Your first pair or group of rats are home, and now you need to make friends with them. How do you bridge the gap between species to become someone they love, and their number one safe place?
The reason rats make such good pets, apart from their all-round awesomeness, is that they actively want to bond. They are highly social and curious animals, and all up for being best buddies with the giant who feeds them and offers play and cuddles. Obviously, every rat has their own personality, and some will be more human-centered than others, but in general it is easier to bond with rats than small pets such as gerbils or hamsters.
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Babyhood is a formative time for rats, as the brain starts to learn. Individual personalities come into it, but in general, rats handled from a few days old are more immediately social than rats whose only experience of hands is being hauled out a breeding tank aged 4 weeks.
Similarly, rats from lines bred to be outgoing and tame are more likely to be immediately friendly than rats from matings randomly stuck together to make pretty colors.
What I’m trying to say here is think critically about where to buy or adopt rats, rather than just popping down to the nearest pet shop or answering a random ad for homes. In my opinion, the best places to get your first ever rats are (in no particular order):
- Babies from a high-quality breeder (make sure you are able to visit, see their animals and chat with them before committing).
- Babies from a rescue litter who are well-handled by their foster carer.
- Rats known to be friendly and healthy, who are being rehomed by a good owner for a legitimate reason (relocation, health etc.).
- Rats from a reputable rescue whose carers can vouch for their personalities.
That’s not to say that rats from pet stores or dodgy breeders are “bad” animals who won’t make friends – I exclusively take in rescue animals, so I’d lay money that most of the Horde was born in questionable circumstances, and I love every one of their silly furry noses. But that sort of origin story does add in complications and unknowns, and I don’t think it’s the best place to start as a rat owner. That’s before considering that direct purchase of these animals can support activities like rodent farms, which you may not be comfortable with.
You get out what you put in
Bonding with a pet is a long-term commitment. Just like human friendships, bonds are deeper if you invest time and effort into them. I put aside time every day to handle and play with the Horde, and I also like to have their cage somewhere social so that casual interactions – saying hello to them, giving them a tickle etc. – is easy and natural. If you prefer to keep your rats in a dedicated room then it’s a good idea to make it comfortable so you are happy to sit and visit them every day.
Tips and tricks for bonding with your rats
The following are ideas culled from my own experience, so it’s not an exhaustive list. They also assume you are working with fairly “normal” rats, not ones who are excessively nervous or aggressive. It’s certainly possible to bond with the latter, but it’s a blog subject in its own right.
Sounds simple, but it’s something new owners can be shy about doing. Be gentle, but be firm, and pick your rats up and give them a stroke and a cuddle every single day. It might not be a long stroke and cuddle, because in my experience the average young rat wants to explore everything RIGHT NOW, and so has limited patience for human soppiness. But even a short period of handling every day builds up a routine and makes it a normal non-scary thing.
Get down on their level
Rats live their lives a few inches off the floor. I’ve found they are much more interested in direct interaction if I get down there with them. They’ll come and see me on a chair if they feel like it, but if I sit or lie on the floor while they are out playing, I become the most exciting thing ever (or at least since dinner). Yes, this does mean being climbed on, trampled, having whiskery noses stuck in my ear, and since I currently have long hair in a braid, occasionally having to dissuade people from trying to run off with it. But that’s all part and parcel of being owned by rats.
Kids make friends by playing with each other, and rats are just the same, so taking an active part in their play is a good way to bond. There are lots of different options for this. I play chase with them using my hand and finger-wrestle when they catch me. You can also use a cat wand or long strips of fabric or feathers to play chase and pounce just like you would with a cat.
Many people like the challenge of clicker training, using a clicker and treats to teach the rats tricks or agility. Rats are very intelligent for their size so they can learn all sorts of behaviors.
This one needs to be used carefully as its best if the human / rat bond isn’t dependent on food, and rats, like any other animals, thrive at a healthy weight. However, a small healthy treat (such as nuts in shells, sunflower seeds, or raisins) now and again doesn’t do any harm and knowing that their human might have a nut in their pocket is another strand in the rat’s bond. I like to make the Horde work for their treats, either with training, or with foraging in a digging box or in pockets or hands.
Put on a dressing gown
A tatty old dressing gown may not be our idea of dressing up, but it’s heaven to a rat. Big sleeves to burrow in, pockets to explore, and plenty of hidey-holes. Tucking a shy rat inside my dressing gown or down a baggy top is my number one trick for making friends, as it is dark, enclosed and safe for them, but it smells of me, which means I start being associated with safety.
Admittedly, the downside of this is when we are at the vet, and a scared rat decides inside my top is the safest place to hide from the nasty man with the stethoscope. Stripping off in the middle of a consulting room to retrieve a recalcitrant rat is a bit embarrassing for everyone.