Rats are naturally friendly and curious animals and, handled regularly from a few days old, usually have no problems bonding with their owners. That’s why I recommend adopting baby rats from a reputable breeder or a well-cared for rescue litter.
However, rats bred commercially en masse don’t receive this handling and can experience several stressful events (premature separation from their mother, transport to a shop, separation from siblings) at a very young age. In their new home, overwhelmed by the world and nervous about humans, they may be reluctant to come out their nest or be handled. Similarly, whilst most rescue rats are absolute sweeties and make excellent pets, a proportion have behavioural problems stemming from poor handling or past trauma.
Accordingly, rat owners may need to bond with a pet who is nervous, flighty, scared or even aggressive. Here are my top 10 tips on how to socialize rats.
#1 Identify the problem – and remember that it isn’t the rat’s fault
Rats can be nervous for many reasons. In my experience, the issues listed below are the most common, although remember each rat is unique, and problems can combine, so this isn’t a simple tick box list!
Lack of handling early in life
These rats are generally interested in people, but lack the confidence to go all the way with being handled. They may approach a hand to sniff it, but then run away, and dart back and forth as interest and fear compete. They may well nip if forced into a scary situation (e.g being picked up incautiously or backed into a corner), but generally aren’t actively aggressive.
Poor handling or trauma
These rats show similar signs to those above, but are generally more fearful. They may have specific fear triggers associated with their trauma such as loud noises, hands in their cage, being touched, children’s voices, the smell of other animals, or “scary” noises such as rustling sounds. Some will show nervous interest in humans, but others will hide away when you are around. They may bite hard if picked up or cornered, and if very scared, may attack pre-emptively if hands come near them.
Contrary to belief, hormonal issues in rats don’t just cause aggression. They can also cause stressed or fearful behaviours around handling or other rats. These problems are most commonly seen in unneutered boys over 3 months old, and can appear in rats who were happy and confident as babies. Although I do use the trust training techniques below on these rats, if I am fairly sure hormones are involved, I neuter them. Neutering is always a personal decision as it does involve a small element of risk. However, I feel it is better than the rat being stressed by their hormones for several months.
Even well-bred and well-handled rats can become fearful if kept in a stressful environment. Rats are pretty bombproof to the everyday noises of family life – mine happily co-exist with vacuums, people coming and going, loud music, and during the covid lockdown, a lot of webex meetings (they joined in some of them). However, there are certain situations that can stress rats out. Which brings me to…
#2 Make sure they are in a non-stressful environment
So, what counts as a stressful environment for a rat? A big issue is being outside. Living inside a properly insulated and secure shed is one thing, being exposed to the elements and predators with no protection beyond the cage bars is quite another. There is a reason that wild animals have strong flight reflexes – it’s because the great outdoors is a scary place for a small furry animal. Rats in a cage might not get eaten, but they don’t know that, especially when they can hear birds, smell snakes, and the local cat decides to sleep on their cage.
Indoors should be less stressful, but there are still a few potential triggers. A big one is natural predators having access to the cage. I see social media posts about how a pet rat is “dominant” over a cat or dog – however, the attacking or dominant action that seems superficially cute or amusing is a stress response by the rat. It’s a natural prey animal getting its defence in first. Keeping rats in a different room from other animals is a good idea, even if the larger animal is trained to ignore them.
Another trigger is ultrasound noises, which can be given out be some lightbulbs and electronic equipment, and also things like coats rustling. Generally, I like to habituate my rats to noises as it benefits them to become accustomed. However, where a rat is already stressed or traumatized, a quieter environment can be helpful.
#3 Rats need friends
I’ve written before about my little boy Ridcully who arrived here in a pretty nervy state after living unhandled in an outside cage. Meeting new rat friends turned his world around in a couple of hours. Although it is important to always introduce new rats carefully, making sure no one gets hurt, rats are social animals and derive a lot of security from having company of their own species.
#4 Introducing your smell
Nervy behaviour in rats largely stems from fear of the unknown – they don’t instinctively know that you are a safe person. One way to get them started is to give them bedding that smells of you. Rats recognize their humans by a combination of smell and sound, but they also associate their nest with safety. Combining the two, your smell and their nest, helps promote the idea you are safe. I often wear an old t-shirt and then use it (unwashed!) as a hammock, or stuff bits of fleece and kitchen towel down my jumper for an hour before putting them in the cage.
