Keeping pet rats together
Rats are social creatures and need the company of other rats. They use their sense of smell to recognise others, finding out about where they've been and what they've been doing.
Why it's important to keep rats together
As rats are social animals, they can get depressed if alone. They'll also need other rats around at night when they're most active and when humans are asleep.
If left without company and nothing to do for long periods they can develop abnormal behaviours. Even with lots of human contact, rats need to live with other rats. Rats kept with other rats are just as friendly with people.
Introducing rats to each other
Pet rats should be housed together from a young age and ideally be siblings. They should also be kept in small same-sex groups and are perfectly happy without the opposite sex.
Separate young males and females as soon as possible after weaning so that they don't produce pups, which are difficult to find good homes for. You should only breed rats if you have already found good homes for all the pups.
Always try to introduce cage-mates to one another soon after weaning (three weeks of age) as this will result in less fighting.
Whenever possible, avoid adding or removing individuals from a familiar group, as this will disrupt stable social groups and can lead to aggression.
Rats have a dominance structure
When unfamiliar adults are housed together there will be a period of high aggression, however, if they establish a dominance relationship, aggression levels should drop.
Introducing new adults may cause fighting whilst they decide who's dominant. This usually doesn't last long. Rats may suffer if they cannot escape from others they don't like.
Fighting between cage-mates is rare, but can be recognised when:
- One rat hides from the other
- One rat injures another
- The attacking rat has raised fur
How to avoid aggression within a group of rats
When unfamiliar adult rats are housed together there will be a period of high aggression, however, if they establish a stable relationship the levels of aggression should drop. You can help reduce aggression if you:
- Avoid disrupting stable social groups by permanently removing familiar rats, or adding unfamiliar rats, as this can be stressful
- Avoid anything that alters the smell of an individual as this may cause your rats to investigate their cage mate more and could lead to unnecessary aggression
- Provide enough resources so that all rats can access them at the same time (i.e. food bowls, water dishes, hiding places) and don¿t have to share if they don't want to
- Provide multiple shelters and visual barriers to help break-up aggressive encounters by helping rats move away from each other
Having multiple levels in their home cage can also help act as barriers to aggression. Make sure that shelters have multiple exits to avoid particular rats stopping other cage mates from leaving the shelter.
Signs a rat is being aggressive to the others
If you see increased aggression in a group of usually stable rats, this could indicate that there is a problem, check the health of your rats and that something has not changed in their environment. Monitor your rats carefully. If you are concerned seek advice from your vet.
Aggressive grooming indicates social stress in groups of rats, as does strong vocalisation during an aggressive encounter.
If levels of aggression remain high between newly introduced rats, especially if it results in injury, this may indicate that those rats are unable to reach a stable dominance relationship and so should not be housed together.
Consider separating your rats if one is hurt or frightened by the other and the problem lasts for more than a few days. Rats in pain can also show aggression towards their cage mates.
Protect your rats from other pets and animals
Mask the sounds, sights and smells of animals they may be afraid of such as cats, dogs, ferrets and birds of prey. Rats are a prey species and these animals can cause stress to them.
How to get rats used to being handled
Rats can build close relationships with owners and be successfully trained. Start by having regular gentle and calm contact with your rat to slowly allow a bond to develop. Allow them to investigate your hands in their own time and reward with treats to help them enjoy your company.
Rats like playing, especially when young - they take turns who wins and loses. They can learn to play with humans as well as other rats.
Rats can find exposure to humans stressful until a positive relationship has been formed, so make sure you build up a good relationship first. They'll be stressed by sudden exposure to unfamiliar people and inappropriate handling.
Handling them in the morning or evening to avoid disturbing them in the daytime when sleeping.
How to pick up rats
Handling carefully and considerately, in a confident but gentle manner. Never pick rats up using their tails - this is stressful and can injure them.
When picking up your rat, let them sniff your hand before gently lifting them up, with one hand placed under the body and the other loosely over their back.
Never hold them at a height, as if they jump or fall they can injure themselves.