Pet rats are very social creatures who rely on the company of their own kin to remain happy and healthy. This companionship is essential for rats, so the caretaker must understand how to encourage these bonds to form. A question I hear regularly is ‘how do I introduce new rats?’.
There is no right or wrong way to introduce two rats or a group of rats to each other, all rats are different, they will act according to their environment, age, sex and peers they live with. There will no doubt be scuffles and fights, but knowing a few tips and tricks can help this process go much more smoothly.
Understanding pet rat body language and behaviors will go a long way, as will providing neutral territory during introductions.
The following article aims to introduce the reader to a couple of methods of pet rat introductions, helping to educate the caretaker on how to support a lifelong bond between their rats.
Firstly, a baby rat is actually known as a kitten or pup and, as with many other animals, is considered a kitten/pup until they’ve stopped weaning. A pup is defined as any rat under the age of five weeks.
At the age of six weeks, pups are nearing puberty and sexual maturation, so they begin to shed their baby-like behaviors for adult ones instead! Six weeks is approximately how long pups remain with their mothers on average, as this is a good time to wean them and fully introduce them to other rats.
Pups are less likely to experience harsh retaliation or punishment from adult rats because they’re not considered a threat (although keep in mind, all rats are different and should be approached accordingly).
When it comes to introducing two baby rats, it’s fairly simple as neither of them is interested in harming the other! Allowing pups to interact with one another during their growth and development helps build essential social skills.
Handling is Necessary
In order for a rat to feel at home with their caretaker, they must have been handled frequently and as young as possible! Hand-tamed rats are those who have spent a great deal of time in a human’s palm. These rats are comfortable around their human owners and enjoy the attention it affords them.
Helping to bond two rats will go smoother if the rats trust the human middleman, so be there for them and make a point of forming a relationship built on trust.
When attempting to introduce two rats and keep them as friends for the entirety of their life, it’s crucial to ensure that both rats are the same gender.
Rats are able to reach sexual maturity at the young age of five weeks old, meaning a female is capable of producing a litter at this time! Gestation takes between 21 and 23 days, whereupon a litter of 6 to 12 pups will be born.
Rats function best when kept in groups of the same sex. This prevents unwanted pregnancies and removes an element of stress when it comes to caring for rats.
Quarantine Your New Rats Before Introductions
Whenever you’re bringing home a new pet, it’s a good idea to make sure they have a clean bill of health. It’s common practice to place newcomers in quarantine for one (maybe even two) weeks to prevent the transmission of any diseases or infections.
Obviously, during this time items shouldn’t be swapped between cages and it must be ensured that cross-contamination doesn’t occur, otherwise all the effort expended has been for naught. It goes without saying that any new items brought home are also susceptible to quarantine, and shouldn’t be shared with any previous rat in the space.
Monitor the eyes and nostrils of newly adopted pet rats for signs of sickness. Lethargy, lack of appetite or thirst, noisy breathing, sneezing, and discharge from the eyes or nose are all signs of illness. A wet nose may be common in dogs, but in rats, it means something is off!
Whenever you change your rats environment i.e. bringing a rat into your home, it is common for them to get the a bit of a cold for the first week or two. This will pass as they acclimatize to their new environment.
An Encouraging Environment
It’s a good idea to get a feel for how your pups react to other rats or being placed in a different environment. Be vigilant when watching out for signs of stress during the bonding process, as this puts the pups under unnecessary strain.
If you’re handling pups, it’s vital to ensure the cage bars are close enough together to prevent escape attempts and getting stuck. Bars that measure a half an inch apart are considered safe for all rats; both babies and adults!
Another important consideration when it comes to introducing rats is to make sure all parties are in neutral territory; this prevents one rat in particular from feeling as though they’re the rightful owner of the space should they recognize their scent.
To help prepare the rats to meet someone new, placing cages beside one another allows for the rats to see each other and pick up on the newcomer’s scent without any possibility of a scuffle.
