This article is from the WSSF 2010 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Karen Robbins
Kris Koseski, Newtown, PA, e-mail
QWe have a little problem, and I don’t know the best way to approach it. We just bought two young rats, Squeakus and Nubby (approximately 6 weeks old). When we got them home, we held them for a moment before we put them in their cage, saying their names softly. We put them in their cage where Nubby started to sniff around and explore his new environment. Squeakus jumped into his food dish and looked panicked.
We walked by the cage often looking in, saying their names softly. When, after a few hours we tried to take them out, they ran from us. They eventually let us pick them up, but seemed very tense and upset. We let them play on the bed for a few minutes, just to get some play time, and then put them back in the cage. They both climbed into the hammock and have barely left it since. They look terrified when we approach the cage. We have tried offering them treats, not to coax them out, but just to trust us (so far we’ve tried Total cereal flakes, dry pasta, sunflower seeds, and raisins) and they just sit there, frozen, hardly even sniffing the treats. I’ve read that we should go at the rats’ pace from some folks, and that we need to be aggressively friendly from others. These rats belong to my 6-year-old son. He has lost sleep from worry that his “babies” will never like him. (He sits by the cage softly saying “It’ll be okay . . . Mommy’s here.” I guess because that’s a comforting sound to him, and he wants them to feel as comfortable as he feels when Mommy assures him).
I don’t want to traumatize these precious babies, I just don’t know if I should try harder, or leave them alone until they build up some courage. The food thing doesn’t seem to work, and whereas they’re so young, withholding food seems wrong (They’re still growing kids after all). Please help me and my son.
Thank you so very much for your time!
ASeveral questions: Did you buy them from a breeder or pet shop? How much did you handle them prior to the purchase? Do you have any kind of hiding place in the cage (box, tunnel, etc.)? How big is the cage that they are in now compared to the size of cage they were in prior?
I have anyone looking for pet rats to handle each one and see how they react to that person. Rats will choose their owners and react differently to each person—with one person they will be very fidgety, not want to be in their hands, and try to get away, whereas you can give the same rat to another person and they settle right down and end up washing their face after a few minutes. If they give kisses (lick the person), that means they really like that person. Some rats will give kisses to anyone, but others just do it to their special people. I have each person handle each rat for several minutes to see how they react and respond to that person. The rats that are very comfortable with them will sit comfortably in the hands or on the shoulders and be curious of the surroundings. If they will sit in the person’s hands and wash their faces, that means they are very comfortable with that person. It will take several minutes of handling the rats to find the special ones for that person.
Once they have chosen their two boys or two girls, I then go over the kinds of food and treats to feed and what should not be fed. Rats will eat anything, but that doesn’t mean they should be fed anything. Some stuff can be potentially harmful to them. I recommend a high-quality lab block as the main diet fed free choice (available all the time). Lab blocks are a balanced diet that has everything in them for the rats. It’s the same concept as feeding a dog the dry dog kibble as opposed to buying the meat, grains, veggies, vitamins, and cooking it all up for them. Treats should be no more than 10% of the diet. Treats should be healthy things like fresh washed raw vegetables (broccoli, kale, carrots, etc.), raw fruit (bananas, apples, grapes, etc.) (although I feed mostly veggies as treats because of the natural sugar content in fruits), healthy breads (super healthy whole wheat, seeded grain breads, etc.), healthy cereals (low sugar, low salt) like Shredded Wheat, Cheerios, etc., or the puffed cereals (puffed millet, puffed rice, etc.), although I personally give organic cereals to my rats that are fruit juice sweetened instead of sugar sweetened or has no sugar at all. I also give my rats the organic rice/millet cakes. You can also give them healthy table scraps. They love bites of spaghetti with sauce, leftover rib bones, baked potato skins (with no butter/ sour cream though —they don’t need this extra fat), etc. Rats also like dog biscuits (peanut butter, sweet potato, and veggie in that order, are my rats’ favorites). It’s best when you purchase your rats, to find out what they had been fed (brand of lab blocks, kinds of treats, etc.) and try to get the same food and if necessary, slowly transition them over to your food. Most breeders will sell you the lab blocks they use so you can purchase your food from them for the life of the rats. Some rats will like certain kinds of treats and not others, so it is a matter of giving it to them to see if they like it. If the rats came from a pet shop, you will probably not be able to find out what kind of food they were raised on by the breeder. If they were fed a grain/seed mix, this is more of a treat than a main diet. With the grain/seed mixes, the rats will pick and choose what they eat (eating the sunflower seeds, dog kibble, etc., first) and leave a lot behind which you then throw out. They don’t get a very balanced diet this way and this kind of diet can lead to obesity and skin/coat problems. Also, too much of the seeds can cause some rats to break out in scabs. If anyone wants to feed a seed mix as a treat, Reggie Rat seed mix is a mix made up special for rats and doesn’t have all the fattening stuff in it. We find the rats will eat everything in this mix. Personally, I don’t feed grain/seed mixes and don’t recommend them to the people that buy rats from me. Nuts are too fattening, especially for females—too much fat in their diet can help develop tumors. We recommend sticking with the veggies/fruits/cereals/healthy table scraps. Yogurt drops are the worst thing you can feed your pet rats—nothing but sugar and fat. They are better off with a piece of broccoli head/stem or a carrot.
