In your first few days of rat ownership, your new furry friends will probably be doing all sorts of things you never expected, some of which might be alarming if you’re not used to it.
We know we spent a lot of time googling whether certain things were okay for our rats to be doing when we first had them. Here’s some of the most common things that worry new owners.
My rat is doing a weird thing with it’s eyes!
This is probably one of the most common early scares of rat owning. You’re admiring your lovely new pet, and suddenly you notice it’s eyes seem to be rapidly vibrating in and out, and look like they might bulge out of it’s head. Believe it or not, this alarming activity is completely normal and totally safe for your rat.
Rats grind their front teeth together (this is called bruxing) and make a little chattering noise. This motion causes their eyes to do this strange vibration. It’s called boggling. Bruxing can mean all sorts of things; although confusingly it can be a sign of anxiety or relaxation. Rats brux to ‘self-soothe’ when they’re stressed, but they also do it when they’re happy and relaxed. Boggling and bruxing is essentially a rat purring!
My rats are fighting! What do I do?
Don’t panic. Rat fights can look pretty violent to human eyes, but the general rule of rats fighting is ‘no blood, no foul’.
Rats fight for a number of reasons. The most common is play. Rats love to play fight, especially when they’re young. You’ll often see them chasing and pouncing around the cage. This is totally normal, and nothing to worry about. You might hear a bit of squeaking, which is also not usually a cause for concern. A rat in real pain can really scream, so a bit of squeaking is usually no big deal. As you get used to your rats, you’ll learn their usual noises and you’ll probably find at least one of your rats’ is prone to dramatics and squeaking at everything!
Rats also fight to sort out dominance disputes. Dominant rats will flip, pin or wrestle the others to assert his position in the group. If the rat doing the dominating seems calm, everything is fine.
A real rat fight can be very nasty. To tell if your rat is aggressive, there are several behaviours to look out for. A rat who sidles sideways up to another, shoving and side kicking are signs that things are escalating. A full-on rat fight will look like a ball of fur. DO NOT put your hand in to separate a fight, as you will likely be badly hurt in the process. Instead, wrap your hand in a thick towel before sticking it in, or spray the culprits with a water bottle, and separate them.
My rat keeps sneezing. Is it ill?
You’ve probably already been told that rats are prone to respiratory infections, and that sneezing is an early indicator of a URI. This can lead to new owners rushing their new rat to the vet every time it sneezes. Try and stay calm. Rats sneeze for all sorts of reasons, just like humans. It might just need to sneeze.
Rats also sneeze a lot when they’re in a new environment, so a new rat will likely be a bit sneezy when you first bring it home. Changing the substrate can also bring on sneezes, so before you panic, think if you’ve made any changes to your rats’ environment.
Excessive sneezing, especially when accompanied by porphyrin or noisy breathing is a sign your rat is unwell. This is time for a vet check. Better safe than sorry.
Why is my rat biting me?
Being bitten can be alarming, but rest assured, rats rarely bite humans out of aggression.
Most rats, especially kittens, will ‘test bite’. This is a gentle nibble, or bite, which does not break the skin. It might make you jump, but is usually not painful. They do this to test if you’re food, and to see what you are. It can also be part of social grooming behaviour. If the nibble is too firm for your liking, squeak loudly at your rat. This is how a cagemate would tell them to get off, so your rat will understand it has bitten too hard.
Some rats may snatch at fingers, especially through the cage bars. This usually means they’ve mistaken you for a snack. To stop this, don’t feed your rats through the cage bars, instead offering treats inside or outside the cage completely. You can help them learn not to snatch by poking a metal spoon through the bars. A spoon is not nice to bite, so your little chompers will figure out that not everything shoved between the bars is delicious. This is a good idea if you have kids in the house or visitors who insist on poking their fingers through the bars.
My rat has red stuff around its eyes and nose. Is it blood?
It’s very unlikely to be blood. Red staining around the eyes and nose is likely porphyrin. A small amount is not a cause for alarm; think of it as like when you wake up with sleep in your eyes.
Regular staining, or large amounts, is a sign of illness and should be checked by a vet.
My rat is twitching or vibrating. What is it doing?
Rats do some odd-looking things. Many new owners are alarmed the first time they see a rat with the hiccups. Rat hiccups look a lot like human versions, except they don’t make a noise. If the twitching or spasms look like a hiccup, it probably is. Keep an eye out for prolonged twitching, and any unusual noises accompanying it.
A female rat who appears to vibrate is likely to be in heat. This happens around every five days and can last 10 to 12 hours. The doe may be jumpier than normal, and you may see her humping her cagemates, and almost vibrating in excitement. This is normal, and she’ll be fine and soon back to her usual self.
My rat sways it’s head side to side. What is it doing?
Does your rat have pink or red eyes? Rats don’t have very good eyesight at the best of times, but pink and red-eyed rats have eyesight that is even poorer than the black-eyed friends. A rat who can’t see very well will sway its head in order to focus properly.
My rat keeps eating in the litter tray. Should I stop it?
Lots of rats decide the litter tray makes an excellent dining room. It looks a bit yucky to us, but rats have very different ideas to us about what the bathroom is for and eating or even hiding food in the litter tray will have no negative impact on your rat’s health at all.
In fact, in the wild, rats will pee on food to tell other rats if it’s safe to eat or not. Rats practice coprography, which means they sometimes eat their own poo, to recover more nutrients. This is normal rat behaviour, and while it seems gross, it’s perfectly fine for their health.
My rats don’t always sleep together. Is this normal?
If you’re always seeing pictures of other people’s rats all snuggled up and yours aren’t, you might be worried. Rats often do sleep all together in one spot, but they will also split into smaller groups, or sleep solo. Try not to read too much into it. They may want more space, or just be too warm in the rat pile. As long as general cage interactions are still normal, just assume they have different sleep preferences.
Why does my rat want to put it’s head in my mouth/up my nose/in my ear?
Why they want to, we don’t know, but lots of rats do this. Some rats will ‘clean’ your teeth as a social grooming activity. Rats are very curious animals so snuffling into your ears is probably very interesting for them.
It’s really up to you if you allow rat dentists; the humans behind Rattie Ratbags personally don’t, but many rat owners do. One of our girls, Storm, is obsessed with snuffling loudly into our ears though. We’ll let you know if we ever figure out why…
A huge thank you to the members of Rat Care UK, who DELIVERED when I asked them for what they googled in their early days of rat owning.