Rats can be quite boisterous pets and it’s quite natural to wonder if the behavior you see in their cage is play or something rather more serious. The good news is that it’s quite easy to tell when you know how and that fights between rats are quite rare.
Are they fighting or playing? Understanding pet rats – most of the time your rats are likely to be engaged in play fighting or standard dominance behavior in rats. Fights are not unheard of between rats, but they are a bit of a rarity and it’s easy to identify fighting behavior and break it up before it causes injuries.
We’ve got a complete guide, here for you, to the play fighting behaviors of rats, the dominance/aggression behaviors and what to do if these turn into a fight.
Are My Pet Rats Fighting Or Playing?
Rats love to fight and while it’s not always present, between two (or sometimes more) rats, fighting is rarely completely abandoned either.
Yet, the happy news is that most of the time rats that are sharing living quarters will either be engaged in play fighting behavior (much as human siblings are prone to do) or dominance behavior (sorting out the pecking order).
Real fights with serious outcomes are a rare occurrence thankfully and they take place at such speed that you are only likely to know about them when they are over.
About Rats And Play Fighting
Play fighting often takes place among rats before they reach full maturity and is part of the development of the dominance hierarchy of the group.
It’s less common for adult rats to play fight but when they do play fight, it’s very easy to see that it’s in fun and not serious.
You should see a sort of bouncy, jovial aspect to the fight and one big giveaway is that no rat is pinned to the ground on its back for long periods of time and when it is released, it will probably go straight back for more.
One thing you might be surprised about is that during play fights in adult rats – they can be won by any member of the social group. The pecking order is temporarily abandoned for the duration of the scrap.
Once the fighting is over, it will almost always turn into a mutual grooming session with all the rats strutting about energized afterwards.
It might not come as a surprise, but this behavior is much more likely to take place between rats that are siblings from the same litter than it is between rats that are not related. It may be that growing up together grants permission for play that cannot be sought in later life.
The “Pinging” Behavior
You can see this is a part of rat play even when they’re not play fighting and it has absolutely no association with real aggressive behavior in rats at all.
The rat bounces around as though it has replaced its own legs with springs. You can see the rat looking as though its whole body has tensed up. However, you can also see the playfulness of this stance at a glance too.
The rat will then jump onto a fellow rat before quickly jumping off again and then bouncing around the cage for a bit before doing it all over again.
This is behavior they learn as babies and while some will abandon this in adulthood others will be pinging around the cage until the day they die.
It is very common to see pinging go on for a substantial period of time before the rats descend into mutual grooming. It’s funny to watch and all the rats involved seem to enjoy it.
However, it is worth noting that clumsy pinging can be interpreted as pouncing.
The “Pouncing” Behavior
Pouncing is a bit more cat like and it stems from a dominance routine when the rats are kittens. They jump onto their victim with the intention of mounting them. Fortunately, this is a behavior that has no mirror in most human play fighting.
Kittens find this quite easy to get away with and but as rats age they tend to abandon pouncing in favor of sidling up to their targets, instead. This is probably because pouncing is easy to see coming and because it takes more and more energy as the rat grows up.
The kitten tends not to give a huge amount of thought when it pounces and can land on any part of its victim (such as the head, side, etc.).
Whereas if an adult does maintain this behavior – they will tend to aim for the rear for fairly obvious reasons.
A kitten will normally only pounce once or twice before moving on to another victim. In adults it tends to be a one-time thing and it almost never leads to anything more serious.
Adult Play Fighting In Rats
Kittens aren’t particularly violent with each other and their play fighting is generally good natured but as with human beings when the kids start to transition into adults (between 6 and 12 months) things can get a bit out of hand.
Male rats, in particular, get a huge hormonal rush at this point in their lives. As with pubescent boys that can make them particularly aggressive at this stage.
Now, it’s important to remember at this point that rats aren’t people. Fighting is a normal part of rat life and a punch up every now and again is normal.
However, you should be keeping an eye out for rats that are constantly getting wound up and causing serious injuries – these rats may need to be neutered or separated if this becomes serious..
Rat Dominance/Aggressive Behavior
You need to be able to distinguish between aggressive behavior which has malicious intent and the natural exertion of dominance in the rat pecking order.
Aggression will eventually lead to injuries and constating fighting. Dominant rats, on the other hand, tend to stay calm and make their point (physically) without hurting the other rat.
If you do catch aggressive or bullying behavior in your rats, you should attempt to distract the aggressive animal. However, please don’t put your hands in to the cage to do this – fighting rats may not be in control of their actions and your hands might seem to be a threat.
If these are your first rats, it may take a little while for you to work out which behavior is which. That’s OK. Most rat fights are not that serious.
The Sidling Behavior
Adult rats don’t tend to run up to their opposition and jump on it. They prefer to sidle up to their victim, instead. That is they move in a sideways direction – the lead leg is the closest hind leg – and while they will be facing the victim, they will tend to carry their head low.
If the rat has fluffed up its fur at this stage, it is likely to become more aggressive. If the tail is flicking from side-to-side, which is a sign of extreme emotion in a rat, then this is even more likely.
They are then likely to turn the sidle into shove or a side kick if they are in dominance mode but if they’re attacking, they may lunge and bite, instead.
It might look like a cowardly attack and that’s because it is – a rat sidles up to the other rat when it’s not 100% certain it can win. This is bad news because a rat with a lack of confidence in its behavior is more likely to damage the opponent out of feat that it might, otherwise, lose.