In the beginning, make sure to monitor all rats involved to see what their opinion of the situation is and to prevent any buildup of stress or aggression. Although they can’t reach each other, the rats can be able to stress each other out when kept in close proximity to one another. Hissing or extreme behavior should warrant a step back, and it may be a good idea to wait for these behaviors to lessen in severity.
The best routine to adopt is one where the cages are placed together for ten or so minutes where the rats are allowed to peer at one another and investigate their new neighbors. After this time has passed, separating the cages will allow for the rats to “cool off” and relax, in case any part of the introduction session caused them anxiety.
Prior to introducing the two rats face-to-face, why not allow them some alone time in their future partner’s abode? To do this properly, remove both rats from their traditional enclosures and swap them.
Now the rat in question can explore and sniff around, becoming acquainted with the scent of their friend without any possibility of injury. However, be sure to monitor each rat closely.
Sometimes a rat will have anxiety when placed in a space that smells heavily of another rat; it’s obvious it isn’t their home, so they naturally feel on edge. If either rat looks stressed out, it may be best to call it quits and return them home earlier than planned.
Introducing a Pair of Pups
Pups are less temperamental about who’s in their space, and it’s this fact that makes them easier to introduce together. Pups learn a lot about their environment through exploration, and they learn how to socialize in the same way. Allowing pups to have plenty of time to build their social skills will help them once they’ve grown up into adulthood.
When introducing two pups, this hierarchy is missing, and their social skills usually haven’t been refined. As a result, introducing juveniles is less likely to result in injury or a brawl because neither party feels infringed upon.
Introducing a Pup to an Adult
Adult rats are generally less picky about being introduced to a pup as they feel less threatened about being challenged for their alpha role in the hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for disagreement. Introducing baby rats that are at least 12 weeks old will ensure the adult rats feel less threatened but also ensuring the babies are big enough to defend themselves.
Allow your adult rat to sample the scent of the new pup and get a visual on them; begin building calm familiarity between both parties until an introduction can occur.
Adults are more apt to dominating the pup(s) at the beginning, which will help the pup to understand their place in the hierarchy. Your job as the caretaker is to ensure this domination doesn’t become vicious and taxing on the young one.
This dominating behavior often takes the form of forced grooming sessions where the dominant rat will squish and pin the newcomer and force them to undergo a grooming appointment. The submissive rats are likely to let out little squeaks and lay on their backs to show their belly as a sign of submission, but it’s unlikely they’ve undergone any harm.
Introducing Two Adult Rats
Adult rats are more difficult to introduce new rats to because they’re more set in their ways. Depending on the rat and their life, they’ve already allotted themselves somewhere in the hierarchy.
The introduction of adult rats depends a lot on their individual personalities and aggression levels, as these are the things that become more apparent as the rat ages.
The back and forth nature of the dominance battle may be more pronounced in adult rats, as these are the rodents who have settled in their ways and are less likely to take kindly to being pushed around by a newcomer.
The Carrier Method
This introduction method involves placing all rats into a small carrier. Surround the group with good food and a couple of water sources, then settle in.
Observe the interactions that take place over the next couple of hours and, if there have been enough positive exchanges, after a couple of days the rats can be moved to a new carrier/cage that is slightly larger than their last.
The focus of this method is to introduce the rats to each other without involving their cage or too much space straight away. Carefully monitoring the space available leads to less chasing and injuries, hence the rats must graduate from a small-sized carrier to a medium-sized carrier, and so on until their bonding process is complete.
This method requires patience and you must be willing to allow the rats to interact and figure things out for themselves. As much as it sucks, these little spats and fights must happen to further define the hierarchy; it is this that will ultimately quell the fighting, once a rat figures out their place in the group.
The Shared Space Method
Also known as the Neutral Space Method, this tactic relies on creating a completely foreign environment for the rats involved in the introduction. Caretakers will typically choose to use their bathtub or couches for this method, so long as neither has been an area of exploration for any of the rats.
