• Transforming Your Rat: from Shy to Social Butterfly

    Posted on August 21, 2014 by in Behavior, Training



    Are your new rats shy? If they’re not excited about coming out of their cage to be with you or they don’t like to be picked up or petted, here are some tips you’ll love! These ideas also work great for any rat who, in general, doesn’t seem bonded to you.

    Taking your rats out in an area where they haven’t been before is a great way to get them more used to being with you. Once they’re in a new territory, you will become the only thing familiar to them. They will then naturally want to stay close to you or at least return to you for safety. An ideal place in which to do this is a bathroom.

    To Prepare:

    • Make sure the toilet seat is down
    • Sweep and mop the floor if needed
    • Remove anything from the floor that could be dangerous (toilet bowl brush, garbage can, etc.)
    • Any electrical cords should be either unreachable or unplugged
    • Cover over any cracks where they could escape Austin exploring bathroom3into the walls. The most commonly overlooked place where cracks exist is underneath cabinets, right where they met the floor. There’s often an open space between the bottom of the cabinet and the wall or floor of the bathroom. Cut up cardboard boxes or rolled up towels work well to block these escape routes.
    • If the closed bathroom door has a large enough crack underneath it for your rats to squeeze through, be sure to cover this over as well.

    [For more tips on setting up danger-free rooms, see Making a Room Safe for Your Pet Rats.]

    Are you able to pick up your rats? If so, bring them into the bathroom on your shoulder—-this is ideal. Sit down with them on the floor.  They’ll gradually begin exploring their new surroundings and will periodically run back to check in with you for a feeling of safety. You’ll become their “refuge” and “safe zone”.

    If you’re not able to pick them up and bring them into the bathroom on your shoulder, bring in their cage and place it in the middle of the bathroom floor. If their cage is too big, you can bring them into the bathroom in a smaller cage, cat carrier or cardboard box. Open the door of the cage or carrier and sit on the floor next to it. Plan on being there for awhile——bring in a book to read or a laptop or tablet to look at wNora and I - Bathroom Floorhile you sit quietly with your rats.

    From time to time, talk softly to them. If they’re too scared to come out, offer tasty treats that smell yummy. Small pieces of bread with peanut butter spread very sparingly work well. (Make sure you don’t put too much peanut butter on each small piece of bread because rats can choke easily on a big “glob” of peanut butter.) Another treat rats enjoy are Cheerios which you can break into quarters so they only get a tiny amount at a time.

    At first allow your rats to take the treat from you even if they just come to the door of the cage or carrier. After they’re comfortable doing this, wait until your rat sticks his or her head outside the cage before offering a treat. Then, gradually coax them all the way out of the cage before giving a treat. Once they’re completely out of the cage, move the cage or carrier to an area they can’t reach. This is when YOU will become their refuge. When they see there’s nowhere to go to hide and you’re continuing to talk softly and offer treats, they’ll want to be with you. Even after they start to gradually explore the floor of the bathroom, they’ll run back to you to make sure you’re still there as their protector.

    The key is to do all of this gradually, to move slowly and talk softly. Also, be sure and work with your rats every single day. Preferably, having your rats out at least twice a day is best.

    I hope this information is helpful for you. Please let me know if you have any questions by adding a comment below.


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12 Responses so far.

  1. Cynthia Mares says:

    Heyy, I have 2 female rats (Bubbles and Dahlila) and Bubbles is playful and interactive. However Dahlila is not, she won’t come out of the cage or play or anything Bubbles loves to do. Just wanting some advice on how to get her the way Bubbles is please! I feel bad how she doesn’t feel comfortable with me yet.

    • Hi, Cynthia!

      You mentioned that Dahlila “doesn’t feel comfortable with you yet” so I’m guessing she may be a newer rat. Even if she’s not new, the ideas in Bonding with Your New Pet Rats can help Dahlila become more trusting and engaged. Included in this article are three key ways in which you can aid your rats in becoming more comfortable with you and their environment. Topics covered in this post include cage location, how best to spend and maximize time with your rats, as well as taking your rats out into new environments. All three of these areas will help your rat gain trust in you and her surroundings.

      Once Dahlila becomes more comfortable, she’ll be more likely to engage in play. Sometimes it also takes finding the type of activity that’s most appealing to your rat. Here are a few ideas to try:

      Playing with Food: A Game for Your Pet Rats

      Pet Rat Playground

      Making a Room Safe for Your Pet Rats

      Did You Know Rats Play Just Like Cats?

