One of the most common questions asked of a rat owner is whether or not rats bite.
Often, people with no rat experience will group rats together with mice, hamsters, gerbils, and all other small, caged, rodents, and assume they're all the same in temperament and behaviour. However, this is false; rats are actually more like dogs than they are other small rodents.
Rats as a species virtually never bite, but any animal with teeth has the potential to if scared, in pain, or generally misunderstood by the handler. So yes, rats can bite, but generally, they don't like to.
This is due to a number of reasons.
Firstly, unlike syrian hamsters, rats are a social species, who naturally live in large groups with a complex social structure. When your survival depends on being accepted by others, it isn't a good idea to go around biting whenever you are in a bad mood. A rat who did so would quickly be reprimanded or even ousted from the social group.
And for a wild rat, this could mean death.
Thusly, rats are very tolerant and will put up with a lot before they resort to biting. Once they have bonded, rats tend to view their owner as a more dominant member of the group, so they really have to feel that there is no other option before they bite someone. They will usually choose all other options before resorting to that. It simply isn't in their best interests to be aggressive when so much of their survival depends on getting along with others.
Secondly, rats are very intelligent, far moreso than other small, rodent pets. This gives them the ability to work a situation out in their mind and make an informed decision on how to respond, unlike some less intelligent animals who will simply resort to biting straight off the bat if they feel threatened.
Thirdly, rats have been selectively bred over the years to be docile. Laboratory rats have to be tolerant, otherwise they would never put up with the tortures they have to endure. Rats as a species are generally patient, tolerant and sweet-natured.
But this does not mean a rat will never bite, just that there is far less chance of them doing so than other pets. If a rat does bite, there is always a reason for it, and most of the time this is due to human error. They don't bite 'just because'.
The most common reasons for a rat to bite a person are:
Rats that have not been handled properly, or have been abused in the past, may bite through desperation because they are scared.
If they associate being handled by a human with pain, unpleasantness or stress, they are going to do whatever they can to avoid having to be in that situation again.
However, even when it comes to fear, most rats don't like to have to bite people. A scared rat would much rather flee than fight. It simply isn't in their nature to attack unless they are cornered and fear for their life.
As a point of interest, wild rats are exactly the same and would much rather run away from humans than attack them. As a small, vulnerable prey animal, it is much more sensible to avoid conflict from the start, if at all possible.
In my experience, pet rats that are scared enough to actually bite a human in any severe way are almost always rats that have been abused in some way.
Rats that have simply never been handled in their life may struggle, or squeak, or panic when they are picked up, but they will not often bite. A rat that has never been handled has also never had a bad experience with people, so they tend to just be squirmy and difficult to hold rather than actually aggressive.
But a rat that has been handled, and handled cruelly or roughly, is more likely to bite, because it strongly associates humans with unpleasantness.
Rats will put up with a lot before they resort to biting, particularly once they are bonded to a person, so a rat that is so scared it feels it needs to attack all the time has very likely had past abuse.
This can be overcome with gentle handling and teaching the rat that humans are no longer going to hurt him. Scared rats tend to come around pretty quickly when handled by knowlegeable, gentle, calm people.
You can tell a nervous rat as they tend to hide away and run from your hand. A nervous rat will not approach you and bite you; he will hide from you and only bite if he is pursued and feels trapped, i.e, he has no other choice.
Rats can bite when they are in pain, particularly if it is a sudden pain, like a foot or tail trapped in a cage door. These are almost always instant, reflex reactions where the rat will bite at anything to try and escape the pain. If your hand happens to be nearby, they won't stop to think about it before biting!
Rats are naturally stoic animals who hide their pain well, so if you have a normally friendly rat who has suddenly begun to bite, it is worth considering a vet visit to ensure they are not unwell, even if they appear to be ok.
Some rats that have been poorly handled for a while, or been allowed to get away with bad behaviour, will bite because they have learned that it gets them what they want.
For example, if a rat comes home for the first time and is grabbed at by an eager child, and nips that child through fear, it will usually be dropped, or put back in it's cage. The rat will therefore quickly learn that if it nips, it gets left alone and doesn't have to put up with being handled.
So it is then not handled because the owners are scared, which just exacerbates the problem and a vicious circle is formed. In the end, it may bite not because it is necessarily scared anymore, but because it has learned that this is the way to get what it wants. Rats are extremely intelligent, and they learn quickly.
Rats like this need confident handlers who will show them that their previous biting will no longer work, and that they are going to be handled, whether they like it or not. Rats will quickly learn that the biting is no longer effective.
Some rats, particularly bucks, can have a surge of hormones in their first year which can sometimes make them quite demonstrative.
Rats have a strict social heirarchy, and as their owner, you are at the top of this heirarchy. You are the alpha.
The rats will have their own structure amongst themselves also, and their own rat alpha, but you are the ultimate rat and you are the alpha over everyone.
Rats naturally adore their alphas, so once it is established that you are the boss, they should be perfectly accepting of anything you wish to do to them (this being the reason rats are so tolerant and accepting of their owners.)
However, some rats have a hard time accepting that they are not the alpha themselves. These rats often make life as difficult for the other rats in the group as they do for you. To them, you are simply another rat to be dominated, and they will treat you accordingly. A dominant rat does not have to be told what to do if he doesn't want to, so if you try to dictate what he is allowed to do, he will see no problem with putting you in your place just as he would with another rat.
And remember, while you may not think you are trying to show dominance over your rats, you do so without even realising it.
Everytime you pick up a rat, you are dominating it, as you're dictating where it is going to go. You are in control of what they get fed, and when. You are in control of when they are allowed to come out for their run, and in control of what behaviours they are allowed to demonstrate once out of the cage. We have the last word on every aspect of our pet's lives, and this is what the alpha rat does.
