Can Rats Live Alone? Or Does My Rat Need a Friend?

by Alison Blyth
Can rats live alone?

Let me tell you a story about R, a boy in the current Horde.

His previous owner bought him from a pet shop as one of a “female” pair. Unfortunately, no one noticed that he possessed unusually testicle-like testicles for a girl until babies appeared. R was moved into his own cage, and a few months down the line, the owners decided to rehome him – cue a message in my inbox from the local rat rescue…

By this point, R had developed a major problem – he was terrified of human contact. He wasn’t aggressive at all, just scared. He’d got out of the habit of being handled, and would flinch or flee from any attempt to stroke him, let alone pick him up. In the two weeks while I was waiting for his fertility to drop post-neutering, I worked with him everyday on trust training, but it was to no avail. When the day came for introductions to the Horde, he was as jumpy as the day he arrived.

You might be thinking “surely this is a rat / human problem – he’s just an unhandled rat?” Well, maybe, but in the words of clickbait headlines, you’ll be amazed by what happened next.

On intro day, I cornered R in a carrier and added in the more sensible half of the Horde, a mix of big calm boys and the less bossy girls. An hour later, I stuck my hand in and… picked him up. Cuddled him. Gave him a rub behind the ears. No running, no flinching, no attempt to escape, no problem.

One hour.

One hour with other rats had done what expert human / rat work couldn’t achieve. He’s never looked back and is now a big calm member of team Horde in his own right.

Rats are social animals

Rats, or at least Rattus norvegicus, the species kept as fancy rats, are social animals. In the wild they live in large groups with complex social relationships and hierarchies. They groom each other, and sleep in heaps. Babies learn the skills they need to survive by copying older rats. They also learn subtler social skills, essentially how to be a rat. Even as adults, rats take cues from each other – this is safe, this is not safe. Studies have shown that they’ll help each other out. They live in a complex social world of smells and squeaks, ultrasonic chattering and body language.

Fancy rats are no different.

R accepted being handled once he had other rats around him because their presence was reassuring. These were rats he was still getting to know, who he still had mutual suspicion of. He hadn’t bonded with them yet. But they were there, speaking his language. They were calm and obviously not alarmed by my presence. They showed him he was safe in terms he understood, and that made a genuinely life-changing difference.

This isn’t a unique story. Most of my rats are rescues and rehomes, and rehabilitating the lone rat is one of my specialities. Sometimes they are worried, sometimes aggressive, sometimes they are much loved, adore human contact, but are missing some natural behaviors. In all cases, the Horde, in all their furry, goofy glory are the main treatment. In most cases, they do the whole job.

Imagine living in an alien world

Can i have just one rat?

There is no big mystery here – it’s easily explained with a thought experiment. Humans are social creatures too. Think back to when you were a small child. Now imagine that one day, while you are sitting in bed playing with your brothers or sisters, a giant alien comes along, takes you away, and locks you in a small house on their planet. They are nice enough and you quite like them – they give you food and bedding, and even play with you and cuddle you, but you don’t speak their language and they don’t understand yours. None of the things you know instinctively or have learnt so far – about how to interact with others of your kind, or how to tell if things are safe – apply here. And you spend about 22 hours of the day alone in that little, locked house. You sleep alone, you play alone, you eat alone.

It would not be very surprising if you developed some strange behaviors, anything from anxiety to attention-seeking. And you’d very likely be happier if you had friends of your own species, friends who spoke your language, who you could sleep with and play with whenever you wanted.

Most people who keep lone rats love their pets very much and aren’t treating them badly in any way. But just the fact of being alone, however well-loved, shuts out a whole rich part of ratty life.

Also read: Rat Cage Setup Ideas & Tips to Encourage Activity

Will rats in groups bond to their owner?

One of the most common reasons I hear for rats being kept alone is the belief that they will bond better to their human that way. It is true that most lone rats, if well handled, will be friendly and love their human. Rats are social and become very attached to their owners.

But this is true even if the rats are living in a group. The Horde currently has 11 members, and they are all bonded to me. Behavior and the closeness of the bond varies between rats because they have different personalities, but they all play with me, have cuddles, come and see me if I open the cage or sit down with them while they are playing. Every time I walk through their free-range area at least three will appear and sit on my foot to demand to be picked up. If they get spooked, they often treat me as their safe place.

Rats love their humans because if treated well, they make great pets. They want to play and cuddle and be stroked, and play some more, and steal your spectacles… If you keep rats in pairs or groups, you’ll still get all that love, but the rats will have a vital extra dimension to their lives.

Note: I strongly believe rats should be kept in pairs or groups, but these should be either same sex or neutered. I currently have a little rescue girl and 13 babies in my hall because someone didn’t realize that! She and the babies are all healthy now, but the pregnancy almost killed her, and as an owner, you really don’t want to go there.

