Are Pet Rats Affectionate? Understanding Rats Behaviors

If you see a rat outside, it’s not going to come to you. It will run away if it is like most rats in the wild. So, if you are thinking of buying a pet rat, it’s understandable to ask if it will be affectionate.

Pet rats are affectionate because they are social animals requiring frequent interaction with other rats, but they also enjoy humans’ company. When rats fight, they do so to establish a social hierarchy. They also exhibit many affectionate behaviors to strengthen their social bonds.

Most of us want pets as affectionate companions. Read on to learn what causes rats to be loving and what you can do to ensure they will be content in their living spaces.

The Behaviors of Rats

The popular image of rats is a solitary animal scavenging for food. So, it comes as a surprise that rats are social animals. Rats are nocturnal and hunt at night—quickly scattering if they sense a predator is nearby. 

If you see a rat scavenging during the day, it is a sign the rat ranks low in the social hierarchy and must hunt during the day. 

However, under the ground, things are quite different. Rats live in colonies, which can be anywhere from 5 to 10 to 100 or more rats, depending on how much food they can find. Their burrows will include tunnels and chambers for nesting and food storage. 

For so many animals to live together, they cannot constantly fight. Instead, once they establish a social hierarchy, they rarely display aggressive behavior toward one another and exhibit many behaviors that strengthen social bonds. All animals interacting in these affiliative behaviors can be beneficial to all animals involved:

  • One such behavior is rats grooming one another, typically in areas that are difficult to reach.
  • Rats also huddle, lying together to regulate their temperature.
  • Sometimes dominant rats will let other rats have food or lick food from their fur.
  • When rats leave the burrow to forage for food, a rat will exit the den and look for signs of danger before other rats come out.
  • Rats, especially young ones, love to play with each other.

These are not signs of aggressive animals, but rather, affectionate ones.

Why Do People Have Negative Attitudes About Rats?

Rats generally get a bad rap. First, rats are often associated with a disease, going back to the bubonic plague, even though fleas spread the disease (and some researchers suggest that gerbils, not rats, spread the disease). The Black Death might also be why some people think rats are dirty, but rats keep themselves clean, even in the wild.

Rats are also hated because they are smart. Once rats find a food source, trapping them becomes difficult since they will quickly learn and adapt. This becomes frustrating to a home or shop owner who is trying to keep the rats out. One name for a group of rats is a mischief

Scientists use rats to study intelligence. In one study, a group of rats was able to outsmart humans. Since rats can be trained, scientists use them to analyze behavior.

People tend not to like animals that move in unpredictable ways. Rats have a way of making themselves invisible, hiding in shadows until they seemingly dart out of nowhere. Finally, there is the tail—some people cannot stand the hairless tails. 

The Difference Between Pet Rats and Wild Rats

Pet rats are descended from a rat species called Norway. However, these rats are native to northern China, not Norway. There are 60 or more different species of rats, but all pet rats are a variety of Norway rats. These varieties are bred for various traits, which could include personality or appearance.

  • Lab rats are one variety of Rattus norvegicus. This variety is bred to be isolated and kept in separate cages.
  • Feeder rats are bred to be sold in stores to be food for pets such as snakes. These rats are not bred for specific traits.
  • Rats bred to be companions or have specific physical characteristics are known as Fancy rats; private breeders buy rats and breed them to bring out specific traits, such as friendliness or coats. Prices for Fancy rats vary depending on the number of generations in their family tree.

Even though domesticated rats can mate with wild rats, most domesticated rats would not survive in the wild. They have not learned the necessary survival skills nor developed the required stamina. A domesticated rat has it easy.

Are Pet Rats More Affectionate Than Other Small Pets?

When thinking about buying a rat for a pet, affection cannot be the only consideration, but a rat will generally be more friendly toward people than other small rodents. This is partially due to the rat’s personality. Gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs tend to be less social. Rats tend to be calmer.

Hamsters are generally kept separate because they tend to fight. Mice show more nervousness than hamsters or gerbils. Guinea pigs are generally the closest in the level of affection they show.

The other reason rats are more affectionate is because they are bred for that trait while the other rodents are bred to be sold. 

Tips for Having a Happy Rat

Once you bring a rat home, you want to create an environment that will allow your new pet to flourish. A happy rat will be an affectionate rat.

Do Not House Alone

You won’t make your rat more affectionate by housing it alone and giving it lots of attention. Rats need to be around other rats to fulfill their social needs. So, in order for your rat to be an affectionate one, let it socialize with others.

Do Not Panic

If you see them fighting when first introduced to each other, do not panic. Rats need to establish a dominance structure, so some fighting is to be expected. You can cut down on the fighting by doing the following:

  • Try to keep a group together. Adding or taking rats will disrupt the social order the rats established. 
  • Provide food and water in several bowls, so they are not required to share.
  • Have several shelters, give them some visual barriers, and have more than one level in their cage.
  • Shelters should have several exits so rats can leave a shelter without having to fight.

Signs You Should Separate Your Rats

It’s easier to avoid panicking if you know the signs to look for that suggest you need to take some action:

  • If they are grooming aggressively, there could be a breakdown in the social order. When a rat attacks, it raises its fur. Excessive grooming could be a sign that too much fur is being raised.
  • Loud vocalization while they are fighting is another sign something might be wrong.
  • If the group has been stable and fighting increases, one or more of the rats could be sick.
  • Continued aggression between newly introduced rats, especially if it leads to injury.

If rats who have been created a stable social hierarchy begin to behave overly aggressively, then you might have a sick rat. However, if newly introduced rats keep fighting, it is a sign they can’t create a stable hierarchy and need to be housed separately. 

Interact With Them

If you want your rat to be affectionate, give it calm but regular interaction. As with any pet, treats as rewards can go a long way to having them come to you. Rats can be trained, and young rats like playing—let them win now and then.

Keep Them Safe

Since rats are a prey species, they will be frightened of the predators that would hunt them. Predator pets like dogs, cats, birds, and ferrets—a predator species—can frighten them. Even if Osiris and Riff Rat get along, your rats will not want to play with a dog.

Bottom Line

Rats are social animals. Occasionally they fight, but usually, it is to establish their social hierarchy. They also engage in behavior that helps the rest of the group. If you spend time with your rat, it will come to recognize you. Next thing you know, the two of you will have bonded.

Darren Black

I'm Darren Black, the owner, and author of I am from Scotland, United Kingdom and passionate about sharing useful information and tips about properly caring for an animal's wellbeing.

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