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If someone has never handled a rat before one of the first questions they ask is; “will it bite me?” There is a general misconception that rat’s bite a lot, while this may be true with wild rats, pet rats rarely bite if handled correctly.
Pet rats have been bred over time to be passive towards humans. This does not mean they will never bite, but there will usually be a reason or warning signs beforehand. So understanding your rat is very important, over time you will get to know it better and understand what it does and doesn’t like.
If you rat does bite you, it will probably be due to one of the following reasons:
Probably the most common reason a rat will bite a human is because they are scared or in fear. If a rat has previously been traumatised or mistreated when being handled then you will need to handle them with caution. It can take a long time for a rat to become trusting again, if you are taking on an adult rat take extra care when first handling it.
Rats that have not been handled or socialised much can also show signs of fear. When you pick them up they may try and run away, become difficult to hold still or make a squeaking noise. You will need to handle them for short periods of time to build up trust, if you force the matter they may bite out of fear.
Generally rats will still not bite without giving you a warning, they are not aggressive rodents and will look for another way out first, like running or hiding. If they feel trapped or cornered they will bite as a last resort.
Like most animals or rodents, a rat is capable of biting out if it experiences some sudden pain. Accidents can happen when handling or playing with rats, if you trap their tail in the cage, accidentally drop them, or do anything else to hurt them they can bite as a defence mechanism.
If you rat suddenly bites you and behaves completely out of character it can be a sign that the rat is in pain. You should consult a veterinarian if you think there might be an underlining health issue.
While developing into adult rats, bucks can experience elevated hormone levels for periods up to around one year old. There is a social hierarchy within a group of rats living together; occasionally bucks will show aggression towards each other while trying to establish themselves as the alpha rat.
Ultimately you are in charge overall and rats will become submissive to this fact, but as they mature sometimes they will challenge you too. This aggression can be directed towards you in the way of a rat charging at you, or sometimes biting you.
When rats are acting aggressive because of hormones they will not show fear. Instead of cowering away from you, they will charge at you. You will need to address this behaviour as it’s important that you reinforce the fact that you are in charge.
If a rat is pregnant or has recently given birth then there is a risk of being bitten. Female rats become very territorial and defensive over their young, it is best not to disturb them or their nest during this period.
If you interject yourself between two rats fighting you can be the victim of a bite from redirected aggression. If you get bitten while sticking your hand or fingers in-between rats fighting it’s not at fault from the rat. While in the heat of the moment rats will bite out at anything they see as a threat, don’t take it personally it will be forgotten when everything has calmed down.
If you need to separate fighting rats, wrap a thick cloth around your hand first or spray some water on them from a distance. Don’t feel bad for breaking them apart, you’re doing the right thing. And if you did get bitten, don’t blame your rat they were only reacting to the situation.
It’s advisable that you never poke your fingers through the cage bars as rats may have a nibble on them. This behaviour is more common with rats that have been fed by their owners passing food through the bars. If you do get bitten then it will be an accident, rats immediately associate anything poking through the bars as food.
It is important to note that this is not a sign of aggression, you should not treat your rat as if it poses a danger to you. Just remember to not stick your fingers through the bars, and more so make this clear to any children in the household.
Never surprise your rat, they won’t appreciate it and may bite out at you. If you are approaching their cage and they are sleeping or motionless start talking to them, make them aware you are approaching. Certainly never wake a rat up by just picking them up suddenly, there is a good chance they will feel threatened and bite whatever is touching them.
Pay attention to this rule too when a rat is happily resting in its bed/nesting area. It may not anticipate that you are going to handle it, or even want to be moved if it is comfortable. When cleaning out the cage you should position the rats away from their nesting areas, clean out and replace the old bedding with new. Slowly reintroduce your rat to their new clean bedding to minimise their surprise to the new clean surroundings.
When treated correctly, rats are passive, forgiving and friendly animals and make for great safe pets. But it is important to remember that they do have sharp teeth, if you cross any of the boundaries outlined above you will put yourself at risk of being bitten. But, if you take time to get to know your rats, understand their behaviour and respect their boundaries, you needn’t ever worry about being bitten.
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