You’ve Found Baby Rats – What to Do Now?

by Alison Blyth
Found baby rats . what to do?

Most baby rats – wild and domestic – will be cared for by their mum, which is the best thing for them. However, sometimes as a rat owner you may find or be asked to care for abandoned babies. What’s the best thing to do if it happens to you?

Check they really are abandoned

Wild rat mums leave their nests daily to feed and drink, so if you find a nest containing babies the best thing to do is to leave it alone and keep an eye on it from a discreet distance or check back in a few hours. Mum maybe waiting nearby for you to go away. If a nest is disturbed, she’ll still probably come back once the coast is clear to move her babies somewhere safer. As with all wildlife, its best to leave babies alone unless you are certain they are in immediate danger or mum can’t come back.

Sometimes you’ll know mum is dead, or the nest has been disturbed in a way that place’s the babies at immediate risk. Or maybe a well-meaning person has already taken them into captivity and is asking for your help. In that case, what’s best?

A surrogate mum is better than no mum

Domestic rat breeders foster their orphaned litters onto other lactating does if possible. That’s because hand-raising rats has a low chance of success, and the babies have a better chance of survival with an unrelated mum, even allowing for the risk of her killing them. This is doubly or triply the case if the babies are pinkies – i.e. less than a week old and without fur.

However, finding someone with a lactating doe willing to foster wild rat kittens is difficult, so although it is worth trying, there is a fair chance the rescuer will end up hand-feeding.

Related posts:

How to hand-feed baby rats

A baby rat

First up, ask yourself honestly if you are the right person to do this. It’s a big commitment. With rats say a week old, you are looking at around 2 weeks of hand-feeding every 3-4 hours, including night feeds. Some people just skip the night feeds, but it puts the babies at risk of dehydration and a much higher chance of death.

Is there a more experienced carer nearby who you can ask for help? Everyone starts somewhere but caring for baby wildlife is generally better left to trained carers. However, as many wildlife rescues won’t take rats, rat owners can end up plugging the gap.

Essential equipment:

  • A milk substitute. I use Divetelact, which is a standard milk substitute for baby animals sold by my vet and used by the local wildlife shelter. I know some other rat carers swear by soy-based human infant formula. Either way, cows milk, or cows milk-based formulas aren’t suitable. If you are caring for very young pinkies, you may also need a colostrum supplement – given the urgency with which this would be needed, you might need to beg and borrow from a local wildlife shelter.
  • A way to feed it. Rats are too tiny to use a teat bottle. We use a wide bore iv line (with needle removed) attached to the end of a 1 ml syringe, both supplied by my vet.
  • Somewhere safe to live. Baby rats can’t climb until after their eyes open, but they do wriggle about. I use a small plastic animal carrier.
  • A heat source. It’s essential that baby rats are kept warm, but also essential that they can’t get overheated or burned. I use a snugglesafe microwaveable heat pad wrapped in fleece and placed in the bottom of the carrier.
  • Bedding. I use a mixture of fleece offcuts and torn up kitchen towel. I cover the nest with another piece of fleece to keep the heat in. It’s essential not to use anything the babies can get tangled in.
  • Cotton buds or cotton wool for toileting.

The three things baby rats need

The three things baby rats need are milk, warmth and toileting, so let’s look at these in turn.

Milk

Advice varies on how often and how much to feed baby rats. I’ve found:

  • every 3 hours to be about right for pinkies and
  • every 4 hours for kittens nearer weaning.

We make up the milk substitute with boiling water in a sterilised egg cup, according to instructions on the brand. Technically it can be kept a while in the fridge, but I prefer to make fresh for each feed as it is such a tiny amount.

The milk obviously mustn’t be fed hot – it would scald the babies’ gullets. I feed it when I can put a drop on the inside skin of my elbow without feeling it as hot.

There are two risks with hand-feeding baby rats:

  • letting the milk flow too quickly so they aspirate it into their lungs or noses (incredibly common and one of the leading causes of death in babies),
  • and getting air in the feed so they end up with air bloating in their tummies (also frequently fatal).

