This article is from the Fall 2000 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Nichole Royer
Lynn Lehman, Racine, WI
QI have had mice as pets for about 5 or more years now, and I very much enjoy them. About 3 weeks ago I bought two 5-week-old female rats because I’ve heard they are even more friendly than mice. The problem is, they are still as scared as when I got them! I read in the rat book I have that I should spend at least 30 minutes to 1 hour with them every day so they would get used to me. They either huddle in the corner and flatten themselves against the cage so it’s hard to pick them up, or run and hide in their boxes with eyes wide with fear!
When I can get them out, they just jump right back in the cage—most of the time before I can put them on my lap. The few times they are on my lap, they want to run back and try to get away. I constantly offer them treats, but they are too afraid to take them until I put their cage top back on and move away. Every time anyone goes into the room, they immediately freeze. Am I doing something wrong, or did I just end up with two that are not good pets? My mice are much more friendly than these two rats! Can you give me any advice?
Update 6 weeks later
I am still having a very difficult time with my two rats, Jasmine and Jade. I thought I would have to find a home for Jasmine, but decided against it. She is such a hyper little monkey! She’s always trying to escape! She likes to jump up and hang from the wire cage top in the middle of the night. The biggest problem with her is that when it’s cage cleaning time, she’s so frightened she jumps out and hides under the dressers where it’s very hard to get her back out! Last time it took me about 45 minutes to catch her twice while trying to clean out the cage. Jade never tries to jump out, no matter how frightened she is.
I don’t understand why they are still so afraid! Jasmine and Jade both will let me pet them and will accept food from my hand occasionally, but I cannot take them out for fear that they will escape! It’s not only very hard to catch them, it’s also very scary for me and must be very horrible for them. I guess I will just have to be content to just watch them. I am so disappointed that I have not been able to win these girls’ trust! At least I have my mice that are very tame!
I also have another question. The pet shop where I purchased these girls was in Milwaukee, and they told me I could add new rats with no problem to these two. When I decided I would consider adding more, the pet store here said it’s not possible, that they would fight to the death. So which is it? For the safety of my girls and also of any others, I have given up the thought of any new additions. Instead, I bought five more female mice with their own cage of course! I don’t know how to tell what breeds they are, but I do know one is a Satin because the girl that helped me said so. I wish I knew how to tell them all apart by breed! I have no one else who knows or cares anything about mice or rats here! The pet shops are all very unreliable, and each one has a totally different answer, so I never know what to believe!
AThe problem you have run into with your rats is a common one, and no you are not doing something wrong. Unfortunately, most rats which are for sale in pet shops have been bred to be food for a reptile. The person breeding them has paid no attention to whether the parent animals have nice temperaments, and they do not handle the babies except on the rare occasions to clean the cages. This means that often the rats in pet shops have only been touched by humans on 4 or 5 occasions, each of which was a traumatic experience.
There are two things that determine a rat’s temperament—genetics and early handling. With pet shop rats, it’s a given that they haven’t been handled, and the genetics part is a real toss up. Some pet shop rats are naturally calm and friendly, despite the lack of handling. Others are not. You, unfortunately, did not seem to luck out.
All is not lost, however. Your rats may never be as calm as some others, but they can still be wonderful friendly pets. Here’s what has worked for many people. Remove each rat individually from its cage for a few minutes several times a day. Place it on your bed, and lay on the bed with it. Make sure its cage and roommate are out of sight. Do this while it is calm and quiet. For the first week or so just lay on the bed with the rat, and let it get used to your smell and the sound of your voice. When it has gotten used to being on the bed, you can begin sitting on the bed and stroking it. When she accepts this calmly, start gently picking her up and setting her on your leg. Once she is comfortable sitting on your leg, you can move her to your shoulder, then out to other areas of the house. This is a slow process, but worth the time it takes. Once they figure out you won’t hurt them, they will settle in.
This can be helped along by removing places to hide from in their cage. I always like to have boxes in with my rats, but I have found that if these “scaredy rats” are able to hide every time someone walks by, they never discover that the people walking by are not going to hurt them. Try leaving a bowl of Cheerios (or other small healthy treats like whole wheat bread cubes or frozen veggies) near their cage, and every time someone walks by, have them put two Cheerios in a specific place in the cage. Don’t try to give them to the rats, just put them in the cage and move on. Rats are smart, it won’t take them long to discover that people bring good stuff! Soon they will be coming out to see what treats are being left.
Rats really are wonderful pets, and I feel bad that your first experience with them is not as positive as it should be. With a little luck, your girls will eventually settle in and you will be able to enjoy them.