What are they trying to tell you? Interpreting rat behaviour
When ‘taking on’ another individual a rat will generally only progress the confrontation as far as they need to in order to establish superiority. These behaviours therefore build on each other.
Chasing – ‘seeing off’ the inferior rat by chasing. Might be accompanied by a nip to the rump (see biting) or mounting.
Open-mouthed tooth display – this is a ‘stand off’ behaviour, often seen in the inferior rat.
Standing on hind legs/boxing – beginnings of physical engagement.
Sidling – the dominant rat moves into their opponent with a sideward pushing movement. They are trying to overpower without full engagement.
Sidling with kicks – as above but with backward kicks from rear legs. This is the final stage before a full fight breaks out. If the opponent does not back down the two rats may become locked in a ball of ferocious fury.
Scent marking – the alpha rat marks their territory (often after a cage clean) by rubbing their sides along the cage perimeter/furniture. If this behaviour continues for more than a minute or two the rat's flanks will begin to appear ‘wet’ as the secretions from the scents glands build up on their fur.
Urine marking – dominant rats mark along their path with droplets of urine. Urine marking can extend to marking other rats in the colony, humans and furniture. Inferior rats may sometimes urine mark but rarely to the same extent and the dominant male/female.
Pinning – holding another rat down in the belly up position, whilst either just standing on them, or grooming/sniffing their belly/genitals is a routine display of dominance.
Grooming – dominant rats both demand to groom other rats and demand to be groomed by them. Alpha rats will sometimes push their head under the head of an inferior male as an insistence that they groom him. However, inferior rats can also flatten themselves under alphas in a submissive gesture, so grooming behaviour requires careful observation in order to interpret it correctly.
Digging – often seen during frantic scent marking displays, the rat ‘digs’ with their front feet into the cage litter/carpet or shelving.
Erect ‘spiky’ fur – seen in rats that are angry or stressed. Aggressive or threatened rats use this tactic to appear larger to their opponent. Spiky fur is also seen in stressed or sick rats.
Tail waving – a sign of heightened excitement or aggression. Generally seen in rats that are angry or threatened, but also reported in rats that are excited (such as during mating).
Head swaying – side-to-side head swaying is generally seen in red or ruby-eyed rats. It is thought to be an attempt to increase depth perception because their eyesight is so poor.
Biting other rats – offensive bites are usually on the flanks or rump of the victim. Bites inflicted by a defensive rat are usually around the nose and face.
Most vocalisation between rats is at a frequency that is not audible to us as humans. Some noises however, can be heard, and have specific meanings.
Short ‘eeeps’ – mild protest or submission
Long ‘eeeps’ – strong protest
Shriek – fighting (extreme protest) or sudden pain
Hissing – heard during conflict, usually before physical engagement (may accompany the open mouthed tooth bearing).
Bruxing – the grinding sound made by the rat moving his teeth against each other. May occur simply as a mechanism to grind them down. May express contentment and when extreme is often associated with eye ‘boggling’ where the muscles that move the jaw during teeth grinding also rhythmically move the eye in and out (as the muscle passes through the eye socket).
Chattering – intense bruxing during stress, may be louder and made up of more sharp cracks than relaxed bruxing. Rats may brux to comfort themselves when sick or distressed.
Author: Alison Campbell
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