      If the above ideas don’t help and/or you don’t feel they’re applicable, Dahlila’s reticence could also be due to her…..

      …..individual, innate personality – Just as with humans, not all rats require extra stimulation and activity in order to live a satisfying life. However, most girls are very lively and are curious about their surroundings particularly while they’re young.

      …..having an illness – Have your rats been examined by a veterinarian who’s experienced with and knowledgeable about pet rats yet? Often times, a rat can be sick without your knowing it. A veterinarian can help catch a disease before it gets out of hand. When treated early on, not only do you save money but your rats have a greater chance of regaining or at least maintaining their health.

      …..having a specific fear – To resolve this sort of problem, the source or cause of her fear must first be identified. Then you can work with her to gradually overcome her fear and anxiety.

      I don’t want to forget to mention that being around Bubbles is a great learning experience for Dahlila, too. When she sees Bubbles enjoy playing and being petted, then Dahlila is more likely to catch on and want to join in on the fun.

      Thank you for asking your great question. It’s wonderful you’re looking into ways to help Dahlila become more comfortable with you and her environment. Whatever tips you decide to try, be sure to practice them with her consistently every day. Twice daily is even better. Over time you’ll notice improvement as long as you stick with it and are patient and compassionate while working with her.

      I hope that at least some of these ideas are helpful and that they’ll benefit all three of you. If you need any clarification or additional details, don’t hesitate to let me know.

      Best Wishes to You, Dahlila & Bubbles,

      Jasmine | About Pet Rats

  2. Travis Snow says:

    Hi! i happen to have 2 rats im not positive the age but my sister recently let them stay i my room and i haven´t been able to hold them they both are very stubborn when it comes to being held so i havent really been able to do that i tend to pet them every day and one of the reasons i can´t handle them much is because since i have cats roaming my house and i can´t let them roam in my room due to having a heater that they can get to im really wanting to handle them more but i´m kinda nervous of holding them.

    • Hi There!

      For tips on how to help your rats become more used to being held, you’d probably find it very helpful to read Bonding with Your New Pet Rats in Three Easy Steps. Even if your rats aren’t new, I think you’ll find some useful ideas in this post.

      You might also want to read suggestions on how to safely have cats and rats living in the same household: Fishy Roomies: If I have cats can I have rats?.

      Also keep in mind that, if your rats are young and especially if they’re females, there’s a good chance they won’t want to be held at all. Males are much more cuddly and affectionate than females. As rats get older they do tend to become more interested in being held and in developing a closer bond with humans.

      Regarding the heater in your room, I’m wondering if you have a small bathroom in which your rats can free roam. (Make sure to check underneath cabinets as well as follow other precautions mentioned in the above article.) For other rooms, Making a Room Safe for Your Pet Rats has some great ideas.

      I hope these ideas are helpful for you. If you feel I haven’t answered or understood your question fully, or if you need any clarification, don’t hesitate to let me know.

      Best Wishes to You & Your Rats,

      Jasmine | About Pet Rats

  3. Sydney says:

    Hello again.
    I have a concern about one of my rats, Beauregarde, and thought you might be able to give me insight. I know you aren’t a vet, but I just wanted to see if anything like this has happened to you before. Beauregarde’s personality suddenly took a drastic change a day or so ago. He rarely comes out of his hut, and when he does he’s smushed into one corner of his cage. He still takes food from me, but now if I don’t have food in my hand, he’ll bite me. Mostly they’re not hard bites, but some are and if I leave my hand there he’ll bite harder the next time. This is something he never did before. Every once in a while he’d just close his teeth on me, but not to this extent and never this hard. I’ve also noticed that his fur is not as soft, meaning he’s probably not keeping up with his grooming. The only new change is that I’ve slowly started switching out their old, bad food for Harlan Teklad, which I’ve heard is much better for them. I was just hoping to hear from you and see if you think this change could be something I’ve done, or if it sounds like he should see a vet. I’ve taken him to the vet before, and that time I’d been given medicine for a tapeworm. It was only a larva that was found, and I have him the full medication. Like I said, as far as I know you aren’t a vet, but if you have any insight for me, that would be very helpful.

    • Hi There, Sydney!

