Rats, and people, love to play. Coming up with games you can enjoy together is a great way to bond with your rats, and add interest to the time you spend together. It’s also a great way to keep the big brains behind those little pointy noses healthy, active and engaged.
Here are some ideas for games to play with your rats. I’m assuming a friendly, reasonably bonded and non-aggressive rat here. Obviously, if your rat has any behavioral issues, you need to take those into account in deciding how to play with them – and of course, never do anything that stresses or scares your rats.
Time out the cage is much easier to manage if your rats will come back to you on cue, and training them can be an excellent bonding game.
I’ve found the simplest way to get rats to return to their cage is to have playtime before dinner and wrap it up by making food noises – tapping the food bowl or scattering food into their cage. Make a consistent noise every time you feed them, regardless of whether they are out, or sitting by the bowl giving you a pointed look. That way they learn to associate the noise and food.
Away from food I’ve found rats to be selectively deaf – they’ll come when called if it seems interesting to them. Training them to respond more consistently is not just useful but can be turned into lots of different games to enjoy together.
The easiest way to do this is to include a regular session of clicker training in your playtime. This needs a clicker (the same kind that is sold for cats and dogs) and some rewards. Small items like seeds or pine nuts are ideal, as it is best to avoid regular treats full of fat or sugar.
The basic idea is that you reward a natural behavior (for example moving towards you, or sitting up on their hind legs), clicking as the rat performs the behavior and then immediately giving a reward. That way the rats learn to associate the behavior, the click, and the treat. As well as training rats to come when called, you can develop games together by teaching them tricks – for example searching and retrieving for treats, begging, climbing your leg – and agility. There are lots of step-by-step guides and videos on the internet.
When trying to train your rats it is important to get to know them as individuals. I learnt that with a big boy called George many years ago. He was completely unresponsive to any sort of training noises – voice, food, clicks, taps on the cage bars etc. He’d ignore them and carry on happily doing his thing. I thought he was just uncooperative, until one day, while trying to get the group back into the cage, I waved my hand at him, and he immediately sprinted over. It turns out he was genuinely deaf. Fortunately, he had good eye-sight, so once I’d figured it out, he trained to come to a visual cue.
Surprising as it may seem, rats are natural predators. In the wild, they will chase and sometimes kill smaller animals or intruders on their territory. It’s grim but normal, and it means rats love a chasing game.
With young rats, or those I know I can trust not to bite me, I like to play finger chase and wrestling. In this simple game, I get a rat’s attention, finger groom it, and then run my hand away spider-like across the floor or chair. If the rat is in the mood for a game, it will chase me. I mix the chasing with stopping and finger-grooming the rat’s side, which encourages gentle wrestling. Always let your rat decide how much it wants to play and never get rough.
For variety, or if your rats get a bit over-enthusiastic with fingers, many animals will enjoy a game of chase with a feather or cat-wand instead. Don’t expect the wand to have a long lifespan though!
Making a maze
Rats are intelligent enough to solve mazes, and they love running down tunnels to see where they lead. A great game is to make a maze of pathways and tunnels on a floor or a bed, and encourage your rats to explore it. You can leave them to work it out for themselves, or you can lead them through with your hand or a wand.
Mazes can be made out of cardboard, drainpipe (make sure it is clean and big enough for the rats), or fabric small animal tunnels. These are really useful as they often have holes and velcro so they can be bent into T-junctions and loops. You can hide treats in the mazes to reward your rats for exploring.
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Treasures and treats
Rats are often little collectors who like to carry off precious things and hide them (usually in their litter trays). I had one boy Mr F, who would sort all his food into different parts of the cage by category before eating it. He had one litter tray corner for dry pasta, another for nuts, another for pieces of banana and so on. We think he may have been a museum curator in a previous life…
We can make use of these tendencies to create games. I often play a game with my little Gooseberry where I scatter torn up pieces of paper on the floor and she follows me around tidying them up into her special cardboard box. She’ll also spend hours running backwards and forwards between me and the box if I’m handing out sheets of paper towel.
Another good game is to show the rat a treat and then hide it in your hand, or your clothes, so they search for it. It’s best to wear old clothes for this one!
Similar games can be played by burying treats in a digging box, and then stealing them back out the cage to hand out again. It sounds mean, but if I didn’t steal them back someone would end up rather tubby! And of course, they always get a treat in the end.
What kind of games do you play with your rats?
Let us know in the comments!