It’s easy to tell when your rats are playing. They’re having a great time, bouncing around, no puffed-up fur, no biting, no blood is drawn.
The line gets a little fuzzy when pet rats are establishing dominance. They’re beyond playing but still not really fighting. Even though there’s no biting or puffed-up fur, you can sense the intensity and the potential for a fight.
When living in groups, there’s often at least one rat who wants to establish his or her dominance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having a pecking order can actually help them live together more harmoniously. Rats assert their power by pinning another rat onto his or her back. As long as the rat being pinned just stays on her back, they’ll live together peacefully. If, on the other hand, two rats keep trying to pin one another without one of them agreeing to be pinned, you’ll need to intervene. When they’re males, neutering one or both will solve the issue.
Here’s a video of my rat Evan pinning his brother Chet onto his back. Observe how gentle Evan is while establishing his dominance. Also notice Chet just stays on his back until Evan is satisfied his dominance is official:
Here’s Twyla, a 2 year old spayed female being introduced to Henderson when he was about 3 months old. Twyla had lost her best friend in the world about a month earlier. Although Twyla had been living with me for over a year, she easily she allowed this newcomer (smart, young Henderson) to establish dominance over her. Previously I’d never seen a new rat establish dominance over my current rat during the early stages of introductions. Again, notice that when Twyla is being gently pinned by Henderson, she easily accepts his domination.
You’ll know your rats are engaging in serious combat if you observe:
The above are signs of imminent danger and the rats engaging in this behavior need to be separated immediately. Ideally, you’ll already be observing your rats closely before the behavior as escalated and have distracted them with a toy or a string for them to chase .
A precursor to fighting and biting is when two rats face one another, standing up on their hind legs as if they’re about to “duke it out”. Sometimes they’ll stand in this position for a minute or so just staring at one another. This isn’t a behavior I’d encourage. Again, it’s best to distract them with a new activity before they’ve been staring at one another for two long.
If you have two rats who aren’t completely harmonious, make sure to have the following items on hand. Both will serve to protect both you and your rats from getting injured:
If you have two males who are repeatedly fighting, neutering can help. Bear in mind it takes 6-8 weeks post-neuter before the aggression subsides. Because of this your aggressive rat will need to live separately until his temperament has improved.
If you have two female rats who are fighting, try to figure out and eliminate the cause of the fighting. (For example, if they’re fighting over food or a toy, take it away and see if this helps.) If they were just recently introduced to one another, return to an earlier phase of the introductory process. This will give them the chance to get reacquainted slowly and safely.