Are you concerned that your rat isn’t looking quite as perky as usual? Are you worried that they might be sad or depressed and wondering how you can tell or how you can help them if they are? Well, we can help you identify when a rat is depressed and how to get them out of their funk too.
The 5 signs of a depressed rat are that they stop playing, they go off their food, they show symptoms of restlessness and/or anxiety, they become violent either with other rats or with you, and finally, their health starts to deteriorate.
Try not to worry too much – in the majority of cases, a rat’s depression is a temporary thing and they will quickly bounce back, particularly with a little help from you. So, we’ll show you how to tackle each symptom of depression plus the main causes of depression in rats too.
How To Know If A Rat Is Unhappy
Working out whether a rat is unhappy is not as complicated as it might sound. You see rats and human beings might look quite different to each other, but they are incredibly similar in their emotional behaviors.
That means rat depression looks a lot like human depression and if you keep a close eye on your rats, it can be very easy to spot the signs. So, let’s take a look at the 5 signs of a depressed rat which are:
- A loss of playfulness
- They no longer want to eat much
- They appear to be restless and/or anxious
- They start to attack each other or you
- Their health starts to spiral downwards
The 5 Signs Of A Depressed Rat
They Don’t Want To Play
Play is a huge part of rat’s life as an intelligent, social creatures – they love to run around, climb things and explore their environment. Rats with friends will also play wrestle with each other, rather like human siblings do when they’re young.
Possibly the first indication of a rat falling into depression is that they withdraw from play, they turn inward and start to spend time by themselves with no interest in their usual activities.
You shouldn’t panic if a rat stops playing for a while, after all, we all go through mood swings, but it is a warning sign that things might be about to get worse for your rodent chum.
Of course, rats can only play if they have the facilities to do so and you need to provide your rats with adequate space to play in and enough interesting items to interact with for it to feel fun, for some tips try reading one of our other articles ”How to Set Up a Pet Rat Cage: The Ultimate Guide”. Otherwise, your rat might not be sad at all; they might just be bored with the dull environment around them.
If you think that they might be bored, change things up, get a bigger cage, take them out more and buy them some toys. You’ll quickly see a difference in their behavior. We wrote another article about tips to entertain your pet rats, you can read it here.
They Go Off Their Food
More worrying, however, is when your rat goes off their food because this can seriously impact on their health. Human beings go off their food sometimes when they’re sad, but they can weather it better than a rat which is smaller and often carries much less spare weight than a rat does.
Rats are always motivated by food when they are happy and healthy. So, you know that something is seriously wrong when they won’t eat. However, if there are no other signs of sadness/depression, you might want to get your rat checked out by a vet, it’s entirely possible that they are sick and this is stopping them from eating.
If your rat isn’t eating at all or isn’t eating much and isn’t sick, then you need to coach them back into the habit because even a couple of days without food can cause drastic weight loss for your rat.
So, take some of their favorite treats (which probably aren’t very good for them under normal circumstances) and see if you can persuade them to eat those. Then feed them treats for a couple of days and then slowly start cutting back on treats and give them access to ordinary food again to try and get them eating a healthier diet again.
They Become Restless Or Anxious
In human beings, anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand and it should come as no real surprise that this is true of rats too. Now, it’s harder to spot anxiety in a rat than it is in human beings (mainly because humans can tell you about their anxiety rather than because they have visible symptoms).
However, you should be able to spot some of the classic behaviors without too much trouble. They may also start to “chew” but not on food but rather on the cage bars in a near constant fashion. You might liken this to how an anxious person bites their own nails, for example.
You can’t directly treat anxiety in a rat, but you can help to distract them, so that they forget about their nervous energy for a while. Give them other stuff to chew on or to play with and take them out of the cage when they seem particularly frustrated and let them run about for a bit.
They Become Aggressive
When people get sad, they can also get angry and when they get angry, it’s quite common for them to take that anger out on the people that they love the most and the ones they are closest to in physical proximity.
Rats are just like us in that respect. The depressed rat finds him(or her)self filled with inexplicable rage and no real understanding of what to do about it – after all, your rat can’t seek out a psychotherapist to work things through with, which is probably a good thing for your wallet as vets are expensive enough already.
This can lead to them bullying other rats in their proximity or even lashing out at you. The best way to tackle this is with love. Extra cuddles, strokes, etc. and gentle talks in a soft reassuring tone.
Please don’t feel like you’ve failed if your rat shrugs off these efforts, people do this too when they’re angry. You just need to let them work through their emotions a bit more and then come back to them.
If you’re concerned about the health of other rats in their proximity, you can as a very last resort isolate them, but this is likely to lead to more depression.
Their Health Noticeably Declines
In most cases, rats are incredibly resilient and a bit of depression is something that they will bounce back from in short order but just like in people, as rats get older they can find it much harder to take an emotional knock than they once did.
