All animals from human beings down to the simplest of creatures such as birds and frogs are capable of becoming stressed. And just as with humans, being stressed is bad for the animal’s health and wellbeing and, in fact, it can even be fatal if left untreated over time. But how do you know when a rat is stressed and what do you do about it when you know? We’ve rounded up everything that you need to know.
Rats like all animals can be stressed and just like humans they can show symptoms of stress if you know what to look for. Signs include abnormal breathing, a change in grooming habits, eye problems, motor control changes, a lack of alertness, an almost “hyperactive state”, change in the ability to produce or the quality of waste products and more.
Let’s take a look at stress in rats and why it matters.
How Do Experts Distinguish Stress In Rats?
We think that stress in rats is an important topic to consider and because of that – we’re going to bring together two viewpoints. The first is that of experts and, in particular, we will draw on the paper “Recognition and Alleviation Of Distress in Laboratory Animals” published by the National Research Council in the National Academies Press.
This paper may not deal with pets specifically, but it does have the most thorough clinical diagnosis of stress in a range of animals, including rats, and it is fair to assume that while you may not intend to place a pet rat under the kind of stress it might find in a testing facility, it is possible to do so without knowing that you are doing it.
Once we’ve reviewed this “hard data”, we will turn to the reports of rat owners and our own experience to look at concrete manifestations of stress in rats in real life – something that we think might make it easier to identify exactly what’s wrong with your pet if it is stressed.
The Signs Of Stress In Rats According To The National Research Council
The National Research Council provides a series of formal guidelines to diagnosing stress or distress in your animals and they include these clinical signs:
- Changes in breathing patterns – this can be quite hard to detect in a small animal such as a rat but if your pet is breathing particularly rapidly or particularly slowly this can be a key indicator that they’re feeling stressed out.
- Changes in grooming patterns – a rat that was once spotlessly clean might suddenly become dirty and unkempt under stress. Equally, another rat might suddenly develop a sort of obsessive compulsion with their cleanliness and groom themselves over and over again throughout the course of the day.
- Changes in the appearance of eyes – in particular a stressed rat might exhibit signs of runny fluid from their eyes, or glassy eyes or even struggle to focus their eyes effectively.
- Changes in their posture – just like people a stress rat may end up slumped dejectedly in a corner, they might stop moving, they could cower away somewhere looking frightened and alone, they might start to lose muscle tone and conversely, they might become more aggressive and boisterous.
- Changes in their alertness – a rat might become hyperactive and run about and be unable to pay attention to something in their stress, they might also go the other way and focus their attention on something to the exclusion of everything else.
- Changes in body weight – this is a big indicator that something is very wrong with your animal, it might, of course, be illness or injury that’s causing this but, in turn, illness and injury are stressful experiences for rats just as they are for us.
- Changes in or failure to produce waste products – a change in the color or smell of urine/feces is a definite warning sign. If your rat stops urinating or defecating at all, then something is definitely wrong. It’s also possible that they might start to produce diarrhea under stress. It’s also possible for a stressed rat to start vomiting under the stress.
- Changes in the rat’s water or food intake – undereating or overeating (or drinking) are a real concern too; rats are normally pretty good about eating their fill and if they’re not or they’re exhausting every last scrap of food available to them – this can be very worrying indeed.
- Changes in vocalization – just like people, some rats are complainers when they’re stressed, and they will make noises that are designed to let you know that they’re not having a good time.
- Changes in behavior – any sort of abnormal behavior not listed above is also, potentially, an indicator of stress. Hyperarousal (of the sexual kind) for example or total disinterest in the same thing might be an issue. It’s important to keep an open mind about your rats and their mental state when you can’t ask them what’s going on.
Now, of course, some of these symptoms can be very mild and indicate very little, but the more severe that they are and the more of these symptoms you spot in combination with each other – the more likely it is that your rat is under some kind of stress.
It is important to remember that age can play a part in the health of your animals. An elderly rat might not be as fastidious about grooming as they were as a youngster – not because of stress but because it’s no longer as easy for the rat to carry out this kind of routine.
So, make sure you weigh up any “mitigating factors” before deciding that your animal is stressed. Growing old is something that happens to us all and while it’s not the nicest of processes, it’s not something that ought to make your rat particularly unhappy either.
What Do Rat Owners Say About Stress Symptoms?
K8af48sTK on Reddit says, “Chittering is the big thing we look for. It sounds pretty similar to bruxing, though, which is a happy sound, and I personally have a hard time telling them apart without other signs to back it up.”
If you want to know what chittering sounds like – you can check out this useful page which has a bunch of samples of rat noises that you can study and determine how they differ from each other.
Also on Reddit, FntstcDncngBnn, says, “I’ve noticed, mostly with my boys, that when they’re really stressed they stress poop. Which looks like thin poop almost as if they have stomach problems. This for us is a pretty good indicator that they are stressed.”
