Behaviour

Handling

Rats are prey animals so can be wary in new surroundings. However, my rats have been handled from a very young age so are used to humans. It is important to pick them up with confidence - this means picking them up when you decide, firmly and without chasing them around the cage. It can seem daunting at first with delicate looking babies but rats are sturdy and as long and you are firm but gentle they will be fine. This is known as the confidence method. It is not suitable for all rats, for example rescue rats or rats from pet shops, but it should work with rats from reputable breeders. Rats should never be picked up by their tails. Their skin is delicate and can easily come off (degloved) or their tail broken. To pick a rat up, hold them by their middle under their armpits.

Betty

How to pick up a rat.


Introducing rats

Rats are social animals, so need ot be kept with others. If you intend to keep rats a while, it is inevitable that you will need to add more rats to your group. I recommend the carrier method as the initial way of introducing rats, as I believe it is the quickest and lest risky way of introducing rats.

What is the carrier method?

Fundamentally, the carrier method works by introducing rats in a small space so cannot present avoidance behaviours and cannot exhibit chasing behaviours. When new rats meet, they have two options. See if the new rats are friendly, or to flee. Fleeing can give way to chasing, which can increase stress which in turn can increase aggressive behaviours. In a small space, the choice of fleeing is removed, which removes the risks of chasing and decreases the chance of aggressive behaviours.

But isn’t putting them in a small space extremely stressful and causes “flooding”? Flooding describes rats being overwhelmed they freeze and can stare at apparently nothing - often people use the term “flooding” to also mean putting them in a stressful situation. The way I see it, all introductions are stressful no matter the method. Meeting new rats is stressful. However, the carrier method is designed to work quickly compared to other methods. So instead of having long, drawn out intros, the stress is kept to a minimal amount of time. It also reduces the likelihood of injuries. I feel as owners, we need to reduce risks as much as possible. We cannot entirely remove stress from our pet’s lives, but we can minimize it. Furthermore, if your rats are become so stressed during intros then the method should be stopped and re-adjusted.

How does the carrier method work?

The carrier method workd by starting the rats in a small space, such as a carrier or small hamster cage. You put clean substrate in the carrier/cage and add all the rats in at once. There will be some sniffing, grooming, squeaking. At this point you need to watch carefully for any aggressive behaviours such as puffing up and side stepping. If agression happens it may be best to walk around with the carrier a bit (or even go on a drive) but if it persists separate and try again another day (it may be that one rat may need to be neutered). If there is any biting or rat balling they should be separated immediately.

Once they have settled in the carrier, I ususally wait a couple of hours before moving them up to the next stage. This should be a small hamster cage (Pets at home medium or large for reference), empty apart from substrate at the bottom. I like to leave them at this stage at least overnight, as rats are most active at dusk and dawn it gives them a chance to properly interact in a safe space. I attach two water bottles either end of the cage and scatter feed. You do not need to keep a super close eye on them at this stage. Usually for the first couple of hours, then have them within earshot at night incase it kicks off.

If they are good all night, I add a hammock to the hamster cage. I then in the afternoon will move them up to an empty large hamster cage (Alaska hamster cage), looking out for the same behaviours as before. If all goes well, I’ll add a hammock or two in the evening. The next stage after that is half their regular cage with open hammocks, then hopefully by the weekend they’ll be back in their full furnished cage. I try to start intros on a Friday night or Saturday morning so they are in their trickiest stages when I have the most time to pay attention to them, and so that they are back in their full cage by the following weekend so I can take time to clean and set it all up.

Sometimes there can be setbacks, such as increased tension or scuffles when you move up a stage. This means you need to go back down to the previous smaller cage for a bit longer. If they just won’t settle, then it may be that the group isn’t working (not all rats will get on with each other!) or a rat needs to be neutered/spayed if they’re a persistant bully.

Other methods

I don’t particuarly reccomend these methods (I think the neutral space method has some benefits in certain situations) however they are useful to be aware of as elements can be used during tricky intros:


Other pets (interspecies interactions)

Rats should only interact with other rats (and their humans!). They should only be housed with other same-sex rats. When you have your rats out on free roam or handling them, all other free roaming pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets) should not be in the room. Rats are prey animals and so do not benefit from interactions with other animals. Futhermore, dogs/cats can easily kill a rat, either on purpose or by accident. Dogs/cats can grab a rat’s tail through the cage bars and deglove it (rip the skin off). Cat salavia is highly toxic to rodents. Not to forget, rats can have a mean bite, and can also seriously injure other animals if they get spooked. I will never home my rats out to people who allow other animals to interact with their rats due to the high risk with no reward.


Lone rats

Rats should not be kept alone as they are social animals. Rats under 16 weeks need same age company in order to develop properly socially and mentally. Older rats can be friends with multiple ages. Even elderly rats need company if their cagemate dies, as human company cannot replace rat company. There are multiple scientific studies (click here for a selection) that prove that lone rats are more stressed and depressed compared to rats in groups.

If your rats is aggressive towards other rats or people, they may benefit from a neuter/spay and then reintroducing to the group after a few weeks to allow hormones to settle. If they are still aggressive towards the same sex they may need to be housed with the opposite sex.

To avoid a lone rat, it is a good idea to add a couple of young rats to your group every 6-12 months. This creates a rolling group of various ages which means no rats will be left alone.

If you no longer wish to keep rats, the remaining rat needs to be rehomed to join a group. I will happily take back any rats that become lone that I have bred, so they can live out their life with the rest of their family.