#5 Food not fingers
Another sense worth exploiting when trust training is taste. There’s a reason food treats come up so often as reinforcement in all animal training! However, there are a few specific things to consider with rats.
Rats won’t eat if they don’t feel safe – a wild rat who stops for a snack out in the open tends to become food themselves. So, while bits of food like seeds or nuts make nice rewards, they won’t encourage a rat to spend more time with you – a nervous rat will head straight back to their hidey-hole. The best food for trust training is something slurpy on a spoon – I use baby foods, yoghurt, porridge, mashed up avocado, or fish sandwich paste. I put the spoon in the doorway to the rat’s safe space and let them eat it in their own time while I talk to them. I move the spoon a little bit further out each day until the rat has got used to the idea of coming to the door of their cage for their treat. A similar approach can be used for persuading them to come out the cage and climb onto me.
Why am I using a spoon, not my fingers? Well, I do use fingers in the later stages, once I know the rat is not going to bite. Providing a sloppy food like yoghurt on a finger is a good way to trust train a non-aggressive rat, as it encourages them to lick and groom you, which is part of the process of becoming their trusted companion. But until I know a rat, and always for any food that is going into their beds or safe places, I use a spoon. Even some very tame and friendly rats will nip fingers that appear in their nest.
#6 Scoop, don’t grab – and remember danger comes from above
Trust training is about making the rat feel safe, and grabbing a rat or picking them up from above unexpectedly can easily alarm them. This is especially the case if they’ve been mishandled and grabbed, squeezed or hurt in the past. A better way of approaching a nervous rat is to scoop them from below and let them sit against your body. Always ensure the weight of the rat is safely supported and never ever pick them up by the tail.
I always tell a rat I’m there by talking to them before approaching with my hand, and I try to approach from the below or the side, touching them briefly on the side or back before approaching the head and (assuming they aren’t a biter), offering my hand to sniff before handling them.
#7 Sometimes it’s best to be hands off
All pet rats ultimately need to be able to tolerate a minimal amount of handling to allow for medical examination and welfare checks. However, that doesn’t mean we need to start trust-training by trying to pick up a nervous rat. Often, I find rats are scared of, or aggressive towards hands, but will safely and willingly sniff my arm or leg. Sometimes they’ll even climb on it quite willingly as long as I keep still, and that is an important part learning to feel safe around me. Once a rat has climbed onto my arm, it is relatively easy to cradle them against my chest, building up handling tolerance and a bond without bringing those scary hands into it.
#8 Provide hidey-holes, but on your terms
Any scared animal wants to hide away. Some people advocate forcing a rat into the open by removing anywhere they can hide in their cage. However, I feel this increases their stress by preventing the natural behaviour they use to feel safe. I always make sure a rat has somewhere to hide… but I also make sure it is a bolt-hole that I can handle. Good options are short-lengths of pvc tubing and small cardboard boxes – something that is easy to pick up and take out the cage, rat and all. It’s always a good idea to choose something that will fit in a carrier too.
The beauty of the portable hidey-hole is that it can provide rats with a familiar safe space from which to explore their human or a play area. Rats’ natural curiosity will encourage them to stick their noses out and at least sniff at this new environment, which is another step towards familiarization.
#9 The joy of dressing gowns
You’ve persuaded your rat to climb on you or let you pick them up. What’s the next step in making yourself a safe space for this nervous little creature? The answer is a big comfy dressing gown (sweaters and cardigans work too). A dressing gown is easy to burrow into from any angle – a rat can go down the neck, up the sleeves or in the pockets. It makes a convenient place to hide when life gets scary, but at the same time it’s a safe place that is wrapped around the owner, again associating the human with safety. As soon as I can pick a nervy rat up, I always put on my dressing gown and pop them down my front.
#10 It’s ok to go slowly
How a rat responds to trust training is highly individual. Some advice suggests forcing the pace, based on the idea that rats can’t feel scared for more than a certain length of time, usually quoted in minutes. This might work for rats who are simply unhandled, but based on my rescue experience, I’d never try this with seriously traumatized animals. I much prefer to go at a speed the rat is comfortable with. I push forward day by day, taking plenty time to do trust training activities, to sit by the cage and talk to the rat. It can take weeks or even months with some of the most traumatized rescues, but patience brings its own rewards.