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14 comments

Rhonda Robertson June 10, 2018 - 4:22 am

Loved this whole series on pet rats. My grandson found a newborn on his school playground. His eyes weren’t even open. He is now 8 months old and precious. I am Granny Lou and the one that raised him and has bonded with him. I would like to get him a little male friend and looked at this Pinterest site. I feel more comfortable getting him a playmate his own size and gender. He and one of cats play like Tom and Jerry. His name is Like Dude.

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Monika June 10, 2018 - 2:57 pm

Aww that’s so nice of your grandson to save him. We need more people like him on this planet 🙂 Like Dude would definitely benefit from having a ratty friend so I hope you’ll get one!

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Corinne Ellis July 8, 2018 - 8:12 am

Good morning.
I’ve just been given two 6 month old male rats. Reason for me acquiring them is because, in the previous owners words “I have just lost interest in them”
It broke my heart.
I’m struggling because they’re living in separate cages, I was told they can live together as the cages do connect with tubes but they kept apart because they didn’t like how big the cage was connected.
The previous owners live in a big house. I live in a room … I’m in the military, I literally have a room.
So I connected the cages, all seemed fine at first but Dave is clearly the dominant one and had started attacking Grohl, who now hides in the tube.
So I separated them but the cages are too small to be like that permanently (in my opinion)
I wanted to buy a big tall cage they could share but I’m wondering if I’ll ever get them to re bond?
They’re brothers and not neutered.
Should I neuter Dave? Would that help?
Advice needed! Thank you.

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Alison Blyth July 9, 2018 - 10:48 am

Hello.
In my personal experience, I’ve found neutering almost always helps with male rat-to-rat aggression – I’ve never had a neutered male who I couldn’t rebond into a group, and I’ve had some very aggressive rescues in my time (the standout was Mr G who had been used as a stud by some backyard breeder until he hospitalised the girl they were trying to mate him to! But after neutering he settled fine and intro’d to 5 or 6 other unrelated neutered boys). So if you have access to a good vet, that is certainly an option. There are some risks, but with a competent vet they should be pretty low (I’ve lost one rat under anaesthetic since 2000).
When bonding / rebonding rats it’s important to do it on neutral territory first (i.e. not either of their cages). I start with the rats in a carrier with food and water under close observation, and when they are snuggled up in there, I move to a small empty clean cage, then a small cage without hidey holes to get territorial over, and only then their main cage. With mine it has taken anything from an hour or so to weeks!

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Gloria July 27, 2018 - 4:37 am

I found my baby rat ouside he was alone, eyes were closed, he was so tiny..his home had been disturbed by people moving my wood..So I thought he was a mouse at first….I put him in my old hamster cage, looked up baby mice and it said they eat goats milk only, so I got some powdered goats milk, added some warm water, and put it in an old syringe I had used for my ole cat of 19 years, who has gone to his reward, and the cute little thing stuck out his pink tongue and lapped it from the syringe for about two weeks, then refused anymore, so got him some food, and also he grew fast, turned out to be a rat…lol lol His name is Lover boy, but he has no companion but me, as I did not know about getting another rat as he was from a wild family, since gone…found one dead on in the back,…so sad..and the rest, have no idea
how many were there in the first place…
So I am the one who plays with him in the evening….he runs around on the floor and on his special chair, hides from me and peeks out so I can wiggle my fingers etc…..
So it is just me, as I had no plans to buy a rat, just rescued him from my three cats, and any other little varmints like like rats to eat.

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Monika July 28, 2018 - 2:51 pm

Your situation is a bit different because you didn’t plan on having a pet rat. But he found you and you were so wonderful to rescue him 🙂 It would be different if you were about to go and buy a pet rat – we always like to suggest people who are planning on getting a pet rat to get at least two because they would be happier in a group.

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Katrina MacGowan September 9, 2018 - 2:04 am

Hi, I’m so sorry to bother!

I was given two rats for my borthday, and much like this story it was a ‘females’ pair. Imagine my surprise when I saw some very physical evidence that Toast was not a girl! We separated them just at 5 weeks, so I like to assume no pregnancy happened under our nose. It’s only been a week since we got them, and they really don’t seem to be any less skittish.

They came from a home with a very loud, very demanding child that banged on the cage. We did expect quite a bit of timid behaviour based on that, but we also hoped it would be remedied by having them support each other. But now we have to wait a good few months for Toast to get big enough for neutering.

Would you happen to have any advice for calming them until they can be paired again? We’re quite liberal with ‘treats’ (the half their diet that’s supplemented by greens and vegetables) but we still can’t come close to touching them. I’d really like to set them up in a monitored play area but they won’t exit the cage if we’re watching, either.

