Aggression in Rats

 

We are frequently asked for advice about how to handle and care for aggressive rats. First, we tell people that aggression is a product of fear and that if rats are aggressive it is for a good reason. Rats deserve our love, understanding, compassion, patience, investment of time, desire to find a solution, willingness to work with them, and commitment despite the aggression.

 

Imagine that you have an aggressive child who has started hitting his brother with a stick every day and it is resulting in frequent cuts and bruises. You would be angry about it, but anger isn't helpful and will probably make the situation worse. You would have to take steps to correct the aggressive child's behavior in a positive, loving, patient, and understanding way.  Though you may never learn the cause of the child's aggression you would have to work through it because you love your child. You wouldn't give your child away because of behavioral problems. You would understand that parenting is challenging and a commitment. You would recognize problems and then find a solution. Pet ownership is no different from parenting. It is a commitment. If problems arise with an animal you should work through them with an understanding and patient heart. It would be wrong to give an animal away just because behavioral problems developed.

 

Sometimes rats are aggressive because of:

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Handling Issues - They were not handled enough, handled too roughly, mistreated, or abused. Rats need daily gentle handing so they can bond with their humans. Sometimes if they don't get it they may become withdrawn and fearful or aggressive.

 

  • Stressful Environment and Factors - They have experienced something traumatic like exposure to a snake or other predatory animal. Try to imagine living among someone who many kill you at any moment. You would be terrified, on guard, and wondering if you were about to die. Rats experience these same emotions and suffer post traumatic stress just as people do after a trauma. It takes time to decompress from a traumatic experience. Environmental stress factors for an animal may include exposure to loud sounds like music or TV, constantly barking dogs, screaming kids, etc.. Animals need a calm environment and when they don't have one they become stressed which can result in issues like aggression.

 

  • Underlying Health Problems - If rats are in pain or feeling unwell they don't want to be handled. When people are sick they usually just want to be left alone too. An aggressive rat should be evaluated by an exotics veterinarian who is very familiar with rats.

 

  • Hormone Levels - They may have raging hormones. Male rats absolutely benefit from being neutered and usually about 6 weeks following this surgery they start to calm down.

 

Aggression and Biting

 

Rats may bite and bite badly. If a rat strikes, bites your finger, and quickly retreats then you are left with puncture wounds. The finger will be tender for a few days, but heal fast. But, if a rat strikes, bites, and doesn't let go of your finger it can result in a skin tear as you pull your finger away. A tear is more painful, but still it heals in a matter of days. After a rat bite wash your hands well with soap and water. Depending on the severity of the bite you may opt to apply an antiseptic and cover the bite with a bandaid. Though we have had many bad rat bites over the years we have never once gotten infected. It is natural to feel angry at the rat when you receive a bite, but remember that the bite is merely a symptom that something is wrong with the rat.

 

How Do we Handle Rats with Aggression? 

 

At Tiny Toes Rat Rescue we have received a lot of aggressive rats over the years. We have received rats that lived with snakes because the snake wouldn't eat them. By the time we got the rats they were usually traumatized and vicious. We have receive rats that were bought to be toys for the family cat (yes, really), rats that were poked with pencils through their cage, rats that were abused, classroom rats that were teased relentlessly by unsupervised kids, rats that had their cage kicked across the room when dad was drunk, rats who were thrown off a 2nd story balcony, rats who were burned with cigarettes, etc. Even still, we have had a 100% success rate in modifying aggressive behaviors in rats. We are happy to share our method with you, but if you choose to proceed you will be doing so because it is your choice to proceed; therefore, you assume all risk and liability - not Tiny Toes Rat Rescue of New Mexico.

 

Trust Training the Aggressive Rat

 

Ok, remember that part above about loving the rat in spite of his problem? And being patient, understanding, and compassionate? And being willing to invest time, having a desire to find a solution, being willing to work with the rat, and being committed? This is where you need to tap into that because all of it will be needed.

 

To start the process of trust training the rat, you need to understand that you will eventually make contact with the rat with your bare hands because a rat will not bond with gloves no matter what they are made of. Some rats are even frightened of gloves. The rat must feel your own touch against its fur and skin. That being said, to protect your hands you will need to hold onto the rat with a small towel like a dish towel.

 

Our Method

 

First we want to say that we are not authorities on animal behavior nor veterinarians; however, we are very experienced working for years with aggressive rats. After trust training every rat became a loving pet.

 

Let's Begin - For many days prior to beginning the process of handling the rat, stand or sit close to his cage many times a day so he can smell you and get used to your presence. Talk softly to him and tell him how you want to help him. Next, the handling begins. It is important to mention that once you start this process you must not take "a break" and give the rat or yourself "days off" from this process. Stick with it.

