Rats can make wonderful and interesting pets. While there are common misconceptions about pet rats, they are actually intelligent, clean, and highly social animals with a variety of different behaviors that are loved by pet parents. By understanding their different behaviors, pet parents can better bond with their rat, and both can benefit from the joys of pet rat ownership.
Rats are social creatures who enjoy time outside their habitat, but also enjoy their quiet time. Rats naturally enjoy creating nest—in the wild they use leaves or moss to provide a soft nesting area. In captivity, rats enjoy tearing, gnawing, and bringing desirable items back to their nest. A nest is a safe spot for rats, providing physical comfort and safety for sleep but also a place to birth pups.
Pet rats will use materials from inside their habitat to line their nest including:
Toilet paper rolls
Rats enjoy frequent bedding changes to keep their cage clean and free of waste material odors, and to provide enrichment that stimulates their senses.
Rats are highly inquisitive animals by nature. They enjoy investigating and exploring their habitats, including adventures around the house during supervised playtime. A rat’s sense of vision is not great, so they rely on sniffing and touching to inspect new items.
Rats have a terrific sense of smell. You’ll notice their whiskers and nose twitch when they sniff and appear to breathe more rapidly. The smells and sensory information from their highly sensitive whiskers provide rats with additional information to determine if the new item is safe, fun, or something they would like to investigate further. Once deemed relatively safe (or edible!) rats will use their front paws and mouth to touch, drag, eat, and play.
Pet rats are incredibly clean animals require minimal bathing and brushing. They stay clean by instinctively grooming themselves. This may involve rubbing their front paws on their face, then licking and rubbing the rest of their body down to their tail.
Pet rats will also groom other rats and their pet parents. Often, this is out of affection or the start of intended play. You may even notice rats using their teeth to comb through fur. These are all normal behaviors, however if the licking and nibbling become obsessive, it could indicate a problem with your rats.
Over-grooming to the point of hair loss or irritation is called barbering. While most pet rats are social, occasionally a dominant rat will barber a submissive rat, causing health problems. If one rat is barbering another, a pet parent should contact their veterinarian to discuss a trial separation and general husbandry review.
A mother rat may also have an area of barbing on her stomach, either from her pups during nursing or self-barbering due to the irritation of nursing. All rats are capable of self-barbering, and this typically means something is wrong. Rats most often self-barber around the forearms and chest. Other causes of self-barbering include:
Demodex mites and other skin parasites
Calorie or diet deficiencies
Pet parents should call their veterinarian as soon as they notice signs of self-barbering for a full exam and diagnostic testing.
Bruxism, or commonly referred to as “bruxing” in the pet rat world, is a common behavior of rats and is usually considered normal. Bruxing occurs when rats grind their teeth gently and repetitively. As rodents, rats have constantly growing teeth that must be filed naturally to prevent problems. Gently grinding their incisors helps to wear these teeth down, but pet rats also need other toys, food, and proper care to effectively wear down their teeth. Pet parents shouldn’t rely on bruxing alone to keep their rat’s teeth healthy.
Most pet parents notice bruxing when the rat is happy and showing signs of affection—similar to a cat purring. However, rats may also brux when they are stressed. Make sure to take the rat’s entire demeanor and behavior into account when they brux. If they are acting scared, not eating, or have other unusual behaviors, a trip to the veterinarian may be necessary.
Rats have a unique anatomical difference in which part of their jaw muscle runs behind their eyes. During aggressive bruxism, this repetitive tooth grinding may cause the eyes to move abnormally in and out of the socket. This bulging of the eyes is called boggling, and is considered normal. Like bruxing, take the rat’s entire behavior into account to determine if your pet is happy or stressed. If concerned, you should always talk to your veterinarian to be safe.
Chattering is also repetitive grinding of the incisors, like bruxism. However, chattering is typically louder, stronger, and with more pops or cracking noises. While bruxing is associated with joy or contentment, chattering is most associated with an internal struggle, annoyance, or impending fight with another rat.
Rats love to play! They will play by themselves, with other rats, and with their pet parents. During play, you may also notice different noises—such as chirps and other vocalizations. This is how a pet rat indicates he is content and having fun. While they are generally quiet animals, most parents can begin to differentiate the noises their pet rats make when they are happy versus stressed.
Young rats may gently nip, bite, and wrestle with each other or their mother as a form of play fighting. This is a healthy and normal behavior that allows them to form bonds and learn appropriate social cues. Play fighting should never result in cuts or hair loss.
Excited rats may also jump, hop, or “popcorn” when they are happy. They may run excitedly at full speed around the house or enclosure—just like how dogs get the “zoomies.”
While rats are capable of activity during the day, especially with their family, they are basically nocturnal animals. This means they will be more active, making noise, playing, and chewing throughout the nighttime hours. If their cage is placed in a bedroom, this may present a problem for the pet parent to sleep!
Rats are adept at climbing and love to explore throughout their enclosure. They can scale vertical walls, given a little foothold. They tend to be clumsier when climbing down.
Providing rats with multiple habitat levels, ladders, hammocks, safe exercise wheels, hide boxes, and other cage furniture encourages their natural curiosity and activity. This enrichment can keep their mind and their bodies stimulated and prevent boredom.
Rats do best with multiple cage furniture items to climb, and even better when those items are constantly rotated in and out of the cage. Rats perceive these rotated toys and climbing structures as “new” and are excited to investigate and inspect. Some common cage furniture that promotes exercise and climbing include:
As a member of the rodent family, rats have constantly growing teeth. They rely on consistent chewing, gnawing, and nibbling to wear down their incisors. If not given appropriate food and chew toys, rat teeth become misaligned and abscessed. These conditions are incredibly painful and require veterinary intervention.
Rats should be fed high-quality pellets made specifically for pet rats, in addition to some human vegetables and fruits. While food and pellets can help wear down teeth (in addition to providing excellent nutrition,) pet rats also benefit from chew toys. Toys provide mental stimulation as well as the medical benefit of wearing down their teeth! There are many commercially available chew toys for rats, but these inquisitive and fun creatures don’t require fancy toys! They can be just as happy with items from around the house. Common chew toys for rats include:
Toilet paper rolls
Because rats are natural chewers, it is important to rat-proof any area of the house they have access to. Electrical cords are of specific concern, as they could cause serious injury or death.
Rats, both male and female, have flank glands along the sides of their abdomen. These glands contain natural oils used to scent mark areas of their environment. Rats will rub the side of their body, in addition to their face, to mark their territory.
Male rats will also urinate to mark their territory and signal to female rats. They may rub their rear end over items, which leaves a trail of urine, or they may lift their hind leg, similar to a dog.
Zarbock, Marylou. Lafeber. 16 Common Pet Rat Behaviors.
Hanson, Anne. Rat Behavior and Biology. Glossary of rat behavior terms. November 2012.
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