Like all animals, rats have their own "language" and behaviors that people new to rats are left trying to interpret. If you can understand your pet, you can build a better relationship with him and make better judgments. Here are some behaviors you may experience and what they mean.
Serious fighting is rare in rats. It may be seen in a few aggressive males. Fighting is when rats actually hurt each other, and often there will be injuries. A rat fight can result in parts of toes, tails, and ears amputated. If you see any blood in a rat tiff, you'll need to separate them as soon as possible. You need to be careful to avoid being bitten accidentally. Splash or spray the fighters with water until they separate to clean themselves. Then reach in and grab the one that's "losing." Move him to another cage or a box to calm down in, and when they've settled, treat their wounds or see a vet for serious injuries.
Wrestling, on the other hand, is very common to all rats. Kittens, or baby rats, play wrestle the most often. Wrestling may involve squeaking even very loud squeaking (don't be alarmed), pouncing, mounting, "boxing" (standing on hind legs and "punching" at each other), chasing, and often a lot of rough cleaning. Adolescents play rougher than young rats. (For females, adolescence is around 3 to 8 months; for males it is 6 to 12 months.) When rats are full adults, play wrestling often tapers off and they spend their time sleeping or engaging in quiet social activities like grooming. Wresting is mostly just a game to rats. They may also do it to settle arguments over dominance or as an outlet for their hormones.
You can use your hand to wrestle with your rats.
Mounting or "mock mating" is seen in both genders, most commonly in adolescents. This behavior is often part of play. It is usually no more than an outlet for hormones. Some suggest it is a display of dominance, but I have not found this to be true. Rats that mount each other seem to have no particular status in the group. In males, mounting behavior lasts usually no more than a couple months. Females may do it for much longer, usually when they come into heat (every five days or so).
This behavior is called "bruxing" and is usually a sign of calmness and happiness, like a cat's purr. Rats also brux when they are frightened or very sick.
Many people think rats lick because of "salt on your finger." That is very seldom the reason rats lick people (though if you do have some food or lotion on your hand, they will lick for the taste). When dogs lick, we call it kissing, but for some reason, people don't usually make this connection in rats... Licking is a social behavior. Rats groom each other to bond with their group. Older rats groom younger ones as a parenting instinct and to show that they are dominant. Younger rats also groom older ones in submission. When rats are wrestling, one that is pinned down will lick the other one in submission and to signal the game is over. Similarly, some rats recognize their owners as the dominant "rat" and will groom you. Maybe it's "love" or acceptance or simply saying they mean you no harm and don't want you to hurt them; but it is certainly more than just "salty hands."
Some rats do this because their teeth are too long, but more often it is out of boredom or nervousness. Bar chewing is extremely annoying to an owner. It is most often seen (along with other neurotic behavior) in rats that live alone. Get you bar chewer a couple cagemates and a lot of toys to curb the behavior. Taking your rat out and holding her more often and for longer every day helps too. Rats may do this when in a new cage, and this will subside when they get used to their home. I also had a rat who would chew his bars to let me know when they were out of food or water or the cage needed cleaned. (Rats come up with creative ways to communicate their needs to their owners.) Another way to stop bar chewing is by covering part of the cage and/or dimming the lights. Rats are more at ease surrounded by solid walls and in the dark.
Rats are night animals and have vision that is different from ours. They are best at seeing contours and contrasting shades and don't see color or depth very well. To see where something is or to recognize it, sometimes rats will sway (this causes the nearby objects to appear to move in front of background objects). Rats do this often when judging a jump or when something interesting or threatening enters a room. Light-eyed rats such as albinos, siamese, and beige rats have poorer eyesight than rats with black eyes, and are seen swaying more often. Rats with dark eyes and fair vision as well as completely blind rats do not sway.
Rats urinate when afraid. When you pick up a new or scared rat, chances are, he'll leave a puddle on you. With handling and time, the rat will start to trust you and may stop urinating on you. Rats also may leave a trail of urine drops when walking on certain surfaces (often your arms and legs). This is a territory marking behavior. You can discourage this by not allowing your rat to walk on things he habitually marks.
Unlike some other rodents, rats do not bite frequently or for trivial things like being waken or just grouchy. Rats are among the least nippy small pets there are. In addition, a rat bite is generally gentler and less likely to hurt as much as a gerbil or hamster bite. Here are the things that could cause a rat to nip, and if you ever are bit, you can assess your rats behavior and do what is needed to correct it.
fear: Rats that have never been held or have been raised in a stressful environment may be very afraid of people. They may run from you and nip if cornered. Other things that may cause such extreme fear are if the rat has been in a fight or they smell a predator. Rats that are handled often and trust people are not likely to bite out of fear.
