Rat body language can be hard to read and understand. Sometimes, play looks like aggression and bruxing is misinterpreted as happiness. Be sure to take some time to read about rat body language to be able to understand your rat – they learn your words so it’s only fair to learn theirs! Below are some common scenarios rat families encounter and how they can be managed/navigated.
Getting to Know Your Rat
Rats are friendly, curious and sensitive creatures. They become deeply attached to their rat and human family but they’ll need time to warm up to you first. Remember that they are their own beings and need to learn that they can trust you.
Begin by feeding them small treats by hand or offering them yogurt or baby food on a spoon. Put them in the busiest part of the house and talk to them often. Sit by them while you read or game. This will get them used to your presence and help them learn that you are not there to hurt them. Rats are very curious and eventually their curiosity will win and the rats will want to check you out.
Once they’re comfortable with your touch, offer to pick one up. Pick them up from underneath instead of reaching your hand over them. Don’t grab them by the neck, scruff, shoulders or tail. Never grad a rat by their tail – this can cause very serious injury very easily, and could result in the need for tail amputation. Use one hand to support their bottom and one to support their body as you lift them. This is less scary for them.
If they’re terrified to come out of the cage, don’t force them, and only take them out of the cage facing forward – it is stressful to be pulled backwards without seeing where you are going. Open the door throughout the day and talk to them.
They love you and want to see you! If your rat is a rescue, they may need more time to trust you. They’ve been through a lot and need to know that you will be there for them and love them. Don’t give up on them if they aren’t immediately social; they’ve experienced trauma but will come around! Be sure to spend time with them daily and build your relationship.
Rats can easily learn to use a litter box with rat-safe litter. Male rats respond differently to litter boxes than females so the training process is a bit different. For both, you will want to place some old litter into the new litter after every change so that the rats learn to continue to use that area as their potty area.
For males, observe where they prefer to go and place the litter box there. Use a large rock as a “pee rock”. Boys like peeing on rocks and the rock will encourage them to use the litter box.
For females, place the litter box where you’d like them to go. Females are very tidy and do not like pee rocks or dirty litter, so change their litter often and skip the pee rock.
There are multiple types of litter to choose from. It is important to choose a dust-free litter because their teeny snoots make them susceptible to respiratory irritation and infection. At Teeny Snoots, we prefer paper pellet litter. We have found that rats eat walnut litter now avoid that. Clay litter is not acceptable for rats due to the high dust and clay content.
The video below gives a quick tutorial on litter-training you rat.
What About Baking Soda?
Baking soda is a common ingredient in litters. Baking soda can be toxic to rats if it is ingested. Litters containing baking soda can be used only if your rat does not eat the litter. If your rat is a chewer and nibbles on a bit of everything, it is important to choose a little without baking soda. In the stomach, baking soda combines with stomach acids to create carbon dioxide. Rats are not able to remove this gas from their bodies (they cannot burp to get the gas out of their stomach), so as the gas builds up, internal organs will begin to rupture and lead to a very painful death. It is very important to know your rat’s chewing habits and mannerisms if you are using paper pellet litter.
My Rat Is Being A Bully, what can I do?
Rats are often considered animal toddlers. They are very curious, very smart and very mischievous.
Around 5-8 months old, rats will start to reach social maturity and may go through phases of being difficult or troublesome. Oftentimes, rats that were previously submissive or passive will suddenly start bullying the their mischief-mates. This is them testing their limits. To manage this behaviour, get a small cage to use as your “time-out” cage. Put bedding, food and water in it but no toys. Make it very boring.
Whenever your rat begins causing issues in their mischief, pull them out and place them immediately into the time-out cage without speaking to them. Leave them in the cage for an hour and increase their time-out time by an hour each time. Ignore them while they are in the time-out cage. You want to teach them that being with their friends is the most fun but in order to be with their friends, they need to be good.
Rats learn very quickly and usually stop their problematic behaviour after only a few time outs!
My Female Rat Is Wiggling Her Ears and Acting Weird – What Is Going On?
Your girl is in heat! These behaviours are absolutely normal and healthy for a female rat. Rat heats last about 12 hours and occur every 4-5 days. During this time, you may notice odd behaviour from your girl and she may be more nippy towards her sisters, but you will not notice any blood like in the heats of other animals.
