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Build your own Grotto-style cage

Here's some information on how we built The Grotto.  We hope this encourages you to enrich the lives of your rats with a new large fun filled home.   It's not as difficult as you might think and much cheaper than buying a similarly sized cage from a pet shop or cage manufacturer.


Part 1:  Construction

You have two options here:  build your cage from scratch or buy a suitable storage cabinet and convert it.  We couldn't find a cabinet the size we wanted, so we opted to build it ourselves.

Plans

Draw up a detailed design first, noting exact measurements and figure out the perfect interior plan for positioning of ladders and hammocks and other toys so it's interested for your rats.

The Grotto is 175 cm tall, 80 cm wide and 45 cm deep.  The size was simply what worked best with the lengths of laminated wood we could buy (i.e. 45 x 240 cm made 3 shelves).

There's 5 shelves, each about 30 cm apart (ensure there's room for your rats to stretch to full height on at least a few levels), plus a storage area.  Each shelf is slightly different.  The top one is only 30 cm deep (rather than the whole 45 cm) so that a ladder can come down in front of it.  This also provides more headroom on the level below, and the rats can climb up the wire in front of it to reach the top hammock (they enjoy this).  The second one is a full shelf, with a rectangular ladder hole cut out of the back right hand corner.  The third shelf is also a full one, with the access hole (and trap door) cut out of the front left hand corner.

The bottom part of the cage was designed specifically for old rats who can't get around as well.  The fourth shelf is only a half shelf... like the top one, it's only 30 cm deep, but it also only goes half way across the cage.  It's met with a hammock instead, so that old rats can walk straight off the shelf into their hammock without climbing.  There's also room for a long low ramp instead of a ladder down the front (after removal of the tree branch).  With no old rats at the moment, we've added more interest with the tree branch (bolted in at the bottom right) and the digging box.  We also recently added a narrow shelf above the hammock on the right and a terracotta pot for the rats to lurk in.

Materials

We used white laminated wood shelving for the main construction.  This is cheapest bought in long lengths (usually 45 cm x 240 cm).  Laminated wood is waterproof, but you will need to seal any exposed cuts (like the ladder access holes) with iron-on laminate strips.  On top of each shelf, we also covered all the joins with white electrical tape to prevent pee and cleaning liquids soaking down into the joins and swelling the timber.
For the cage back, we opted for a large sheet of 6 mm plywood instead, to reduce costs and the weight of the cage (laminated wood is quite heavy).  To pee proof it, we covered it with white adhesive contact sheeting (the rats are yet to chew on this, surprisingly) although you could also use a non-toxic water based paint.
The frame, shelves and back were all held together with brass screws.
 

Doors

We decided on two separate doors for The Grotto. This was for ease of use (one large door would have been heavy and cumbersome) and also to separate the cage into two sections (divided by the trap door).  This has numerous advantages:  (1) it's handy if you need to separate rats for any reason, (2) it makes cleaning the cage easy as you can put the rats in the bottom section while you clean the top and vice versa, (3) you can open the top door and interact with the rats without them leaping out onto the floor.  We often wheel the cage out to the lounge room in the evenings and park it next to the sofa.  With the top door open, the rats can come and go on the sofa as they please without reaching the floor.

The door frames are constructed from 4 lengths of 30 x 18 mm pine.  We simply mitred the edges, and nailed them together.  There was no need for a cross strut since the doors were relatively small and the wire supported the frame.  We painted the frame with white water based paint.

We used green 1" mesh powder coated wire (this is available in 5m rolls from large hardware stores).  Cut to size (i.e. to overlap the back of the door frame just enough for attachment) using wire cutters and file off any sharp edges.  The best option for attachment of the wire to the frame are those flat multiple spiked metal fasteners that are used to secure shade cloth.

We attached the door to the cage with brass hinges, added a handle and a simple hook latch.  We also added magnetic catches to the doors, so that we could close the cage securely without having to latch it all the time.