To control the flow rate, I use a 1 ml syringe and apply little if any pressure to the plunger. It’s very hit and miss and basically you get good at it with experience as you adjust to each rat’s feeding style.

Avoiding air in the milk is easy enough by making sure there are no bubbles in the syringe or tube. Stopping the babies from gulping air as they try and latch onto the milk is harder and comes down to having a practiced technique so they latch on quickly.

How much to feed depends on the size and age of the rat.

  • In tiny pinkies, it can be as little as 0.1 ml at a time.
  • Larger rats will feed more vigorously and may take up to a ml in a single feed.

I prefer to feed less milk more often in younger babies, as it gives their digestions a chance to cope. A big rich milky feed on an empty tummy in a newly rescued pinkie could overwhelm the digestion and kill them. Some people recommend feeding a small amount of sugar water in the first feed before changing to milk. It has to be judged on a case by case basis.

Fortunately, pinkies can show us whether they are well fed, because their skin is so thin, you can see the milk as a band in their tummy. If they have a nice milk band after feeding, then they’ve had enough.

Dehydration can be a big problem in orphaned babies, especially if they have been unfed for a while, or with a carer who didn’t do night feeds. If I suspect dehydration I take babies straight to the vet for assessment for subcutaneous fluids. Dehydration can be spotted by gently pinching the skin on the back of the neck. If it tents up and doesn’t spring back into place then the rat is dehydrated.

Warmth

Newborn abandoned rats

Pinkie rats can’t regulate their own body temperatures, so a warm nest is essential and cold is a major cause of death.

That said, you don’t want to get the nest so hot it causes heat stress (also a major cause of death). I microwave a snugglesafe until it feels hot to my hand, wrap it in one or two layers of fleece and pop it in the base of my carrier. I then use other layers of fleece above and below the babies to regulate the temperature. I aim for a nest that feels warm and cosy to my hand, and I also look at the reaction of the babies. If they are warm to the touch and healthily pink, the nest is about right, whereas any baby that feels cool to the touch needs to be warmer.

I keep the rats living on the snugglesafe in the carrier (reheating it every couple of hours) until they have open eyes and are moving about. Then I move them to a narrow-barred cage (ones designed for mice are ideal) but put a fleece-wrapped snugglesafe with nesting material in a cardboard box so they still have somewhere warm to retreat to.

If a snugglesafe isn’t available, I have used a sock filled with oat groats or wheat and microwaved as a heat source.

Toileting

Baby rats can’t poo and pee for themselves, so it is absolutely essential that their carers help them, otherwise they’ll die. I toilet shortly after feeding. I use a cotton bud dipped in warm (not hot) water, and gently stroke across the genitals and anus. It’s not always possible to see the wee, but it’s obvious when they’ve had a successful poo. It is important to stimulate toileting at every feed until you’ve witnessed each rat toilet independently (usually around 2 weeks, but they’ll show you!)

Conclusion

As you can see, hand-raising baby rats isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’ve raised two litters. The most recent were 4 tiny pinkies who were found in a DIY shop. They were only a day or two old, and quite frankly had no chance. We were able to feed them and keep them warm successfully, but because they were so young when they lost their mum, they hadn’t had much colostrum from her, which means they had no chance to get their immune system going. They all died by a week old.

My first litter was a happier experience. The babies were about 11 days old when they came to me, and had been in care since around a week old. That gave them a good head start as it meant they had had a week’s colostrum and milk from their mum, and their immune systems were working well. We still lost one on the first night, as the previous carer hadn’t provided heat or night feeds, and one of the boys was too weak to swallow safely. However, we pulled the other three through (with a little help from my vets who gave subcutaneous fluids to the weakest girl for several days running), and they lived with us for the rest of their lives, which turned out to be over 4 years.

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37 comments

Diana September 21, 2018 - 5:48 am

Poor baby rats… How could anyone abandon those sweethearts. Thank you for caring for rats!

