So you've adopted a new rat, but now what? Many people ask, "What should I expect? Is this normal? Is my new rat sick? What's that weird hissing noise its making at me? Why are its eyes popping out of its head?"
Believe it or not, there are a lot of things that many first time rat owners, and even some experienced ones, may not know when it comes to their new rats. Some of these things can come across as concerning, bizarre, or even scary at times. Here, we will go over some information about what to expect immediately after adoption, as well as some tips and tidbits about your new furry friend that you may not have known.
If you notice that your new rats are sneezing once you bring them into your new home, don't worry. This is actually a very common occurrence. Not only do rats have an overly active respiratory system, but unlike us, they mainly rely on smell and touch to navigate their world. Because of this, their noses are able to pick up smells at a much higher level than we can. Once a rat leaves their breeders, they are entering a brand new environment that may be full of scents that they've never been exposed to. This can cause them to sneeze, sometimes very frequently. We call these the "new home sniffles".
A dry sneeze is perfectly normal. Most of the time, the sneezing will stop within the first week or so once they get used to the new smells and areas that they have been introduced to. If the sneezing does not stop within a couple of weeks, it could be because it is triggered by something in their surroundings or cage. Always make sure to use appropriate bedding free of irritants and additives to help curb their naturally prone respiratory issues. We recommend kiln dried pine over any other bedding type. Always be sure to avoid cedar based wood bedding, as this contains phenols which are actually toxic and irritating to rats. Also, avoid paper based bedding that contains odor suppressants such as baking soda, as this can do the same, and it does nothing to absorb ammonia.
Outside of the cage, there may be some things that are also triggering these sneezing attacks. Things like incense, air fresheners, strong smelling cleaning products, perfumes, and body sprays may also agitate their respiratory system. Always be mindful of the smells you are exposing your rats to. If you have ensured that nothing in their cage or environment is causing these issues, and they continue sneezing past the first week or two, check for signs of mycoplasma (a red, blood-like substance that accumulates around their eyes, ears and nose). This may be an indicator of extreme stress or illness.
One of the things most new rat owners don't know is that when a rat gets stressed, it emits a red secretion from its nose, eyes and sometimes ears called porphyrin. This is a natural reaction that rats have to distressing situations and may be a sign that they are unhappy, or stressed, due to things such as a poor living environment, a health issue/illness, being mishandled or mistreated, as well as many other possible things.
Here are some things that may cause them to secrete porphyrin. This is in no way a complete list, but these are some of the most common reasons your rat may be stressed.
Causes of stress
If you notice your rat is stressed, try and narrow down the options of what could be causing it and eliminate that possibility. It can sometimes be tricky to figure out exactly what is causing their stress, as it could be many different things. Our best advice is to always try and provide a secure, safe, quiet environment for your rats, and always check for any health issues or injuries that may be present.
Regardless of how social a rat is, how well they were raised, or how good their temperament is, they are still living beings and all living beings have the capacity to become scared and stressed in new environments. You may notice your rat hiding after being placed in the cage, this is normal. Be patient. Allow your rat a day or two to settle in and explore their new cage and try not to disturb them or frighten them. After giving them a day or so to settle, start opening the cage and offering your hand to them. Give them treats and allow them time to warm up to you. You'll find that they will quickly start coming up to you and will eventually begin wrestling and playing with you.
With well bred, socialized rats, this should happen fairly quickly, if not almost immediately. Some rats, however, may have not been socialized or treated well early on - or may be poorly bred - and may have skittishness/trust issues. These types of rats may take much longer to show trust. Always remember to be patient, and let the rat come to you on their own terms. We should never force them into a position they do not want to be in, as this can actually cause them to mistrust us even more so. Also, always make sure that the breeder you adopt your rats from breeds for temperaments/socializes their rats. The better the breeding of the rat, the less likely they are to hide and become antisocial after adoption.
If you adopt baby rats (rats less than 3 months old), keep in mind that they are just that ... babies. All babies, regardless of species, are hyper and playful and usually don't want to sit still very long. This does not mean they were not well bred, it just means that they are happy, healthy babies. As they get older, you will notice they will start to slow down and will be more prone to sitting still and cuddling with you. This temperament change usually occurs at 6 months of age, which is when they reach maturity. Males tend to be the more cuddly and laid back of the two, while females tend to stay inquisitive, prone to exploring, and more active.
Always keep in mind that there is a big difference in your rat relentlessly running from hand to hand while holding them, and desperately struggling, writhing, and sometimes even leaping off of you onto the floor in an attempt to get away from you. If it seems like your rat would rather risk injury than allow you to hold it, this may be a sign that it was not well socialized/bred and is mistrusting of people. If this is the case, do not attempt to hold your rat until you have earned its trust, to avoid any possible escapes or injuries.
Out of all species of small animals, rats are the least likely to bite. However, sometimes they may grab your finger with their mouths, which causes some people to become startled or frightened. A rat may grab you with their teeth for a few reasons. The first reason is that they are trying to get your attention. If they are in their cage and you get too close, your rat may grab at you with their teeth or their hands and try to pull you into the cage. This is their way of saying, "Come play with me!" If your rat does grab your finger with their teeth and try to pull you into the cage, it may seem like they are doing this out of aggression, but it's actually the opposite, and they have no intention of hurting you. This shows that they trust you and want you to spend time with them.
Another reason is that they may think that you have a treat in your hand, especially if you tend to feed them treats through the bars of their cage, which for this reason is not recommended. Rats have poor eyesight, and they may nip your finger, not realizing that you don't actually have a treat. If this happens, they will usually quickly let go once they realize they have your finger. This usually won't hurt, but some rats can be overly zealous about their treats, so if it does hurt or draw blood, please keep in mind that most of the time its not because they were trying to actually hurt you and it was more than likely an accident. If they do bite too hard, they will sometimes actually apologize to you by licking your finger and cleaning the area immediately after.
There is a big difference in play biting and aggression. If you feel your rat may actually be aggressive and is biting too frequently or drawing blood, see our article on rat aggression for further help.
There are many things you can do to help your rat bond with you. Please see our article on bonding for further information.
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