Dominance in rats can be very subtle and we, as owners, demonstrate it daily in the way we treat our rats, even if we don't realise it.
It is not acceptable for a rat to ever bite a person through dominance, and it is a problem that needs to be sorted out, otherwise you will never have a good relationship with that rat; he will always see you as below him, and treat you as such, rather than seeing you as his protector and someone he can trust with his life.
A hormonally aggressive rat can be recognised by the fact that they tend not to be fearful. Some rats like this will actually approach the human and even persue them or chase them. If a rat is actively going after you and trying to attack you, its likely a hormonal problem, not a fear issue.
While asserting your authority over a rat is a harmless step in the case of a normal rat who just needs to know where he stands, it isn't such a good idea on a rat who is already pretty sure of where he stands; above you!
Trying to forcefully dominate a rat that is already convinced he is the boss is simply a good way to get bitten again.
In cases of hormonal boys, castration is a good first step, and often sorts the problem out. These kind of issues are caused primarily by hormones, so removing them will greatly ease, or cure, the problem as it removes the hormones, and should help the rat mellow out a bit.
Sometimes there is some cross-over with hormonal problems and learned behaviours, particularly if it has been going on for a while. So while castration will sort out the hormones, it can't do anything about a rat's behaviour patterns and what it has learned to do. Behavour modification will be needed alongside the castrate, in these situations.
Some rats are what is termed as 'cage aggressive', meaning they are fine when out of the cage, but aggressive if you try to touch them inside it. In my experience, does can often be this way inclined.
While this isn't as big a problem as an all round aggressive rat, it is still not ideal. But in my opinion, we ask a lot of our rats, behaviourally speaking. We expect them to be almost perfect, and sometimes we forget our responsibility to respect them and their space in the process.
I do not thrust my hand into my rats igloo to yank him out while he's sleeping. I could, and most of my rats wouldn't react. But I consider it to be disrespectful to the animal, and when I hear people say they were nipped for this kind of action, I always think 'well, what did you expect?!'
Remember, this is a prey species; in the wild, they are food to a lot of other animals, and a lot of things prey on them, so they have to be alert. If your rat is sleeping, and the next thing he knows he is being grabbed and yanked out into the open, it is hardly surprising that he may react with sudden fear or surprise, and might even nip. Imagine how you would feel if you were fast asleep in your bed and someone suddenly grips you and tries to yank you out! You'd probably react with a touch of alarm or defensiveness, too.
So while rats are gentle, patient creatures, they are still animals, and even the gentlest rat can nip if the situation is wrong. Before you handle your rat, think about what he's doing, what his body language is like, what he's communicating to you. If people took more notice of their rat's mood and mindset before plunging their hand in to whip them out for a cuddle, there would be less bites.
In the same vein, remember that female rats who are pregnant or nursing a litter can be more aggressive than they would usually be. They are protecting their babies, just as any mother would, and hormones also play a part in this. While not all girls with babies have a character change, and many are happy for their owner to handle their babies, it is definitely worth remembering that mother rats have the potential to be nippier than usual.
It is a good idea not to feed rats through the bars of the cage, however quick and convinient this may be. This teaches the rat that anything which pokes through the bar is food, so they will lunge at the bars to grab whatever it is, and they don't stop to check whether it is a finger or a piece of food!
These bites are accidents; the rat isn't attacking you, its biting what it thinks is food.
Most rats recoil and stop immediately once they realise it isn't food after all, but obviously they can still have given you a nasty bite by then! Lots of rats are given titbits through the bars and will have this 'lunging at the bars' problem as a result. If this bothers you, do not feed them other than by your own hand through the door, or in their dish.
When a bite is not a bite
I've had a lot of rats come into my sanctuary over time with the attached warning that they are aggressive and will bite.
I've even had some which were due to be euthanised because they were apparent biters. But in all cases, these rats have arrived here timid, but in no way aggressive, and none of them have ever bitten me.
This lead me to wonder where people were getting the idea that the rat was aggressive, when I saw no signs of it.
There are possibly several reasons for this, but I think the main one is that people don't understand the difference between a rat who will bite through the bars because it mistakes a finger for food, or a rat who is play nipping, and genuine, serious rat aggression.
If you are ever bitten seriously by a rat who means business, you will know about it.
But rats do use their teeth in other ways, which people seem to misconstrue as aggression.
Baby rats, for example, may nip and tug at skin when they're playing. They will do this to other rats too, and it is in no way meant as an aggressive act, and does not hurt.
However, some people view any rat which puts its teeth anywhere near skin to be aggressive. This is quite sad, since being included in a baby rat's playtime is a wonderful thing.
Some rats also groom their owners with their teeth, nibbling along their skin and licking them. This is a bonding activity, as you are their alpha. This kind of thing feels a little like being scratched lightly along the skin, and again, does not hurt. But I wonder how many people experience this for the first time and think the rat is trying to bite?
And lets not forget the main reason a rat would be reported to be aggressive with its past owner, but not once placed in a knowledgable home: incorrect handling.
Please read this page for info on how to properly handle rats.
Suffice to say, the average rat that is handled gently, calmly, and with respect has no reason to bite anyone.
In summary, rats are not aggressive animals. They are extremely tolerant, gentle, forgiving and trusting. Nature has shaped them to be this way so as to thrive in a large social group. The gentle nature of the rat is what makes it a superior pet to a hamster for a child.
But do not forget, rats must be respected and not expected to put up with being mishandled, scared, stressed or abused. Supervise all children, all the time, when handling rats and always try to remember that fear and pain are the two main causes of rat bites.
If you raise a rat that is not scared, or in pain, you have little reason to ever worry about a bite.
I trust rats more than I trust any other species of animal.