It’s important for there to be no trace of a previous rat having been in the space prior to the bonding session. Scent can be a major trigger for aggression or uncertainty, so this method opts to remove these issues entirely by preventing any of the rats involved from feeling too much ownership over the area.
The Shared Space Method works quite well with young rats but may prove to be more difficult among adult rats or those who are prone to territorial behaviors.
Unfortunately, this method can be faulty when it comes to moving the rats in together as it doesn’t work well to dismantle disputes regarding ownership, should any arise between the soon-to-be-roommates rats.
Are My Pet Rats Getting Along
It can be difficult to decipher whether or not your efforts to maintain peaceful grounds are working. For starters, rats are playful, inquisitive creatures who communicate in quirky ways amongst themselves.
Making yourself familiar with rat body language will go a long way in understanding how to augment their time together to be more effective and lead to a positive outcome sooner.
Rats are fairly outgoing, gregarious rodents who enjoy the company of other fellow rats. However, rat society revolves around hierarchy, and it isn’t always pretty to suss out.
Arguments take the form of nips and scratches, objections come in the means of squeaks. Knowing when to intervene and when to tolerate these behaviors will aid you greatly in helping to foster a meaningful bond between two rats.
What to Expect when Introducing Rats
The best possible outcome for any socialization session is for the rats to be sleeping in a pile together when the timer runs out; they’re calm and relaxed and don’t mind being squished up against one another. However, it’s unlikely for the introduction to begin with a sleeping pile.
More often than not, the rats will begin their investigations and establish who’s who in the relationship. Rats do this in a variety of ways, but some include force grooming whereby the dominant rat pins down the other and grooms them or even games of chase around the cage will take place.
The first few sessions shouldn’t be too long (15 minutes max) and should end on a positive note, such as allowing both rats a treat to commemorate their experience.
As time goes on, the aggression and awkwardness between the rats should begin to diminish and the number of unsavory behaviors will taper off.
Trust in your instincts when it comes to bonding a pair of rats, you should be able to recognize when your pet rat is uncomfortable, scared, or needs to be relieved of a stressful situation.
Warning Signs To Look Out For When Introducing Rats
Obviously, biting is a bad sign, and while it should never be encouraged, it is normal for nips to happen during the introduction process. Keep in mind, determining who is the dominant rat is big business and sometimes requires this kind of behavior. The general rule is ‘if there is no blood then there is no foul’.
If a rat poofs out its’ coat in an attempt to make themself appear larger, this is another sign that a fight may be close to breaking out and that the rats in question should be separated and allowed to fully calm down before being reintroduced.
Calling It Quits
Unfortunately, while most rats thrive when kept with a cagemate, others seem to resent having company forced upon them. If all educated attempts at introducing the rats are met with unrelenting aggression, it may be best not to force the relationship any further. Doing so could result in the injury or possible death of one or both rats should a severe fight take place.
When it comes to moving your rats into the same cage, there are a few things to make sure to do first.
Number one, the cage should always be thoroughly cleaned before being lived in. This helps freshen it up and provide a new, neutral space for the rats to share. (Who wouldn’t like moving into a clean, new place, right?)
Bedding should be brand new, litter boxes should have been cleaned so that no urine or residue remains, and all toys should be replaced or introduced carefully to prevent an outbreak of fights or allowing any potential jealousy from forming.
It’s very likely for dominance spats to occur throughout the first day, so stick around and stay close to monitor the situation. Sometimes it will be a particular location in the cage, whereas other scenarios seem to stem from being unable to share resources effectively. Observing these disputes in action will give you clues as to how to solve them.
Rats are intricate, sociable little creatures who thrive from interacting with those they love. Though small, pet rats have wonderfully full hearts that bond closely to their friends, kin, and caretakers.
Choosing to pair two rats together takes careful thought and planning: this is going to be a match made with the intent of lasting a lifetime! It’s worth the effort to make the experience a good one for all those involved, and to treat the animals with respect and understanding, as this process also requires a great deal of patience, too.