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Amit kumar April 14, 2019 - 2:47 pm

I found 8 to 10 rat so please save them

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Monika April 14, 2019 - 5:04 pm

If you are completely sure they are abandoned and have no mom, then it is best to find a local animal rescue that would take care of them. If there is no local animal rescue where you live, please try to follow the advice from our post to help those poor little rodents. If you are located in Australia, Alison (the author of this post) might be able to point you in the right direction. Where are you located?

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Rein September 23, 2019 - 4:55 am

I called the only place and they don’t take wild rats so I have 9 baby rats and I am still in school have no clue how to do this I did it over the summer and that rat is not a year old and a really healthy boy. I live in Pinellas Park Florida any place u know will take them? They are 2 weeks just opened there eyes today and are doing amazing just don’t wanna risk them being here without food while I’m at school.

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Monika September 23, 2019 - 7:04 pm

Hi, did you try to get in touch with Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation located in Seminole, Florida http://wrrfl.org/ ? It says on their website that they welcome all animals so, hopefully, they can take care of the rats you found too.

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Debrat May 3, 2020 - 1:43 am

My Momma rat had 14 and it’s her first litter. Some feel cold and she seems to not be feeding all of them.

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Alison May 3, 2020 - 10:46 am

Hi,
If she is feeding them they will have milk bands – that should happen well within the first day. Female rats have 12 nipples so with 14, they need to rotate being fed, Occassionally, females will decide not to rear all of a large litter and will push some babies out. If she isn’t feeding them, your best bet is fostering them onto another mum with babies of a similar age, If that’s not possible, then you can try and hand feed those without milk bands, but at that age, it is sadly rarely successful.

Tiffiny Hendrix May 6, 2019 - 11:22 pm

Is there anything you can do to build the immune system if they’re a little less than a week?

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Alison Blyth May 8, 2019 - 7:23 am

Not a lot, unfortunately. There are replacement colustrum supplements on the market for use in agriculture and wildlife rehabilitation, and providing those is an option in some circumstances. I’ve not used them though as getting delivery of them where we are was too slow to be of use.

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Mm May 16, 2019 - 7:41 pm

Can you use a paint brush technique for babies which are 11 days old?

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Alison Blyth May 18, 2019 - 1:06 pm

Hi. I’m not entirely sure as I’ve never tried that with baby rats – I think it is mostly used in smaller animals such as mice and shrews, and I don’t know if it would get enough milk into a rat (they are pretty greedy at that age). My preference is a short piece of iv tubing attached to a 1 ml syringe as they latch on well. However, the main issue with any technique is to make sure they don’t aspirate the milk (and also try to minimise their swallowing air) – that’s probably more important than exactly how you get the milk in.

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M May 19, 2019 - 7:54 am

I am currently looking after 2 abandoned baby rats which are about 2 weeks old , should I let them back into the wild (if so when) or keep them as pets . Also will they carry harmful diseases?

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Alison Blyth May 19, 2019 - 4:03 pm

Diseases depend on where you are – I can’t really advise on that. A wildlife centre or vet in your area would know.
There isn’t a right / wrong answer on release vs keeping, it depends on how they have been handled and how they react to captivity when weaned, as well as where you are. If they are imprinted then releasing is unlikely to have a good outcome for them. If they are less so, then they might not take well to captivity. Some countries also have laws against rereleasing rats as they are invasive.
I chose to keep mine as one was very heavily imprinted on humans, and all three had a strong attachment to their cage as territory – plus we are in Australia where I think rereleasing an invasive rodent species would be unethical.

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hesther August 3, 2019 - 9:17 pm

Help!! My cat brought me an abandon baby rat I checked it out it has no injuries I’ve been giving it milk warmed slightly to it and keeping it warm..it doesn’t hardly make a sound but it wiggles alot iam not sure if iam doin everything correctly or not any advice would be greatly appreciated

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Alison Blyth August 8, 2019 - 10:13 am

Sorry for the delay in getting to this – I guess the situation has resolved itself one way or the other by now. Generally warmth, replacement milk and toileting are the only things we can do, but even doing everything right rates of survival are quite low, especially if it hasn’t got fur yet. Many babies don’t make a lot of noise, especially if they are on their own – it depends a bit on species. But wriggling is usually a good sign.

