One of the most interesting books I ever got was How to Speak Dog. It helped me understand and communicate effectively (and avoid being attacked) with my dog and others. Sixth senses are best left to the paranormalists. To be able to communicate with or, at least, understand your pets' actions, you need to know their instincts, motives, body language, and social structure.
The first thing you need to remember is a rat is a rat. It is not a mouse or a hamster or a dog or a person or anything else. The most common mistake people make is assuming all rodents think the same or figuring a rat is just like a little dog--or the worst thing, assuming human characteristics such as romance, guilt, jealousy, etc. (not saying these things don't exist for animals, but certain actions do not always mean what you think).
If you subscribe to the theory of evolution, you'll remember that mice and rats are similar to many of the the first mammal species with their primitive anatomy, their size, their nocturnal habits... Anyway, being such a "primitive" species, rats have to be jacks-of-all-trades. They can survive many environments and fill many niches. In the wild, rats are usually scavengers but are also predators (especially of smaller mammals, insects, and birds) when the situation calls for it, and of course, they are a prey species for many animals worldwide. Animals in this position of the food web have instincts and adaptations to help them both be good hunters and defend or escape predators. This makes them distinctly different from pure and mostly predators like cats and dogs and ferrets as well as different from mainly herbivores and prey animals like rabbits and gerbils.
Their scavenger nature is what makes rats our lovable, intelligent, and sometimes frustrating little rogues. In the wild, rats have to take what they can get because there's no telling when the opportunity will come again. That's why rats hoard and are very grabby of food. That's why, if something that smells tasty (like fingers with hand lotion) comes into their cage, it's bite first and ask questions later. They are also clever collectors of trinkets and things to build and improve their homes to make them safe and comfortable. In some rats, this instinct turns them into kleptomaniacs, collecting toys, erasers, and whatever else they can carry. In many rats, this just means that all types of cloth, paper, and fabric are theirs to tailor and use for their comfort and warmth.
A rat's predatory instincts are more subtle. In fact, most people don't even recognize it. After all, rats don't stalk or pounce on people usually. This subtlety and apparent innocence has cost many rat owners to lose smaller pets such as hermit crabs, mice, and even birds to a rat acting on hunting instincts. It isn't fair to blame the rat for killing other pets. The problem lies in the person for not understanding these interactions. (Would anyone place a piranha in a tank of goldfish or have an easily escapable mouse cage in easy reach of a cat?) Preventing this is easy; have all cages secure and don't allow your rats to interact with potential prey (anything smaller than a rat is prey). Now, you can allow your rats to explore and use these instincts without causing harm. Rats love to play with feathers and furry toys as well as balls and bells. (Not all rats have this playful predator side, but many will play just like a cat.)
Rats' position near the bottom of the food chain is what gives them their mouse-like behaviors. The nature of such prey animals is to flee and hide and to attack if cornered or when threatened. Rats, especially smaller ones and females, like to have a box (or a crotch) to hide in. They are wary of the unfamiliar, especially larger animals and loud noises. It is a rat's nature to bite in self-defense if he cannot escape what he feels is a dangerous situation. For a wild rat, this may be people, other animals, or even other rats. Domestication has greatly diluted these instincts through breeding and socialization. Pet rats that are well-socialized and bred for their "temperament" may have no fear at all of potential predators such as your cat, dog, and you. They are tame by nature, and some may not ever get spooked or run from noises or sudden movements. Almost no domestic rats will ever bite a person (or even feel like they are in danger), but many will still maintain a flight and flee response when confronted by cats or dogs. This also means that a pet rat could not survive in the wild, so never decide to "set him free" as a last resort to behavioral or housing problems. Euthanasia is a kinder fate for a domestic rat than a short and terrifying life in the wild...
Rat to Rat Interactions
Rats are very social by nature and have their own ways of communicating and behaving with each other. They have different personalities and different tendencies. One rat may act very different than another and won't necessarily behave the same way toward males as to females or to babies as to adults or even to one rat as another very similar one.
Grooming can take on several meanings. Mothers and older rats groom babies as part of their care and to bond. Peers will groom each other just as a social interaction, because they are friends, and because they can't always get that hard-to-reach spot. However, there is a very serious message to some grooming. Forced grooming is when a bigger or otherwise more dominant rat pins another one on his back and cleans him roughly, often ending in a "that's enough!" squeak from the subordinate. (This is also done in play sometimes.) Rats will also groom their people by licking your hand, arm, foot, cheek, or whatever. Sometimes it is a social grooming, but other times, you may just taste good. ;)
Rats at play tug on each others' tails and hop around on their toes. Eventually one will pin the other on her back and lick her thoroughly. If the game gets too rough, one of them usually squeaks and leaves, while the other may hop off to find a new sparring partner.
