Rat Behaviour

Companionship

Photo of two rats snuggled in blankets and towels
The best of friends

Rats are very social animals, just like humans. It is important for their emotional wellbeing for them to have at least one rattie companion living with them. There are some things that a human companion just cannot provide, such as a warm body to snuggle up to when they are sleeping, mutual grooming, and companionship during the night which is when rats are most active.

Although most rats greatly enjoy human companionship, there really is no substitute for them having one of their own kind as a companion. If you believe that you are the only companion your rat needs, imagine how you would feel if the only companion you had was your rat. Although your rat would be a loyal friend, you would still greatly miss contact with other humans.

There are of course exceptions. Sometimes bucks have an overproduction of testosterone and will not tolerate new rats being introduced to them and will sometimes even turn on rats that already live in their group. The few rats we have had that have been too dominant have been neutered. This halts testosterone production and, provided the behaviour is a result of excess testosterone, ends the dominant behaviour. Sometimes rats that haven’t been socialised with other rats, or have had experiences that make them very nervous or defensive, won’t take well to other rats. However, with work it is often possible to integrate them into a group.

Rats will still bond just the same with a human whether kept alone or with other ratties. In point of fact, my ratties totally ignore each other when a human is in the room, and push each other out of the way to be the first to get a head rub.

Dominance

Photo of two young male rats play fighting
Young bucks play fighting

As with any species of mammal, there is a hierarchy to any group of rats living together, whether it be two rats or ten rats. This hierarchy has a ‘Top Rat’ and varying levels of dominance underneath depending on the number kept together and the personalities of the rats.

Fights can occur when one rat challenges the other for the position of ‘Top Rat’. When fighting for a step up the hierarchy (in both bucks and does) the two rats will wrestle and bite, and will oftentimes during the fight stand on their hind legs facing each other, touching front paws. They will stand like this until one bites at the other again and the wrestling continues, or one backs down and makes a run for it. When one of them decides to withdraw from the fight the other rat will give chase, nipping the rump of the fleeing rat until the rat has gone to ground (or rather to hammock!).

Fights tend to happen where younger males co-habiting with older males are growing up and realising they are as big or bigger than the older ‘Top Rat’. Mostly, the older rat will put the younger in its place with very little hassle, but sometimes fights can go on longer depending on how closely matched the rats are. Fights can also break out when rats have been introduced as adults. It is a natural part of rattie life, and unless the rats are seriously injuring each other, it is best to let them work out their differences. Once one has withdrawn, peace will be restored.

Although there may be some rather nasty looking wounds from bites, within 24 hours the wound will have closed and formed a scab. Provided you keep their environment dry and clean, there is no need to treat bite wounds. Having such a high metabolism, rats heal incredibly quickly and wounds that would require stitches even on a human are often closed, scabbed over and well on the way to being healed by the next morning.

Introductions

Photo of young rat sniffing adult rat in a wodent wheel
Hello there!

Successfully introducing rats relies heavily on the method that you choose to employ. It is not advisable to put a newcomer directly into the cage of a well established group, whether they be bucks or does. This usually results in the ‘Top Rat’ attacking the newcomer to expel him or her from their territory.

We have found that introducing the rats on neutral territory works well. We have also experienced a higher rate of success if the newcomer is introduced to the ‘Top Rat’ last, and has been given half an hour with the other members of the group and allowed to get to know them before ‘Top Rat’ is introduced.

We use our spare bathroom as the ‘neutral zone’ and once all rats are introduced and they have lost interest in the newcomer, the cage is moved into the neutral zone with doors open , so that the rats can go into and out of the cage at will. Every time we have introduced using this method, by the morning the newcomer is curled up asleep in a hammock with the rest of the group.

Young rats under twelve weeks are much easier to introduce. As they are not seen as a threat at that age, they often go relatively unnoticed and integrate with very little fuss.

Differences in behaviour between bucks and does

Potential rat owners often ask whether they should choose bucks or does as pets. The answer to that depends on what sort of personality the person prefer in a pet.

Does are very active and although they are fascinating to watch and play with, they won’t be content just to sit on a lap for a cuddle. They are very inquisitive and will drag anything into their cage that is within their reach. All our rats have access to a Wodent Wheel™, and whereas the boys prefer to sleep in theirs, the girls’ wheel is always going.

Bucks are much more laid back, and once they have reached adulthood are much more likely to happily laze on your lap and soak up all the cuddles. Bucks get bigger than does, and they also tend to smell a bit more, although unless you are keeping a fair number of bucks the difference is negligible.

Does on heat

Picture of a female rat mounting another female rat
Fig mounting her cage-mate Coco

Does come into heat approximately every 72 hours. Sometimes does show no behavioural difference when they are in heat, but most present a rather comical display to varying degrees.

When a doe is in heat is touched, specifically on the back, she will jump away and then crouch down with her rump raised, her back hollowed and her head held high. She will then wiggle or vibrate her ears. Sometimes the whole body will vibrate. It is extremely comical to watch!

Other does in the group will mount a doe that is in heat. This is perfectly normal behaviour and is nothing to worry about.

Swaying in Rats

Photo of pink eyed champagne pet rat leaning out of cage
Pink eyed rats have extremely poor vision

One behaviour that often perplexes new rat owners is known as swaying. Many pink eyed rats discover that they are able to better judge depth perception by swaying from side to side. Pink eyed mice also often display this behaviour.

Rats have notoriously poor eyesight, and rely heavily on smell, sound and whiskers to successfully navigate the surrounding environment. Rats with pink eyes are even more vision impaired than those with black and ruby eyes.

Pink eyed rats lack melanin in their eyes. The pink colour is derived from the blood vessels in the eye, which are full of blood.

A normal pigmented eye uses melanin to absorb light that enters the eye. A pink eye has no melanin, and is therefore unable to do this, causing the eye to be flooded with light. This would result in the rat being ‘dazzled’ in bright environments.

Over time, the retina is damaged from over exposure to light. Due to this ongoing damage, it is supposed that pink eyed rats are either seriously vision impaired or blind.

Owners of pink eyed rats will note certain behaviours that support this theory. We have noted that our pink eyed rats will not look directly at us if their name is called, but will look in the ‘general direction’ of the noise. When placed in unfamiliar surroundings, our black eyed rats will navigate their surroundings with confidence, whereas our pink eyed rats are very wary of exploring new environments and take much longer to start exploring and even longer to gain confidence navigating new environments.

All of our rats, no matter what the colour of their eyes, will move their head up and down and from side to side when trying to judge the distance of a jump they are contemplating. However, only our pink eyed rats sway from side to side at other times.

Old Age

Rats usually live between two years and three and a half years of age. Length of life is largely genetic, but can also be affected by environment. The first signs of ageing is a slowing of physical activity. This is usually followed by a decrease in appetite and subsequent slow weight loss. Older ratties are less tolerant of heat and cold, so consideration should be taken to account for this.

They are also less able to climb ladders, ramps or bars to get into hammocks. Making the cage single story with easy access to food, water, cosy bedding and toys on the floor is now very important. Give your elderly rat plenty of high calorie food, such as Nutrigel™ or Ensure™.

There will also come a point at which they aren’t able to groom themselves and will need your help to stay clean. At this stage of life, almost all ratties become laprats and will enjoy snuggling up with you for a cuddle. This is the time to enjoy some serious cuddle time with your old friend.

Visit the Elderly Rats page for more information on keeping your oldies happy.