by Angela King
One of the things I love most about rats is that they are such happy, enthusiastic creatures. They seem to cherish every second spent playing with their humans or rat companions, exploring or causing trouble. One of the easiest ways to give a rat more opportunities to enjoy life is to make sure it has another rat to live with. It saddens me a great deal that many rats live alone simply because their owners do not know that they are far happier with company.
Rats are highly social animals which gain a great deal of enjoyment and stimulation from each other's company. It just isn't natural for them to live alone. Rats play, groom each other, and cuddle up to sleep together, keeping each other warm. They also communicate by touch and smell, and by sound at frequencies we can't hear. No amount of human attention can entirely replace the company of another rat. Even though rats love their humans, having your own human plus a rat friend is always preferable to just having your own human!
Rats with company live more full and active lives than those kept alone. There are many experiences open to them which the single rat simply cannot have. And no matter how much attention a person gives a single rat, she will not be available 24 hours a day and willing to play in the middle of the night when rats are at their most active. Rats are just too intelligent and easily bored to be left alone when they want to play. Although some rat books say that it is "acceptable" to keep a rat alone, most pet owners want the best lifestyle they can give their rat, not one that is merely acceptable.
Occasionally a rat will be too aggressive to live with another. Males who are often used for stud or who weren't introduced to a companion when young, may fall into this category. In some cases there is little alternative to keeping them alone. But in many cases, all that's required is a more gradual introduction process or neutering. Most rats are not so vicious that they need to be kept in solitary confinement!
Because it's not natural for rats to be alone, single rats sometimes develop neurotic tendencies or behavioral problems. One lovely female I met was very clingy when her owner took her out of the cage, and became possessive to the extent that she would threaten any other person approaching "her" human. At about 6 months of age she was given a cagemate and has since reverted to being a well-balanced, docile companion.
One of my bucks, Diefenbaker, had to live alone for a while because he was too aggressive towards other males and we didn't want to have him neutered unless there was no alternative. He used to stare forlornly out of his cage when he couldn't come out, and became hard to handle because he got so excited when he did come out to play. A couple of weeks ago we introduced him to Samantha, who is fortunately well past the age when conception is likely. Although they hated each other at first, and still have the odd domestic disturbance, they have become very fond of one another and he has calmed down; he no longer struggles or squeaks when playtime is over and it's time to go back in his cage.
Why on earth would anyone settle for just one rat when they could have two?! Two rats are no more work than one--in fact, they can be less demanding because they keep each other amused. You don't need to feel guilty if one day you can't let your rats out to play. A single rat lives for his daily freedom, but a pair of rats can entertain themselves for the odd day.
Some people think that only a single rat will truly bond to humans, but anyone with a group of rats who plays with them regularly knows this is nonsense. As long as each rat gets some individual attention, they will bond strongly to their human. Others think that you can introduce rats only as babies. But as long as you use care, adult rats can be successfully introduced to new babies or adults.
Please try to explain to pet stores and any prospective rat owners you know that rats need each other. It's a very easy way to insure that lots of rats have happier lives than they might otherwise have. People who work in pet stores often care a lot about animals and are willing to listen to anything that might improve their welfare. So far the staff at two London stores have promised to never sell rats to live alone after we discussed the issue, and one now has a policy of never letting any social animal (rats, gerbils, female mice, etc.) live alone.
It's a step forward for animal welfare when people start to think about how they can make an animal's life happier, as opposed to just concentrating on what it needs to stay alive. The Rat Fan Club is a very rare organization in that respect--the focus of many articles and letters is on the rat as a companion with his own thoughts and feelings, rather than merely as a pet which is interesting to watch, and that focus is something I respect. Let's keep up the good work!
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