If you’ve had pet rats for a little while, then you’ll have noticed that they like to lick you and you may be wondering what that means? Does it mean that your rat is showing you some care or is it just a biological reflex? Well, let’s take a look at exactly what it means and why you might not always want to encourage this behavior.
This is what it means when a pet rat licks you: your rat thinks you smell great, or your rat thinks your smell awful, or your rat is trying to build a better emotional bond with you or your rat thinks you smell like a rat of the opposite sex.
In order to work out why rats lick people, we also need to take a quick look at why rats lick themselves and each other. So, let’s start there.
Why Do Rats Lick Themselves?
Rats don’t just lick people; they also lick themselves. It is, of course, a self-grooming habit. Rats, contrary to popular belief, aren’t intrinsically dirty animals – they’re actually very clean, though they can’t clean up after themselves (so, you will need to clean up for them).
Your rats will lick every part of their own body that they can reach – it often looks like a rat is nibbling on itself when they are licking at themselves. It’s not, it’s got its tongue buried beneath its own fur because washing the fur isn’t enough, it also needs to wash its skin.
This below fur licking helps a rat get rid of any filth that’s accumulated and any potential parasites that might be lurking there. This, in turn, helps the rat keep its fur shiny and healthy.
This behavior is very important to rats, in fact, it’s such an important behavior that you can usually tell if a rat is becoming sick because it stops grooming itself. As soon as your rat starts looking shabby and grimy, it’s probably coming down with something.
You should notice that a rat grooms itself far more often even than cats do. Rats will often ask each other to help out too – one of the reasons that rats do better in groups is that they can help each other groom the bits they can’t reach.
If you only have one rat and you notice that they are struggling to groom a particular part of their body – you should try and help out where possible.
Rat Licking Is A Seriously Complicated Thing
You might not believe it but the licking action of rats is a fascinating and complicated thing and it’s the subject of many academic studies like this one, “The Fine Temporal Structure of the Rat Licking Pattern: What Causes the Variabiliy in the Interlick Intervals and How is it Affected by the Drinking Solution?” by Bin Lin et Al. and published in Chemical Senses (an Oxford Journal).
There’s not much in that paper about why rats lick people, mind you, though the idea that the “interlick intervals” (the period of time between one lick and the next) are pretty much constant is kind of interesting.
It also notes that when rodents lick the process has absolutely no relationship with what humans do when they lick or drink. So, there’s that.
Why Do Rats Lick Their Humans?
So, now we’ve had a look at licking behavior in rats of all stripes, let’s turn our attention to why rats lick the people who care for them.
Rats Recognize Their Humans
It’s important to begin with an acknowledgment that rats definitely recognize the people that care for them. They make a distinction between those people and other random people.
This is, of course, not necessarily the same as the kind of recognition people have for each other. We can’t ask rats if they know their owners, but we can gauge their reactions to their owners against their reactions to strangers.
Rats are less reliant on eyesight than human beings and the most common way that a rat is going to build up a “recognition profile” in their brain is going to involve the scent of their human beings.
You Might Smell Amazing To Your Pet Rat
So, it’s certainly possible that the reason your rat is licking you is because a.) you smell great and b.) they want to show their affection for you.
Sadly, this is less likely because you smell great but rather that your hands smell great because you’ve been handling food.
For example, if you’ve just had a lovely pizza with all that fatty cheese on it, they’ll be able to pick up the scent and taste from your hands and then they’re into a licking frenzy.
In fact, rats are happy to lick anything that smells of food, not just your fingers, they’ll be tongue to your face in a heartbeat too if you let them. So, if you’re not keen on kisses from your pets, it can be a very good idea to wash your face after a meal.
Now, this shouldn’t lead you to believe that because your rat is licking you, that’s it’s always using you for a quick snack break. Because it’s not, there’s a second possibility – that you don’t smell so good.
However, It’s Possible You Might Smell Bad To Your Pet Rat
Rats are very social creatures and that means that if you are “their human”, that it’s entirely possible they think you’re just a funny-shaped rat who is part of their tribe.
Now, if you remember back at the beginning of this piece, we noted that when rats are together, they help each other out with their grooming and the fact that grooming is a very important activity to rats – they like to be clean.
So, when a rat finds your hygiene to be lacking (from a rat’s perspective, mind you, you might be completely clean from your perspective) and you’re a member of its tribe, it’s going to want to help you out and make you clean again because it knows how important being clean is to other rats.
In fact, given that you will never actually smell like a rat – your rats may simply believe that you don’t smell right, all the time, which can explain why some rats just won’t stop licking their people when they’re out of their cages.
This is, of course, an act of kindness. Rats don’t rush off to groom things that they don’t care about – so while you can’t ask your rats if they love you, licking you shows that you’re definitely part of the family.
Your Rat Is Seeking To Improve Their Emotional Bond With You
Rats are just like people and they like to play and bond with each other, once you’ve been accepted into the rat’s family – it will want to play and bond with you. If you want to build your bond with your pet rats then head over and read our full article all about bonding and taming your pet rats here.
If you watch your rats together, they will often groom each other even when they don’t need grooming. That’s because it helps to build up a social feeling and bond between each other.
So, when they’ve been missing you, they are likely to respond excitedly and start licking you too.
If you want to return this affection, then you might just want to reach down and gently pet their head or back (which feels like you’re licking them back without you getting any rat hairs on your tongue).
You Rat Might Be Excited About The Smell Of Other Rats On You
The last reason that you rats might be licking at you is rather less romantic, at least for you, their human. If you find that you tend to play with your little girl rats before you place with your little boy rats – the boy rats are going to be more affectionate to you.
That’s because boy rats, when they’re not eating and drinking, spend pretty much all their time wishing for the company of lady rats. If you let lady rats run over you, they will leave a scent trail all over you and thus, you will smell like a lady rat to the boys.
You will get plenty of excited licks from the rats at this point. Though we should point out, they are also quite likely to pee on you during this excitement too as they will be hoping you can share their scent with the ladies. If you’d rather this didn’t happen – play with the boys and then the girls.
This is what it means when a pet rat licks you: you either smell great or smell less rat-like than they’d prefer, they’re trying to bond with you or you smell like a lady rat and they are a boy rat.
As you can see, rats are quite capable of giving affection and you will be pleased to know that most of the time, when a rat licks you – it’s a gesture of kindness and love.