Whew! I promised in my last post that I would share a lot of goodies about the rats’ new cage when it was finished, and finally, after a month of work, it is. Like many of my projects, I thought it would be a quicker and easier process than it was, but I’m really pleased with the result–and more importantly, so are Ari and Vetty. Their old cage was perfectly nice, but not ideal–it never really looked like it belonged in our living room, they scattered food and bedding all over the floor, and we had to hide all their “stuff” (bins of food, medicine, extra liners, bedding) underneath a tablecloth. It wasn’t very efficient, or very pretty:

As I said in the last post, I was inspired by a DIY hamster cage I found on Pinterest (and sadly couldn’t find attribution for). While on a road trip to San Antonio to visit some friends, we stopped at the Austin IKEA and picked up a white EXPEDIT 2×4 bookcase, 4 CAPITA legs, two orange KASSETT boxes, and six METRIK handles:

I wanted to add legs to the bottom for three reasons: to make it look more like a real piece of furniture and less like a bookshelf; to make it easier to vacuum around; and to raise it further out of the cat’s reach. I decided it would be easiest to do this first, before the whole thing was assembled. Instructions come with the legs, but it’s really easy; you just mark where you want them to go, screw the plates into the bottom of the unit, and attach the legs. (Pro tip: you don’t need to drill pilot holes since the unit is made of pressboard, but do drill just a tiny bit to get through the laminate on the outside–it’s difficult to get the screw through it otherwise).

You can adjust the legs if you need to, so that it’ll sit straight, but our floor was level and it wasn’t necessary.

Once the legs were installed, I started putting together what I could of the unit. It’s simple enough, like most IKEA products.

One thing I like about the IKEA EXPEDIT rather than other, similar units is the very thick outer edge–it makes it look more substantial and less cheap, I think. But I digress. I had to put holes in the second and third floors, since the rats would have to travel between them. I decided on a 5×10″ rectangular hole out of a corner of each floor. If you do something similar, note that I put the holes on opposite corners when it was assembled–if you stack them, it’s possible for a rat to fall three stories, which could easily be fatal.

I’m not going to lie, cutting the doorways out was a huge pain. I can’t use a jigsaw or circular saw in our condo because of the noise. I can get by with the miter saw as long as I’m quick about it, so I cut into these as far as I could with the miter, then cut the rest of the way with a Dremel cutting disk. It took forever, but it worked. Before installing the shelves, I wrapped them in white vinyl contact paper, making sure to cover the cut edges securely. This is so no moisture (stray water or urine) can soak into the wood where it isn’t covered by laminate.

Next it was time to make the doors. I bought eight-foot lengths of pre-primed MDF molding, 1.5″ wide, and used the miter saw to cut 24 equal pieces with mitered ends. Then I used flat L brackets to connect the pieces.

I made sure they fit into the spaces, sanding them down if necessary, before stapling in the wire mesh. I used 0.5×1″ hardware cloth, 16-gauge, because if I ever get baby rats again, they can wriggle through 1″ spacing. I was very careful to file off any sharp “nubs” so the rats couldn’t cut themselves on the exposed edges. Once the mesh was attached and the holes for the handles were drilled, I spray-painted the whole doors–hardware and all–with Rustoleum Specialty Appliance Epoxy in Biscuit (IKEA’s white is not precisely white, it’s slightly off). Back when I restored their first cage, I called Rustoleum to ask about whether their products were animal-safe. They assured me that the appliance epoxy was safe once fully cured, and advised me to let it cure for around 10 days before letting the rats near it. The appliance paint is very hard, so sharp rat teeth can’t even chip it. I think I went through 4 cans painting all the hardware for the cage, including the large wire screen for the back. (Sorry for the phone photo–I put this picture on Facebook and it was quicker that way!)

While we’re talking about animal safety–several people have raised the very good question about the chemicals in IKEA’s products. I learned through my research that IKEA voluntarily manufactures to the highest emissions standards in the world (Germany’s) and has very little formaldehyde in their pressboard–less than what’s found in the drinking water of many cities (!). So I felt comfortable housing my rats in their furniture. You might not, and that’s OK. It’s an individual decision.