 

Day 1, Session 1: Stand at the cage and talk calmly to the rat for 5 minutes. Then, open the cage door. Give the rat about a minute to adjust to the door being open (make sure he doesn't get out) and then reach into the cage with a hand towel. The rat may huddle in a corner facing you so try to get him to turn around by moving him so you have access to his shoulders and back area. Once his back is facing you, with the hand towel over your hand, quickly grab the rat by his upper back taking care to not accidentally bang his back into a cage shelf or top of a door opening because it may cause a spinal injury. He may turn around fast and bite you so protect your hand. The second you have the rat out of the cage hold onto him with both hands protected by the towel. He will probably struggle so hold onto him securely yet gently - not in a death grip because you could break his tiny bones.

 

The ideal position to hold the rat in is with only his head protruding from the towel, one of your hand's around his upper body, and the other hand around his lower body. See the photo below. If you have him in a good position don't keep repositioning the towel because everytime you do there is a chance you may get bit. Speak softly, calmly, and confidently to the rat. Tell him that you love him and want to help him. Don't let your guard down even for a second if he stops struggling and don't stop speaking to him.

 

Day 2, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 1.

Day 2, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 2, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 3, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Days 1 and 2. This time, hold him against your abdomen to create a barrier and touch the top of his head with just one bare finger (approach from behind for your safety never putting your fingers toward his face). Gently and slowly stroke the top of his head for 15 seconds. It will be a light touch. Pause for a full minute and then repeat. Continue to hold him and speak to him. After 10 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 3, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 3, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

What you have done for 3 days is create a pattern for the rat. He has learned that 9 separate times you have removed him from his cage, spoken gently to him, not harmed him, and he was allowed to return to the safety of his cage. Though he is still fearful, he is now curious about you, and you have planted seeds of trust.

 

Day 4, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 3. This time, after stroking the top of his head for 15 seconds with one finger you will also stroke his tail for 15 seconds with one finger and then alternate. Too many fingers is too much pressure and sensory overload. Keep it simple for now. Continue to hold him and talk to him. After 10 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 4, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 4, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 5, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 4 . This time, after stroking the top of his head for 15 seconds with one finger and stroking his tail for 15 seconds with one finger you will also stroke only the tops of his feet with one finger for 15 seconds then alternate. The bottom of his feet will feel more vulnerable to him so touch only the tops. Continue to hold him and speak to him. Increase the amount of time you hold him to 15 minutes. After 15 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 5, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 5, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 6, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 5. This time, after stroking the top of his head for 15 seconds with one finger, stroking his tail for 15 seconds with one finger, and stroking only the tops of his feet for 15 seconds with one finger you will also start stroking the top of his head with 2 fingers for 15 seconds. The pressure of an extra finger on his body may feel like a threat and he may struggle. Always ensure you are holding him securely. After 15 seconds touch the bottom of his feet with one finger and then gently hold one of his feet between your thumb and finger for a few seconds. Now hold the other foot. Alternate to touching the approved body areas for the usual duration. After 15 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 6, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 6, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 7, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 6. This time, after stroking the top of his head for 15 seconds with 2 fingers start stroking his tail for 15 seconds with 2 fingers. Stroke and hold his feet in various gentle ways for 15 seconds and alternate between touching all of the approved body areas for the usual duration. Always ensure you are holding him securely. After 15 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 7, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 7, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Hopefully, after one week of you working with the rat he is no longer struggling in the towel. Still, don't let your guard down. You may find that you have been able to loosen your hold on the rat, but still hold him securely if you are.

 

Day 8, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 7. This time, after stroking all of the approved body areas as you have been doing for the usual duration you are going to try something new that has risk associated with it. With one hand make a fist and let the rat smell the back of your hand. You may get bitten, but by making a fist there isn't much flesh there to be bitten and he probably won't be able to do more than scratch you with his teeth. Keep your fingers and other parts of your hand off limits to the rat. Allow the rat to smell the back of your hand as much as he wants. Go back to touching the approved body areas for the usual duration. After 15 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 8, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 8, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 9, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 8. This time, after stroking all of the approved body areas as you have been doing for the usual duration and allowing him to smell the back of your hand (remember to use a fist) you will start to touch his neck gently. The closer you get to larger parts of his body the more vulnerable he will feel so he may struggle. Go back to touching the approved body areas for the usual duration making sure to touch his neck periodically. After 15 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 9, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 9, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 10, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 9. This time, after stroking all of the approved body areas as you have been doing for the usual duration and allowing him to smell the back of your hand (remember to use a fist) you will start to touch his shoulders gently. As you do so you will need to lower the towel so you are at greater risk of him biting you. Be very careful. The closer you get to larger parts of his body the more vulnerable he will feel so he may struggle. Go back to touching the approved body areas for the usual duration making sure to touch his shoulders periodically. After 15 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 10, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 10, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 11, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 10. This time, after stroking all of the approved body areas as you have been doing for the usual duration and allowing him to smell the back of your hand (remember to use a fist) you will start to touch the top of his back gently. Go back to touching the approved body areas for the usual duration making sure to touch the top of his back periodically. Increase the amount of time you hold him to 20 full minutes. After 20 minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 11, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 11, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 12, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 11. Don't proceed farther down his back.