Standing on hind legs is not usually play but rather a confrontation to determine dominance. The rat social structure is fairly loose, but in groups of more than three or so, one or two rats will assume a dominant "alpha" role. Determining dominance is usually a noisy process but seldom violent. It involves forced grooming, puffing out fur, leaning against subordinate rats, and mounting (mock mating). It is advisable to simply allow rats to work out who's in charge when a new rat is introduced or there is a new territory (like a new cage) to dispute, unless there is real injury involved. Normal dominance quarrels should not include biting or any blood. A few accidental scratches are normal.
Rat Violence (WARNING: descriptive)
It is not normal for a rat to attack or injure other rats or people. Aggression and violent behavior can have many roots. It may be hereditary, at least in part. People have documented that "biters" or aggressive rats pass on these traits to offspring. It is quite possibly hormonal. Rats don't seem to exhibit their "mean streaks" until at least six to ten months old, and often neutering an aggressive male will cut down the aggression significantly. It may even be a problem stemming from neglect or abuse either from a person or from an aggressive rat they lived with. I'm going to present some common horrors that may happen, why it happens, and what can be done.
A bully: One rat just doesn't get along. He/she picks on one, two, or many others. Perhaps he has caused injuries, even bitten off part of a tail or digit. What this usually entails is too many hormones or too many rats. If your rat is a male, consider neutering. Neutering is no guarantee for peace, but if he is nasty to males, it may not mean he's bad with females. In fact, most males get along much better with females. Another option is to put him or her in a different cage with one companion they get along with. In a pair, rats do not have such stressful social structures to worry about. As a last resort, for a rat that just can't get along, he/she may have to be housed alone. Some rats will not accept a new companion after losing one, especially males. Remember to give him lots of attention and toys. If your bully is a female, then consider if she may be pregnant. Pregnant rats sometimes become aggressive to other rats. In any case, if you suspect your rat is pregnant, you should separate her to her own cage, an aquarium with mesh lid is ideal because it is safest for mom and babies and keeps out drafts.
Biting people: You reach down to pick up your rat, and he turns around and bites you HARD. Why do rats bite? Well, think about the situation... Did your hand smell like food? Even soap is food for a rats, and rats have poor vision. Is the rat in a new environment, young, or otherwise stressed? If so, the bite was likely out of fear. Many rats, especially from pet stores, are not properly handled and socialized and will see you as a threat, a potential predator. You will need to work with such a rat to earn his or her trust by using treats and a soothing voice and not touching him unless he initiates it. Is there a chance he's injured? Animals sometimes don't show pain at all. Examine him for cuts, bruises or other injuries. Wounded rats do bite from pain. If your hand smells like another rat or he seems to be biting for no reason, it may be hormonal. Neutering may help. Otherwise, wash your hands thoroughly and handle him very slowly, never startling him or making any quick movements. Some rats are very threatened by people. Again, if this is a female, she may be aggressive because of pregnancy or she may be protective if she has a litter. Try not to handle or stress her too much.
The bloody rat fight: You hear a lot of noise or don't witness it at all. You find yourself with a cage full of blood, missing ears and bits of tails, open wounds in sides or stomachs, possibly even a dead or dying rat. This is more common for males. It often happens when rats are stressed or overcrowded or when females are in a close proximity. Overcrowding can turn any animal violent, but beware providing too much room. If rats can set up separate territories, there will be no end to fights... If two males believe they need to compete for a female, hormones can rage out of control. Most rats will not have bloody fights over females, but if yours do, consider separating the instigator(s) and/or neutering them. If neither of these is the case, then you either have "a bully" or there is something that stressed them terribly. Unfortunately, there may be more fights... It would be best to bandage them up and separate them until you can be sure which rats can live in harmony.
NOTE: If you do see a dominance battle getting violent, NEVER just reach in to stop it and/or rescue a rat. You could be seriously injured by a rat bite. (Remember the rats are really tense and will see your hand as just another attack.)