My Rat Bites Me When Excited
Excited bites are different than aggressive bites. Excited bites do not break the skin and are usually a quick nip and run, whereas aggressive bites will draw blood and be prolonged. Excited bites are usually misdirected excitement and energy. To help with excited bites, get a collection of small rat-sized toys that you can give to your rat to hold in their mouth when they are excited instead of biting you. Soon enough your rat will learn to grab their toy before they greet you!
My Rat Is Very Nervous And Doesn’t Want To Be Social
This is common in rescued rats as they have been through a lot and may be experiencing trauma. When a rat isn’t being social, it is important to make sure that they are not sick first.
Once that is done, we can start working on their nerves. The best starting place is to place their cage in the part of the house that you spend the most time in. Speak to them often in a calm voice and give them a piece of clothing that smells like you to snuggle with so they can start associating your scent with comfort. Get them a carrier or small cage that you can place on the couch beside you, on the bed while you sleep or the counter while you cook so that they can be with you throughout the day or evening. Offer them yogurt or baby food on a spoon so they know you will give them tasty food and not hurt them. You can slowly start moving the spoon closer and closer to you as they lick off the food and eventually be able to offer the rat a treat directly from your hand.
Move slowly around them and use a calm voice. Do not force them to leave the cage unless they want to and always pet them from the side or underneath. Respect their bodily automony – just because they’re small doesn’t mean we can do what we want with them.
Keep it up and they will come around! Know that without you, your rat may never have had a chance to have a family. It may take time but you are their hero.
my rat is Aggressive – Penguin’s Method
I call this Penguin’s Method after its success with my previously-aggressive boy, Penguin. As we do for anxious rats, place your aggressive rat in the room where you spend the most time. Talk to them constantly and give them a t-shirt or piece of clothing that smells like you. Let them use the cloth to bite and beat up instead of you. They will hopefully eventually use the cloth to snuggle with but it may take a few rounds of beating and shredding before it can be snuggled.
Try to talk to them through the bars using their communication tactics, like chirping and teeth chattering. When they see you trying to talk to them, they will be more interested in you. Offer them the back of your fist to sniff and get used to your touch instead of your open hand; the back of your fist is much harder to bite and less threatening. Do not ever force them out of their cage; allow them to decide when they are ready. When they do come out of the cage, lift them from underneath. Lifting from above is a sign that you’re trying to assert dominance over them and makes you seem more like a predator.
The same concept can be used for not forcing them out of the cage; forcing them shows them that they are weaker and they will try to prove to you that they are not weaker. They will also start to see you as a source of challenge and discomfort, and will start to get their guard up around you. Do not force them to do anything; build a relationship with them. When they do decide to come out of their cage, spend a lot of time with them. Carry them around the house with you as you study, do the dishes, cook dinner, watch TV, etc. Most importantly, always keep in mind that they have been through traumatic experience before coming into rescue and it is important to respect how their past may be making them feel in the present with you.
One of My Rats Passed and the Others Are Sad
Rats bond strongly with their human and rat family, and grieve when their friends pass away or when they are re-homed. If one of your rats passes, make sure to spend lots of time with the remaining rats to comfort them. They grieve just like we do. Keep in mind that they are prey animals and cannot show weakness so they are not likely to show you their grief, but that does not mean it doesn’t exist.
If you only have one rat left, do not rush to re-home them. Rehoming your rat after losing their friend would be very traumatic for them and your rat may feel that they have done something wrong. Rats are social animals in the same way humans are; we like other humans around but if we lose our best friend, we don’t immediately want a new best friend. Spend as much time as possible with your rat. Carry them around in your hood while you cook or clean. Their cage may be upsetting to them so give them plenty of free time. Keep a blanket or tissue that smells like their friend so they can snuggle with it while they sleep. Remember that your rat loves you very much and would rather be a lone rat with you and their family than in a new home with strange people and rats.
Once you have both had time to grieve, you can assess if you’d like to re-home them or bring in new rats. If your rat is 2 or older, rehoming would be very difficult on them and they may become depressed. Keep this in mind while making your decision. Do what is best for your rat, not what the rat community tells you to do. Rats are not black and white with strict user manuals – they are individuals with their own minds. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all for rats.