Common Mistakes Owners Make That Create Behavioral Problems With Their Pet Rats

By Kat Lovings
Rat Dippity Rattery
Kalkaska, Michigan

I specialize in pet rat behavior. I consider myself an authority in this area with over seven years of experience raising pet rats and observing the behaviors of over 800 of my little bundles of fur.

I'm a "rat whisperer." I think like, and understand their posturing and body languages. I speak their language as well as my own. I communicate with them on their level and try to bridge the gap between their needs and human needs, hoping that both the rats and their human counterparts can live in harmony with one another.

I got interested in pet rat behavior after being blessed with the opportunity of raising two wild Norwegian rats, named Hurkie and Ruggie. Everything about them fascinated me and all I wanted to do was learn to understand them and communicate with them on some level, so they'd be happy. They brought me such joy and I wanted to return the favor.

I realize that it is finally time to start sharing some of the things I've been learning about pet rats with the rest of the world. I'm compiling information that I will soon put into a book that the public can purchase. Meanwhile, I'm starting to offer some of the very important insights I've gained because I'm receiving emails with very similar problems from one another. I'm seeing a "pattern" of problems between owners and their pets. It's time to properly educate the general public on the common and innocent mistakes they are making regarding raising their pet rats.

I decided to write this article to try and help owners and their pets have a better understanding with each other.

Problem number one:

Play wrestling with your pet rat.

When people first get their little ratlets they play wrestle with them much like kittens like to do, tickling their bellies with their hands and the ratlet attacks the hand biting it gently and playfully. This is fun at first, but you are also teaching your pet rat a learned response, that is, an association with your hand as something to playfully attack and nip or bite at.

As they get older they continue this child play but they tend to wrestle harder and harder and bite stronger and stronger. They don't realize their fun play is now hurting your hand and pretty soon you've created a monster.

Trying to undo a learned response isn't easy as they don't understand why they use to be able to act like this and it was ok and now it isn't. Ratties can't be disciplined like other animals can. They can't be yelled at or hit or spanked. If you try any type of punishment of this type you'll only create fear and withdrawal of interaction with you, so it's my recommendation no matter how tempted you are to play wrestle with your little rittens that you do not do so or risk an aggression problem as they mature which can actually harm you or make you scared of them. That would be most unfortunate.

Problem number two:

Your pet rat starts biting your hand or fingers when you put it/them in the cage.

I will try to cover as many reasons as possible for this behavior so pet owners can try and troubleshoot what is really bothering their pet rat.

Here is a recent email I just received from someone who bought two pet rats from me, brothers. Her young son snuck into the room where the rat cage was and put his hand in the cage and one of the rats bit his hand. My responses are in bold type to her email.

How old is your son Laura? Wasn't he like three or something? It's my feeling no children under the age of seven should be allowed to handle pet rats without their parents supervision. Children and adults should not stick their hands inside the rats cage. They should wait for the rats to come to them and talk to them so they know who is there. They have an instinct to protect their home from intruders and their eyesight is very poor. Some rats love their homes so much they become "cage bound" meaning they would rather be in their cage where they feel safe, than outside of it.

They have to judge everything by the smells their noses tell them. Do you have other animals in the house? Cats or dogs? Rats can smell others animals on our clothes and hands and even if they aren't allowed directly near the rats the rats still know they are around. If Josh had handled or petted any other animals or the smell was on his clothes their instinct is to bite and ask questions later as they can't determine the difference between a hand or the actual predator nearby.

"Afterward, Oliver was cowering in the corner..." That is a scared posturing, hiding as far away from the cage door as he could get to feel safe. Something Josh did scared him somehow.

"and crawled under my neck and hid in my hair..." That posturing means he feels safe with you. He looks at you as his protector.

"Oliver is very skittish and tends to be very introverted. When I take him out, he likes to hid under the blanket or in a corner. Any noise makes him jump and run..." My first thought is there must be other animals in or around the house that he can smell. A rats sense of smell is 15 greater than ours. They can even smell cats outside that may be near the house. If a neighbor has a cat and it's hanging around a window or door he may live in constant fear, of "is it going to come in and get me?" (Kind of like the boggyman under the bed type of thinking.) They can't tell what it is, but they know instinctively it's bad news and could harm them.

In each rat colony there are rats that are considered the alpha rats of the group, or the bosses, and there are rats designated as the watch dogs or the guardians of the colony, like a guard at the gate type of thing. They are the first alert system that defends the colony from enemies, like a solider would.