      That’s too bad that Beauregarde has had such a sudden change in personality. It does sound like he should be examined by a veterinarian. There might be an underlying health condition which has caused him to change his behavior so drastically. The fact that he’s not grooming himself like he used to also points toward a possible health problem.

      I highly recommend rats be examined by a veterinarian (one who’s knowledgeable and experienced with pet rats) every 3-6 months regardless of whether or not they have any symptoms. There are so many health problems our rats can get. It’s not always possible for us to notice a health issue, especially when it’s in the beginning stages. A good vet, however, will notice problems early on and can often help resolve the issue before it becomes advanced. By doing so, your rats will live longer, healthier and happier lives and you’ll save money treating any problems before they become severe.

      Once you take Beauregarde to the vet, you’ll learn whether or not he has a health problem. If he does have a health condition, your vet will hopefully help him improve. On the other hand, if your vet finds Beauregarde is in good health, then you’ll know it’s a behavioral problem. Your vet may also have some suggestions for you if it does turn out to be a behavioral problem.

      A Few Thoughts…
      That’s great that you’re switching to the new diet slowly and that you’re looking at anything that’s changed recently that could have caused the new behavior. I wonder if Beauregarde’s fur is less soft due to the diet change?

      Could he be biting you because he feels cornered? You wrote that, when he comes out of his hut, he goes to the corner of the cage. Do you approach him with your hand while he’s in the corner? Or does he ever come forward on his own?

      Pet Rat

      As you’re aware, it sure doesn’t sound good that he barely ever comes out of his hut. Anytime I’ve had a rat switch to anti-social behavior, it was due to a health problem. That or sometimes my rats have gotten spooked by a scent such as my cats and became afraid to come out and play. That behavior usually lasted only a day and hasn’t happened in awhile since I’m better at acclimating my rats to having cats in our house.

      If you’d like to let me know, I’d love hear about what your vet says after examining Beauregarde. I hope he’s okay!

      Sending positive wishes to you, Beauregarde & Basel,

      Jasmine | About Pet Rats

  4. Sydney says:

    Hello! I was wondering if you could give me an idea on how to break my rat’s fear of being held. He’s a bit of a different case, however. His name is Basel and he once was a lab rat at my school. My roommate told me her professor was willing to give him to me afterwards. I don’t know exactly what happened during the experiment, but I do know he was given no loving contact, and that every time he was picked up he was given a shot of saline. I received him when he was still young, about 5 months old. No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get him used to being held. When I first got him, I held him every day while offering him treats before, during, and after. I did this for a couple of months, yet he still squirms and chatters nervously when I try to pick him up. I’m worried he may be permanently scarred from the experiment. Do you have any advice on how to break his fear?

    • Hi Sydney,

      How sad that Basel was subjected to such cruelty. Not receiving any loving contact and given a shot of saline each time he was picked up are situations that are difficult to overcome.

      On the other hand, I’m glad you were able to adopt him when he was still fairly young.

      My best suggestion would be to spend as much time with him as you possibly can so he can learn that you are not going to hurt him. Keep him with you on your shoulder or inside your shirt, especially while you’re at home. This will help him learn you’re a “safe place” and that you’re not going to hurt him.

      After he gets used to being with you on a daily basis, I’d try some of the techniques mentioned in this post. Sitting with him in a bathroom and allowing him to explore (if and when he wants to) will help boost his confidence.

      Keep in mind it can take several months (or even longer) for Basel to begin to understand he has a loving home. Patience is definitely called for in this type of a situation.

      I also strongly believe Basel can benefit from your adopting another rat to be his companion. If you can find a second rat—one who’s very well socialized with both other rats and with humans—Basel can learn the benefits and joys of companionship from both rats and humans.

      Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any other questions about pet rats. I am here to help at any time!

      Best Wishes to You and Basel,

      Jasmine | About Pet Rats

    • Sydney says:

      Thank you for your advice. I have had Basel for at least six or more months, so he is very comfortable with me. I am a college student, so I don’t have as much time as I’d like to spend with him, but I do think he’s comfortable with me. I especially notice when I didn’t get to spend much time with him the day before, he’ll chitter when I pet him. I’m assuming this means he’s happy rather than nervous, because he doesn’t get twitchy or finicky; however, the moment I go to pick him up he gets incredibly nervous. I’ve tried, and always failed, to get him on my shoulder.
      I also already got him a friend, yet this new little guy (Beauregarde) is even more skittish than Basel is. Should I wait until I can get Beau used to me before introducing him to Basel? I’m having issues with that, as well. Beau is incredibly anxious with his surroundings. I’m currently sitting on my bathroom floor hoping he’ll come out to explore, but he’s been frozen to the same spot not moving in his cage. He also is not taking treats from me right now, which he did before, although cautiously.

