t bother. Rats are curious creatures that love to interact with their environment using all five of their senses. Being trapped in a plastic ball frightens and depresses them. Instead of using an exercise ball, let rats run free in a rat-proofed area of your home. Don’t forget to move or protect all electrical cords before letting rats roam even for a few minutes!
If you can’t rat-proof a whole room, let rats play on top of a bed, couch, or table. Supervise them while they explore and gently turn them away if they seem inclined to jump down to the floor. If you’re diligent about supervising the rats, they will likely never learn that they could reach the floor just by jumping out of their play area.