Now on to getting the rats home. Some rats will get used to their new surroundings in a few days, others may take as long as a couple weeks. I recommend no boxes or hiding places for the first couple weeks. If a rat is timid and shy, they will hide in a box or house and not get used to their surroundings very well. If you don’t give them any place to hide, they will more quickly become used to the new surroundings, smells, sights, and sounds. If they were in a breeding-size cage at the breeder’s and you put them into a huge triple deluxe cage three times the size of what they were living in, this can overwhelm some babies. If you have them in a large wire cage with multi levels, are they able to get up to the top where you can’t reach them? Does the cage have doors that access all parts of the cage? If they are able to get away from you and you have to struggle to get to them or can’t reach them, this will add to the timidness. If you have them in a large aquarium, they wouldn’t be able to hide anywhere or get away from you. The cage should be in an area where there is activity (such as a family room/living room) so they get used to everything.
Whenever anyone goes by the cage have them talk to the rats and open the door and offer them a treat (putting it up to them to let them smell it if they won’t come to you). If they won’t take it, then leave the treat. They will soon associate anyone coming and visiting them with a tasty tidbit.
As far as handling them, my experience is if you go to pick them up and they run and you let them go, you are training them to be timid. I find that even timid rats, if you go get them (being gentle but firm; try to pick them up on the first attempt rather then letting them run from you several times until you can grab them), pick them up, and then hold, pet, and talk to them for several minutes until they calm down, they will soon realize you won’t hurt them—this will go a lot farther toward them calming down than if you let them get away with being afraid. Also, if you take a couple steps away from the cage and turn so they can’t see it, this should help. Once you handle them for several minutes until they calm down, are relaxed, and then put them back (don’t put them back until they are calm), they will then come to your hand saying, “That wasn’t so bad, take me out again.” Of course, if you got them from a pet shop, you won’t know how much, if any, handling they received before going to the pet shop. If they were never handled or socialized when babies, it will make your job harder. Also, genetics/heredity plays a key factor in how nice a baby will be www.afrma.org/pdf/genetic_tameness.pdf. If they are from friendly, nice animals, even if they aren’t handled a lot as babies, the new owner’s handling will bring out the personality of the rats. If they were bred from animals that have poor or unsteady temperaments or were from aggressive stock, they are more likely to have severe temperament problems. You should take them out and handle them at least a couple times a day—just don’t take them out every few minutes as they are babies and will still do a lot of sleeping at this age. Once they get used to your handling and come to you, then you can start taking them out and putting on the bed or chair. If they don’t know you very well and you put them on the bed, they won’t associate you as their “safe place” in case something frightens them.
And of course, bedding. The bedding should be paper such as CareFRESH™ or CareFRESH Ultra™ or aspen in the form of shavings, shredded, or flakes, etc.
QThanks so very much for the help!! In answer to your questions. I “ordered” them from a breeder through the pet store. The pet store doesn’t carry rats, but is in contact with a fancy rat breeder. (Actually, the girl at the pet store has two of their rats and says they’re very sweet and lovable.) Because I “ordered” them, I could not handle them before we brought them home. I do have a hammock for them to sleep in. When they’re both in it, their combined weight kind of forms a tunnel of sorts. So far, one of the boys will take food from my hands (actually everything I’ve offered him) while the other won’t even sniff at it. If I leave it for him, he moves away to sleep elsewhere, and his cagemate will come by and get it. Oddly, the one who won’t eat from my hands gives me the least resistance when I try to pick them up. And once he gets in my hands, he climbs up my arm to my shoulder, where he sits placidly. My biggest concern at the moment, is the one who will not take food from my hand seems uninterested in food at all. When I put the food blocks in their dish, Nubby runs right down there to check out what I put in. Squeakus shows absolutely no interest in food at all. I caught him eating once at 11 P.M., but not before or since. I hope he eats during the night. Thanks again for your help.
ASounds like you are making some progress with the rats. I always find it a bad idea for the new owner to get rats “sight unseen” rather than being able to handle them and find their right ones. The timid one will need lots of extra handling and attention to help bring him around. His personality may not be outgoing like that of his cagemate, so he may end up never being as friendly, but with handling he should get over his fear of everything. The rats will eat, so don’t worry about him not eating like he should.
Maria Ross, facebook
QI have a 6-year-old daughter who just got a rat as a pet. It is white and cream color. She needs some info on her rat and maybe a few worksheets to complete to make a scrap book. Does anyone know where I could find these? Remember she is 6, so nothing too fancy.
AWe have the Kids Pages on the web site www.afrma.org/kidskorner.htm that has a Caresheet written for kids along with coloring pages, games, and other fun items. Our Info Page www.afrma.org/rmindex.htm has various flyers and posters that can also be used.
Rats are very social animals and need a same sex buddy so it is advised to get another rat to go with the one you have now.