    • Hi Sydney,

      Being a college student can actually help you have more time with your rats…..you can have them with you while you’re studying.

      When you say, “chitter”, I wonder if you’re referring to bruxing. Rats make a wonderful sound by grinding their teeth together that’s called bruxing. They usually do this when they’re happy but sometimes will brux when nervous or not feeling well. Below is a video I made of one of my rats bruxing. She even boggles a bit at the end of the video. (“Boggling” is when their eyes pop in and out—-This is an expression of happiness and doesn’t occur when they’re stressed.)

      From what you wrote, it sounds like you are able to pick him up but that he just doesn’t like it. If you are able to pick him up, gently take him out of his cage and into an area completely away from his cage. This is very important so that he associates YOU (rather than his cage) with safety. In the beginning, spend brief amounts of time (around 10-15 minutes) with him away from his cage. Give him his favorite treat and/or pet him and talk softly and encouragingly to him while you have him out with you.

      Remember that rats are prey animals: Any loud sound or sudden movement terrifies them. Some rats can adapt over time and become acclimated to the sounds and movements in your household. However, some rats aren’t ever able to get used to loud sounds and quick movements. To help gain your rat’s trust it’s important, especially in the beginning, to always move slowly and to talk softly.

      If you’re not able to pick him up, here are some steps for helping him learn to trust you

      • While Basel is inside his cage, offer him a small treat with your hand.
      • If he doesn’t come up to your hand for the treat, (or he runs away from your hand,) set it down inside the cage while he watches so he knows you’re the source of the treats.
      • The treat should be small enough that it doesn’t take long to eat it and leaves him wanting more. A sunflower seed or ¼ of a cheerio work well.
      • Offer the treats with your hand inside his cage several times a day.
      • If you started out having to place the treat on the floor of his cage, gradually work up to having him accept the treat from your fingers.
      • After several more days of having him accept the treat from your fingers, gradually move your hand closer to the door of the cage until you can coax him out onto your forearm before giving him the treat
      • Eventually coax him up to your shoulder before giving the treat.
      • Each step of the way may need to be repeated over the course of 2-3 days before you can proceed.
      • If your rat balks at any point, you may need to go back to the previous baby step before advancing further

      Regarding Beauregarde, you don’t necessarily need to wait until he gets used to you before starting introductions. It is important, however, to quarantine any new rat(s). I’m not sure if it’s too late for Beau, but it’s a good idea to keep any new rat(s) in a completely separate area of your house and to wash your hands and even change your clothes after being with your new rat(s) and before visiting with your existing rats. Keeping them completely separate for three weeks allows any diseases or parasites enough time to become evident. Quarantining helps minimize the risk of your original rat(s) contracting anything from the new rat(s).

      That’s great you took Beau’s cage into your bathroom to see if he’d come out to explore. It can take several weeks before a rat is comfortable exploring a new environment. It’s very important to work with him on a daily basis to allow him to get used to being out in a new environment.

      Vera reaching out

      You can try sitting with him on the bathroom floor while he’s in the cage for 3-4 more days, just letting him get used to being in the new environment. After that, take him out of his cage before bringing him into the bathroom and just sit on the floor with him. He can hang out inside your shirt or on your shoulder. Don’t expect him to want to explore at all in the beginning. He just needs to learn that he’s safe with you. The only way for him to learn this is to have him with you in the bathroom (or any new environment) each day until he learns that nothing bad is going to happen to him.

      If you’d like, I’ll be glad to Skype with you and see exactly how it’s going with Basel and Beau. To do so, feel free to contact me using the contact form on my website.

      Good luck with Basel and Beau. It really is a matter of baby steps repeated on a daily basis, preferably twice daily at minimum. Don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help further.

      Best Wishes to You, Basel & Beau,

      Jasmine | About Pet Rats

  5. Laura says:

    My boy, Basil, doesn’t have too much interest in exploring. Whether the space is familiar or new, he prefers to crawl into the arm or leg of my clothes and just sit there, bruxing to himself.

