I am frequently asked by people why their rats are fighting all of the time. Whether it is a pair that you have had for a while that is starting to tussle or bringing in a new rat that does not mesh well with the pets you already have, seeing your rats fight can cause a lot of anxiety.
Why are my rats fighting? Rats fight to establish dominance, the Alpha in their hierarchy, this is a perfectly normal behavior in animals who live in groups. Rats will play fight as kittens with their peers, the same as most baby animals play fight, this is preparation and training for adulthood.
This article will hopefully soothe some of that anxiety by explaining why your rats might be fighting as well as answering all other possible questions you might have including the differences between fighting and playing and ways you can help prevent the fighting.
Why Do Rats Fight?
To start, there are two main types of fighting your rats could be doing: play fighting and aggressive fighting. If your rats are play fighting, they are doing it for the same reason you might play, for fun and entertainment. Play fighting starts when baby rats are old enough to interact with one another, this behavior prepares them for later life living in a large group. This kind of behavior is found in most baby animals.
Rats are social creatures that like to spend a good chunk of their time playing either with each other or with you outside of there cage. Play fighting is a completely healthy and normal way for your rats to interact with each other on a regular basis. Older rats who are siblings and grew up together will tend to continue to play fighting when they are adults, this isn’t as common in mixed groups.
On the other hand, your rats may be fighting in a more aggressive manner. While this sounds scarier than play fighting, it’s also a normal way for them to interact for a shorter period of time. If they are fighting for any reason other than play, they are most likely fighting so one can assert dominance over the other and create a hierarchy in their mischief—mischief is a common term for a group of rats.
While rats like to live in groups, they do not usually live harmoniously without a leader and hierarchy. Aggressive fighting is a natural and generally safe practice for rats, especially in the beginning, but you should pay attention because it can take a more dangerous turn.
If you brought your rats home together as kittens/pups (both words for baby rats), they probably would not develop this hierarchy, and therefore not have aggressive fighting, until they get older. On the other hand, if you introduce one rat to another later on, they will most likely show some signs of aggression or actually fight in the beginning so one can take control and establish their territory.
When introducing a rat to another or multiple other rats later on, this is more likely to create a hostile environment than when rats grow up together.
Now you know why your pet rats are fighting, but there are probably still several other questions you have about your pet rats. Throughout the rest of the article, I will aim to answer these questions so you can decide what your next steps will be.
How to Tell the Difference Between Fighting and Playing?
It is generally fairly easy to tell if your rats are just playing once you know the signs. They can chase each other, bounce around, and even wrestle happily as long as there is no puffed-up fur, biting blood, or other signs of more aggressive fighting like boxing. The more you watch your rats, the more accustomed you will to seeing them play with each other, even in ways that are seemingly more aggressive.
What you need to look for is actually not signs of playing, as rats can play in many different ways, but signs of fighting. The next level of fighting above playing is when one is asserting dominance over another. Usually, a fight for dominance will consist of one rat pinning another rat to the ground followed by dominance grooming. Hopefully, the pinned rat has a more submissive demeanor and will peacefully give power over the domineering rat by agreeing to be pinned.
The problem with rats fighting arises when neither rat submits to being pinned by the other, and they keep wrestling back and forth for power. They will still be fighting for dominance, but the hierarchy will not be set in, and things might get violent.
There are a number of signs for this. First, rats puffing up there fur is a clear sign of aggression. They do this to make them seem significantly bigger and more powerful to their opponent, so they will only do this when the fight is more serious.
Second, rats facing off to each other with their heads slightly raised and teeth showing is a sign of aggression, not play. This normally happens when the hierarchy isn’t established between the rats. This can become even more elevated if the rats start to wag their tails, fluff their fur and aggressive chattering. This encounter could lead to a fight or more often than not one of the rats will lower its head showing a sign of submission.
Third, your rats resort to boxing. This behavior will start with the rats standing on their hind legs, head raised with their teeth showing. They will stand as tall as they can and may have puffed up fur to appear as large as possible, this is an attempt for the other rat to submit without resorting to an actual fight.
Finally, one or both of the rats might go for each other and end up rolling around the floor. This doesn’t normally last for long however it can lead to serious injury or death and you must intervene to break them up. This can be done by throwing a towel or spraying water on them.
Don’t try and put your hand in between them as you will definitely get bitten. Even if your rat is super friendly and never bitten in the past, they are in a heightened state of aggression filled with adrenaline.
What Should You Do When Your Rats Are Fighting?
If your rats are just playing, there is really nothing you need to do except perhaps enjoy the entertainment. However, it is completely okay if even their play fighting makes you nervous, especially if you are a new rat owner, so if this is the case, you can watch them closely while they are playing.
Additionally, if one rat is asserting dominance over another without a problem, you do not need to intervene. In fact, it is better if you don’t, so the hierarchy can be established.
However, when the asserting dominance turns violent, it may be time for you to get involved in the matter. There are a few different things you can do. First of all, if your rats have just been recently introduced to each other and start violently fighting, it is best to back up to an earlier introductory phase. They may not have had enough time to become acquainted with each other’s presence and scent.
There is also a chance your rats have been together for quite some time, are very well acquainted, and yet still start to fight. This is more common in males aged between 6 and 12 months, as they mature into adults their bodies will start to generate hormones, this sudden change can lead to aggressive behavior two other rats and even humans.
If the aggression doesn’t decrease over time or gets worse you might need to get them neutered which will reduce their testosterone levels.
