Why rats need company
Social living in the natural environment
The brown rat (rattus norvegicus) is by nature a social animal and colony dweller. Living in the wild, a rat might find itself as one of a great many rats living in a relatively small area. Even at high population densities, female groups naturally settle at around 5 or 6 related rats of different ages living in one burrow (a system of chambers, nests and tunnels). These groups tend to be co-operative, with females sharing nests and the rearing of offspring. Males in areas of high population density (the conditions most captive rats are kept in mimic this) tend to form ‘packs’ and as a group will seek out a sexually receptive doe, each mating her in turn. However, within these groups (and males especially) there is always a rat with established alpha-status. This rat is dominant and the other rats (of the same gender) subordinate.
Can a human provide for a rat's social needs?
Being social animals ourselves it is always surprising how little insight humans can display into the needs of the animals that we choose to share our lives with. Some (un-caged) pack animals, such as dogs – whilst preferring to be in the company of other dogs – will generally thrive as part of a human group, who become its surrogate pack. Caged animals do not have this option. Even if you were to spend most of your waking hours with your rat (which most people don’t) it would still find itself alone for a large proportion of its life, and unable to carry out all of the social behaviours involved in being a rat. It is possible as a human to imagine a life where we were never able to meet or interact with any other humans. Where we were allowed to have pets, but never to spend time with people, ever - for the whole of our lives. Regardless of having pets for company most humans in this situation would be lonely and unhappy. Why would we assume that rats should then cope well when deprived of their own species.
Are solitary rats friendlier?
Some people say that housing a rat alone makes it friendlier towards its humans. This is untrue. A lonely rat will often relate eagerly to its humans because of its need for company, rather than because it is a well-adjusted rat who is relating out of ‘friendliness’. However, many solitary rats become withdrawn, lacking in confidence and don't wish to engage with their humans. Most single rats are lucky to spend an hour or two a day out of their cage – no wonder they are either loney and withdrawn, or desperate for engagement when the opportunity arises! Many solitary rats can be seen to visibly flourish once they are able to become integrated into a group.
What do rats gain from social interaction?
Any caring human who has ever watched a group of rats together for more than a minute or two, will begin to realise why rats need the company of their own species. Their interactions are complex and more or less constant. They engage in frequent behaviours such as playing, rolling, chasing, many types of grooming, mounting, dominance squabbles, interactions over food and sleeping in group ‘nests’. Even a brief encounter with a group of rats makes it is easy to see why a solitary rat is likely to be under-stimulated and lonely. Many toys and products aimed at enriching a pet rat’s environment are readily available, but they can never begin to replace the company of other rats. Nor can a human.
How many rats should I get?
It is traditional for many people to therefore choose to begin with a pair of rats. Whilst this is adequate and certainly a great deal better than keeping a rat alone, there are good arguments for considering a group of 3 or 4, rather than a pair. Not only is this a closer model to the natural groupings of wild rats, but rats - like humans - do not find all other members of their species universally agreeable. A group of rats rather than a pair gives each rat a number of social relationships. Rats – also like humans - sometimes need ‘time out’, and will seek solitude for a period. This doesn’t work well for a pair, and can lead to squabbles when one rat wants engagement and the other wants to be left alone. Also life span in rats is quite variable, so one rat of a pair is very likely to find themselves alone at some point, and this can sometimes lead to grief reactions that are so severe as to push the rat into a physical decline.
The amount of work needed to care for 3 or 4 rats (in one cage) is very similar to that needed to care for a pair. And the benefits of well-adjusted and contented rats will spill over in their interactions with you as their human. Some people prefer to begin with a pair and then add in another pair of kittens when the first pair have matured. This has it’s own unique benefits – particularly that the groups will not all be the same age, which can be particularly helpful in terms of reaching old age (and dealing with illness and death) at different times. Groups with a mix of ages more closely mimic natural behaviour, but can pose challenges due to differences in dietary needs. The only ‘rule’ when adding further rats to an established group is don’t ever add only one baby to a group of adults. Young rats have unique behaviours and need the company of other youngsters to engage in learning behaviours such a mock fighting.
For information on introducing new rats see here and here.
Author: Alison Campbell
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