Socializing Baby Rats
What is socialization?
Socialization is the process of dealing with baby rats (or other young animals, even humans
and with a wide variety of people.
Why socialize a baby rat?
Hopefully that's pretty obvious, but basically, a well-socialized rat is a much better pet. A rat
who has been properly socialized will be friendly and confident; it should allow itself to be
picked up easily or better yet, run right up your arm to your shoulder when you place your hand
in the cage. This is as contrasted to the sad experience of opening a cage of neglected babies
and putting in your hand, and then seeing the poor little furries cowering in the corner. It is
possible to save and eventually socialize even older rats which have not been socialized, and
many kind, brave people have done this for countless lucky "feeder" and neglected "show" rats--
but clearly if it is in your power to socialize baby rats properly from the beginning, it is....
The Breeder's Duty
Perhaps your beloved girlyrat or your daring dashing boy rat has developed a sudden skill for
cage escape and spent an enchanted moonlit eve with an opposite-gender rattie friend. Or
maybe you, like me, have decided to carefully, selectively, caringly breed an occasional litter of
rat babies. In either case (or in any case where you find yourself playing host or hostess to a
"bulgy-looking", hungry girl rattie who suddenly starts to look like she swallowed a nice big
orange--whole), YOU have the responsibility to provide for the rattie and all she contains. Not
only must you meet the considerable nutrition and housing needs of said girlrattie, you must also
socialize the babies. Unless you have a whole lot of room to keep each and every little pink
squeaker as he/she grows, matures, and gradually approaches the Bridge, you will be turning
over the care and loving of at least some of these little ones to someone(s) else. In order to
prepare the babies to become friendly, confident members of their new households, it is best to
begin handling them early--obviously depending upon the feelings of the mother. Some rat
moms are happy as clams when you handle their babies, even from day one--they may look at
you as if to say, "Oh, so you will babysit? Great. I can go find the yoghurt drops." Many other
ratmoms will be hostile if you so much as put your hands in the cage at first. You will have to
go slowly and see what the mother will allow. A mother rat defending her litter can give a very
nasty bite, so do take care--and make sure any children in the household know to leave them
alone until you know for sure that the mother doesn't mind if they play with the babies. If the
mother rat seems hostile, try tempting her out of the cage with treats. Then remove her to a
tabletop, couch, or other place where she cannot get back to the tank. Once you have done this,
you can handle the babies safely.
I generally don't handle the babies very much in the first week. I will take them out of the tank
and pick them up gently, examining them, making sure they have milk in their bellies, talking to
them (which is sort of silly since they can't hear much yet), and letting them get familiar with my
scent and the sensation of being touched and picked up. I usually do this once or twice a day for
the first 5 or 6 days. After that, I try and get the babies out more often and for longer periods.
My friend Joannie gave me a Ferret Couch Pouch, which is a pouch with a very soft fuzzy inner
compartment, to use with this age baby. There is also a waist pouch from Ain't No Creek Ranch
which is suitable. The idea is to get the babies used to my scent, the motion of being carried, my
heartbeat and other sounds, and another scent environment (the inside of the bag). In fact, as the
babies continue to grow, the name of the game is environmental enrichment. I'm sure most of
you have heard by now that baby rats who are exposed to a more varied, interesting environment
develop larger cerebral cortexes (the cerebral cortex is part of the brain). I believe many of you
also know that rats have a natural "neophobia"--meaning that they tend to be afraid of any new
stimulus. This is very useful to rats when they are living in the wild--it makes them stick close
to home and causes them to avoid new and/or dangerous situations unless under extreme
pressure of some sort. However, neophobic pet rats are difficult and less desirable because they
are afraid of EVERYTHING but the inside of their cage (in extreme cases). I have found that
when baby rats are exposed to a wide variety of environments and stimuli from a very young
age, this neophobia can be greatly reduced if not eliminated--resulting in rats who are very
confident and friendly and who, for better or for worse, will take on the dog, the cat, and the
Anyway, I "pouch" my babies from the time they first grow fur until they are able to cling to my
shoulders securely, usually about 4 weeks of age. I try to pouch them once or twice a day for
half an hour at a time, and between times play with them in their cage by reaching in my hands.
I also feed a variety of treats by hand to help the babies associate me, my hands, and my scent
with good and pleasant things. I also allow my kids and others to handle the babies under very
close supervision to familiarize the babies with the scents of other humans.