Anyway, on with the show. Once the doors dried, I installed the handles and put them in place with small hinges. To keep them from swinging in too far, I epoxied stop blocks inside each door, with small rare-earth magnets set into the blocks to help keep the doors shut (the magnets latch onto the L-brackets on the doors). For extra security, I installed a hook-and-eye latch on each door, under the handles to keep things from looking cluttered. I also put in two long wooden parrot ladders, which I painted with the appliance epoxy to keep them nice and fresh, and this is what I had when that was done (again, terrible phone photo):

At this point the structure was done–I just needed to furnish it! I spent three nights sitting at my dining room table with Star Trek playing, diligently sewing three sets of everything so I could wash them and have replacements ready when the girls inevitably chew through things. I also made sure those storage boxes were nice and stocked–the left one with bedding, cage liners, hammocks, and toys, and the right with food, treats, medicine, and chew sticks. Are you ready for the big reveal?

Really?

Are you sure?

OK!

Here it is! (Complete with a Perler bead Spock made by a friend and a cute picture of Jimmy and Mitzy cuddling.) It’s so nice and easy to clean–the doors open all the way so I can get into all the crevices:

Let’s do a floor-by-floor tour, shall we? First, the top floor (aka “Fun and Naps Land”):

On the left is their current favorite snoozing spot, the three-tiered hammock I call “The Pagoda.” Vetty has staked her claim on the middle bunk, leaving the lower one for Arial. They love to hide treats and shreds of paper in there to play with while they’re napping. Their beloved Wodent Wheel is on the right, where Helvetica has been running basically nonstop since the move, and some wooden chew toys up front. (I may have taken the clapper out of the bell because they were keeping me awake, haha.)

The second floor (aka “Food and Lounge Land”). Here they have the papier-mâché egg chair I made (more on that in a second), food dishes, a tube (just a plain shipping tube I covered with a scrap of matching fabric and water-based glue), some wooden toys, a triangle hammock Ari likes to sit in while she eats, and their water bottle.

The egg chair is just paper, painted with regular craft paints and sealed with a layer of water-based glaze. I used a scrap of orange fleece to make a cushion, then poked a hole through the side and secured it to the screen with a zip tie so they can’t tip it over. Vetty likes to sit in it while she eats her blocks, it’s cute!

The bottom floor is the home of everything messy. On the left is a dig box, just a dollar-store basket filled with shredded tissue paper and little toys (ping-pong balls with holes so they can carry them, mostly). They like to get in and root around. In the middle is a “cuddle cup,” basically a small version of those round dog beds, that I made. In the right corner is their litter box. Pro tip: when moving litter-trained rats to a new cage, it helps if you don’t change the litter when you move it the first time. That way, they can smell where they’re supposed to go. You can clean it out after a couple of days, once they’ve got the hang of it.

They love the dig box. That paper stayed in the basket for approximately fifteen minutes–now it’s distributed all over the floors and hammocks.

The cuddle cup is mostly “extra paper storage” right now, but occasionally gets slept in. So what happens when you add rats?

They were a little baffled by the open doors and checked out the edge very cautiously (I stood by in case they misjudged the distance, but they’re smart enough not to fall).

Vetty was reassured by her old wheel, though she didn’t approve of how clean it was.

Ari scoped out a soft place to snooze first, as is her M.O.

They were both very interested in coming up to the edge for a treat. Exhibit A is Helvetica above; Exhibit B is Arial below:

All in all, I’d call it a success! There’s enough space for them to get a good run in, lots of stuff to keep them entertained, and plenty of nice napping spots. It looks way better in our living room, and the storage keeps things organized. I’ll keep you posted as it evolves or if problems crop up, but for the time being, the rats and I are content.

Bonus: an eagle-eyed reader pointed out to me that in the picture from this old post, I look less like a Rick Moranis clone and more like the offspring of Moranis and Zachary Quinto. I’ve always thought Quinto was super cute, so I have weird feelings about this, but she may be right.