| The New Rat |
A new family member is a big deal, even if it's something as small, affordable, and non-demanding as a rat. Whether your new rat has come about after months of planning or has been pressed upon you as a rescue or was a spur of the moment addition, and whether this is your first rat or your fiftieth, you will find yourself presented with unique challenges in the beginning. Rats all have individual personalities, and you might be surprised about their reactions to a new family and environment.
Be prepared for your new pet!
The Trip Home
When you go to pick up your new rat, no matter how far you travel, have a carrier prepared. (Pet stores often send rats home in tiny cardboard boxes, which are terrifying to rats and not safe for traveling.) A simple cat carrier can be used for rats at least six weeks old, or a small wire cage will work. Avoid aquariums if possible, since they will shatter if you have an accident. The safest cages for traveling are plastic carriers. You can buy one, but the larger ones are expensive. Making one is usually a much more affordable option, and makes for a more durable and comfortable travel cage.
Making a travel cage is very simple. There are instructions for creating a really nice one at this page. For the less industrious, you just need to get a plastic storage box (just bigger than shoebox size is good) and drill holes in the lid and/or sides. (I like putting holes in the side so I can put a pillow or something on top of the cage, making an arm rest on a bench seat. ;-) )
Anything you put in the tavel cage for the trip will need to be light and safe, and also not messy. For litter during travel, non-printed paper towels are usually good. If the trip is long (several hours, or even a few days vacation), use a heavy pelleted paper litter or pelleted rabbit food. Bring treats along to help keep your new rat relaxed on the trip. A water bottle should not be placed in the cage while the vehicle is moving, but do offer water whenever the car is stopped. Fresh veggies can also be offered during the trip.
When you pick up your rat, get a handful of bedding or litter or a box that was in the cage with them (this might not be possible at a pet store, but most breeders will be glad to provide something to make the new rat comfortable). Some rats are comfortable in new circumstances, but others might be nervous. Having familiar smells around provide a lot of comfort and ease the rat in transition (both the ride and the first nights at home). A sibling provides much support and helps everything go MUCH easier, too, so even if you have other rats at home, remember that rats do best when in pairs with a brother or sister!
Don't take your rat out of the carrying cage during the trip home. He may get spooked and become loose in your vehicle (or even go out an open window). You can open the lid/door to pet him, but for safety, try to keep the carrier closed for most of the trip. Most rats are excited/nervous when the vehicle starts moving, but usually get bored and fall asleep within a half hour. (I have had rats in the car for up to 8 hours drive. They do fine as long as you provide water when the car is stopped. A bit of bread/fries/salad from the fast food place are good too.)
Opening Night Jitters?
Even rats that have been handled from birth and know to trust people can become nervous in a new home and around new people. Rats from pet stores often have more problems adjusting since many have not know real handling or any reason to trust people.
To help make things more comfortable, put your new rat's cage in a room that is quiet and without a lot of bright lights. It should be a place cats, dogs, ferrets, and other animals don't have access too, because these animals are predators, and rats cat smell their presence. This can make even a calm rat nervous and stressed. If you have a toy or bit of bedding from the breeder's place, put it in the cage. The familiarity will be a comfort.
Let the new rat get accustomed to you at his own speed. Don't take him out of his cage. Open the cage door and just sit beside it. Most rats are quite attached to their cage and will always try to get back in if taken out, especially at first. Encourage him with treats. Pet him in the cage, but if he runs, don't push it. Try offering treats (pieces of cereal, frozen veggies, cooked noodles, and yogurt treats are good) by hand. Some rats will not take a treat from you right away. If that is the case, set the treat down and take your hand away. He will eventually come to trust you and understand you aren't out to hurt him, and that your hand brings good things.
When your new rat is comfortable with being outside his cage, limit his play area to either a bed or couch (cover with an old sheet to protect from urine and burrowing) or a small room such as the bathroom (cover up places he can squeeze into or behind). Pet rats are terrestrial by nature and feel most comfortable with dim/dark lighting and in tunnels, so keep the area fairly dark and throw a cover over yourself and the rat. He will feel safest and most at ease this way.
Play for rats consists of a lot of hopping and pouncing. Some rats "nip" like kittens when they pounce. This is gentle and doesn't hurt. It shouldn't be "punished" in any way. It is a sign your rat is comfortable with you and sees you as a playmate. Rats will also lick and nibble on their new human friends. This is grooming behavior and another sign of acceptance and comfort. "Bruxing" is also a good sign. This is a sort of chattering and grinding of the teeth. Rats do it when happy (like a cat purring).
Quarantine is an essential for rats. It serves the same purpose as vaccination shots for puppies and kittens. Rats, sadly, do not have vaccinations available to them, but they have a number of contagious diseases that are similar to those you protect your cats and dogs against. The only way to prevent the spread of these diseases is to not expose "sick" rats to well rats.
The animals that can spread diseases with rats include rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and other rodents. Your cats, dogs, birds, ferrets, etc. are not a risk to them (in terms of disease), and the rats can't give them these diseases either. SDA and Sendai are the major rat viruses. Both are respiratory infections with similar symptoms. Both diseases can be carried by a rat WITHOUT SYMPTOMS for up to two or three weeks. So just because a rat looks healthy doesn't mean he can't infect others! After the virus runs its course, it (the virus) will die unless there is a new host to infect. The rat that had the disease will be immune to this strain for a number of months at least (the actual length of immunity isn't certain). Because of these things, quarantine is highly effective, as long as it is done correctly.
