10 Tips on Socializing Shy & Timid Pet Rats

How to socialize rats

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

Helping shy and timid rats to relax

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.

Hormonal behaviour

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.

Stressful environment

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

Rats are social animals that need friends  of their own species

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

Handling shy rats

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. 

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  1. how is the best way to introduce new rats into the cage? i have 2 brothers and as they are getting older i have been thinking about adding a new pair into the cage so that when one of them departs the other wont be lonely and when both brothers are gone the other rat wont be lonely, im just not sure how to get them used to eachother before putting them in the cage.

    1. My approach is to introduce new rats in my arms over a bed (so I can safely drop anyone who gets arsey – I’ve found this is easier than introducing them on neutral ground and trying to split them up if they fight), and then put them together in a small carrier and immediately go for a walk around the garden – the outdoor smells and sounds are sufficiently interesting / scarey that they forget to argue with each other. I leave them in the carrier (with food and water) for a day, taking it with me wherever I go in the house, and repeating the garden walk if any arguments go beyond a bit of shoving, and then move them into a small cage (about the size of a cat carrier), with only scattered food, water and litter – nothing to defend. If they fight, they go back in the carrier and we do it all again. Once they all sleep in a heap in there, they get simple cage furniture (litter tray, flat hammock), and then upgraded to a bigger cage over the course of several days. It’s basically a combination of forced proximity, distractions that are mildly scarey and therefore bonding, and removing anything they can be territorial over until they have sorted out their relationships.
      Hope that helps!

  2. Hello, thank you for these tips. I got three baby brothers about four weeks ago. They still are quite afraid even though I got them from a breeder, who handled them before.
    Do you have any tips on how I’ll get them to not be as scared when I try to pet them gently? One of them, Nori, sometimes seems to see me as an enemy and puffs up his furr and did bite me the other day. Do you think this gets better with time, as he grows older or do the hormones get even stronger making him more aggressive?
    Thank you for your help!
    I already adore the little boys and I am very happy that they already come to see me and play outside of the cage 🙂

    1. Hi Isabelle,
      How old are the babies? It’s unusual to see hormonal aggression before about 12 weeks. In terms of whether hormones with age will worsen the aggression its mainly a case of waiting to see as we don’t have any background on the line.
      I’ve exhausted most of my tips in the article, but for handling, encouraging them to enjoy interacting with you via offering nommy lickable food (baby food etc) on a spoon or (for the non-biters) on your finger often helps. Letting them climb on you or scooping from below is also less scary than stroking, touching or picking up from above.
      Hope that helps!

  3. Hi, we just got three brother rats from a very good home breeder. I got them for my nine year old daughter, who is not with me all week. So I’m the main caregiver. But we got off to a bad start. I got a very big cage and I built all kinds of stuff in there for them to climb on, but that made it difficult to grab them and I guess it got too stressful a few times when I tried to grab them. One of them is fine and will eat from my hand and I can pick it up, but the other one tights up when I’m close, I can pet it a little but it doesn’t move at all, and the third one is now downright terrified. Is there a way this can still be turned around? I got a smaller cage today and put them in there, with the idea that there easier to pick up and socialise with before moving them back into the big cage. The tips seem very good, but I’m afraid I’m the one who made them scared so will I be able to make them feel safe with me/us again? Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi Onno. Don’t beat yourself up – a big cage with lots to do is what they need in the long term, so you were doing the right thing, just a bit too quickly. Starting with a smaller cage while they adjust to you and your home is a good idea. Put it next to whereever you sit the most so they see a lot of you and you can chat to them regularly even when you aren’t playing with them. They are highly unlikely to hold a few minor early stresses against you once they know you are the safe person who is around regularly and gives them food. Have a regular feeding time for their main food, and put it near the door so they have to come near you to eat it, and offer them regular low calorie but nommy treats that they have to take out your hand or from a spoon you hold. Otherwise, all the tips above about interacting and handling hold good.
      Good luck, and I hope they come round quickly.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this article! I’ve had rescue rats before, but this group I just rescued is a bit of a trauma case. Their mom gave birth in a snake tank and this poor litter was in there 2 weeks before they were removed and brought to the rescue. I adopted 4 sisters. They’re finally setttling in and sleeping well, but sudden movements and just the cage approach makes them scatter (rightfully so). I’ve been doing what you’ve suggested in the article already so I’ll just stay the course. I feel like each day we make some progess except Ellie. She just freezes like stone in a corner. Tibby goes and will lay herself across Ellie after about 5 minutes of my hand by her. I move to another part of the enclosure at that point, because I take Tibby’s lead on when Ellie has had enough. I was glad to read this can take months. Gives me some reassurance that staying the course is enough for now.

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      The poor little things do sound traumatised, good on you for taking them in and working with them. Hopefully, as the others become more confident, Ellie will follow their lead. Knowing other rats feel safe with you is a big part of a scared rat developing confidence. She might never be super confident given the horrible start, but I’d hope that if you just keep going gently and consistently, she will relax with time.

      1. Hi Alison,

        We have a bit of progress with Ellie! Yesterday at feeding Ellie hid as usual, but I still only have hiding areas I can still access with my hand. I tried yet again to give her a fresh fruit and she actually gave it a little taste while I was holding it! Then she came out and gave a little peak from the box and then of course bolted to another hide spot when I complimented her 🙂 but still so excited! Thank you again for all the advice in your article! Gently and consistently seems to definitely be the key.

  5. Hi,
    I have a male who was living with a slightly older cage mate from a baby. While he was fine for about 6 months, he started to turn aggressive towards his mate. I had to separate them and I had him neutered, but I’ve been unsuccessful in reintroducing. Serious fights occur almost immediately.
    I have been handling him several times a day but he remains very nervous. Recently he has bitten me several times, one quite badly. I’m able to coax him from the cage onto my legs but as soon as he is near my hands or arms he will bite. He bites quite slowly, almost like he is testing rather than snapping by reflex action.
    This week I offered a treat and he ignored it, preferring to sniff at my finger. I allowed him to and after a few seconds he latched onto my finger, biting progressively harder until he finally broke the skin
    I’m now very afraid to put my hands near his face and don’t know what else to do.

    1. Hi Nigel, that’s a difficult one, which I don’t have a solution to. Normally neutering fixes things very well – neutered boys sometimes still won’t accept intact boys, but I’ve not seen increasing aggression towards humans. I would suggest a vet check to make sure there is nothing else going on (e.g. a brain issue), and also see if you can make contact with some experienced rat owners / breeders in your area (maybe via a facebook group or similar) who might be able to offer more tailored advice.
      As an interim measure for your safety I’d suggest wearing gardening gloves when you need to handle him.

      1. Thanks for the reply Alison. I had him out and running around my legs again this morning and picked him up and held him for a little while ok. The situation is further complicated by the fact I’m moving across country in a month and he can’t come with me. I had a foster lined up for him but they won’t take him if he’s biting and I’m not comfortable giving him to someone else while he’s potentially going to hurt someone

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