My three sibling bucks Moet, Rosie (my 3-year-old named him), and Rocky are 5 months old, they are starting to wrestle and pin each other down a bit more aggressively than before. I am monitoring the situation as Rosie is becoming quite aggressive to his brothers, time will tell how the situation develops but its perfectly normal behavior.
If your rats are fighting, you can start by trying to distract them. Keep a few items on hand in case your rats start to fight. First, keep a spray bottle full of water to hand. A spray of water on the pair of rats will separate them without risk of hurting the rat or yourself.
Additionally, keep a washcloth or soft rag on hand to cover the more aggressive rat with when they start to fight. Sometimes, just a moment of being unable to see each other can stop a fight from happening before it even begins.
If the fighting is repetitive, it may be time to separate your rats. If you have the ability to get another cage or separate the levels, sometimes this can be best for both rats involved. You do not need to do this for occasional fighting, but it can be best for consistent problems. If the rats are that aggressive towards each other you might need to keep them in separate rooms, bear in mind this is in extreme circumstances.
Are Rats More Likely to Fight With Rats of the Same Gender?
Two male rats are generally the most likely to have a power struggle, but this does not mean it won’t happen with other rats. The gender of the rats does typically affect the cause of the fight and the solution. For example, if the more aggressive rat is a male, sometimes all you need to do is get the rat neutered, and the problem will be solved. Male rats can also be more likely to have problems submitting to another rat.
Another thing to keep in mind when considering the correlation between rat genders and fighting is that if you have two males and one female, the two males may get territorial over the female, especially if she is not spayed.
When you buy two males and one female rat, you may decide only to get the males neutered because that is enough to ensure there will be no rat pups, but there is a problem with this. The female rat will still release hormones that have a scent designed to attract male rats for mating. If both male rats are attracted to one female rat, fighting could develop.
Finally, while fights can be started between two female rats, male rats tend to be more territorial and aggressive, so you may find that getting two female rats will result in less fighting.
How Do You Introduce New Rats Safely to Prevent Fighting?
It is important to introduce new rats slowly so they can become part of the group safely, without fighting, and without injury. There are many successful ways to introduce rats, each rat is different so there isn’t necessarily a one size fits all method of approach.
This is the method I have been successful with in the past:
Step One: Quarantine your rat. For a week or two after you get your new rats, you should keep them in quarantine. This means keeping it in a separate cage, in a sperate room, away from any other rats you have.
During this time period, you should, of course, still play and interact with your rats, but you should be sure to wash your hands between touching the new rats and your current rat(s). This period is to ensure any diseases your new rats may have are not spread. During this time period, watch for any signs of disease such as lack of energy, discharge from the eyes and nose, not eating or drinking, sneezing, excess scratching, and easy breathing.
Step Two: Swap the rat cages. After you are sure your new rats don’t have any diseases, you can swap your rats cages so they can learn the scent and smell of each other before coming face to face. Your new and old rats should spend a few hours in each other’s cage learning their scents and smells.
Step Three: Introduce them in neutral territory. After your rats have spent some time getting to know each other’s scents, you can introduce them to each other in neutral territory. Introducing them in a neutral territory prevents either rat from getting territorial and a fight from ensuing.
A neutral territory does not simply mean not in the cage, but rather a place that neither rat has spent much time. If you let your rats play on the floor a lot when out of the cage, the floor is not neutral territory.
One of the most common neutral territories is a bathtub, just make sure to close the drain. During this time, you should keep a cloth, paper towel roll, or thick glove on hand so you can separate them safely in case they do start to get violent.
Step Four: Introduce them in familiar territory. Once your rats prove that they can get along in a neutral territory, you can start to introduce them in a familiar territory. This still does not mean the cage. Pick a place such as a floor where the rats play some times. Here, you can watch to see how they react to each other in a place where they may feel territorial.
If you find that the play dates on familiar territory lead to a lot of fighting, go back to the neutral territory for a while before progressing.
Remember, the rats may fight some just to assert dominance.
Step Five: Cage them together. The final step of introducing your rats to each other is housing them in the same cage. There are two options when you do this. One, you can get a whole new cage. This way, neither rat will feel overly territorial, which will significantly decrease the chance of fighting.
Your other option is to house them in one of the cages your rats were already in. This option is cheaper but takes a lot more time. Before moving the rats into a cage one has already lived in, you must clean and rearrange the rat’s cage completely. You want to make sure neither rat already feels like the new territory is theirs. The only way to do that is by removing any smell and rearranging it, so it feels like a new cage.
Do You Have to Get Rid of a Rat When They Fight All The Time?
You do not have to automatically get rid of a rat because they start to fight.
If two of your rats who have recently been introduced start to show signs of fighting a lot, separate them into different cages, and go through the introductory process again (you do not have to include the quarantine phase.)
Be sure to give them lots of time to interact in neutral and familiar territory before moving them back into one cage. Hopefully, this will give them the time to develop a hierarchy and relationship outside of the often tense and territorial cage.
If your rats do not seem to be able to get along, no matter what you do, you probably will have to keep them separate (perhaps even far enough away that they can not smell each other), but you still do not have to get rid of them.
As long as you have space, time, and enclosures to care for separate rat cages, that is all you have to do. If you do not have the ability to keep them in separate cages long term, you may need to consider giving one away to another trusted and prepared owner. Unfortunately, there are times where rats never do get along, however, this is rare.
Hopefully, if it gets to the point where you have to get rid of one of your rats, you are able to give them to someone close to you so you can still see your pet sometimes. Keep in mind that just because your rat does not live along with one other rat, does not mean he should not have cagemates. Rats are always social creatures and are happiest when they have another rat with them— that they get along with.