This can lead to their health rapidly declining in their shocked emotional state. They may start to barber (that is pull out chunks of their own fur) and they may start to look dirty and unkempt and not the rat that they once were.
Sadly, at this stage – there’s not much you can do except hope that they bounce back, some will, and some won’t. You can try taking your rat to the vet for depression but there are no magical Prozac equivalents for rodents, and they are unlikely to be able to help your rat come back to their normal cheerful self.
The Main Cause Of Rat Depression And What To Do About It: The Loss Of A Friend
Rats are not, generally speaking, given to fits of depression, possibly because (as yet, at least) they don’t have access to Facebook and are thus, already leading their best lives.
However, there is one event which can cause a rat to spiral rapidly into depression and it’s something that you can’t do very much about – and that’s the death of a rat that they have long been bonded with.
When a rat loses another rat that it is close to, it can descend into severe loneliness. That loneliness can lead directly to depression. Now, loneliness can’t kill a rat but the impact of being depressed can.
How To Help Your Rat Through Loneliness After A Friend Dies
If you have more than two rats, it’s unlikely that a rat will be stricken with loneliness when a friend dies but if there are only two of them – it’s almost certain that when one dies, the other will fall into a deep grieving process.
Now, it’s not known if rats can understand that their friend has died. What is known is that rats can understand that their friend is missing, and this is every bit as distressing to a rat as the death of a friend might be to a human being.
So, the first thing you can do to help them come to terms with the death of a friend is to place the body of the dead rat in the cage for a while and let the living one inspect it. They will come and check on their friend and then they will try to see if it is breathing when it doesn’t react.
The process of checking can go on for some time but eventually – the rat will understand that their friend has passed away and at this point, they will stop bothering the body and you can remove it from the cage.
At this point, the rats will definitely begin to grieve rather than worry about a missing rat, they will benefit from being cuddled by their human (that’s you) and will appreciate any little treats you can lay on them.
What To Do When A Rat Dies
If your rat is expressing some or all of the 5 symptoms of depression following the loss of a friend, it’s a pretty good bet that your pat ret is sad over the loss.
You, on other hand, need to dispose of the dead rat (you can get a vet to dispose of the body hygienically, but you are free to bury them at home too).
You should think about your own sense of loss and give yourself some time to grieve too, but don’t neglect your living rats. So, that they can come to terms with this loss too and after you have worked through our tips above to address your rat’s depression – you can then think about introducing a new rat to help them be less lonely.
How To Introduce Another Rat For Companionship For The Lonely Rat
Introducing a new rat is challenging and must be done with some real care for both rats in the equation. If you do this right, you will help your rat come to terms with its loss and provide it with some company, if you do it right – they may end up fighting and become even more miserable.
Firstly, it’s important to choose a rat of the same gender. So, if your remaining rat is a little girl – you want to buy a girl rat to keep it company.
Secondly, if the surviving rat is an older rat, it’s a good idea to buy two companion rats not one. That’s so that you won’t have to go through the grieving process again in the next few months.
As social animals, rats enjoy being around other rats in groups – so more than one rat is not going to be problematic.
You should gently introduce your rats and ensure that you keep an eye on them during the getting to know each other phase. You want to keep the fighting to a minimum, but some fighting is natural as they establish a pecking order in their cage.
If you can’t get another rat for any reason, then you will need to give your remaining rat even more of your attention until it passes away as only you can relieve its loneliness.
The Other Likely Causes Of Rat Depression And What To Do About Them
The other main causes of rat depression are fairly obvious and easy to treat:
- Lack of stimuli. If your rat isn’t playing, it’s not having fun and will be sad. Make sure it has toys, etc. to play with.
- Stress. Your rats can get just as stressed as you can with too much light, too much noise, etc. if you think your rats are getting stressed into depression, you need to try and remove the source of stress.
- Bullying/fighting. Rats can be bullies just like people and while they tend to eventually settle down, there can be quite a lot of bullying early in the relationship. Don’t be afraid to break things up if they look like they’re getting out of hand.
- Sickness. sick rats. If you really can’t identify any other possible cause of the depression – it might be time to get the vet in, they can’t treat depression, but they can treat any underlying illness.
The 5 signs of a depressed rat are that they go off their food, that they become violent (either with each other or with you), that they stop playing, that they show signs of being anxious or restless and finally, they can find their health going downhill and sometimes, very rapidly.
You can help your rats tackle depression with some very simple actions as we’ve already seen and if your rat has lost a loved one, introducing a new friend can really help improve their mood.
However, it is worth noting that sometimes a rat simply cannot be consoled and not even a vet can help with their sadness. You should not blame yourself for this, it isn’t common but it’s not unusual either.