Cannibalism: This is NOT really a violent act. It is an instinct of wild rats that is occasionally retained in pet rats but occurs far more often in mice and other smaller rodents. Some rats will eat the bodies (or parts of them) of other rats under some conditions such as (dead) babies or youths in a litter or a dead cagemate. They are seldom responsible for the death itself. Eating the bodies of their companions serves a few purposes. One is that rats are scavengers and part of nature's cleanup crew. They must keep the environment clean. Secondly, the energy can be restored to the other rats; after all, a body is NOT an old friend to a rat, it is simply a body, meat to be crude about it (though that is the truth speaking bluntly), containing energy, which is vitally important, especially if this is a new mother with a stillborn. Lastly, the smell of death attracts many unwelcome predators, and this cannibal instinct to clean it up quickly keeps the other rats alive and safe. This can not be prevented and is something you will just have to accept.
Murder?: The rarest of all violent acts is when a rat actually kills another one. Death may result from a fight, but this is almost always unintentional. What I'm talking about here is a mother killing a litter or part of one or a rat or group of rats actually killing a cagemate. In the case of the mother, it may be that she is extremely stressed or the babies in question are sick or have a birth defect. In any case, usually the mom feels the litter, or some of the litter, will not survive. Usually, this is followed by the mother eating the babies she killed, especially if she has some babies left to nurse and care for. (see above). More frequently, a mother may simply abandon such babies by pushing them out of the nest, where they'll die from exposure. To prevent this, try having a foster mom or hand-rearing parts of particularly large litters (over 12) and never breed a rat who has killed her babies before; it will most likely happen again. In the case of rats killing an adult rat, males may do it over a female or adults may kill a sick cagemate. Other cases are almost never seen unless a rat has a psychological aggression problem. You may be able to prevent this if you can separate rats that have aggressive tendencies, and/or neutering may help. (To add again, rats do not commonly kill other rats. If you find one dead or even eaten, it is most likely that it died from a disease or an accident. Even a seemingly healthy rat can have a stroke or a seizure and die completely unexpectedly.)
Cross-species Murder: As I mentioned earlier, rats ARE predators of smaller mammals, birds, insects, etc. and they will defend themselves against potential threats such as a cat, dog, or ferret. If an animal dies from an interspecies interaction, then it is not the rat's fault. These are its instincts. ALWAYS supervise when a rat is with another animal and NEVER house them together.
Behavioral Quirks and Problems
Sometimes animals do things that make you ask "why?" Some forms of communication may even send you into panic, believing there is a health problem involved or that your pet is psychotic. Don't worry. Lot's of people make the same mistakes and ask the same questions about a pet doing one thing or another, if they should stop the behavior, and how. Here are some ratty quirks and what to do about them:
Licking/Nibbling People: People usually say that the rat "needs/likes the salt" or something else you have on your hands like soap or lotion, which may be true sometimes. Often, however, rats will lick and nibble people as part of a social grooming ritual. It may show that they recognize you as a member of their family. Rats also tend to do it when nervous or frightened, especially if you are holding them tightly. (Rats choose to lick you rather than biting to let you know they want you to let go.) It should not be punished or corrected. If a rat nibbles or licks where you'd rather they not, such as on your lips, ears (I've had rats bite my lobes hard enough to puncture them), armpits, etc., try using some sort of bitter deterrent (like bitter apple) or lemon juice or just keep them away from that part of your body.
Head Swaying: No, it's not an ear infection or a symptom of brain damage. Rats do this to see better. Rats have poor vision, and can only discern dark and light patches for the most part. Swaying gives them some depth perception so they can see where you or something else is, especially if they smell something interesting or dangerous (like a cat). Head swaying is not something all rats do, but it is fairly common, especially for rats with pink to ruby eyes.
Teeth Grinding: It is called "bruxing" and is not a problem. For the most part, rats do it when they are relaxed, calm, and happy. It is equivalent to a cat purring in this respect. Rats also brux when nervous, afraid, or in pain. It's not hard to figure out what they are "saying" when they brux. If the rat is resting on your lap, it is most likely that they are content. If in the vet's office or bath, he is probably nervous. (It also helps rats wear down their ever-growing rodent teeth.)
Chewing Cage Bars: Not all rats chew bars, but you may get a chewer. Why do they do it? Probably it is a matter of habit. Maybe it feels good, and it does help them wear their teeth. Some rats do it only when they don't have wooden toys or other things in their cage to chew, so adding some boxes and/or wooden bird toys may help. However, some rats chew even with other things to do. Rats that are stressed, bored, or lonely are more likely to chew the bars of their cage. Some of mine chew whenever there is any major change, such as a new rat or a new cage. After a few weeks the chewing just stops. If your rat is chewing from stress or loneliness, try to determine the problem and correct it or wait it out. Don't be too concerned if you can't remedy it. Bar chewing is annoying but harmless.
