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This article is from the Rat Health Care booklet. Order one today! Check out the info at Rat Books

Rat Behavior in Relation to Health

by Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun

Here is a brief list of rat behaviors that are relevant to health issues.  Some normal behaviors can be mistaken for health problems.


Domestic rats are true domesticated animals and are born tame, but they still need to be socialized to bond to humans. Baby rats need to handled as much as possible beginning at birth and especially between 2 and 4 weeks of age to make sure they will be friendly and calm. It is a myth that handling the babies will cause the mother to kill them.


Rats who were not properly socialized as babies will often exhibit fear toward humans. But even these rats can be quickly rehabilitated using a method called Trust Training. This technique uses soft food on a spoon as both a lure and reward for desired behavior. For more info see the article at


Rats are extremely social and separating sick rats from their owner and/or cagemates can be highly stressful and can make them worse.  Rats should be isolated from cagemates only when absolutely necessary, such as if the cagemates are picking on the patient.  A patient who is having difficulty eating may need to be separated during feeding time.  There is usually no need to separate rats with symptoms of respiratory or other illness from their cagemates because:

1. If it is a contagious disease their cagemates will have already been exposed

2. They all have mycoplasma anyway, and

3. Many secondary infections are opportunistic, not contagious. 


Surgical patients can be replaced with roommates as soon as they recover from anesthesia unless one of their roommates is an obsessive groomer, as these rats will bother the incision. Most rats will not, however. 


Rats infected with mycoplasma often exhibit a behavior that looks like hiccups.  This is a “sneezing jag,” even though it usually doesn’t produce any sound, and is a symptom of mycoplasma (lab rats who are myco-free do not exhibit it).  If this behavior increases, antibiotics specific to mycoplasma will gradually reduce the incidence.


Scabs on a rat’s shoulders, neck or face are often assumed to be signs of fighting, but they are usually self-inflicted and caused by itching, most commonly from fur mites.


A small percentage of male rats (2-5%) will develop excessive testosterone at full maturity (average 8 months of age) and become aggressive to other rats, and sometimes also to humans.  The solution is to neuter the rat which will decrease or eliminate the aggression, although it can take up to 8 weeks for their behavior to change.  Neutering will also reduce urine marking.


Symptoms of neurological impairment such as poor coordination, falling over, abnormal use of the hands and arms, abnormal hyperactivity, running into objects, circling, standing in a corner, and strange eating or chewing behavior are most likely caused by a pituitary tumor, especially in older female rats.  (A head tilt is usually caused by an inner ear infection.)  For more info see the article at


Normal Behaviors


Some rats sway their heads back and forth when they’re trying to look at something.  This behavior is most common in pink-eyed rats and is a sign that the rat’s eyesight is poor.  The swaying helps them focus on objects better through parallax.


A female rat in heat can become jumpy, especially when touched on the back. When touched, she may also arch her back and vibrate her ears!  Female rats in heat can be quite determined and inventive in reaching a male rat, for instance, leaping huge distances or squirming through cage bars, and must be securely confined.


Sometimes a rat, usually a female, will start to pick up her tail in her mouth and carry it while circling.  This action is related to maternal behavior and is no cause for worry.  The rat sees the tail and it stimulates retrieving behavior, as if the tail is a baby.  It might be related to a false pregnancy.


Some rats vibrate their tails in response to social stress, or anxiety, especially if they see something that reminds them of a snake.  Other rats can wag their tails when they are petted to indicate pleasure.


Most rats are quiet, but there are some rats who use vocalizations to express emotions.  Some rats will squeak or grunt to talk to their humans.  The key to distinguishing between vocalization and wheezing is when the sounds occur.  Wheezing noises can come and go, but they are usually fairly steady, in time with the breathing, and can occur when the rat is asleep.  Talking usually occurs only when the rat is with people.

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