Another thing that scares rats is gloves, socks, bandaids, and anything else that covers your hands or feet. Rats recognize you by smell and texture, and these things throw them off and trigger attacks. Never wear any of these things when your rats can contact them. Even the most gentle and well-trained rat will bit HARD when confronted with glove beasts and sock monsters.
mistake: Rats need to learn to lick fingers and distinguish them from treats. If your hands smell like food or lotion, your rat may bite thinking it is a treat. Over time, rats learn to lick you rather than bite. A rat may also miss the mark when being offered a treat and get you instead. Try offering only large treats and not through the bars of their cage.
"teasing": People who are afraid of rats are likely to get bit by being too cautious. You can pet rats through their cage bars, but if you hesitate and don't put your fingers all the way in, your rat may grab your finger with her mouth to pull you in. A frightened person would try to pull away, causing the rat to clamp down harder. Do not hesitate with your pets, and if they do bite you, allow them to realize their mistake. Don't yell or pull away.
pain: Rats is severe pain from an injury will bite if you touch where they are tender (many won't bite but rather make puffing sounds or squeak).
aggression: Aggressive rats are rare and are usually male. They may bite simply out of dominance or when you smell like another male. Neutering may correct the problem.
motherly protection: When rats are pregnant or have litters, they may defend them even from you. Do not worry too much if a mother rat becomes "mean" when she has her litter. She is following natural instincts. Leave her alone until she feels comfortable with your hand in the cage.
play: Rats nip very gently in play. They do not hurt at all or mean to. If you like to wrestle or play with your rats, don't be surprised if she nips some.
Pet rats are not generally wild or nervous animals. They are domesticated from centuries of breeding. Even rats that have seldom been held are likely to have enough trust of humans to make good pets with little effort. However, like any animal, a rat that grew up in a stressful environment (a noisy pet store or shelter) or felt abuse or neglect on the part of human hands (held by their tails or just picked up general tenseness from people who are frightened of them) may be skittish or even nippy, and many rats are shy when they first come to their new home, regardless of their experiences. (Rats from reputable breeders are usually very calm and friendly from day one, because they have been handled lovingly from birth.) In a new environment, rats need to get comfortable and make it "home." Remember, your pets have the instincts of a prey animal, and getting them to trust a large animal, a potential predator, is something you will have to work at. Here are some tips to gaining your rats' trust:
1. Bring her home with a rat friend. A small animal alone is going to be very afraid. Rats feel safety in numbers. She will be far more likely to explore her new home and you is she has a friend to explore with.
2. Don't force anything. Do not deliberately pull your rat from her cage, pick her up, or chase her to a corner to pet her. Wait until she comes to you. Hold your hand in her cage and let her investigate. Put some sunflower seeds, cereal, or other treats on your flat palm. Pet her no more than she feels comfortable with. Leave her cage open while you are there and allow her to choose if she wants to come out. (If she does, give her a treat.)
3. Treats are key. Rats will trust you when they figure out that you provide them yummy food and do not intend to hurt them. Give them treats whenever you talk to them. (Use healthy treats!) While they are eating, pet them gently if they allow you.
4. Keep cats, dogs, ferrets, and even other small animals if you can, away from the room where your new rat is. She can smell the other animals, and the smell of competition or a predator can make even very tame rats nervous.
5. Play in the dark. Rats are more comfortable in the dark. That is when reptiles are asleep. ;) When you bring her out to play, dim the lights and throw a blanket over you. In the small "burrow" and dim light, your rat will be more at ease.
6. Do not make sudden movements or loud noises. Predators strike suddenly, so if you move fast, you will be, in their eyes, attacking them. Rats don't see very well, so take care not to startle them. If she nips you whether on accident or out of fear, do not jerk your hand away or make a loud noise. If she is holding onto your hand, pet her and make clicking noises or something until she lets go. Talk to her gently. After she calms down or backs away, give her a treat.
7. After she is used to her cage and lets you hold her without panicking, be with her as much as possible. Let her play under a cover on the couch while you watch TV (put a sheet over top of the couch too, to catch any accidents and prevent her from crawling between the cushions). Carry her on your shoulder while you do chores. Keep her cage in a room where you are a lot but doesn't have too much activity or traffic. Talk to her whenever you pass the cage.
There are few things any owner should know about training rats. Rats are quite good at problem solving and very food motivated. This combination makes them good candidates for training, but you need to understand that you cannot teach any animal a foreign behavior; you can only work with their natural behaviors. Also, training a rat is different from training a dog, because rats' think and respond differently than dogs and cats.
