Taming your rats

Articles relating to rat behaviour
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Taming your rats

Post by Fancy Rats Admin » Sat Jul 16, 2011 10:56 pm

Taming your rats

Rats are intelligent pets that can bond very closely to their owners. They enjoy human contact and interaction and should have at least an hour of attention and/or out of cage time every day. When you first get your rats you need to set aside at least 20 minutes per rat per day to get to know them individually.

There are a number of things that will affect how easy you find it to get your new rats accustomed to being handled. The primary thing is the rats' previous experience of humans. For a novice rat owner it is best to get your rats from a breeder who socialises their babies well, a pet shop where the staff handle the babies regularly or a rescue centre experienced with rats. Rats handled regularly as babies are usually curious, outgoing and never bite. A rat who has been well-handled in his/her previous home only needs to learn to trust their new owner. This is much easier than beginning with a rat who has had no handling and is scared of all human contact.
This article makes two assumptions. Firstly it assumes your rats are not used to human company. If you have confident well-socialised rats you can skip many of these steps. Secondly it assumes you have more than one rat. Rats are naturally social animals used to living in groups. Single rats are often nervous and insecure and therefore much harder to tame. Rats living in pairs or groups gain confidence from each other and even compete for human attention.

First day
When you get your new rats home put them straight into their cage and leave them alone for 12-24 hours. Do not move things in the cage or move the cage in this time, as they need to learn the cage is their home and they can feel safe there.

If they are baby rats this will be the first time they have been away from their siblings and it will be very scary for them. If they are pet shop rats this is probably the second change of home they have been through in a very short time, so give them some time and space to settle in before they have to face any more new things.

It is a good idea to make the permanent location of the cage in a relatively busy room of the house. Rats take a lot of interest in what goes on around them, and the more time you spend in their room the more quickly they will get used to being around you. Remember they may not have heard some everyday noises before e.g. vacuuming, hair dryer and try to avoid this sort of activity close to their cage for a day or two.

Getting acquainted
When you are ready to start getting to know your rats approach the cage quietly and talk to them. Rats are usually open to bribery - most rats are strongly motivated by food and reward-based learning works very well. It is better to allow the rats to come out of the cage by themselves rather than picking them up at this stage. Place the cage on a surface you are happy with the rats roaming around on that is also fairly contained, e.g. a sofa, table or bed. Limit the rats to a small, secure area to begin with, then once they trust you and they are happy to be picked up you can increase the space they are allowed to explore. Make sure the area has no gaps small enough to hide in, no cables and nothing expensive to be chewed.

Sit by the cage with the door open and talk to the rats, offering them food at the door and just outside the door. If a rat comes to the door do not make any sudden moves or sounds. Allow the rats to explore you and their surroundings in their own time. The rats will make many trips back to the cage each time something startles them. Once they are reassured that their den is nearby they will venture out again. As they get more confident they will probably climb onto your lap and then up to your shoulder. Wear clothes you don't mind them clinging to! To reach this stage can take several hours, several days or a couple of weeks; each rat is an individual.

If your rat cage is too big to move, try picking up the rats' bed e.g. igloo and remove that from the cage with the rats hiding inside. If the bed you have given them is not enclosed give them a cardboard box instead, then you can easily pick that up and place it on the bed or whatever space you are using. They just follow the same method above.

Allow the rats to sniff your fingers and if they are fairly calm try stroking them gently, remembering not to swoop on them with your hand. If you are worried about being bitten offer them the back of your knuckles for them to smell instead, as a nip there is less likely to break the skin. A scared rat is much more likely to poo on you or run away than bite you, however it is a sensible precaution not to handle your rats immediately after touching food.

Holding your rats
Once your rats have got over their initial fear of being out of their cage you will discover that baby rats don't like sitting still! They are naturally curious and want to be off exploring, climbing, hiding in and eating new things. Sitting still and being stroked does not really appeal to them. However, they do need to get used to being handled, so once they have tired themselves out a bit try picking them up and holding them. If your rats run away from you try standing in the middle of the room (so there is nothing for them to jump off onto) and allow the rats to climb all over you. They will crawl all over your arms, shoulders etc. Wear a top with a hood or a big pocket on the front, as rats love little hidey-holes. You can also use a rat pouch, which is an ideal refuges for baby rats getting accustomed to being close to you.

In order to learn that you are a safe place your rats should spend at least 20 minutes per day in physical contact with you. It doesn't matter if you are not holding them in your hands as long as they are in contact with you somehow, whether on your shoulder or inside your clothes! Time it, don't cheat, and your rats will learn to be comfortable being with you. Within a week you will see a difference, and within two weeks you probably won't recognise your outgoing confident rats! If you can do this twice or three times per day they will respond more quickly.

Big scary hands
Many rats are frightened of hands because in their experience human hands swoop on them roughly and take them somewhere scary. Rats are a prey species and instinctively fear other animals snatching them from above so a big hand suddenly grabbing them is quite alarming. Your rats need to learn to link hands with positive experiences, not negative ones. A simple thing you can do to achieve this is to pick the rat up to put it back in the cage. This shows the rat that hands take him/her somewhere safe. You can also briefly pick the rat up then put him/her down next to a treat as a reward.

Always let your rats see and smell your hands before picking them up and never try to pick them up if they are sleeping. You can undo a lot of good work by having to grab a rat to remove him/her from danger and this is one reason why you need to be sure that the area you let your rats explore is rat-proof. Always pick your rats up by scooping them up with both hands, and supporting them from underneath. Never pick a rat up by the tail.

Author: Alison Mercer
Fancy Rats Team

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