A Basic Guide to Socializing Rats by Positive Reinforcement
Adult and juvenile rats end up in rescue for many reasons. Some have behaviour problems, especially biting. These issues can arise from excess male hormones (superdominance), lack of handling as babies (fear), or acquired bad habits (biting to get a desired result).
Using a simple, structured approach, you can form a new social bond of trust with your rescue rat.
You can't explain things to a rat, so you must show the rat you can be his friend.
The rules aren't complicated, but to get results, you need to stick to them. Consistency is essential. (If there are children in your home, an adult should do the socialization procedure.)
Patience is essential too. This process takes time - but it builds a special close bond with your new friend!
It's a richly rewarding experience.
In his or her new home, the rescue rat is placed in a small, quiet, secure, uninteresting cage – in other words, a safe but boring cage. The rat needs one private area he can retreat to (for example, a cardboard box). Apart from that, the cage should be unfurnished. You can't get hold of a scared rat if the cage is full of stuff.
Let him settle in for a couple of days, without trying to handle him. Talk to him a lot, so that he learns your voice. Call him and gently rattle the food in its container, each time you feed him. He gets his regular bland food (plain chow or lab blocks) - but no treats!
Never feed the rat through the cage bars. (Feeding through the bars is a great way to teach him to snap at fingers!)
If the rat is a male and in good health, neutering should be done after about one week in his new home. With aggressive rescue males, neutering is a key step. Aggression levels will gradually subside during the month following the operation. Neutering makes integration with other rats less difficult, and it facilitates taming. (See below for more comments on neutering.)
After a few days, begin handling the rat.
Your problem rat may be a biter. Use a small towel to pick him up. The towel saves your hands, and also frightens the rat less than your hands do. As a rule the rat will not bite the towel.
Never use gloves. They only blunt your sense of touch and tempt you to squeeze too hard. Also they do not enclose the rat reassuringly the way a towel does.
Try to avoid invading the rat's private box. Wait for a moment when he's come out of his box of his own accord. (By now he may come out when you rattle his food container.) Reach in with the towel. Using the towel, gently block him from running back into his box. Be gentle but firm. Don't rush, but try not to let him get clean away - he needs to learn that it doesn't do any good to fight handling. Gradually confine him in the towel (use the corners of the cage) and pick him up in it.
Talk softly to him throughout. (It doesn't matter to the rat what you say, but repetition of positive comments, "Good boy, lovely ratty, what a beautiful girl, isn't this nice" etc. will calm you and improve your own mood and tone of voice.)
Hold the rat in your arms, partly confined in the towel. Walk slowly around for a brief time - less than a minute. Keep it brief because the rat will not enjoy the experience at first. In fact he may act like he is on hot coals! Don't worry, just gently confine him and walk around a bit. During this time, begin gently "scritching" (imitation grooming) the rat's neck and shoulders – if he is a biter, do it from behind with the rat facing away from your hand. Holding him in the towel in your arms allows him to feel relatively secure. A rat is a burrowing animal, and when it's frightened, it instinctively wants to feel its body is enclosed as much as possible.
Keep talking to him!
Don't let anything frighten him while you are holding him. No loud noises, no cats, no dogs, etc.
At the end of each short handling session, offer him a treat. At first he'll be too frightened to take it. This is normal. Place the rat and the treat back in the cage together. Draw the rat's attention to the treat. He'll eat it soon enough. Later, as he gains confidence, he'll take the treat sooner.
Repeat the above steps as often as possible – many times a day! Go through them every time you pass the rat's cage. Keep it simple and consistent. You're earning the rat's trust.
Treats, social grooming, and a change of scene – these are the rat's rewards for accepting handling.
The time required for progress varies with the individual rat, so play it by ear. Don't rush things.
After several days, most rats will become more accustomed to handling. Start walking around for longer periods with the rat in your arms. Go into different rooms. The rat is learning that people bring him nice things: treats, scritches, company, and interesting changes of scene. People are more fun than his boring cage.
When the rat accepts handling well, move to the next step. Sit with him in a safe chair. Let him explore you and the chair. Give treats and scritches frequently throughout the session. Scritches are as important as treats – especially for single rats. Rats have a strong instinctive need for social grooming. Repeat frequently. If the rat becomes too frightened, go back to the earlier stage.
When trust is well established, you can start introducing your new rescue to other rats in a neutral area. Introductions are another topic that can't be properly covered here. I will only mention a few points. Squabbling and minor cuts are normal at first. Serious fighting may also occur, and for that reason the rats must be supervised very closely until they are well integrated. Keep a thick towel or cushion handy and use it to separate fighting rats. Intact rats (not desexed) are more likely to have serious fights.
Some more things to remember during the socialization period
Don't give the rat treats or liberty "for free".
This is really important. Until handling is well accepted, treats should only be given during handling, and no free running should be allowed.
Let the rat feel as secure as possible.
For example - carrying an unsocialized rat on your shoulder is not constructive. This is a very exposed, insecure place for an untamed rat. And this is not teaching him to accept being held.
Why all this talking to the rat? Here's why:
Despite their prominent eyes, rats have very poor vision compared to ours. A rat can see almost the whole room at once (including behind and above her) but she can't really "look" at specific things like we can. Rats get comparatively little information from their eyes and can't be expected to recognize people by sight. To a rat's eyes, you're just a giant looming Thing. But she has excellent hearing, and she'll quickly learn to recognize you by your voice. It's all part of building trust.
The role of neutering
Neutering removes the source of male hormones, which create heightened aggression and superdominance in some adult males. The change doesn't happen overnight. But normally, after a couple of weeks, a noticeable change in the rat's responses can be seen. After a month the difference is dramatic. A formerly tense, excitable, hair-trigger male becomes happy and relaxed.
Neutering doesn't remove all aggression, but it greatly reduces it.
Together with socialization, neutering is a key component of rescue rat welfare. Combined with the socialization method described above, neutering can potentially transform even savage adult males - rats who attack the human hand - into peaceful, friendly, delightful pets. I have personally seen this happen.
Another advantage is that neutered male and female rescues can be kept together in compatible groups.
Spaying doesn't reduce female aggression so dramatically - but it can help and it gives excellent protection against mammary tumors, which unfortunately are very common in rats.
Little Mischief Rescue
Updated November 11, 2005
Note from Lizzy: Susan's article is aimed more at socializing adult rescue rats, as that is her area of expertise, however the same methods can be used on any poorly socialized rat. When working with babies, I would not advocate isolation, and neither does Susan. Babies should always be kept in same aged, same sexed pairs as a bare minimum. Susan's methods have been used successfully to socialize babies housed in groups. Also it is best to wait until they are 3 to 4 months old, before spaying or neutering your babies.
Lizzy O Sullivan
New Westminster BC
SITH Rattery and Little Mischief Rescue
Updated November 2007
A previously written article on Susan's rat socializing technique
More tips for working with poorly socialized rats
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