Day 12, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 12, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 13, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 12. This time, after stroking all of the approved body areas as you have been doing for the usual duration and allowing him to smell the back of your hand (remember to use a fist) you will start to touch the middle of his back gently. Remember to protect your hand that is holding him down. Go back to touching the approved body areas for the usual duration making sure to touch the middle of his back periodically. After 20 minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 13, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 13, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 14, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 13. Don't proceed farther down his back.

Day 14, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 14, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

 

 

 

Our handsome man "The Mighty Quinn" who got pizza for being our model.

Our boy Montgomery who came to us vicious. After trust training he became a very loving and happy lap rat!

If the rat very strongly rejects this process just slow it down, limiting what you touch and for how long in duration, but DO NOT abandon the process or you may never make progress and need to start over. While most of our aggressive rats accepted the process as outlined, our rat Montgomery (who was forced to live with a ball python) required 2 months of daily work as he was so traumatized when he came to us. Every rat is different and EVERY rat is worth the time.

Day 15, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 14. This time, after stroking all of the approved body areas as you have been doing for the usual duration and allowing him to smell the back of your hand (remember to use a fist) you will start to touch his lower back gently. Your hand that is holding him down or your lap or against your abdomen should be doing so in his shoulder area now. Be careful. Go back to touching the approved body areas for the usual duration making sure to touch his lower back periodically. After 20 minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 15, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 15, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 16, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 15.

Day 16, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 16, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 17, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 16. This time, after stroking all of the approved body areas as you have been doing for the usual duration and allowing him to smell the back of your hand (remember to use a fist) you will start to pet his body gently from his neck down to his back with 2 fingers. Continue to touch all the approved body areas for the usual duration. After 20 minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands.

Day 17, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 17, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 18, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 17.

Day 18, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 18, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 19, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 18.

Day 19, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 19, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 20, Session 1: Repeat what you did on Day 19.

Day 20, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 20, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 21, Session 1: Repeat what you did on day 20. While protecting your hand that is holding the rat down, touch one of his sides gently with 2 fingers. This is a very vulnerable area to the rat because his sides and abdominal area are where his internal organs are and he may feel threatened by your touch.

Day 21, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 21, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

Day 22, Session 1: Repeat what you did on day 21.

Day 22, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 22, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

 

At this point how is the rat acting toward you? Is he friendly or still very frightened? You will have to decide how is best to proceed.

 

If the Rat is Still Frightened and Aggressive at Day 22 - Go back many steps to a point when he seemed to respond to you and was calmer. Then, over the coming days, work your way forward touching various body areas but at a slower pace.  Every rat is different and may need to have the above process adjusted to his pace.

 

If the Rat is Calm and Friendly at Day 22 -You may try holding him with your bare hands, but keep the towel near you just in case you need to grab him with it. Avoid making contact with his face or you may get bit. Continue to gently stroke him and speak calmly to him. If you have a good result it is very important that you still continue this practice 3 times a day. He is going to need regular contact with you in order to seal the bond you have been working hard to create. Even if the rat has improved dramatically continue to remove him from his cage with a towel because rats with a history of aggression may stay cage aggressive for awhile.

 

 

 

 

 

This is our rat Ratzilla (named for his viciousness). He is another success story. I was convinced he had hidden wings because, before trust training, he would charge me so fast that he seemed to become airborne just before he sank his teeth into me a number of times. Furious, he'd stand before me in his cage, stomp his feet, and sniff loudly at me. A very angry rat will exhibit the stomping and sniffing behavior. Ratzilla would slam the side of his body into the side of his cage too because he was so upset with me. This was a daily routine. He was just so frightened and showed it by biting me badly many times - once requiring stitches. After trust training Ratzilla, he became SO loving and adored hanging out with me. If he was playing on the bed while I was working at a desk 5 feet away he would jump off the bed, land on my shoulder or back, lick my face and burrow in my hair. I think that once he found "his person" he developed a kind of separation anxiety. I loved him so much and he sure grew to love me.

One of our girls getting trust trained. She became a rat who loved to be held and snuggled.

Beautiful pottery made by the beautiful Navajo people of New Mexico

Hold him about 6 inches from your face and let him smell your breath while you tell him how handsome and nice he is. After 10 full minutes return him to his cage while protecting your hands. Do not touch any part of his body with your hands or fingers. Please do not try to rush this process. In the end, it will pay off.

Day 1, Session 2: Repeat several hours later.

Day 1, Session 3: Repeat several hours later.

Tiny Toes Rat Rescue

of New Mexico, Inc.

 

a 501(c)(3) non-profit animal rescue

 

Just because they're tiny doesn't mean they're disposable

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You are listening to the theme from Disney's movie "Ratatouille."