Tearing/Collecting Cloth or Paper: They tear up and collect things to make their homes more comfortable. If provided with tissue or newspaper, rats will collect the pieces to make a bed on a shelf or line their hammocks. They may also do it just to have something to do! Rats are smart animals that need mental stimulation. They'll come up with their own games and seem to take great joy in stealing trinkets from each other and collecting them in one spot. Rats enjoy being constructive (or destructive) for their waking hours. You shouldn't discourage this behavior. It keeps rats mentally healthy. However you DON'T want them destroying your clothes, so keep all your important things over a rat arm's length from the cage and supervise any time they are outside the cage.
Plucking Fur: This one is a bit of a mystery to me. Most rats don't pluck themselves or others, but a few do. Fur plucking is usually self-inflicted (unlike the similar barbering that some mice do to each other), and is usually done to the ankles and wrists and/or the base of the tail. Maybe it is from stress and then it changes to habit. Or it could just be a habit that rats fall into and just start liking plucking themselves. Maybe they like the feel of having bare skin. I don't know. I have two rats that pluck themselves, and nothing has changed this. I do know that it has not affected them in any way. They are happy and healthy and have not hurt themselves by doing this. If your rat plucks himself, remove anything that could be stressing him, and if he doesn't stop, don't fret it. The only real downside is that he won't be able to compete successfully in shows.
Escaping: Rats are very attached to their home/cage, so if one gets out, chances are she's not seeking out a new place to live or looking for "freedom." Rats are just curious. They want to explore their surroundings, and will actually return to their cage if possible. If one does get away from you, she is probably scared and hiding somewhere. If she doesn't have a familiar place to hide in, she will set up one. One preventative measure to prevent "rat loss" is setting up a home away from home, a small travel cage or box that she is familiar and comfortable with and she can access from the floor. To do this you need to let your rat(s) explore this box when you take her out to play. Avoid closing her up inside it and always associate it with pleasant things like treats and warmth. Set this refuge on the floor in a dim corner (covered up with a towel or cardboard box if it's wire, so it feels more secure to the rat) and put soft bedding in it. Let your rat(s) see where it is and climb inside when you take them out to play. Then, simply leave it easily accessible to your rat in the event she should escape. If your rat has gotten out and you don't have a safe haven (or it doesn't work), put your rat's favorite treat on the floor with a circle of flour around it. Your rat will likely take the bait, and you can follow flour footsteps to her hiding place.
Running or NOT Running in a Wheel: Rats don't take to wheels as readily as hamsters, mice, or gerbils do. Many sources say that rats are the most intelligent small pets, so maybe that has something to do with it. The wheel may not thrill them much because it isn't mentally stimulating. They'd prefer wrestling with a buddy or tearing apart a bird toy or something where they get to have some impact and variety. That said, some rats do run in wheels, particularly young rats and females. I suppose it gives them an outlet for their energy. Of course, rats may be "smart" as far as rodents go but they are far from geniuses. When I vacuum, one of my rats jumps in her wheel and runs as fast as she can. What is she expecting to accomplish? Does she actually think she's going somewhere?
Mounting: I often hear people say they got two rats and were certain they were female, but one is mounting the other and they are afraid of babies. Or they have males they think must be "gay." Males and females will mount other rats of the same sex. In my observation, females do it much more. Most females I've had have mounted their same-sex cagemates, but only a few males have done this. In both cases it can be nothing more than excessive energy and hormones. It is sort of like another game they play. Females often mount or are mounted when they are in heat. Because the cycles are so short, if you have a few females, you may see mounting behavior every day. Males' hormones have different effects on them, so they aren't so much into the hyper mounting behavior except during their brief adolescence. Males (and some females) may mount as a show of dominance, but commonly young males will mount adults, suggesting it's more of a hyper adolescent behavior. There really isn't much to do to discourage this. If it is pretty intense and constant and one rat seems to be constantly harassed, provide some hammocks and/or pouches where he can hide and get away from his oppressor. In males, this usually is a phase and passes. In females, it is usually a lighthearted game, and no cause for concern.
Urine Trails: Dominant or outgoing males (and some females) leave drops of urine where they walk, especially on people's arms and laps. This is a territory marking behavior. You can discourage it by preventing the animals from walking across things they habitually urine mark, and change your clothes immediately after being marked. (This may cause them to figure out that the marks won't stay and/or you are not their territory.) These probably won't stop the behavior but can prevent the opportunity for it. Having a male neutered can eliminate marking behavior in some cases.