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Nelly August 14, 2019 - 9:50 am

I found a wild rat baby wedged between the garage door. Has fur, but eyes still closed. Don’t see mom anywhere. Possibly abandoned. Been feeding it puppy milk replacement and got it to poop and pee. It can crawl . How long before it opens its eyes and can start feeding on its own?

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Alison Blyth August 15, 2019 - 12:23 am

Hi Nelly,
Eyes open between 11 days and 2 weeks. Mine started weaning themselves just before 3 weeks, although they still needed some supplementary feeds until they got the hang of it.
If it has fur then if you can keep it warm and hydrated it has a good chance.

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Stephanie elliott August 23, 2019 - 8:28 am

My cat got a baby rat probs about 2 weeks old I’ve hand reared it . Due to floods and terrible weather I delayed releasing it. Can’t release it near me as many cats and people putting traps down. Won’t be handled now about 10 weeks old. Can I release it, will it still have instinct? I know where there are others about a mile away but I read they will attack it . Just don’t know what’s best. Please advise me.

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Alison Blyth August 23, 2019 - 11:14 am

Hi Stephanie,
The first question is whether it is legal to release near you (varies with country and state) as that is a deciding factor. If it is legal, then at that age if it is unhandlable it probably still has healthily wild instincts – you can help these by minimising contact, scatter feeding so it has to forage etc. It’s likely that whereever you release it will have other rats around, but I wouldn’t release directly where you know there are others.
Hope that helps.

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Stephanie elliott August 23, 2019 - 12:16 pm

Thankyou for taking the time to answer my questions. There is a woodland area that is near to water. I am legally allowed to release it. It spends most of its time in the rat tube within the rat cage and has blocked itself in with nesting materials, it’s a wonderful piece of architecture! I am worried it won’t survive but I am wrestling with my conscience. Is it better to keep it fed, warm and safe or give the freedom of the outdoors and take its chances. I am so worried about the right thing to do.

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Alison blyth August 24, 2019 - 3:23 am

Making an epic nest is quite normal behaviour in itself, but if a wild born hand-raised rat isn’t showing a bond with you or interest in people (e.g. coming to see what you are doing when you put the food in, or taking food directly, even if it isn’t keen on being picked up), or visibly exploring / enjoying the rest of the cage, then I would personally lean towards releasing where legal and letting it take its chances. A cage is a high stress environment for a wild born animal who doesn’t want to be there.
Where I wouldn’t release is where the handraised rat shows a bond with its raiser or a noticable interest in people, as those rats do very well in captivity and are likely to seek out people in the wild (and get killed as a result).
Notes to passing readers:
1. none of this applies to domestic born rats. Domestic born rats who don’t like people need trust training – releasing will most likely get them killed.
2. this all relates to rattus rattus and rattus norvegicus only. Other wild animals should ideally be dealt with by licensed rescues who will avoid bonding during raising, and be able to do soft releases

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Stephanie September 6, 2019 - 4:32 pm

Thankyou for your wonderful advice, I found a wonderful spot and left it’s rat tube and extra bedding and some food and cut some big ferns and covered the tube with them and sticks and moss. It was well hidden. I hope the little one has a chance at life in its natural environment. You are doing great work. Thankyou again stephanie

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Alison Blyth September 7, 2019 - 7:44 am

No worries – it’s why we’re here 🙂

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Diego Wolf September 18, 2019 - 4:23 pm

I found a litter of Pinkies in a Tupperware bin and saw the mom run out into the garage. I covered them back up and left the garage. Will she likely come get them and move them? I am so worried she just leave them because I unintrnionally disturbed the next. I don’t want them die because she won’t return ☹

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Alison Blyth September 19, 2019 - 12:53 am

If you know Mum is alive, the best thing to do is leave the nest alone – she’s very likely to come back to them. Pinkies have an extremely low survival rate when hand-reared, so although it feels hard-hearted, the best thing to do is let nature handle it, and most likely their Mum will come and get them. I only advocate “rescuing” pinkies when Mum is known to be dead.