Sidling offers the attacker the chance to protect their own most vulnerable attributes whilst affording the chance to watch the other rat and present their back and hind quarters as their most viable target for any return violence.
The Shoving Behavior
If you’ve seen kids in a playground then you’ll recognize the shove as it emerges from sidling behavior. The rat sidles up to the victim and then quickly shoves them away.
In most cases, this is done because the aggressor wants the victim to move away from the space that they are occupying. You will normally find that a shove is only done once and if the other rat does not return – the aggressor is done.
However, it becomes bullying when the aggressor follows its victim and continues to shove it around the cage.
This looks very much like Jean Claude Van Damme suddenly became a rat. The aggressor sidles up to his victim and then launches into a swift kick to the victim’s flanks. It’s looks impressive but it is, in fact, less of a problem than a shove.
Why? Well, rats have short(ish) legs and can’t put very much power into their kicks. So, it tends to be a fairly mild blow. That means it won’t damage the other rat.
You may also see older rats deliver sidekicks to younger rats when they are trying to play fight with them (a pounce is often met with a side kick). The idea is to deter the younger rat without hurting them.
The Mounting Behavior
It is worth noting that when a rat mounts another it’s not always a sexual thing. In fact, it’s often just intended to put another rat in its place and is a display of dominance.
Some rats, on the other hand, just can’t take no for an answer and if a rat is always mounting its cage fellows then you may have a problem. This is very common in male rats and it means they’ve got too many sex hormones flowing through their systems.
Some owners chose to get their rats neutered and there is mixed opinion on this route. Please keep in mind this is a major and painful operation and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
When a doe is in heat she will often be mounted by other female rats in her cage – this isn’t a dominance display.
Kittens will play mount each other and other rats but there is never any actual copulation until they hit the period of sexual maturity.
The Pinning Behavior
Think Hulk Hogan and you have this rat behavior down to a T. It’s a wrestling move whereby the rat pins another to the floor of the cage after knocking them over. It secures its victim to the floor with its front paws.
Once the other rat is pinned, if this is a display of dominance behavior the “victorious” rat may conduct a display of dominance grooming.
The Chasing Behavior
You might think of this as the “grown up” answer to pinging in rats. Just as the name suggests, when attacked, the victim runs away, and the aggressive rat isn’t prepared to accept victory on those terms and thus chases after the victim. Obviously, this isn’t something that the victim is going to enjoy.
The attacking rat is trying to impose its dominance over the victim. So, if they do catch them, they are going to attack again. This may be through pouncing, pinning, biting or even forced dominance grooming.
This can turn ugly if the victim doesn’t intend to go quietly. They may escalate a chase into a “face off” (see the next sign of dominance behavior on our list).
Normally, if the victim in a chase raises a white flag and allows the chasing rat to establish their dominance – the chase is over.
Sometimes, however, the aggressor is not mollified by surrender and will continue to harass the victim over and over again. This is a massive warning sign that the aggressive rat might need to be neutered.
However, be careful. This is not the same behavior as a chasing rat which is not offered the chance to prove its dominance. The chase will continue (rightfully) if such a chance is not offered and the issue here might be with the victim not the aggressor.
The Face Off
If the question of who is where on the social hierarchy has not been resolved between two fighting rats – the fight may turn into a face off.
That is, they go head-to-head with no signs of submitting to the will of the other. It often stems from a point where two rats sniff each other in greeting and then one rat becomes aggressive and calls out a challenge. However, it can also result from chasing behavior.
The rats turn and raise their heads, open their mouths and bare their teeth, they wag their tails frantically and they start to fluff up, they also chatter at each other (or sometimes they move into a boxing position).
The winner is the rat to keep its head high while the other drops its eyes. Dropping the eyes is a submission gesture and the winner will sidle, sniff, pin and then dominance groom the loser.
It is possible for another face off (or a few more, in fact) to take place between two rats but they tend to be much briefer affairs in the future.
The Boxing Behavior
Yup, rather like kangaroos and people, rats can get into boxing with each other. This is when they rear up on their hind legs when facing each other. Their mouths will be open, and they will have their teeth bared. You are likely to see them “fluff up” too.
The fluffing up is the rat trying to boost its size in the other rat’s eyes to get them to back down before blows are traded.
Rats are fairly bad at boxing and they tend to dance around each other without fighting. If they do “throw a punch” it’s most likely to be blocked by the other rat without an issue.
Oddly, boxing behavior almost never leads to a real fight. Eventually, one rat will submit and then dominance behavior takes over.
When Rats Go To War – The Rat Ball
If your rats really do decide to fight each other – the fight will usually be over in a few seconds at the most.
They will launch at each other and end up rolling around in a ball of two angry rats with claws and teeth flying.
Whatever you do – don’t try and break this up by hand. You will be bitten and scratched even by the most loving rats if they’re fighting.
If you have the presence of mind, however, it’s a good idea to throw water over the fighting rats to break them up. This prevents them from doing any real damage to each other.
If you absolutely must put your hands in – use a thick towel or leather gloves around your hands first.
Hopefully, our “are they fighting or playing? Understanding pet rats” guide has helped you to understand the differences between play, dominance behavior and outright fighting between rats.
Most of the time, as social creatures, rats are much more likely to engage in play and dominance behavior than to actually start fighting. But if a fight does break out, if you can intercede, you should as one of your rats might get seriously hurt otherwise.