Thinking of getting a pet rat (or ideally, rats)? But worried that they might not be able to be as affectionate as a cat or a dog? We don’t think that you’ve got very much to worry about in this respect. We’ve taken a long, hard look at whether rats are affectionate, and we’ve got some good news for you. This is what we’ve learned.
Rat owners are absolutely positive that their pets show affection and many other desirable traits too. Rats are social creatures and while the human in their lives might not be “another rat”, the evidence is pretty clear that they come to appreciate and enjoy the company of their humans too.
Let’s take a closer look at that.
Rats Are Social Animals
For a long time, it was believed that rats weren’t very social animals. Research that dates back as early as 1957, seemed to suggest that rats weren’t keen on each other and that fighting was a regular part of rat life.
In an experiment run by SA Barnett in 1957, though the research wasn’t published until 1958, the implication seemed to be that while rats could be, to some limited extent, social within their own groups – to introduce another rat, particularly a male rat, would be fatal.
Yet, the most recent research paints a very different picture, indeed. In a 2019, research piece published in Canadian Psychology, Mogil found that rats were capable of many social behaviors once thought to be the sole domain of human beings including metacognition, empathy, and yes, even personality.
The researcher acknowledges the risks of this being interpreted as anthropomorphism but still notes that the evidence suggests that rats display these behaviors all the same.
In a book, “The Cambridge Handbook of Animal Cognition” published this year, 2020, on Cambridge University Press MK Schweinfurth describes how rats are capable of another social behavior once thought to be the sole preserve of humans – reciprocity!
Yes, a rat is able to feel gratitude for being given something and to feel the burden of obligation to repay that debt. That sounds very social to us.
Side Note: Anthropomorphism
The big question when it comes to the sociability of animals is whether or not we are indulging in anthropomorphism?
Anthropomorphism is the idea that we are attributing a human characteristic to an animal without the animal really having that characteristic.
It is, of course, impossible for us to interview a rat or a dog or a dolphin, for that matter, and thus, it is possible that we are seeing a behavior and then translating it through our own lens of experience to perceive that behavior as “human-like” when, in fact, it is not.
The trouble with the idea of anthropomorphism is that it can neither be proven nor disproven. Unless we one day develop the capability to converse with animals (and this seems highly unlikely from our 21st century vantage point) we will never be able to find out from the “horse’s mouth” as it were.
This, probably, doesn’t matter as much as many people think it does, either – the human experience is the only one we have. When we receive what we feel is affection from an animal, does it matter if the animal’s motive is not exactly the one we perceive?
Would it make us feel any less loved if it did? We suspect that the answer here is a categoric “no”. So, while we appreciate the arguments of anthropomorphism, we don’t feel that they’re an important part of the argument on the sociability of rats either.
But Are Rats Sociable And Affectionate With Human Beings?
It’s all well and good for us to say that rats are social with each other. And while we might wonder why early research showed rats to be anti-social and recent research shows the opposite? (We shouldn’t – it was all in the experimental design; the early experiments were almost all designed in a way to make the rats involved live an artificial and unnatural life – you’d be mad about that too and less than sociable if you were forced to live it).
It’s not particularly relevant to the question as to whether rats will be affectionate to their owners.
Happy Rats Are Social Rats
Firstly, we think it’s necessary to stress that if you want your rats to be affectionate, you need to ensure that they’re happy.
If you are stressed out and miserable, the odds are that you’re not feeling particularly sociable and the same appears to be true for rats. Think back to the early experimental designs for rats and sociability if you are in any doubt of this.
That means you want to keep more than one rat as rats need the company of other rats. You should ensure that their environment is clean and healthy and that you keep them free of disease, parasites, etc.
If these conditions are met, the rats will properly socialize together. They will learn to nuzzle and play and do all the wonderful things that rats do. This makes them more interesting pets.
If you find yourself with only one rat because its cage mate has unfortunately died then please read one of our other articles What To Do When You Only Have One Rat Left.
Rat Gender And Sociability
It’s worth noting at this point that female rats tend to be a bit more sociable, energetic, and playful than male rats.
This is quite normal in animals of all descriptions and not just rats. That’s because male rats are competitive animals – they need to be at the top of their game to attract a mate and continue their genetic line.
This doesn’t mean that a male rat can’t make for a great pet, they very much can. However, if you want to increase the odds of a truly energetic and playful pet, then female rats are more given to cooperation and care as a general rule (though, as with all creatures, there are always exceptions).
Male rats tend to be more lazy and docile as they get older, its pretty common for your male rat to enjoy chilling on your shoulder or lap which is always a great experience. Again, bear in mind that not all male rats will be lap-rats.
Happy Rats And People
So, now that your rats are happy and properly socialized. How do you get them to be affectionate and involved with you, the human in their life?
Well, regular exposure helps to establish your place in the rat’s life. The more involved a rat owner is, the more likely that their pets are likely to appreciate their presence.
We have written an excellent article all about how to bond with your pet rats that you can read here.
You should see that, over time, your rats begin to recognize you and that they are happy to see you when you come near.
You ought to be able to handle them with a minimum of fuss and provide strokes, massages and scratches behind the ears.
You may even find that they begin to return the favor and to provide “grooming” to their human beings.
You can also bond with your rats by playing with them, they are very intelligent animals and thoroughly enjoy the mental stimulation. It’s also very rewarding for you as the pet owner. Why not read our latest article 22 Ways to Entertain Your Per Rat.
Does This Mean No Biting?
The other main concern people have about rats is that they might get bitten.
In our experience, rats aren’t particularly prone to biting humans unless that human is causing the rat some pain.
So, if you want to ensure “no biting” then it’s not so much about building a bond with your rat as it is about holding them correctly.
You should never squeeze a rat – you are much bigger than it is and it is a very delicate animal, you can do real harm to the rat and they are likely to lash out the moment that they feel threatened.
Yes rats and affectionate and make for excellent pets, we have a full article here. While it is impossible for us to interview a rat and get a clear answer from them on what a rat might mean by “affection for a human” it is very evident to us and to other rat owners that rats are capable of affection as we tend to define it in regard to a pet and their human companion.
If this makes us guilty of anthropomorphism, then so be it. Rats are very social creatures, and this means that they show affection to other rats and thus, it seems likely that they might be able to feel a similar affection for other animals that they are around, including humans. In fact, there are some great videos on YouTube of rats bonding with other animals that help cement the case.