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Megan Fabian October 6, 2019 - 7:37 pm

We found a nest of six pinky rats in our compost bin. My husband had been watering the bin when he saw the mom run out and then heard the babies. We left them alone for 24 hours but when we checked on them they were wrinkled and cold. We brought them inside and fed them Esbilac from an eye dropper after reading a few different websites. We haven’t been able to get them to toilet but we have only tried twice and they were obviously dehydrated when we brought them in. How long do you try rubbing them to toilet? How long after feeding do we try? We know the survival rate is low but we couldn’t just leave them outside. The ants were beginning to find them. Thank you.

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Alison Blyth October 8, 2019 - 1:28 am

Hi Megan, I toilet for a few minutes about 5 minutes after every feed (which should be every 2-3 hours at that age) – it can take a few goes to get the motion right (I find dabbing or circling the genitals with a warm damp cotton bud works best). Urine isn’t always obvious if you are using a damp cotton bud. Faeces is easily visible, but may take a few goes to come out, especially if the baby hasn’t been recently fed. Good luck.

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Jamie January 10, 2020 - 8:56 pm

Hello,
I live in Australia and was given 3, one week old rats. I am raising them and they seem to be doing well. Im just wondering if they are very bonded to humans as they grow and i decide to keep them as pets. Is there risk of disease to my other rat or myself. They seem healthy and clean to me. But i have been warned that they carry lots of diseases. Thanks

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Alison January 11, 2020 - 12:53 pm

Hi Jamie,
I can’t tell you what your specific risk is – I can only say that in my own experience I’ve not had any problems and I’m personally comfortable with taking in wild born rats. To give background on that so you can make your own assessment, my experience is hand-raising (and keeping for nearly 5 years) three wildborn Rattus rattus in Australia; taking in a wildborn and raised, but clearly genetically part-domestic, injured adult Rattus norvegicus, also in Australia; raising a domestically born but genetically half-wild R. norvegicus in the UK; and taking in innumerable fancy rats who had been dumped in the wild and spent varying amounts of time out there before being found.

When I’m given rats who have spent time in the wild, I treat them for internal and external parasites, and also give a course of prophylactic amoxycillin in case they carry Weils or similar bacteria. With the babies, I did this once they were old enough to be medicated (about 4-6 weeks, but it’s best to talk to a vet who would need to prescribe some of the drugs anyway), and used sensible hygeine precautions (washing hands after handling etc) in the meantime.

If you decide to keep them, other things to be aware of are that they will be able to move VERY fast (and jump high, and climb brick walls, sweeping brushes, table legs etc), will need an all metal cage (plastic cage bases are too chewable). If they are Rattus rattus (long tail, big ears and eyes), they may have very idiosyncratic personalities – one of mine was cuddly up to three weeks old, decided she didn’t want to know me for the next 9 months, and then decided she loved cuddles, literally (and I mean literally) overnight. Her sister was cuddly from the word go and never changed. Their brother varied on a daily basis. Also be aware that rattus sound like someone disembowelling a banshee when they are even mildly annoyed – I spent about a year jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, because I was convinced no one could be making a noise like that without being in severe distress. then I’d stagger into their room and find two of them contesting ownership of a small piece of newspaper.
I am personally very cautious about introducing Rattus rattus to fancy rats as norvegicus have a much stronger bite and can injure or kill the rattus. I’ve done it as same age babies, but it is not something I’d choose to do with an adult fancy.

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Jamie January 16, 2020 - 5:29 am

Hi Alison,
Thanks for all that infomation, you certainly know you’re stuff! I have a probelm with one of them that im quite worried about, so im wondering if you’d know what to do. One little girl, is 13 days old now, eyes and ears are opening, drinking lots, very eager and full of energy. Shes climbing, running etc. Im feeding very 4-5 hrs and until now shes always done poos after her feeds. But now she hasnt pooped even once in 24 hrs! I know that if they dont poo then they can die in their own toxic waste being stuck inside their bodies. So she must be consipated or something. Is their anything i can do or give her to help her poo? Have you had similar experiences with your rats? And what did you do? Any information will help me alot. Thank you so much. – Jamie

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Alison January 16, 2020 - 10:34 am

Hi Jamie,
If she’s moving about freely, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has started toileting without help and is doing some tiny poos independently and they are lost amongst the bedding. I can’t remember what age mine did that, but it was pretty early, certainly before they weaned (which was around 2 weeks).
I’d carry on stimulating her to toilet after feeds just in case – you are obviously doing that right if she’s been pooing – but I wouldn’t worry too much if she’s feeding well, happy and energetic. If you are concerned, or she seems off then it would be a job for a vet check – there isn’t much the owner can do alone if they do get constipated.
Good luck!

