Fancy rats are the domesticated species of rats that many people keep as pets. These rats are social creatures and like to live together. They often get along better if they were raised together.
Pet rats are territorial creatures, but you can introduce your pet rats to each other in such a way that they won’t become territorial. Rats might fight with the other rats in the cage they’re living with. The rats will often settle their own fights, but you might have to separate them yourself if they begin to injure each other.
Continue reading to learn more about typical rat behavior. It’s important to know what normal behavior looks like so you can know when you need to separate your rats.
Typical Rat Social Behavior
Rats are sociable creatures. In the wild, they live in groups. Domesticated breeds also prefer to live with other rats, so if you want to have pet rats, you should have at least two. A rat living by itself will become lonely and depressed, especially if they don’t get to spend enough time with their owner.
When rats are together and are content with each other, you’ll often find them piled on top of each other sleeping or playing and grooming each other. If you let your rats out to play, they might even start grooming you, too.
Grooming is also a solitary activity that a happy and healthy rat will do all the time. Rats are clean animals. They are constantly grooming themselves from their face to their tail. So, you rarely have to bathe them. If your rat stops cleaning itself, that probably means it’s sick and will need to go to the vet.
Rats like to play fight, especially when they’re young. However, as they get older, they’ll want to establish a hierarchy, and their fighting will become more aggressive. There will be more information about this in the next section, but it’s important to note that this is indeed normal behavior, even in domesticated rats.
Brown rats, the kind of rat you find in the streets that might make you scream, are quite territorial. They will have their specific group of rats that they live with and will become aggressive toward “outsider rats” that they aren’t familiar with. These street rats will fight with each other for superiority. They also might fight to the death as a type of population control.
Domesticated fancy rats don’t behave so aggressively. Fortunately, domesticated rats get along with each other quite well. The only time you may have an issue is if you didn’t introduce them correctly.
If you have rats that you acquired when they were young, you might notice that they start to fight more as they get older. Males typically fight the most because they’re trying to determine who’s the alpha male. This is a natural thing, but it can sometimes get out of hand. The key is to know what kind of fighting is aggressive, and what kind is just the rats playing.
There are two basic fighting moves rats use when they’re playing fight: pouncing and pinging. Both of these look playful and agile and hardly threatening. Think about when children roughhouse; it looks like it could get violent, but it’s much different than two children fighting because they’re angry.
Pouncing is when one rat jumps onto another rat. The pouncing rat will jump onto any part of the other rat: the head, the rear, the side – it doesn’t really matter. Young rats will get off of their pounced victim almost immediately. Adult rats don’t often pounce, but if they do, they’ll most likely stay there and turn it into an aggressive fight.
Pinging shouldn’t turn aggressive, as it’s almost always used for playing. They’ll pounce onto their target and then jump off, run around the cage, and pounce again. It’s common in young rats because they’re full of energy. You probably won’t find your adult rats pinging unless they have an exciting personality.
It can be difficult to determine if your rat is aggressive or dominant, especially when you just got your rat and are learning its behaviors. Dominant rats are bossy and will use aggressive behavior to communicate with the other rats. It will stop when the other rats comply with their wishes. Aggressive rats will continue fighting and won’t let up until you stop it.
If you’re getting to know a new rat, study its behavior. Don’t interrupt its aggressive interactions with other rats until it becomes violent enough that an injury could occur. Rats can solve their own problems and should be given the chance to do so.
Common aggressive behaviors to look out for include:
- Sidling: The rat moves its body sideways toward another rat.
- Shoving: The rat begins with sidling and then shoves its body into another rat. This is a rat’s way of saying, “get out!” Excessive shoving is aggressive behavior.
- Sidekick: This move begins with sidling and ends with the rat using its foot to kick the other rat. It isn’t as violent as shoving and shouldn’t cause any harm.
- Pinning: Pinning is similar to pouncing in that a rat will jump onto its victim. With pinning, the dominant rat will hold down its victim with its front paws and might begin to groom the victim to show its dominance.
- Face-off: Two rats fighting for dominance will stand on their hind legs and show their teeth. It often results in boxing.
- Boxing: After a face-off, the two rats fighting to be the alpha male will try to knock each other down.
This video shows a rat fight in a kitchen. They use most of the aggressive behaviors listed above.
What to Do About Territorial Behavior?
Rats have a “teenager stage” they go through as they grow up, which can contribute to much of their aggressive behavior. Males will almost always fight to show dominance, so fighting should be expected. Prevention and separation are the best ways to handle an escalating situation.
If you bring home a new rat to live with your current rats, introduce them slowly by following these steps:
- Keep the new rat alone for two weeks so diseases won’t be transferred from the “old” rats to the new rat, and vice versa.
- After quarantining, keep the rats in separate cages but place the cages beside each other.
- Choose a neutral spot away from the cages to let them out and play together.
- Let them play in a familiar spot.
- Clean a cage and move them in together.
If your rats frequently fight and they show signs of pain or injury while fighting, it’s best to separate them from each other. You can begin with a distraction like spraying them with water to help them split up.
If this doesn’t work, protect your hands and separate them yourself. Domesticated rats don’t usually bite humans, but they might if they’re stressed while aggressively fighting.
Pet rats are territorial because they like to gather with their family. If you introduce a new rat, they might become aggressive, especially if the new rat wants to establish dominance.
As young rats get older, they become aggressive when they want to establish their dominance, too. It’s a natural phase for the rats and shouldn’t be a cause of concern unless the rats are constantly aggressive to the point of bullying and are injuring any of the other rats.