Running wheels are one of the most controversial toys in the fancy rat community. Wheels are not necessary for rats, but they can provide a good source of exercise during the long hours they are confined to their cage. Yet pet owners are divided - some believe that wheels are perfectly healthy for rats, while others insist that they will damage their spines and tails.
I currently have a rat that is barbering (biting the hair off) her two front legs and I have to assume that it's due to boredom, stress, or excess energy. I take my rats out twice a day, for at least an hour each time. I fill their cage with hammocks, hides, nesting material, and lots of chew toys. She's also housed with 6 other rats. She barbers regardless!
At a complete loss, I decided to try a wheel in hopes that it will give her the excitement she needs to stop barbering (She still hasn't touched it...none of my rats have!).
Knowing that wheels come with highly varied opinions, I set out to do some investigating.
The argument AGAINST wheels:
Wheels are thought to cause a physical and irreversible deformity known as "wheel tail" which causes the tail to curve upward. Wheels force a rat to bend its back in an unnatural way, reshaping the muscles of the spine and consequently the tail.
While it is mostly considered harmless, some argue that a curved tail ruins the rat's sense of balance. There is no definite proof of wheels causing this deformity but rat owners tend to stay away from wheels just in case.
On the other hand, there is an argument that says "wheel tails" aren't caused by wheels at all! In fact, it's thought that curved tails are a genetic mutation that will happen with or without wheels.
Rat specialist, Debbie Ducommun, is well known in the rat community and has argued this point many times.
In fact, there was a rattery that used to breed rats called "doodle tails". You can see images of their rats with curved tails by clicking here. This proves that "wheel tail" is, indeed, a genetic trait.
BUT this doesn't prove that wheels don't cause "wheel tail" as well!
The argument FOR wheels:
Rats are very intelligent creatures and if they are uncomfortable, they will stop what they're doing! Unlike exercise balls that are enclosed and trap an animal inside, wheels are easy to stop when a rat is tired, bored, or uncomfortable.
Wheels provide good exercise for obese rats and are a great boredom buster.
**Wheels should be at least 12" to reduce the curving of the spine. They should NOT be made of mesh or wire as this is a risk for toe and tail injuries.
The bottom line:
Online, half of rats with "wheel tail" run on a wheel, while the other half of rats with curved tails have never touched a wheel in their lives!
So what does this mean??
Let me present to you what I found after hours and hours of research.
The truth is - there is NO truth.
There is no proof that wheels damage rat's spines, and there is no proof that they are completely safe! Unfortunately, this makes it very confusing for us rat owners.
My research was inconclusive!
In the end...
You know your rat best so it's up to you to weigh the positives and negatives. If your rat needs more exercise or is showing symptoms of boredom, it may be worth it to risk "wheel tail".
If your rat gets plenty of play time and doesn't seem to mind being in their cage, a wheel is unnecessary.
If you want to purchase a wheel, please buy the largest wheel available or a 12" wheel.
Weigh in below! Leave a comment and tell me your thoughts, opinions, and experience. I'd also love to see any pictures you have of your rat with a curved tail - and whether or not that rat runs on a wheel!