Trap doors

These are a great idea if you need to house rats separately, or make your cage more versatile.  Simply save the rectangular piece of laminated wood you cut as an access hole in the shelf, plane it down a little so it fits in the gap better and iron on some laminate strips to seal the edges.  Then attach the trap door using hinges and a latch.  We used a standard push across latch for this purpose, and also added a second coupling to the cage wall to hold the trap door open (as Dapper shows here).

Casters

Add casters to the base to allow ease of movement.  We have had no tipping problem with the height to weight ratio of The Grotto, even when being wheeled around.  However, this is something to keep in mind when planning your own cage.

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Part 2:  Interior decor

This is really up to your creative talent.  I've just noted a few tips that work well in The Grotto to get you started.

Bedding

We use old towels as bedding.  These I cut to size to fit each shelf, bound the edges to prevent fraying and sewed velcro on the corners.  Apply stick-on velcro to the shelves for attachment (you can buy stick and sew velcro for this purpose).  Make a couple of sets of bedding to alternate on washing days (likewise for any hammocks).

Ladders

Wooden ladders are handy for access between levels (we sell ladders here).  The ladders are attached by hooks (i.e. hooks on the ladder top and screw-in eyelets on the cage wall).  This makes them simple to remove for cleaning.  To make things more interesting for your rats, keep in mind other options for access between levels... ramps, tree branches, step downs, PVC pipe segments, slippery dips made of fabric, hammocks, etc.  More ideas here.

Toys

This is where you can let your imagination run wild.  Buy lots of screw-in hooks and eyelets for attaching hammocks, ropes, lofts and other toys.  To stop things from being tossed around in the cage, use stick-on velcro (e.g. to anchor the litter tray from being tipped over).

The toys we have in The Grotto:  several styles of hammock, lofts, ropes, pipe segments, tree branch, terracotta pot, digging box (occasional), rat igloo, Wodent Wheel, nest boxes, foofferdomes.  We have since replaced the cardboard boxes in the photos with upturned plastic tupperware... you can buy suitable sizes cheap from discount stores and cut doors in them (these are infinitely cheaper than most store bought nest boxes).

If you like the look of our hammocks and toys, we sell a large range of hammocks, toys and Wodent Wheels.

More rat toy ideas you can make yourself or purchase cheaply here.

Safety

When designing your cage consider your rats' safety.

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Part 3:  The Grotto FAQ

Cleaning

The Grotto is without doubt the easiest and quickest cage I've ever had to clean.  It's as simple as removing the bedding, hammocks, lofts, etc. and tossing them in the washing machine, then simply wiping down the shelves as you would your kitchen bench (I use Vanilla Fresh, a food grade natural kitchen cleaning spray).  Replace with new bedding, hammocks and toys as it's all done in less than 20 minutes.

However, don't think that this kind of cage will save you a lot of time on cleaning compared to other cages.  As fabric bedding is not as absorbent or odour reducing as commercial litters, the cage needs to be cleaned more often than a standard rat cage. e.g. I spot clean The Grotto every day, and change all of the bedding every 2 days.  I have enough bedding changes to last me a week or so before washing day.
 

Litter training

With towel bedding on the shelves of the cage, you really need to train your rats to use a litter tray. Here's how.
 

How many rats can live in a cage this size?

I think a maximum for a cage this size should be about 6 or 7 males, although when it comes to rat cages, bigger is always better!
When deciding how big to build your cage or how many rats can fit in the one you have,
first plug your cage dimensions into this Cage Calculator to give you the maximum number of rats it could potentially hold.  Then consider:

Maintenance

The Grotto requires very little maintenance.  The only things we've needed to do apart from regular cleaning (in many years of use) are:


Improvements

Many people have asked us what we'd do differently if we built another Grotto... and the answer is not much.  It has worked so well as is that there's little we would change.  Perhaps we'd consider the following:

We have recently renovated The Grotto.  You can see the changes here.
 

How much did it cost to build?

The Grotto cost us around AU$140 in basic materials - laminated wood, wodden door frame, wire, casters, fastenings, hinges, etc.  The interior decor - bedding, toys, ladders, etc - was additional.

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