Pet Rat Handling
For the first time rat owner, the best way to handle pet rats comes into question. Generally it's very easy to pick up, especially if you buy your rats from a reputable rat breeder, but there are a couple of things you can do to make your rat feel safe. Pictured below is a photo of Steph holding her rats Cornwallis and Yin whilst they enjoy a cheerio each. (: Photo courtesy of Stephanie Hughes.
Things you should do when handling pet rats:
- Use two hands when you pick your rat up. The best way to pick your rat up is to grasp them around the shoulders (just behind the front legs) with one hand, and under the tummy/back legs with the other hand.
- Hold your rat close to your body. Rats are natural "wall huggers" and feel a lot safer and less stressed when held close to your body, preferably resting on your arm rather than your hands.
- Put ratty on your shoulder. Rats love shoulder rides! They especially love entangling themselves in long hair. Just make sure you wear clothes that are covering your shoulders to protect oneself from ratty claws, and prepare to be tickled by investigating whiskers (it feels really weird!).
- Let ratty investigate your sleeves, pockets, tshirt or a blanket. Going back to the wall hugger reference, rats love exploring underneath things. All things. They're great at it. If it makes you feel uncomfortable having them under your clothes, a delegated rat blanket on your lap can do the trick.
- Let ratty free range in a safe area. Rats are curious in nature and so love to explore. Let your rats run in a safe area, such as on a table, lounge, or a "rat-proofed" room. When rat proofing your room make sure there are no holes they can get into such as underneath or behind cupboards, ovens, fridges, lounges, tv stands, anything. Make sure there are no wires lying about that they can chew and no access to other larger, scarier pets. Often a bathroom can make a good rat free range area. Keep in mind that adventurous rats (especially girl rats) will learn how to jump off of lounges or tables after they get used to the area so always supervise.
Things you shouldn't do when handling pet rats:
- Pick ratty up by the tail. A rat's tail is actually an extension of it's spine. Obviously this is painful for the rat and can cause injury. Rats can bite if they are in pain or feel threatened, so just pick them up the safe way.
- Hold the rat away from your body in your hands. What you'll often find when you do this is that the rat becomes increasingly nervous and squirmy. Hold your rat close to your body, preferably on your arms, so that they feel safe.
Will my rat bite me?
Unlike other small pets it is very rare that a rat will bite you, especially when they are purchased from a reputable rat breeder. Rats will generally only bite you for the following reasons:
- If the bite is really mild, it could be play biting or grooming behaviour. Sometimes your rat might give you a nip whilst hand wrestling, or nibble/lick on your fingers whilst grooming. This is normal behaviour and nothing to worry about, however these types of bites should never draw blood. Very occasionally a rat might get a bit rough whilst playing, if this bothers you it's probably best not to hand wrestle with this particular rat.
- If ratty mistakes your hands for food. Often this doesn't draw blood and the rat will let go when they realize what has happened. This often happens when rats are fed through the cage bars, so try to avoid this behaviour. Another way to avoid this happening is to feed your rats soft food (jam, creamed cheese, strawberry syrup, yogurt) from your fingers at a young age - this way they will lick before they snatch.
- If you interfere in a rat fight. This one is basically common sense. Just like you wouldn't pull apart a dog fight, or a horse fight, you shouldn't pull apart a rat fight with your bare hands. It's rare that rats will get into fights with each other, but if you do know you have an aggressive rat, make sure you have a towel or box on hand to separate a fight.
- If the rat is very threatened, surprised, or in pain. Usually this kind of bite happens when someone grabs their rat by the tail. If you're concerned that your rat is in pain it's best to get them checked by a vet.
- If the rat is pregnant or nursing. This is called maternal aggression, and usually once the bubs grow up the mother returns back to her original self.
As you can see from the above, generally rat bites are all for a justified reason. If your rat is randomly biting you with no warning signs this is quite rare and there is something wrong with this particular rat. If the rat is an unaltered male, sometimes neutering him can help calm him down (wait at least 4 weeks before expecting a change). If your rat is unusually shy or frightened of humans sometimes trust training can help. If this isn't an option for you (if you have children, don't have the experience, or don't have enough time) perhaps trying to rehome the rat with a reputable breeder or rescue would be a good idea. In some cases euthanasia may be necessary. If you need advice on what to do with a biting rat, feel free to contact me.
Rat bite fever?
Rat bite fever is a rare occurrence. Having owned rats for over 10 years, being scratched and bitten plenty a time, I haven't had this problem or heard of it happen to anyone around me. If you are concerned about this, the following article can provide you with more information: http://www.ratfanclub.org/fever.html
Some tips for shy or nervous rats
When rats are purchased from a reputable breeder usually they are friendly, playful and love cuddles right off the bat. Pet rat breeders will select from friendly parents and handle their babies from birth to ensure that you take home friendly pets. But sometimes when you buy a rat from a pet store or other situation they might not be as friendly as expected. This can be combated by lots of handling and trust training. If you need extra help with this feel free to contact me and I can give you some tips for your particular case. Below are some tips to get you started.
- Give them some time. If your rat is particularly nervous, perhaps leave them in their cage for a few days before trying to play with them. Difficult, I know, but it will help them get used to the smells and sounds of their new home.
- Talk to your rats outside the cage. If you chat to your ratties they may get used to your voice, making it less intrusive when you do decide to handle them.
- Give your ratties treats. Creamed cheese or yogurt to lick from your fingers can make a good rat treats and help them to trust you. Only do this if your rats are young and won't "snatch" treats.
- Use proper handling techniques. Use the tips at the top of this page when handling your rats, this will help them feel safe.
- Throw your rats under a blanket with you. This one works for me every time. Rats feel really safe underneath a blanket. They'll start exploring and getting to know you, building their confidence. Eventually you can move on to letting them explore your sleeves or pockets, and eventually they'll be confident enough to explore without the cover.
- Patience and persistance. Just keep handling them regularly, once a day at minimum, and they will grow on you. Sometimes it may take a few weeks, but you should notice the gradual change.
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