Ucube found that their rat had a traumatic reaction to a specific experience, “The playful, cheerful rat who was always out of the cage first, didn’t go out that day but I didn’t think much of it at that time. On Monday, I wanted to take all of them out for a bit of play time… And that same rat was really scared, scared for life. I could feel his heart beating, his eyes were wide open, and he would come back running towards the cage first chance he got. My sofa which was his absolute favorite place to stay, sleep and play is like a nightmare now.”
PokeBattle_Fan, on the other hand, found that introducing new things into their rats’ environment caused them to have a bit of a stress overload, “I bought a plastic thing that I hung on the top of their cage so they could hide in it. And I also installed a 12 inches running wheel. Then I went to take a nap. Fast forward 2 and half hours, I go back to the cage to see how they are doing. Only one out of the three like the hiding spot, and all three flat out refuse to use the wheel. In fact, they all seem afraid of the wheel, and the two that don’t like the hiding spot seem to fear it as well, to the point where even when I put rat treats in it, they refuse to go near.”
As you can see, rats can get stressed in a wide variety of ways and their “symptoms” don’t always closely match up with the drier clinical diagnoses of the professionals.
We think that it’s worth putting yourself, metaphorically speaking, into your rat’s shoes. You know what it’s like to experience stress yourself, what do you and the people you know do when you’re stressed that you normally wouldn’t?
This is a pretty good guide to what your rats may do if they become stressed. While a rat is not a miniature human being, they are a small mammal and humans are big mammals and that means we have a lot of our basic biology in common – this is why rats are often used in medicinal trials, for example, because they have similar reactions to medicines as human beings do.
What Are The Potential Causes Of Stress In Rats?
There is no definitive list of “stressors” for any animal and that’s because it would be impossible to come up with one. However, it is easy enough to generate ideas on what might typically cause stress to a rodent and these things include:
- Illness and injury – people tend to be stressed when in discomfort or pain and rats are no different.
- Temperature extremes – if the room that your pets are in gets too hot or too cold during the day, that might be stressing them out.
- Changes in diet – rats aren’t, usually, the fussiest of eaters but they can learn to become fussy eaters and if that’s the case, then a change in diet can (as with small children who are fussy eaters) lead to a refusal to eat or drink
- Loud noises – rats are way more sensitive to sound than we are, and even mid-level noise might sound deafening to a rat. The more noise that there is, the more likely it is to stress our your rats particularly if it takes place when they are supposed to be sleeping.
- Overcrowding – it’s important to keep rats in company but they need enough space to enjoy life too, you can’t pack them in like sardines in a can and expect them to be happy about it. It’s a bit like sharing a room with a friend or a relative, that’s OK but if you both had to live inside a small cupboard, you’d probably end up resenting each other pretty quickly and that’s stressful.
- Bullying – by and large rats in groups are friendly and social once the dominance hierarchy has been resolved but occasionally a rat can end up turning into a bully and the poor rat (or rats) on the receiving end can end up very stressed as a result of this.
- Pregnancy – as you might expect a rat mom wants to keep her babies safe and sound and until they’ve been born and had a chance to grow a little, she will be constantly under stress.
- Reaching sexual maturity – male rats become more aggressive and competitive when they reach sexual maturity unless they have been neutered, this leads to fighting and stressful behavior and not just for the males but also for other rats around them.
- Isolation – rats are a social species; they need other rats around them and being on their own is very stressful for them. While human company is nice for rats and they can be super affectionate with their owners, they must have other rats around to be truly stress free.
How To Deal With Stress In Rats?
The good news, of course, is that helping your rat manage stress is often very straightforward. The easiest thing to do is simply to eliminate the source of stress.
For example, if your rats are in a room exposed to high levels of street noise, you could move their cage into another room which is better protected from the background noise of the outside world.
Or if your rat is feeling isolated, you could buy some more rats and introduce them so that they are no longer alone.
Of course, there are some cases – such as pregnancy, where you might need to take some specific steps to rectify the issue (we discuss this in our guide to what happens when a rat suddenly starts biting) but the process is simple and straightforward.
A stressed rat does not need to stay stressed for very long and fortunately, because rats are fairly simple creatures – it should be relatively easy to identify the source of stress and either remove or minimize it.
How to tell if a rat is stressed? Because we can’t ask our rats why they are stressed or, indeed, put them on the equivalent of a rodent psychologist’s couch, we have to be aware of the physical symptoms of stress and then respond to them.
Fortunately, because rats are simpler than human beings – it’s usually quite easy to determine what is causing a rat’s stress and to deal with it.
The faster that you respond to the physical signs of stress in your pet in a positive way, the better. Stress is no joke. It kills people and it can kill animals too if they’re not helped to move past their stress. Some signs of stress, for example going off their food, are clearly more serious than others but it doesn’t mean that you can afford to wait – a stressed rat is only going to become more stressed (and ill) over time if you don’t take action immediately.