Rats that bite
In general, pet rats don’t bite but those who do deserve a loving home as much as any other, and in many cases with the right approach, handling and an understanding of their body language and triggers, the biting can be much reduced or stopped altogether. As owners we first need to establish why a rat is biting. There may be a combination of factors involved.
Is your rat biting?
Rats use their teeth for grooming, nibbling, and nipping as well as biting. There's some difference between all of these behaviours. Lots of rats will groom and nibble their owners and cagemates. This shouldn't hurt at all, although sometimes a rat may get over zealous. A sharp 'EEK' sound should deter them. Making this sound also helps deter an over enthusiastic rat that nips during play.
Some rats may be territorial regarding their cage and nip at hands, cloths etc. while you are spot cleaning, interacting with them or even just putting the food bowl into the cage. They do not bite anyone outside their cage, only someone who infringes on their territory by putting their fingers through the bars, or their hand through the door. Territorial biting does not necessarily make the rat dangerous (as long as you follow basic rules, like not sticking your fingers through the bars), neither does it mean that the rat in question can't have a long and fulfilled life (he or she may be perfectly happy with cage mates and perfectly happy during free range). As an owner, you can do a lot to help your rat feel less territorial. If he is male castration might help him feel more comfortable (see below). Otherwise, make sure your cage has very easy access so that you can continue to work within the cage whist respecting his/her personal space. This will also make it easier to lift the rat out of the cage when necessary, without getting bitten, but as a general rule territorial rats are best left to come out of the cage themselves, and then picked up once out, or alternatively lifted out of the cage inside a tube or igloo.
Biting through fear
Rats may bite out of fear. A well-socialised regularly handled rat is highly unlikely to bite compared to a solitary un-handled rat. (See taming article for advice). Some rats are far more nervous than others, and can show obvious distress at being handled after only a very short time.
Exceptionally nervous rats should have their handling time gradually increased - a little amount of handling but several times a day. If they are particularly nervous you will need to make sure they don't associate your visits with just being handled: on one visit to the cage handle them, on the next give them a treat, on the next just have your hand in etc. If you do have nervous rats, it may be worth considering (temporarily) not giving them a covered bed or bolt-hole in their cage: this may seem a bit harsh but it will be less stressful for everyone if you don't have to chase them round the cage or pull them out of a hidey-hole! Carrying a rat around in a soft pouch, hung around your neck, or hooded top worn back to front will also allow them to increase in confidence whilst not experiencing 'hands-on' all of the time.
Managing adult rats who bite can be quite daunting, but rats are sensitive little creatures and will pick up on your fear. Try and remain calm and confident when handling them. It should be possible to reduce the chances of being bitten by paying close attention to your rat's body language.
Thick gardening gloves can be worn to minimise the risk of damage to fingers, but these do tend to make your movements clumsy and don't allow the rat to get used to the touch of your hands. Some people use a thick towel to scoop or catch the rat in. You have to decide whether this will stress the rat out and undo all your hard work of trust training, or whether you should ignore the handling aspect of socialising your rat until it feels safe in your company and is used to you lightly touching or brushing it with your fingers or a soft paint brush. There is no need to feel rushed in your socialisation and trust training of your new rat - each rat is different and each will take their own time to 'come round' to your way of thinking!
If your rat has become a biter, you need to figure out what’s behind the change in behaviour. Has anything else in the cage/house changed that might be having an influence eg new rats, a new pet of a different species, new cage, or is your rat unwell. Rats may bite when in pain.
Males sometimes suffer from hormonal aggression. This normally makes itself evident between six and nine months of age and your placid, friendly lad might begin fighting with cagemates and trying to exert his dominance over them. Occasionally this will spill over and he will become aggressive when handled too. Neutering can be a very successful way of dealing with this, and the majority of boys revert back to their lovable selves within a few weeks of being neutered. If you are unsure about putting your rat through surgery, then you can discuss the options with your vet.
Being naturally sociable animals living alone can also exacerbate biting tendencies, it is very rare for a rat to just be aggressive and unhandleable with no hope of character redemption, but any rat that exhibits outward unprovoked aggression should never be bred from because these traits often have an underlying genetic cause.
Author: Sarah Lea
Articles relating to rat behaviour
1 post • Page 1 of 1