As the babies get older, I put them in different environments--out on a table to play with boxes
and toys, in a larger cage, on the couch while I read (watch carefully, they are quick!), in a
basket while I clean their cage, etc. I also put many different toys in their cage and change/rotate
them often. Right now I am helping a pretty cinnamon dumbo girl, Autumn, in raising her litter
of 17 babies. Until I split them up today, they were in a 30 long tank with the following toys:
cardboard boxes, a plastic cube and slide combo, 2 little Roll-A-Nests, a wooden wagon with
lots of doors in it, PVC pipe connectors, tissues to play with, and various chew toys. I no longer
throw anything away without asking myself if it might make a toy, at least temporarily.
The results of this socialization process speak for themselves. I am not a perfect breeder, nor are
my rats perfect; I am a relative novice and still have so much to learn. But I have become good
at socializing baby rats, and they leave here as well prepared for their new homes as I know how
to make them. When I add into the equation excellent nutrition, regular cage-cleaning with safe
bedding, and all other needed care, I can feel confident that I have fulfilled my responsibilities.
The Rescuer's Challenge
But what of baby rats (or adults, for that matter) who have not led such a sheltered life? What of
the rescue rat, or the rat who comes from a situation of neglect? These rats pose special
challenges for their rescuers. They vary from relatively friendly (especially those rescued from
shelters or adopted from a pet owner unable to keep them any longer) and not in need of special
help, to those who outright bite. I do not have much experience in dealing with biters, and will
leave that topic to someone who knows more; but I have a few suggestions for dealing with shy
rats who don't bite.
Many shy rats dislike being picked up. Some of them are fine once they are in your arms, and
some are still terrified. An easy way to tell if a rat is afraid is if it poops all over you. This has
been called "fear pooping", for rather obvious reasons, and is generally a stinky mess. It is a sure
sign of a neglected or unsocialized rat--rats who are comfortable with people rarely have an
accident on them. Conversely, one clue that indicates that a rat is comfortable when you hold it
is if it sits on your shoulder or in your arms and grooms itself. If it is willing to eat while you
hold it, it is very comfortable indeed.
Overcoming the fear of being picked up is tricky. I believe in most cases that it is basically a
fear of the human hand due to unpleasant events or sensations the rat has associated with human
hands in the past. Your goal is to reverse these unpleasant associations by replacing them with
pleasant ones. Basically this means that you are going to be spending a lot of time with your
hand in a rat cage.
I think it's best to start this process when your rat is awake, but not eating--often in the evening.
Slowly open the door of the cage. Make a little noise (perhaps a soft kissy noise or a clicky
noise) to announce your presence. Then slowly put your hand in the cage--but not right by the
rat, perhaps a few inches away, so the rat can avoid your hand and remains in control of the
situation. (By the way, that's the key--if the rat is in control, he/she is not afraid, because he/she
can leave when desired). Then leave your hand there as long as possible. Perhaps read, watch
TV, or something else while your hand is there. Hopefully, eventually the rat will begin to sniff
your hand. Don't move. Let the rat explore, sniff, mouth (but not bite) or lick your hand as
much as it wants. As the rat begins to be less fearful (and once you are sure he/she will not bite),
you can begin to have a treat in your fingers when you put your hand in the cage. Food is a great
reinforcer and will be a very powerful way to make friends with most rats. Take this process
very slow and never chase the rat around the cage with your hand or grab it, except in an
emergency. If you must catch the rat, for instance in order to clean the cage, use 2 hands to
carefully trap it in a corner and gently but firmly pick it up.
Gradually, the rat should become more and more unafraid of your hand. This may take days or
weeks, or perhaps even longer. When you begin to pick the rat up, be very slow and gentle--the
first few times, the rat may hop out of your hand. Don't grab for it. Just gently try again, and if
he/she jumps again, wait until the next day. Eventually the rat should become trusting enough
that he/she will no longer try to jump out of your hands, and then you can let the rat become
comfortable playing on your chest and shoulders. Stay near the cage if possible, but sit
comfortably and let the rat get familiar with you. Have treats nearby so that the rat can
eventually eat them while with you. Make the situation as calm, relaxing, and pleasant as
Many times a rat's progress is helped greatly by being caged with a confident rat that is already
friendly with you. Rats definitely watch each other and learn from each others' examples, so this
makes sense. If you have a rat or rats of the same gender, after the quarantine period of 2 weeks
to 2 months is over and you know the newcomer is healthy, slowly introduce him or her to the
friendly rat(s). Eventually cage them together. Let the new rat see you interact in a friendly way
with the socialized rats--feed treats, talk, pick up, play with, hand-wrestle, etc., all within the
new shy rat's line of sight/hearing/scent. It can make a big difference.
Good luck to you and your ratties!