When bringing new pet rats home, it’s important to build mutual trust and show your rats they’re now living in a safe, friendly environment. It’s a lot for a rat to process all at once. They’re such small animals who, in the wild, are used to being hunted by predators. Because of their vulnerability, remember to go extra slow and to spend as much time as possible with your new rats.
Here are three key ways in which you can spend time—while creating trust and building relationships—with your new friends. These three steps will work well for pet rats you’ve already had for awhile, too.
Make sure their cage is located in an area where you already spend lots of time. It can be a place where you read, watch movies, study or whatever else you enjoying doing while you’re home. Having their cage in an area where they can physically feel your presence and hear you talking softly and moving about will help them get used to you.
While you’re near their cage, whenever you notice one of your rats looking toward you, softly say “hello” and “Good!” and they’ll gradually begin to interact with you. In time they’ll even come out just to see you when they know you’re nearby.
While it’s ideal to have their cage in a communal living area, you’ll also want to make sure there aren’t threatening sounds or smells nearby. Initially it’s a good idea to limit their exposure to any other pets in your household. Keep in mind that your goal is to set up a calm, secure environment. Sudden loud noises and the smell of other animals can be scary to a rat new to their environment.
Physical contact plays a significant role in building relationships. Petting and cuddling with our pets lowers stress for them and for us. To begin establishing trust, have your rats ride around on your shoulders several times a day, preferably at least once in the morning and once in the evening. While they’re on your shoulders, walk away from their cage so they don’t get distracted by wanting to get back inside. Allow them to crawl inside your tucked-in shirt, a pocket (if they’re small enough), or the hood of your sweatshirt if it makes them feel more comfortable.
Your rats can ride on your shoulders while you’re washing dishes, watching a movie, reading a book, working on your computer, etc. You can also make or buy a bonding pouch. This works well if you prefer to “wear” your rats around the house instead of having them on your shoulders or inside your shirt.
When you’re sitting down with your rats, they may eventually get drowsy and even fall asleep inside your shirt or on your lap. While they’re so relaxed is a great time for them to get used to being gently petted.
As long as you’re in an area away from their cage, your rats will generally want to stay with you rather than escaping. As you spend more and more time with your rats outside their cage while they’re on your shoulder or inside your shirt, they’ll begin to associate you with safety.
After your rats get used to shoulder riding and being close to you, take them out onto the floor of a rat-proofed bathroom. They’ll gradually start to explore and will, over time, become increasingly comfortable with being in a new place. While venturing out farther and farther, they’ll learn to think of you as their “safe zone” to which they can return at any time which will further increase their trust in you. For more information about helping your rats to feel comfortable exploring new areas, see Transforming Your Rat: From Shy to Social Butterfly.
After they get used to exploring the bathroom, keep introducing them to new surroundings. This will help reinforce that YOU are the safest place for them to be. Your rats will increasingly enjoy being with you. Let them check out being on a bed or a table top where they can return to you whenever they feel the need for reassurance.
Observe them closely to learn their signals and ways of communicating. If they act super wiggly, it could mean they need to urinate or defecate. [For more information on this, see Litter Box Lessons for You and Your Pet Rat.] One of my rats looks at me with huge eyes when she’s worried. Another one freezes in place. After spending time with your rats, you’ll start to notice the little idiosyncrasies and signs each of your rats communicates to you and you can then respond accordingly.