    I can pick him up, but he freaks out. He’ll sit on my shoulder calmly, and he’ll crawl all over me fairly happily. He’s only just started taking treats directly from me, and he’ll only eat liquidy foods (soy custard, soy yoghurt, pureed spinach, baby food, etc) by licking it off my finger. If there’s anything soft in with his ‘hard food’ he freaks out and gets really scared. While I don’t mind his obsession with licking me, I just don’t like seeing him so nervous.

    I’m thinking a lot of it could be because his eyesight is terrible (the way he takes a treat makes it obvious that he can’t see it properly) so how can I encourage him to be curious when he’s scared of it?

    • First of all I want to congratulate you on the progress you’ve already made! That’s wonderful Basil has started taking treats from you. It’s also actually fantastic he’s licking liquid foods from your fingers. So many people with shy and fearful rats can’t allow their rats to do this or, if they do, they risk getting bitten. Another positive thing you have going on is that he likes crawling into the arm or leg of your clothes and bruxes. Sounds like you’re really beginning to bond with one another.

      When you pick him up and he “freaks out”, are you picking him up while he’s inside or outside of his cage? If he’s inside the cage, you can try taking him out of his cage while he’s in a small box. To help him get used to being picked up while inside the cage, you can also just pet him while he’s inside. This shows him he won’t always be picked up when you reach your hand inside. You can also coax him out of his cage and onto your shoulder by holding out and showing him a treat he can’t get to until he’s on your shoulder.

      You mentioned a lot of his shyness could be due to his eyesight not being good. Does he have pink or red eyes? If so, that would definitely contribute to his being extra wary and even nervous. If his eyesight is bad, it’s especially important to continually talk with him in a soft friendly voice when you’re with him. This will give him some of the reassurance he’s not able to get visually.

      Here is how to get him used to taking a non-liquid treat from your fingers:

      Choose a food such as avocado that’s very soft, as close to liquid as you can get.

      1. At first just smear a little avocado on your finger and allow Basil to lick it off. This will help get him acquainted with how delicious avocados are.
      2. With clean fingers (nothing smeared on them), offer him a small cube of avocado – he won’t be able to resist it and will be forced to take it out of your hand to eat it. Even if he starts to lick it, it will come off your finger and he’ll be holding it in his mouth.

      If he’s super shy, sometimes you have to take it a little slower. You can repeat step one over the course of a few days, offering him avocado to lick off your fingers once or twice a day. On the third or fourth day, give him the cube of avocado.

      You can also do this with peanut butter – smear on your fingers and then later on some bread. A word of caution: Don’t ever give your rats too much peanut butter at once since they can very easily choke on peanut butter. Even when you smear peanut butter onto the piece of bread, use the smallest possible amount of peanut butter. A tiny piece of cracker with peanut butter would work even better than bread.

      To get Basil used to exploring without clinging to you:

      1. Start by sitting on the floor (in a rat-proofed room) with him inside your shirt or on your shoulder.
      2. After about 15 minutes, gently take him out of your shirt (or off your shoulder) and place him on the floor right next to you, close to where you’re sitting. It’s highly likely he’ll run right back inside your shirt or onto your shoulder.
      3. Repeat placing him on the floor next to you every 10 minutes or so and don’t be discouraged if he keeps running back to you immediately. This is normal.

      Do this every day until it seems like he’s getting used to it. Then gradually start placing him farther and farther away from you when you set him down on the floor.

      Feed his favorite treats to him while performing this exercise. At first you can allow him to eat the treats while he’s on your body. After a couple of days of placing him on the floor next to you, put a dish on the floor smeared with some of the liquid food he likes. That way he’ll have to lick the food off the dish instead of bringing it back to eat it while he’s on your body. (Let’s use his love of licking liquid foods to everyone’s advantage!)

      While doing both exercises above, always praise Basil letting him know he’s doing a good job. A little praise really does go a long way—rats love hearing that you like what they’re doing. They love it so much they’ll start doing things they know you like and then look at you to see if you’ll praise them.

      Let me know if you have more questions and feel free to post an update! You’re already on the right track with what you wrote about how far Basil has already come. It’s now mostly a matter of daily practice, praise and patience.

      Best Wishes to You and Basil,

      Jasmine | About Pet Rats