It's possible with Ollie and Oliver, Ollie won the top boss spot and Oliver is the one who is supposed to keep Ollie safe, or be his body guard. Is Ollie sleeping on top of Oliver or the other way around? (She had mentioned earlier in the email that the boys like to sleep on top of each other and I'm trying to determine if Ollie is protecting Oliver or the other way around.)

"Ollie is a piece of cake and never bites. He is social and in good shape. What am I doing wrong and what do I do with Oliver?"

You're not doing anything wrong. You just aren't understanding the signals or the psychology of your pets. Even with twins you can have one outgoing twin and the other introverted. This opposites in temperament are necessary to keep peace with each other. Oliver has to back down and be passive with Ollie or they'd get into a fight. You can't have two alpha males living together, they will constantly be getting into it. You can't have two leaders. Oliver is the follower and that's ok. And it's ok that he is shy, just as some children are shy.

Ratties have the mentality of two year old human children. They are smart, get into mischief, but also get fearful and need their parents to protect them and comfort them, guide them and make them feel secure. That is your role to fill. :>)

She then writes a list of possible solutions or options she feels she has regarding the situation and I address each option:

"a.   Get them a bigger cage as they may be stressed."

That is not a good idea, as the bigger the cage the more insecure he will feel and the more territoral he'll become. He'll keep trying to defend the cage area the more space he has to defend the more stressed out and aggressive he'll become.

Sometimes people give their pets too much room. It would be like us living in a huge mansion where you couldn't even be heard by anyone or possibly use all the rooms, so they are empty and echoing as you walk. Contrary to what you may have read ratties need very little room to be happy and when in large groups will huddle together in the corner of the cage and not even use half the space available to them. There is safety in numbers. And they thrive on togetherness.

If you get a bigger cage that will give Oliver that many more places to hide to get away from you and he will. He'll actually become more cage bound than he's already displaying. For some reason he's determining danger outside the cage and we've got to figure out why that is for him whereas his brother does not see it that way at all. We have to figure out what and where and how Oliver has gotten scared to be outside the cage.

Another mistake people make is they feed their pets treats right from their hands and fingers. This starts a learned response of: here comes the hand, it may have treats I'll grab and find out. Also, if your son had any food smells on his hands Oliver might have thought food was there not realizing it was only fingers with food smell on them.

Always wash your hands after handling food or other animals. So you ratties can't make an error judgment based on what their noses, (their most developed sense), is trying to tell them.

I always recommend adults and children putting their hands into a fist when first approaching their rats or talking to them first. Offer them the knuckle. If they are going to bite, minimal damage will be done as they will bite the bone and it won't hurt as much or hardly bleed, plus the rattie will think twice next time because they will have bit a solid object.

Even wearing gloves to protect your hands is the smart thing to do rather than risk getting bit because of a misunderstanding between rat and owner. Just because you have to put on gloves to take the pet out of the cage isn't a bad thing if they are acting cage bound.

Ratties are usually fine once out of their cage. If you rub the gloves in their bedding the gloves will smell like them and they won't try to nip at the gloves but feel comfortable with them. If you wash your hands of all smells and then rub your hands in their bedding they will smell their own scent on your hands and be less likely to bite at them. It's all about the smells. Smells color a ratties world for better or worse. They determine everything in their environment based on the data their noses supply to them.

I have certain ratties that are cage bound, I just put on suede gloves before handling them so we don't have a misunderstanding. Ratties don't mean to bite and they are not mean or vicious or vengeful, it's all a frighten response or a misunderstanding of what the nose is telling them, such as food smells or predator smells.

"b.   Move the cage to the living area where they have constant activity and noise."

This is not a good idea, as rats actually need peace and quiet just like we do. They would feel less secure than they already do as their sense of hearing is 10 times more sensitive than ours is also. If left in a loud environment for too long it could actually bring on deafness as times passes.

"c.    Put them in our room (up high) and keep the cage away from Joshua"

That is an excellent idea! That is how I would solve the issue of your son handling them without you knowing about it. Or put a lock on the door to the room where the rat is, where he can't reach the lock to unlock it, or make it a combination lock that he doesn't know how to open it.

"d.    Pay more attention to Oliver as he my be insecure."

Spending more time with him will form an even closer bond between the two of you and it certainly couldn't hurt. Yes, he is insecure and we need to figure out what in his environment is causing this. Somehow he needs to associate being outside the cage as fun and secure.

Food is a motivator for associating something joyful outside the cage. I save all their favorite treats for when they are outside the cage, giving them something to look forward to. Also, I would take Oliver out for one on one without Ollie being around. Maybe he feels he has to compete for your attention. Maybe he's afraid Ollie will be upset or jealous if you pay attention to him instead of Ollie, so he lets Ollie get all your attention.