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Jay January 25, 2020 - 10:52 am

Do you still need to help a 14 day old rat go to the bathroom?

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Alison January 25, 2020 - 11:13 am

Hi Jay,
Mine had all started toileting themselves by that stage. However, if you haven’t seen them toilet, or you can’t see stray poos in their bedding, I would probably keep going with stimulating after feeding for a few more days until you are sure they’ve got the hang of it.

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Torrie Fields April 20, 2020 - 9:33 am

Hi, I adopted 2 baby pet rats after my old one just died. The guy who had them has let the parents breed
and the next generation so I’m not even sure which Mom is theirs. My first male is (I’m guessing) 4weeks old and is very lively and eats independently of good quality hard rat food. He’s very affectionate and loves to interact. The pet store recommended I still feed him goats millk. He only drinks that even though I have water in the jar lid next to it. I went back the next day to get another friend for him the same age, but then saw a poor little one without his mother. I estimate him to be 2 weeks old. He’s got all his fur, his head is bigger to his body and his paws and ears look bigger proportionately than an older baby. This baby was in the cage with a tame Siamese coloured tame male rat. Since I was there many hours I was worried that the baby would be hungry. At the time the baby (who has silver fur), was climbing the cage bars and escaping several times. He was seeking a place to hide. He liked being warmed next to my skin. I was able to feed him goats milk in a jar lid, but he doesn’t have good eyes. He doesn’t seem to see what I’m offering him and reaches higher on the lid to lick it. When I put him in the cage with the older baby he runs to him and tries to nurse but the other one seems to attack him, so far not biting, but I take them apart right away. I haven’t got the hang of toileting him. No result. He’s losing interest in feeding. I use a syringe but he turns his head away. I’ve seen him sit up and eat a crumb of muffin, and clean his own face. Does this mean he’s old enough to eat by himself? I noticed the baby rolls over on his back for my other rat. But I can’t get him to let me hold him on his back to toilet him. What do I do?

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Alison April 20, 2020 - 1:38 pm

Hi Torrie,
If the baby is interested in milk in a jar lid and in crumbs, I’d carry one encouraging him to wean. It is very early though if his eyes aren’t open, so you will need to carry on offering syringe feeds as well. If you have access to it, soy baby formula for human babies is a decent substitute for rat milk (not normal soy milk – that’s mainly water). Other things I have used in weaning include scrambled eggs, and baby porridge made with soy milk. I offer a wide selection of foods and see what tempts them.
The good news is that if he’s sitting up and grooming himself, he’s probably also self-toileting (mine were all peeing amd pooing happily by two weeks – it’s when they are pinkies it is very important to help them out if mummy isn’t around).
In terms of interaction with the older baby, they both need ratty company, but if there is aggression you are right to take it steadily. The little one rolling on his back means he is submitting. One good approach I’ve found with babies is to get them out when they are sleepy and pop them both inside my top. It helps them bond with me and each other and the warm dark is reassuring.

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Sarah March 28, 2020 - 12:34 pm

Hello, we’ve found a little black rat that looks to be about 2.5 weeks old. Am I right in thinking we should offer it some formula every 4 hours and also try some solid food? Do they need night feeds at this age?

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Alison March 31, 2020 - 1:25 am

Hi, Sarah, sorry we didn’t spot your comment earlier. Yes at 2.5 weeks you can start offering solid food, but should do milk as well until it is weaned. I do night feeds until they wean as it makes sure they don’t get dehydrated.
Hope that helps!

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