Rats need and enjoy interaction and look forward to time spent with you. Their intelligence is higher than most other rodents making training and play time a joy. Be sure to make such activities not only fun, but also safe for your rat.
When your rat is outside of its cage prepare the area first by rat proofing. Do not involve your rat in activities that will scare him. You can lose its trust and rats will sometimes bite when scared. Be sure that other pets that may harm your rat are securely put away before out of the cage playing or training.
Make sure that your rat is comfortable and unafraid. It is best to first get to know your pet so that it will be secure through trust training.
Trust Comes First
Before training or play comes trust. If you have had your rat as a companion then in all likelihood the bond of trust has been established.
With a new rat you have to start from square one. Here we will discuss trust training with a skittish rat. Rats showing aggression need to be handled a little differently and will be discussed in another behavior article.
First let the rat get used to the new cage and surroundings. Make sure that the cage has an opening large enough for you to get both hands into. Then approach it carefully with snacks. Be sure to keep your fingers safe with a new rat. Put soft food on a spoon to not only protect your fingers, but to keep the rat in place while eating rather than running back and hiding in a corner with the food. Laying your arm inside of the cage will help get the rat used to you. Often their natural curiosity will inspire the bravery for the rat to explore your arm.
As your rat becomes more comfortable try picking it up gently from the sides and holding it. Use both hands to pick the rat up. Do not pick the rat up by its tail. This is frightening to the rat and can cause injuries such as tail degloving. Hold it gently and securely. If the rat’s tail begins to whip around it means that it is frantically trying to regain its balance. Be sure to support the rat’s hind legs to prevent making it feel as if its balance is off. If the rat becomes agitated then return it to the cage and try again later.
You may find that some rats are more responsive during certain times of the day. Rats can have their own schedules, although they will usually adjust to yours. Talk soothingly to the rat. Let it know that you are not to be feared and that you are the provider of treats.
Once your rat is comfortable being held, just spend time with it by having him ride on your shoulder or hanging out with you while you are relaxing, then you can begin playing more and training.
Rats learn quickly. Using positive reinforcements such as treats and praise will ensure that your pet rat is eager to learn. The mental stimulation that training provides will enhance the rat’s natural intelligence.
When teaching your rat a trick, for instance coming to his name, repeat the word while holding a treat. When he comes to you release the treat to him, praise him verbally, and/or reward by giving physical contact such as scratching or by holding him. One of the most useful things you can train your rat to do is to use a litter box. You will find detailed training instructions here.
Things to remember when training your rat is that the rats own personality may determine what tricks it will be best at. Active females often do better at tricks that require agility and speed. Some rats are smarter than others are. Gearing the training to the rat’s activity level and intelligence will save both you and your rat from becoming frustrated.
Be sure that there are not a lot of distractions during training time. Keeping the training area consistent will help to keep the rat’s natural instinct to explore new things at bay. Do not try to train male rats where female rats have recently been, or vice versa. The scent will distract them and the training session will be useless.
Keep your training sessions short- between 10 and 15 minutes. Never punish your rat if it doesn’t perform.
The Key Components of Training
- Positive reinforcement
Some Training Activities
- Coming to its name
- Learning the word “No”
- Maze running
- Rope walking or climbing
- Agility courses
- Retrieving articles
- Standing on hind legs
- Harness & leash training
- Roll-about Ball training
- Obstacle course running
- Clicker training
- Litter box use
There is a strong possibility that the term “play time” was created by rats. They love to play both inside and outside of their cage (in a rat-proofed area). From the time they are very tiny till they reach old age most rats will enjoy playing with each other and with you.
Note: Do not let the male and female rats play together after the age of 5 weeks. Rats can reproduce at a very young age. They also can mate faster than you can blink, so don’t assume that you can let them play together just because you are supervising them. Also, do not assume that an elderly male or female cannot still have working reproductive organs.
Playing – Babies
Baby rats begin actively playing with each other after their eyes have opened at around two weeks of age. A good breeder should not only play with them as babies, but should also actively play with them on a daily basis.
At this age most of the play activity will be chasing and wrestling. To be a part of this play put your hand inside the cage and with your hand “mimic” them as if it was another rat. Then you can join in the chasing and the wrestling in their environment. Using verbal prompts when playing will get them even more excited, it will also be useful through their lives as a signal that its time to play.
When playing with the babies in the cage, be sure to keep an eye on the mother. Different mothers don’t always react in the same way to the intrusion of a hand into their nursery area. Some mothers pay no attention, some mothers will join in the play, but some mothers may show aggression towards you.
Be sure to provide the babies with plenty of cage items that they can climb on and crawl through. Playing with the babies also will need to take place outside of the cage by supervised free roam, handling, and walking around them. Babies move fast and need to be watched closely.
Playing – Adolescence & Adulthood
Even after weaning, young rats will often enjoy hand wrestling both in and out of the cage. During this stage of their development more playtime needs to occur out of the cage. Try to make time everyday to give your rat time out. Be sure to plan play areas where your rat can safely explore.
Make sure that the cage is equipped with toys, especially if you can’t spend a lot of time with your rat. Some suggestions for cage toys are a safe exercise wheel, levels, ramps, treat toys, and tubes.
Another way to give your rat a fun activity is to put boxes in the cage or paper bags that can be remodeled to fit the rat’s tastes.
Interactive games are also fun. One good example is tearing paper into strips and giving it to the rat piece by piece while it is in the cage. Your rat will scramble to take the paper, put it away, and come back for more. If you have a group of rats they will all join in, sometimes setting up a system to get the paper where they want it by passing it to each other like a bucket brigade. Of course if you don’t feel like handing them paper for an hour you can always give them a box of unscented Kleenex and just sit back and watch the fun. Use your imagination to come up with fun activities for you and your rats.
Playing – Older Rats
As your rats get older they will inevitably slow down and play less. This tends to particularly be true with males. Females in general tend to have a higher energy level throughout their lives.
Continue to play with them at whatever level they seem comfortable with. They will let you know if they are not interested. Often older rats prefer quiet play such as time out laying with you and being help and petted. As fun as young rats can be, nothing compares to the quiet companionship of an older rat.