"e.    Consider finding them a new home."   Awwwww, it's not his fault. He's just reacting out of natural survival instincts...sigh. "Let me know what you think. I am at a loss." I hope some of these insights and ideas will help resolve your problem. Just know that Oliver loves you and doesn't mean to bite. It's not out of meanness, but just a miscommunication between what you understand and what he needs.

Laura W.

I've also had two very similar biting incidents related to a changes in the cage or the living situation or cage mates.

Every time something changes within their cage, such as a mate being added or removed the ratties have to rearrange the "pecking order" inside the cage or colony. If someone new is added they try to get the alpha spot away from the established alpha leader. If someone is taken out, the remaining members shuffle around who will be doing what and leadership roles get challenged. This is traumatic for your pet, and for us breeders this can be a nightmare, especially with males who will fight and injure each other trying to establish dominance over one another.

I had a breeder, write and tell me she had put one of her rats put to sleep because it had continued to bit her when she went to give it food or water. The female rattie had been fine without problems until she removed her sister to use for breeding, leaving her alone without her friend.

The breeder then proceeded to try and intergrate the lone female into a new colony situation. The female started to get into it with all the new colony members, rebelling at the new situation and grieving over the loss of her friend. Rather than let her live her life by herself where she could have given her attention and affection she decide to end her life. She totally misunderstood her pet rat and what it was trying to tell her it needed.

Stories like this one are so unfortunate and so unnecessary. This type of behavior isn't caused by genetics aggression, it's completely caused by changes in the environment and a lack of understanding between the owners and the what the pet needs.

Just like some people don't handle changes well, neither do our pets. Just like some of us get attached to our friends and when they move away we are depressed for weeks, that same feeling happens to our pet ratties too.

What many people don't realize is our pet rats have a whole bunch of emotional responses very similar to ours. And they are viewing the world through the mentality level of a two year old child. They are happy, sad, upset, mad and angry over things just like we are. They grieve just like we do and get depressed just like we do.

They smile when they are happy and make happy chattering noises known as bruxing when they are contented. They give kisses and even wrap their tails around our fingers holding our hands. They are very affectionate and loving creatures and we just need to see the world through their eyes and everyone can live in harmony.

Right after this breeder told me about their biting female, another breeder wrote me saying a customer of hers had almost the exact same problem of biting when she went to change the food or water or clean the cage. This is a behavioral problem based on a misunderstanding between pets and owners and not an aggression worth ending the pets life over.

There are several of us breeders currently doing a research study on the territorial behavior of pet rats in cages, as compared to using converted plastic tubs. We are starting to switch over our housing to these especially converted units acceptable for our pet instead of anything with metal bars, ramps and floors.

We are finding all territorial issues cease to exist within colonies if the ratties are housed in large plastic tubs converted for proper use for our pets. There is data to support that cage environments actually create aggression issues, especially in male rats.

We believe one of the reasons why these problems don't seem to happen when the tubs are used is how clean we are able to get the tubs as compared to the cages. We can bleach out all the smells of other ratties when we introduce someone new, whereas it's very hard once a large metal cage is in use to totally get all the urine droppings off every single bar, ramp or floor of the cage. And the bigger the cage the more smells and area to try and keep clean. That's one theory anyway. (Again, it's all about the "smells.") I'll post more data on our research as time progresses.

We can start to bridge the gap between our understanding of our pets by not creating bad habits within our pets that we later try to undo. Start by never, EVER hand feeding your pets and especially putting food treats through the cage bars or directly from your hands in any situation.

When your ratlets are young teach them to lick things off your fingers. To associate your hand with something to lick and not bite at. I like to use Nutri-cal, but you can use yogurt or jelly, anything sweet and watery works.

If taught early on that fingers have yummy things to lick off, but not bite off, they will come up to your fingers and start licking them in hopes of finding something yummy on them. This behavior will carry over into them giving your hands kisses and grooming your hands too. They will associate your fingers and hands as something enjoyable and not something to be defensive over.

I will add more information about this biting topic as I think of it and as I get other cases to evaluate.

Problem Number Three:

Giving your pet rat too much too soon!

Rats tend to bond very closely with their owners if they are socialized properly. When they leave my house they have started to bond with me. It is very easy for them to bond with someone new if they are between the ages of five weeks and eight weeks of age. I've found once they reach twelve weeks of age they are so closely bonded with me it's very hard for them to make the transition to a new environment, therefore I always try to have my pets placed in their new environments during the time frame that makes it easiest on them to adjust.

