Part 1: Introducing yourself to new rats
So far, in this blog series, I’ve covered topics that basically prepare you for getting rats. Now, let’s take a moment to discuss meeting new rats for the first time and proper introduction techniques, tips, and tricks that I have learned over the last 20+ years of working with rescued rats. First, I want to emphasize that my experience is with *rescued* rats and rescued rats typically come with physical and/or emotional baggage so a lot of these lessons are anecdotal and are based on my own personal experience. Your mileage may vary. As I stated in a previous blog post about choosing rats, I will reiterate the fact that each and every rat is unique. Absolutely no two rats will *ever* be the same. Just like people, rats have their own genes (nature) and experiences (nurture) that help shape the rat they are right now and just because a rat is a certain way right now does not mean that the rat will remain that way for the rest of its life.
When you meet *any* new rat for the first time, it is important to observe the rat(s) first and then, properly introduce yourself! I choose to use a combination of verbal communication and body language. Although this is not based on scientific study, I feel that animals can sense your feelings about them. I always approach new rats with kindness and confidence. First, I will watch the new rat(s) so I can observe their body language. A rat’s body language will tell you A LOT. Happy and confident rats will gladly come to the side of the cage to meet and greet you. Open the cage and offer the back of your hand for them to sniff out. Carefully and gently pick them up and continue on from there. An angry or aggressive rat will puff up their fur, strut around the cage, rub their shoulders against the bars to mark their territory and will very likely try to bite you if you attempt to enter their space. Since I am targeting these blogs to beginners at this point, please just don’t try to handle rats that are showing any signs of anger or aggression. They will need a more experienced handler.
A lot of the rats that come through the rescue are, what I would consider, timid. These are rats that want to be happy and confident but their experiences have made them a bit wary and insecure. Many of these types of rats can be rehabilitated, with some effort, and need to be handled with care and compassion. Scared rats are often the most unpredictable because you don’t know if they will “fight or flight.” When I meet a new rat that is scared of me, they often run straight into their house or somewhere in their cage that they feel is the safest place to be. When I am trying to introduce myself to a rat like this, I will typically open the door to the cage and then try to coax them out with some sort of tasty treat. Oftentimes, they will not come out willingly so I need to go in and get them. First, I will remove their house or hiding spot while I talk to them and explain that I just want to meet them. I don’t want to reach into their hiding spot because they are more likely to feel threatened, cornered, and bite me. At this stage, as stated earlier, I am speaking to beginners so, if you are not able to get a scared rat, please ask someone with more experience for some specific assistance.
Once you have a rat out, it’s important to talk to them and reassure them that everything is going to be OK. Handle rats with confidence and consider using a cuddle cup or bonding bag if the rat is a bit on the timid side. Female rats are generally much more active, quick, and agile than their male counterparts who tend to be bigger and slower. Give rats treats while they are out and about with you and they’ll begin to associate being with you and getting treats! Rats are smart and social. They want to be your friend. As with any new friendship, it’s important to get it started in the right way and reinforced with recurring positive interactions.
Part 2: Introducing rats to other rats
Now that we’ve discussed introducing ourselves to new rats, let’s talk about introducing rats to other rats. For the sake of time and the length of this blog, I am going to try to keep this part fairly basic and introductory. The key with introducing rats to each other is that, much like the rats themselves, each introduction will be unique. For this piece, I’ll be assuming that we are introducing one solo rat to another solo rat. Many of the techniques are the same regardless of the number of rats but there are more complexities when introducing multiple rats.
First, you’ll want to put each rat into their cage and put the cages up next to each other. This will give the rats an opportunity to sniff each other out and you’ll be able to observe their body language which will tell you a lot about how to proceed. If there are no signs of anger/aggression, then proceed to putting both rats into a neutral area to check out. If there are signs of potential issues, then swap the rats into each others cages so they can live in the other rats smell for a little while. When you do this, make sure that each rat has been in their cage for several days, then swap the rats into each other’s cage and let them stay in there for a few days before trying to move on to the neutral space stage.
Neutral spaces are usually something like a bathtub. Some people use their bed but I prefer to be in a more controlled space. I actually invested in this play pen to use both for play time and as a great introduction space. I attach 4 panels together on their short sides to make a confined pen and then I put it on a clean blanket. The rats can jump out of the pen but they can’t climb it. Having it short enables easier access to break up any fights that may arise. I supervise them in the neutral space and watch their interaction and body language. If there are any severe fights, I split up and start over. I’ll allow the rats to sort out smaller altercations but if anyone is injured/bloodied or fur is flying, then I definitely split up and start over. Putting vanilla extract on their noses and rear ends can help make each of the rats smell more similar and may help smooth out the introduction process.
If the 2 rats are hanging out in the neutral space and appear to be tolerating each other, then I’ll introduce some treats and see what happens. Scared rats will not eat so, if you put some treats down and they are both happily gnawing away, then you can move on to putting them in a clean cage together. If the treats cause fights, again, depending on the severity of the fight, you’ll need to judge whether to let them duke it out or split them up and start over again. When I graduate the newly introduced pair to a cage, I leave it empty to begin with – just like the neutral introduction space. When they demonstrate that they are OK in the cage together, then I start adding things, one by one, to the space and monitor their progress. I typically use a cage that is large enough to accommodate a “time out” cage inside the main cage. If one rat is aggressive towards the other rat, then they go on time out for 20 minutes. After their time out, I’ll try again and see what happens. If you are worried about fighting, do not leave 2 newly introduced rats in the same cage without supervision! It’s better and safer to just put them back in their individual cages until you can supervise their introduction again.
Introductions can take a long time. Typically, girl to girl intros are easiest. Neutered boy to girl intros are usually OK too. Neutered male intros I’m more cautious about and intact male intros are usually the most troublesome and time consuming. If introducing males is unsuccessful, I’d suggest having the males neutered to help with that. The age of the rats will also play a role in introductions. Baby and younger rats are generally easiest. Adult female to younger rat are usually OK too. Adult introductions can be a challenge and senior intros really depend on the rats. I’ve had a lot of senior intros where the feeling I got from the rats was, “If I were younger, I’d kick your butt but, I’m too old to care right now so I guess I’ll tolerate you” and then they become best buddies. I will also admit that there are some introductions that simply will not work either and that’s because rats have personalities and sometimes those just clash with another rat and no matter what you do, these rats will not be able to live together. It’s important to observe and listen to the rats while you are performing introductions. Take it slow and try not to rush the process.