NEVER use any kind of negative training like yelling or physically chastising with even a gentle flick. Dogs and cats can sometimes be disciplined this way because cat and dog mothers use growling and swatting to discipline offspring. Rats do not have this in their social vocabulary. They are natural prey to so many animals that any unpleasant sound or touch doesn't signal that they did anything wrong, it means they are in danger and should hide or protect themselves. Chastising a rat will do nothing more than make him afraid of you and possibly cause him to start biting people or running away when approached. (Double sided tape or a spray bottle can dissuade animals from going to dangerous places and bitter apple spray can discourage chewing. Rats will not associate this things with their owner or any kind of violence.)
When training a rat, remember also that they do not make loose associations. A dog, for example, will be trained to come by calling for him. When he comes, he gets a reward. Rats don't think this way. The treat cannot be used as a "reward" but rather as the whole reason they come. (As you work with them, they will begin coming for other reasons such as attention or protection.) Any trick they perform is to get a treat. You can show a rat that a lever releases a treat, and he will start using that lever. You cannot give him a treat after he does it. He needs to feel he is getting the treat on his own accord, not being rewarded by getting a treat.
Here are some simple things any pet owner can/should train their rat to do:
Litterbox Training: Rats tend to designate a "potty place" in their home. They will do this with no coaxing at all. Litterbox training is simply a matter of convincing them to choose a particular potty place of your own design. It's more a matter of understanding them than actually teaching them. Rats choose a corner as a bathroom spot, sometimes a few corners. Their bathroom spot is usually located opposite their feeding area. (I've known rats to take seeds to the litterbox to eat, so the litterbox serves a function as the general garbage/waste pile.) For these reasons, get a litterbox that fits into a corner (ones made for ferrets are excellent), and put it where the rats usually do their business. You should put litter on the cage floor anyway because rats may urinate anywhere within their cage, and odor/moisture control is essential. Check the cage a few times daily to see what they are using the litterbox for. If it is in a higher level of the cage, rats may see it as a comfortable sleeping spot. Wherever it is, if the rats sleep in it, first get them something more appealing to sleep in (a soft bed or hammock) in the spot where the litterbox was; then move the litterbox to a different corner. Everyday, pick up any stray rat raisins and put them in the litterbox. Soon the rats will get used to their designated potty spot and may use it to dispose of seed hulls and soiled bedding too.
Coming on Command: Rats come to where the food is. This is one of the basic rules of rats. ;) If you teach them that a certain sound means you are giving out their favorite treats, they will come to you. Here is a good way to go about training. Take the rat or rats out in a secure and small room, such as the bathroom or anywhere you can retrieve them and not lose them behind furniture. When they walk on you (even accidentally), say their names, pet them, and give them treats (good treats for training are small pet yogurt treats or some kind or cooked noodles). This helps them build a bond with you, learn their names, and want to come to you even without being called! Then start calling their names to get their attention from across the room. Being curious animals, they may come to investigate the "noise" (unless they are into something more interesting). When they do, give them treats and pet them. Another helpful thing to do any time you are in treat giving mode, whether the rats are inside or outside the cage, is to shake the box (or a box with some kind of kibble in it) to get everyone's attention before giving treats. A box shake is loud and distinct, and if a rat ever escapes or gets lost, you can at least get some response from him with it (allowing you to find out where he is hiding). This "trick" is really essential for any rat owner. Their ability and consistency in being easily recovered if they get out are one of a rat's greatest advantages over other small pets.
Off Limits: Rats can be kept away from dangerous places by putting some weak double sided tape (like scotch tape) around these areas (like pots of plants or a desk). Finicky animals, rats do not like walking in sticky things. A bitter spray from a pet store can be applied to cloth to prevent rats from chewing it. Wires are very hazardous though. Make sure they are out of reach and/or cover them with thick plastic tubing to prevent injury to your pets, and damage to your wires.
The Safe House: Another basic rule of rats is to always return to the safety of your home. If he is able, a rat will always return to his cage after he is done "adventuring." (Rats get so attached to their homes, that it becomes stressful to get them a new cage or owner.) What if he CAN'T return, either because he's afraid of being in the open to get there, he is on vacation with you, the opening is out of reach, or it is closed off? I came up with this solution after observing (very happily, I might add) one of my rats who had escaped an outside play pen had actually run to and hid in an empty nest box that was outside to be cleaned! So, here's the suggestion (tried and true, actually): Have a couple of nest boxes for your rats' cage, and alternate them now and then. Put the one they are not using (but they know well and it has their scent) on the floor in a secluded and quiet corner of the room they are in (near their cage if possible), and fill it with familiar (not dirty) bedding and some dry food (maybe some water nearby if you are going away for a couple days). The nest box should be easy to retrieve them from but hard for any larger animals to access. Take your rats out to run around under supervision and make sure they see where the nest box is. Hopefully they will go inside of it while you are watching. (Do this from time to time so they don't forget.) If they ever find themselves unable to get to their cage, they will go to the next box. Take this box with you if you take your pets on vacation or to a show, so they will be less stressed and anxious.