Viruses can be airborne, so your new rats need to have a separate air supply from any other rodents you have. This can only be completely acheived by keeping them in a different building. If that is not possible, separate them as much as possible, on a different story of the house or several rooms away. You need to wash your hands thoroughly with disinfectant soap between touching your new rats or any of their accessories and touching your other rodents. Viruses can live a couple hours on surfaces and in your nasal passages, so wait a few hours between interacting with the different groups. (An even better thing would be to have a friend without rodents take care of your new rats for a couple weeks; that would prevent all potential for infection).
If your rats have no symptoms when they arrive, quarantine needs to be at least two or three weeks. (If they come from a good breeder you know and trust, two weeks is probably enough. If from a pet store, longer is better.) If the rats show any symptoms, treat them (of course), and then begin a three week or longer quarantine after the symptoms are gone. The more new rats you have, the longer you will need to quarantine, because the virus will have more hosts to infect. (If your new rats come from the same place, 2 to 3 weeks is fine.)
The "Symptoms" of the New Rat
Too many times I hear the panicked owner of a new rat say, "My new rat is sneezing! Is he sick? Do I need a vet? What do I do?"
Chances are, no, your new rat is not sick. He is a bit stressed and excited and is adapting to new air temperature, humidity, smells, litter, etc. Even rats that are perfectly fine in the store or at the breeder's house often sneeze for a week or so in their new home. They might have small amounts of poryphin (red discarge from the eyes or nose) too. Sneezing and poryphin alone are not reason for concern. It is the reaction many rats have to excitement, and will go away as they settle in. This sneezing will, of course, happen while your new rat is being quarantined, so you will have plenty of time to find out if it is something more serious before exposing him to your other rodents.
Symptoms that are cause for alarm are listnessness, loss of appetite, ruffed fur, lower temperature (rat will be cold to the touch), labored breathing (not "noise" necessarily but a heaving chest), paleness (blue-grey feet, ears, or nose). If your rat has ANY of these symptoms (especially the breathing), get him somewhere warm, make sure he is drinking, and get to the vet as soon as possible.
Introducing your new rat(s) to an established group... Many people think this is trickier than it actually is. They will tell you all sorts of ways to make it work. Clean the cage really well, dab the rats with vanilla, etc. but I don't think any of this really helps. I have tried it. Honestly, the biggest problem is people become nervous and overprotective; they can't separate "safe" bullying from true aggression. They hear their rats scream and have to "rescue" them. The truth is, there isn't a magical formula to introductions. You just need to be able to differentiate the safe and necessary dominance behavoir from the injuring aggressive behavior. Before I get into these differences, however, I will explain my "method" of introduction.
After a new rat has been quarantined, I keep him in his own cage. (Actually two new rats are MUCH easier to introduce than just one, so I try to adopt two rats at a time or keep one of my own younger rats with him.--Baby rats are also MUCH easier to introduce than adults.) The first introductions take place in a free-range area (bed or bathroom). I simply put the new rats with the established ones and watch them interact. New rats will sometimes feel frightened of the others and might squeak and run. This is okay, but if one of the established rats seems overly "puffed up" or aggressive, I practice extra caution. The next day, I will put my new rats in the established cage for a few hours or until he seems stressed or frightened--whichever comes first. I will continue these "visits" for a week or two and finally just leave him in the cage. For the first visits, I will watch the entire time closely to see how everyone is reacting and on the look-out for aggressive behavior. I keep a squirt bottle handy to break up a real fight and "rescue" a rat. (Reaching into a cage of fighting rats is a sure way to get a SERIOUS bite, so always spray first!)
What you can expect in an introduction is the resident rats to follow new ones around, sniffing them vigorously and pinning them down for cleaning. New rats will often scream or squeak, may jump and run away, or stand up on their hind legs in a boxing pose. Young rats, especially females, sometimes have the habit of following around older rats and pestering or mounting them, and when the older rat confronts them, the younger will scream and run away. (She will then resume bothering the other one after a few minutes.) Other shows of dominance include huffing and pushing their sides against the new rat with fur raised. Rats sometimes practice "barbering," pulling out each others fur, to show dominance.
The rule of thumb for separation is if the new rat is seriously oppressed (like if he frantically runs away and is chased down and bullied repeatedly) or at "first blood" or "first bite." Healthy dominance does not include biting or injury. Most common rat fight wounds are missing toes or nails, nicks in ears (though these can also happen accidentally), small cuts on backs/bellies, and injured tails. Even in serious fighting, rats do not set out to kill each other. These wounds in themselves are not fatal but do mean the rats aren't compatible. (Rats rarely hurt each other like that.) Make sure to keep any wounds clean while they heal.
The most likely conflicts are between two adult rats with dominant personalities. There cannot be two kings or queens and some rats feel they need to be "the boss." More passive adults can get along with bossy types, but only if they are also mellow. A nervous, jittery rat is more likely to get chased and bullied (it can work out if he is introduced with a mellow sibling or other friend).
Also, the whole cage will become more tense with a new rat around, so it's not uncommon for "old friends" in the cage to start quarreling too. Just hang in there! It will pass as long as you don't intervene unless necessary.