I've had so many people write me saying they got their pets home and put them into their gigantic Martin Cage they bought, (my cages of choice that I recommend) and now their pets don't want to come out of the cage to see them!

Well, if you lived in a mansion that had a movie theater inside it, recording studio, playground, pool and a bowling alley would you ever want or need to leave it for anything?! LOL! :>)

It is important that you start the bonding process between you and your pets first before you give them all the bells and whistles. I recommend starting them in a single story housing set up. I custom create and make great starter homes just for this reason.

These types of housing like, "My First Rat Home," (which I also sell), is easy to reach in and pet and interact with your pets, where they can't run and hide from you. Where they aren't distracted with all kinds of "stuff."

The main components your pets need when you get them home is, a cozy hammock to sleep in, and an eleven inch running wheel to get exercise on, an igloo hut to stash their food and "goodies" into, and a fun chew toy of some kind. Very simple and basic. The main thing they need between the ages of five and twelve weeks of age is, constant human attention, and love and affection, not how big or fancy their house is.

Once your pets have bonded with you it doesn't matter how big of a cage you give them, with all the toys, bells and whistles, they will be right at the cage door begging to come and be with you. If they haven't formed the proper bond before hand though you will have a skittish pet that thinks their cage is a better place to be than spending time with you! So don't blame your pet if they aren't responding to you in the manner you were hoping. You need to understand what they really need from you.

Your pet rats need to make changes in their environment gradually. They've actually done studies on humans, who lived in modest homes, came into money and moved into huge mansions and they became depressed. Why and how could that be you ask? Because it's not about how big our house is or how much space we have, it's about the quality of the experiences we have in our life, that makes us happy. Tight close bonds between family members and friends, and fun hobbies we enjoy, play and contribute to our happiness. Our pet rats psychology of needs closely matches our own.

So start out small and slowly move up. A couple of pet rats simply do not require a Martin Rudd R699 cage (the biggest rat cage they make with seven levels to it), though there are many groups out their promoting that they do. There is actually a name for this type of thinking: ANTHROPOMORPHISM.

A friend and fellow breeder brought this concept to my attention.

She writes:

"This is a condition in which well meaning humans assume their needs on the animal they are responsible for providing care to."

She then shared a story she'd been told regarding antropomorphism when she attended college.

"A girl attending the Animal Science program with me told me about her friend who ran an "animal sanctuary". Everyday she would drive around trying to save animals. One day she spied a farmers sheep who appeared to have been mistreated. So, this girl stole off into the night to "save" this sheep. The girl brought the sheep in her station wagon to her farm and loved it everyday. But, giving the sheep love, food and water wasn't enough apparently because it died. The girl frantically called the vet to come and do an autopsy. When the vet arrived he said, "I will not cut this sheep open."

"Why?" The girl said in disbelief.

"The sheep didn't die from malnutrition, lack of love, or water. He died because you never shorn him."

Then she continues with: "So, you see. The big cages, the expensive this and horse pucky unless you really understand the animal and give them what they truly need."

I really appreciate my friend bringing this concept to my attention as I've had individuals and "politically correct" rattie groups over the years try and tell me I had to do this and that a certain way in order for my pets to be happy. All they've been doing all along is doing things for their pets that they themselves would need to be happy, not necessary what their pets really need to thrive.

Much of the data floating around out there is just not based in actual reality, but some kind of "perfectionism" mentality that they themselves need to function not their pets.

Let me give you an example:

Many of the rat housing units come with food dishes in them or people will buy food dishes to put in the units so their pets food is nice and clean and neat in their dish. Well guess what? Your pet rats don't want their food nice and neat in a dish and they will quickly remove it and start burying it and hiding it throughout their house. Then they will poop and pee all over it! Yes, that is right! Sounds pretty gross doesn't it? But that is their nature and what they truly want and need.

Even though our pet rats are domesticated they all trace back to wild Norwegian rats ancestries and their natural survival instincts are still firmly in place. And if allowed to be a "rat" will be happy being a rat! Just like we like to be able to be "ourselves" so do they.

They hide and bury their food because they are hoarders and scavengers by nature. They build up piles of food for a rainy day and to last them through inclement weather and adverse situations in which food may become scarce.

They pee and poop on it so no other animals can find it and take it; and so no other animals will want it including their cage mates. Each rat in the colony will have it's own stash somewhere, that they mark as theirs. By leaving their "scent" on the food no one will touch it, or be able to smell it to find it.

So there is an example of what your pet rat really needs as compared to what you think you should do or think it needs.

I will continue to update and offer more insights to your pet rats needs as time progresses, so check back to this page from time to time for updated information.

Written on: 08/07/09
Last Updated: 08/20/09