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Lost and Found: When Your Rattie Goes Rambling

Imagine: Your new rattie, young and scared, gets loose. It can happen any number of ways; we all know how slick those little ones can be. But she's loose, scared, and on the run. What's a rattie owner to do?

Here are some helpful hints, tips, and tricks that may help bring your baby back to safety.

THINGS TO DO RIGHT AWAY TO TRY AND LOCATE THE MISSING RAT: Once the rattie is beyond your immediate reach, the first thing you should do is eliminate hazards. Put the dog or the cat or what-have-you in another room (although I have to say sometimes a friendly dog is good for pointing out the rat's hiding place. But if you have any doubts about whether your dog might harm the missing rattie, put him in another room.) Also, close all doors, windows, or other methods of leaving the room, assuming you know which room the rattie is currently in. Buckets of water, toilets, or any other standing water should be drained or covered. Make sure no toxic materials, including poisonous plants, are within reach of the rattie. These are things that should be done in any area where a rat is allowed to play, but when your rat gets loose in an area that is not ratproof, these considerations must be attended to.

Remove any source of noise. Turn off radio, TV, whatever. I try to use the "mute" button on my kids, too, but it doesn't work.....sigh. Anyway, if there is total silence, then you can hear the rattie moving, in many cases. This has frequently saved me a lot of searching. You are listening for little rustling sounds as the rattie moves around. This will hopefully help you pinpoint the rats' location. If the rat has been out for a while and fallen asleep, obviously this won't work.

IF YOU KNOW WHAT ROOM OR AREA THE RAT IS IN BUT CAN'T SEE OR HEAR HER, this is what to do: If there is a sofa or recliner in the room, DO NOT allow anyone to sit on it, because if the rat is inside it may end up being crushed. In fact, try to keep everyone out of the room until the rat is found. If she has fallen asleep this may take quite a while. Once the room is cleared and exits are closed and hazards are eliminated, make a "home" area for the rat to return to. If you have a small aquarium or carrier handy, this is simple to make. Take some of the bedding from the rat's own cage and put it in the container. If the rat has nesting material put some of that in too, in a little box that the rat could curl up in. Put something tasty inside, that has a strong smell--a little peanut butter thinly spread on toast can work. (Be careful---too much peanut butter can choke your little friend). Also put in a water bottle or other water source. The point is to make this "home" area attractive and safe to the rat so she will go in, eat, drink, and possibly fall asleep there. What if you are using an aquarium and your rat is too little to easily get in? Take books and stack them to form a "stairway" that the rat can climb up and jump into the cage. This then effectively traps the rat in the "home" area--though I have observed that any rat over about 4 weeks of age can easily jump to the top of an aquarium. But many rats will stay there anyway because it smells like home to them.

ONCE YOU LOCATE THE RAT, IF IT WON'T LET YOU PICK IT UP, there are a number of things to try. If the rat is under something, like a piece of furniture or a cabinet, or behind something, like a dresser, first try to call the rat and see if it will come. A lot of times they are too scared for that. You can also try bribing the rat with a treat, but that often fails for similar reasons. Another thing you can try is having someone make a loud noise from the other end of where the rat is so that it may come to you for safety. This may work. If the rat will come and sniff you but won't come far enough out for you to pick her up, one thing that works really well is to take a tube (paper towel tube, pvc pipe, or in a pinch even a paper bag) and hold the opening near the rat's face. Many times they will be reassured by that dark, enclosed space--it can be made even more attractive by inserting a treat if you have one handy--and once the rat fully enters the tube or bag you can pick the whole thing up. Be careful, as the rat may feel panicky and try to jump out of the tube or bag to the floor--if you are concerned about this you can block both ends of the tube with your hands, or fold the end of the bag.

If these methods are not helping after some time has gone by, another option is to get a live trap (such as the Hav-A-Hart). These can often be obtained from humane societies, farm/feed stores, animal control companies, etc. The mouse size works for small baby rats, and the squirrel/rat size for larger babies and adults, I have been told. These traps will contain the rat without harming it--please check the trap frequently.

An important note: Remember the natural activity cycle of rats. If they escape during the day, they will probalby find a place to hide and sleep. They will become active and begin searching for food and water in the late evening. It is often helpful to go into the area where the rat was last seen (they seldom stray too far from their cages) and sit silently, with dimmed light, in the late evening. Listen very carefully.

WHEN THE RAT IS FOUND AND RECAPTURED, remember that this has been an extremely stressful and unsettling experience for the rat, especially if she was at large for a long time. She may act very wild at first. The best thing to do is usually to put her in her cage and leave her there for at least an hour, better two or three. This allows her to calm down and feel safe again. Don't take the behavior personally, as it is a normal reaction. As the rat matures and gets used to you, she will not hesitate to come to you if she gets loose. In fact it is very wise to train your rattie to come when you call her by holding treats just out of reach and rewarding her when she steps towards your hand, then slowly increasing the distance the rat must come to get the treat. My adult rats have been trained in this way and it makes it very easy to retrieve them if necessary. Youngsters can be helped to learn this behavior by allowing them to observe older rats coming when called and being rewarded for it. But if you haven't had time to do this yet, you may have a bit of a challenge on your hands.

I hope you never have to use any of these suggestions. If you do, I wish you success in finding the missing fuzzy critter.

Sarah Shuman