Rubbing Cage Shelves, Bars, Etc.: When a rat rubs his hands and feet on cage bars or shelves or other things, it seems that they are marking their territory. The scent is not noticeable to people, only other rats. Rats do this when a new rat is introduced or after a cage is cleaned. Since it is another nonviolent way of asserting dominance, this should not be discouraged. (Rats also rub their hands on things if their hands are dirty with something they don't want to lick off.)
Tail Wagging: Rats twitch or wag their tails very infrequently. I have seen it in only one rat myself. (It is seen more often in mice.) When a rat does this, it looks like an agitated tail wag of a cat rather than the excited, happy wag of a dog. In reality, this is very much what a rat wagging is. Like a cat, rats wag their tail when stressed, angry, or scared. Mice do this too. Rats are generally less easily stressed than mice, which may be why it is infrequently seen in them.
Communicating with Your Rat
No, I'm not talking about a psychic mind reading stuff. People can, in a sense, read rats' thoughts and vice versa but only through their body language, actions, and other signs (most of us have to "read minds" this way, at least ;-) ) Knowing the things mentioned above is how you can understand your rat's communication to you. Besides the obvious things like bruxing (teeth grinding) and tail wagging, you may also notice how tense or relaxed their muscles are. Rats not used to being held or those that are stressed will feel tense when they are picked up. Calm rats that don't mind handling may go limp like rag dolls when picked up (especially males; some people descibe them as "squishy"). You may also notice their ears and whiskers. They perk up when alert or listening (or sniffing) and lay flat when resting. (Dumbo rats ears are more easily "read" because they give the face a very different look when alert than when flat on the sides of their head.)
Some rats develop their own way of "talking" to you, and you encourage this often without knowing you do. For instance, one of my rats chews incessantly on her cage bars, and it is maddening. When she does this, I will do anything to get her to stop. Sometimes I take her out of the cage; sometimes I give her a dog biscuit or cardboard toy; sometimes a hammock. It basically equates to a baby crying, and now she knows to do it whenever she wants something. I essentially "taught" her to (or perhaps she taught me). Other rats teach their owners to refill their bottles when they knock them off their cage or to refill their bowl when they tip it over or to change their litter when they pile it up in a corner. Some people can read their rats better than others. It takes just observation of what they do and how you respond.
But on to YOU communicating to THEM.
Crime & Punishment: The most important thing to remember is to never "punish" a rat. Rats are animals whose nature is to fear large things. It is only through gentle actions and generations of domestication that they can trust you to some degree. Any yelling will scare them. They will not understand you are upset for something they did, only that you are angry and are threatening and possibly dangerous. Any physical scorning is even worse. Rats do not link anger to improper behavior; they link it to attack and predation. Such discipline can work on dogs and cats because they are not prey animals and because mother dogs and cats discipline their offspring with a growl or nip. Rats do not have this in their vocabulary. Bad behavior CAN be discouraged in other ways that do not break the trust or scare your rats. You do this by separating yourself from unpleasant consequesnces and by making such consequences unpleasant. A spray bottle can be used to break up fights or stop any behavior when it is happening. Even if the water doesn't bother them, rats will eventually stop to clean themselves and you can "rescue" them from a bad situation. To discourage chewing certain things such as clothing, carpets, furniture, etc., a bitter spray (sold as "Bitter Apple" or "Bitter Lime") may help discourage this, but remember that rats do not always taste what they gnaw. Rodent incisors are placed far away from their tongues and gnawing behavior is not related to eating. Double-sided tape can be placed around "off-limits" areas such as flower pots or electronic equipment. As you can see, with this type of discipline, learning is very direct, non-threatening, and not something a rat can connect to you.
Playing with Your Rat: Many rats will wrestle with you like a kitten. When he is particularly active, talk excitedly to him and chase him with your hand. Tap him on the nose and flip him over. If he's in the mood, he will lick or nibble you or hop up excitedly and pounce on your hand. Don't play too roughly. It also helps to talk in an excited voice when you play with them. Young rats play more than adults, but males and females alike will play if in the mood.
Petting Your Rat: Most rats enjoy being pet, especially on the face and neck. It mimicks the social grooming behavior, so expect to be groomed in return. Rats that are enjoying being pet or held will grind or chatter their teeth (bruxing). Remember to pet gently. Many rats (especially males) don't like their backs pet, but some will roll over so you can rub their bellies.