Sorry for the long rant, and I truly hope you’ll have some advice! Thank you so much!

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Alison Blyth September 18, 2018 - 8:59 am

Hi Katrina,
That’s a tricky one. I’d personally get them a little friend each of the right sex, but that does land you with four rats, which may not be your plan! Otherwise, I think you need to work on trust training with each of them – sit and talk to them calmly, offer treats, let them sniff your hand in the cage etc. I often get nervous rats out the cage in a box or tube and put that in my dressing gown or a large sweater that I wear over my clothes, so they can come from a safe space into somewhere warm and enclosed that smells of me – that helps them associated me with safety.
An enclosed small play area around their cages may help them feel secure in coming out of their cage in their own time – you could sit in it very still and quiet and see if they’ll come to you. Don’t let them play together (even closely monitored) though, as that is a quick route to babies – rats mate far quicker than a person can move to stop them.
In terms of neutering, I’ve done it at 12 weeks several times with no ill effects.

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Nicola October 18, 2018 - 7:42 pm

I was planning to buy a companion for my rat since he was the only one left but sadly the poor ratty got an eye injury now I can’t buy any rats because I’m scared while playing one will accidentally pop the eye. It’s buldging and dry (we moisturise it). I don’t wanna risk him he I guess already lost vision though I can’t tell but can still see in his other eye, but he plays with me everyday we let him out of the cage give him treats so he won’t feel lonely. His name is Tip and is a dumbo I really wanted to remove the eye to make his life easier but there is no vets in my area that specialise in rodents

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Monika October 19, 2018 - 8:20 am

He should be fine as long as you spend enough time with him every day so he doesn’t get lonely 🙂 Thank you for taking such good care of him!

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Dove September 6, 2019 - 11:29 pm

Hi, I currently have an older female, her name is celeste and she is almost 2 yrs. Near the beginning of this year her sister Thea passed away and it was taken hard. Celeste became extremely clingy and wanted nothing to do with other animals or people. Just me and my dad. I give her alot of attention and figured I didnt need to get another rat or two for her yet.

I will be starting a new job in the upcoming weeks that will make it hard to give as much attention to her. And was wondering if I should get two baby rats (off the tit but still young) for her to care for and see if that puts a little perk in her step since she has become a bit lethargic recently.

My only concern is that 1) she has a recurring cyst below her ear, nothing that can be done except its popper and cleaned whenever it shows up, I dont want to put more stress on her unnecessaryaly. And 2) that she wont be interested in them and will become territorial of me. (That’s happened with one of my girls before so I know it’s possible.

Thoughts?

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Alison Blyth September 7, 2019 - 7:42 am

That’s a difficult one. It’s likely she would prefer company, but of course we can’t predict how she’ll react in advance. So I can only say what I’d do in the same circumstances – which is get two young rats (around 6-8 weeks) and try careful supervised introductions in a carrier (I use this method http://www.isamurats.co.uk/the-carrier-method.html). It’s most likely she’ll take to them with no problem, but by doing the intros cautiously you should be able to make sure there are no injuries.
For what it’s worth, I’ve only ever had one girl refuse intros, and she’d been alone for her whole life before I took her from rescue. The fact your girl was used to living with her sister makes it much more likely she’ll accept new friends.

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Kim Lawson January 13, 2020 - 4:47 pm

My college age daughter recently purchased a male hairless rat. She had gone into the store several times scoping out the pets and noticed each time that this little guys was still there. It made her sad that no one seemed to want him so she brought him home to her apartment. She asked at the store about getting a second rat so he wasn’t alone. They said that they had put another rat in the cage with him and that he was aggressive with it. We are new to rat owning, but have done enough research to know that we do not want him to get any cuts or wounds because he is more apt to get an infection. Do you think that he will be okay being alone? What are your suggestions?

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Alison January 14, 2020 - 1:12 am

I wouldn’t trust a pet store on this, simply because they won’t have introduced the rats properly. If this little guy was in a cage and they just chucked another male rat in, then of course he would be aggressive – it’s like finding a random stranger sitting in your bed.
That’s not to say that he won’t be aggressive to another rat – he might well be – simply that the only info is from a situation where aggression would be expected from all but the most chilled animals.
When I’m in this situation (which is frequently, as lone male “aggressive” rescues are my speciality) I intro carefully using the carrier method, making very sure everything is neutral territory and taking the time the rats need, as many lone rats need to relearn how to interact. If there is any amount of aggression then I neuter (I actually neuter almost all my males for health reasons, but some have pushed me into it via behaviour). In twenty years, I have never had a male fancy rat who needed to live alone – but some have taken a couple of weeks to intro, and some have needed to lose the balls.
This is the carrier method for intros http://www.isamurats.co.uk/the-carrier-method.html

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