Body Language of Rats
Why does my rat act like this? Sometimes new or even not-so-new rat owners are puzzled by the behavior of their sweet rodent buddies. After all, they are not dogs or cats (obviously) and do not have similar body language. And they are of course even more different from human beings in the way they behave. So what's a rattie owner to do? Read on for translations of as many rattie behaviors as I can think of.
What does it mean when.....
.....my rattie makes a sound like crunching sand between its teeth?
This is a phenomenon known as bruxing. Bruxing is the act of grinding together of rattie teeth. It can mean one of several things. Usually ratties brux when they are content. This is usually accompanied by sitting very still with the eyes half closed or even the strange phenomenon of the eyes appearing to pop in and out of their sockets. I believe this occurs because the jaw muscles extend beneath the eyes and the action of bruxing can cause these muscles to contract under the eyes, pushing them outwards. But that's only my theory. I have also seen happy rats let out for playtime run around bruxing like crazy. Clearly this is also contentment at work.
Sometimes fighting males will brux. This is usually accompanied by hissing, sidling up to each other, puffed-out fur, laid-back ears, and sort of a sneering facial expression. It is louder than contentment bruxing and appears to be a threat--sort of, "Hear how big my teeth are? I'm sharpening them...." kinda thing.
.....my rattie stands up and waves her face around in the air?
This is an attempt to aquire as much information by smell as possible. My ratties often do this when I open doors or windows to let fresh air in. To them it's like reading the newspaper would be to humans--rats get most of their info about their environment from a combination of scent and sound.
......my rattie scrapes/rubs his front paws on the ground?
This seems to be sort of a scent-marking or territorial gesture. I have observed that rats that do this seem to be unusually territiorial. I have seen many more males than females that behave this way.
Some rats will also rub their sides along objects. I believe that these two behaviors are connected and occur for similar reasons.
........my rattie arches her back and flaps her ears really fast?
This has startled some rat owners badly, but it's completely normal--definitely NOT a seizure though it can look like one. It just means that the female is in heat. And it's very typical for other females to display mating behavior towards a female cagemate who is in season.
.....my rattie licks or nibbles on my hands or skin?
Your rat is displaying grooming behavior towards you. I think rats treat their human companions as if they (the humans) were large rats. My rats particularly groom me if I am skritching them behind the ears.....and they seem to feel that if I groom them then they are responsible to groom me as well. They believe that bandaids and nail polish and jewelry are dirt which must be removed, and that by removing them they are doing me a great service. Or at least they sure look smug once that bandaid is off.
Also rats like the salty taste of sweat and if you are sweaty or have some food residue on you they will be enthralled with the prospect of grooming you. Also males particularly will grab your hands and sniff intensely as if they wanted to inhale your skin if you have been touching/holding a female rat.
.....my rat sits still and sways its head from side to side?
This can be a very perplexing behavior for new rat owners. Most ot he rats who do this have ruby or pink eyes, though I have a couple black-eyed rats who will also do it. The reason for the behavior is that the rat is trying to see better--presumably by creating contrast between objects in the foreground and objects in the background, because of the difference in perspective. Often a fearful or cautious rat will do this, especially in a new situation. It is completely normal and does not indicate a problem.
....my rattie sleeps curled up in a ball with his head flat underneath him?
Sometimes ratties sleep very soundly in strange and seemingly uncomfortable positions. When a rattie sleeps curled up or piled up with other ratties, it shows that the rat is at a normal or cool temperature. When they sleep separately all stretched out, often shoving the bedding off to sleep on the bare floor of the cage, it means that the ratties are too hot and probably would benefit from a frozen bottle of clean water in their cage for "air conditioning".
....one of my ratties flips the other over and sniffs its stomach and bottom?
This is dominance behavior. The "flipper" is trying to dominate the "flipee". It's generally pointless to try and prevent this--and usually, though the "flipee" may whine or squeak a little, there's no harm done. This will occur less as the ratties get more comfortable for the dominance structure in their social group.
So, there we go! Enjoy the company of your ratties, and here's to the wonder of communication!