Rats need the company of other rats.
There are no two ways about this, and one should never buy a rat with the intention of
keeping it alone.
Rats are very social animals, and must live in same sex pairs or groups.
In the wild, they live in large family groups. They sleep together, groom one another, play
with each other and form strong bonds. Even many laboratories will now refuse to keep rats
However, despite this, many people still go out and buy a single rat, and some websites, pet shops and
books still perpetuate the myth that this is ok. The message just doesn't seem to be getting through to some people.
I've heard many reasons as to why people
only want a single rat, even when they're well aware that rats do better with cagemates, and the most common is that people seem to think that by just having
one rat, it will bond more closely to them. This is simply untrue, as anyone who has more
than one rat will testify.
Besides, don't you want a rat to bond to you because it truly
loves being with you, not just because it has no one else to be friends with?
Some people seem to think they can overcome the issue of loneliness by simply spending more
time with the animal.
But even the most dedicated owner simply cannot spend all day every
day with their rat. One of the most active times for a rat is at night, when his owner will
What is he to do alone for 8 hours or more? How about when his owner is at work
during the day? Even if a person were able to spend all day with their rat, the animal
would still miss out on things that only another rat can provide and teach them.
Rats love their people,
but at the same time, we are a different species. It would be like expecting a human to
live with only chimpanzees for company! There would be a certain level of communication and
bonding, but nothing would compare with having another human to interact with.
alone can often develop problems such as depression, aggression, and even self mutilation like pulling
out their own fur. There is evidence to suggest lone rats live shorter lives and have more
health problems than rats housed with others.
Being alone is completely unnatural to a rat,
so it is hardly surprising that such a lifestyle would cause problems.
When you are talking about a baby or young rat, being kept alone is even more damaging. Baby rats just don't tend to thrive when housed in solitary confinement. And can you blame them? How happy or well adjusted would a human toddler be if suddenly pulled away from all his friends and family and stuck alone in a room for the rest of his life, with occasional visits from a different species? Just as humans have evolved to be a social species that need interactions with their own kind, so too have rats. If you don't think that you would want to spend the rest of your life never seeing or interacting with another human again, then please don't put a rat through the same thing. There is a reason why solitary confinement is used as a punishment in humans: because we are social, just like rats, and being completey alone is unpleasant and damaging.
Sadly, I have had many rats come into the sanctuary that have spent their entire lives alone, and it is quite an eye-opener to see how odd their behaviour is sometimes. When they finally do meet another rat, the damage done to them mentally is often all too apparent. Lots of rats that have been housed in solitary confinement simply do not have any rat social skills, they have either never developed them or they have lost them. They may be scared of rats when they first see them, or, as more often happens, they 'shut down' completely and become overwhelmed. The image of a once solitary rat laying rigid with its eyes shut, not interacting at all while others sniff her and try to be friendly is etched on my mind, and its really very sad.
Sometimes, rats that have been kept alone from a very young age suffer permanent mental issues because of it, as in, they never learned how to 'be a rat' at the age where it was most important. As such, they sometimes struggle for the rest of their lives to 'read' other rats and understand what they're saying. Lots of lone rats have poor understanding of rat language.
The good thing is that most lone rats can eventually go on to slot back in with their own kind. We get a lot in here, and all are eventually mixed with a group and they all make good progress. Their behaviours tend to change from very 'shut down' and depressed, to having a spark of life back once again. Seeing a lone rat that has spent its whole life in solitary confinement being groomed by its new rat friends and actually enjoying it is always lovely.
Some people think that having more than one rat is more trouble and more work. This is also
not true. Two rats are no more trouble than one. Any cage that is large enough for one rat to live in
is large enough for two, and a pair of rats only need cleaning once a week, which
is no more often than a lone rat. In fact, two or more rats are far more entertaining as
pets when you can watch them interact and play with one another.
As small rodents go, rats are pretty amiable. Two males can live together perfectly
happily, as can two females. Adults can happily live with babies, and neutered males will
happily live with females. They can live in pairs, or in much larger groups, it all depends on what suits you.
If introduced as babies, rats will usually accept other rats
without question. Introducing adults to one another can sometimes be a little more tricky,
but certainly possible, and done all the time. See the page on intros for more
information on that.
There are occasional very rare cases in which rats will flat out refuse to live with other rats, no matter what is attempted.
These are almost always old males who are set in their ways, perhaps old rescue boys who have spent their whole life alone and find it hard to adjust to having to share with another. However, I must stress that cases where rats will absolutely not tolerate any other rats, under any circumstances, are extremely rare. In 16 years, I have only ever had one like this. He was elderly, and lost his life long cage mate, and from then on he wouldn't accept any other rats. He most likely could have gotten on with other rats in time if he had been castrated. Unfortunately, he was too old for the operation at that point, so we didn't have much option but to have him as a lone rat.
The vast majority of rats can be successfully integrated with other rats with enough time and patience, and with the right methods.
In my expereince, a lot of people end up keeping lone rats through lack of experience or knowledge. Often, I get rats come into the sanctuary with the owner saying they have to be lone rats, because they have previously fought with a cage mate, or saying that they had tried to introduce the rat to friends but it never worked out. In all these situations, the rats in question have gone on to mix with others without issue once here.
I think sometimes, people just feel like they're in over their head when their first attempt at an intro fails, they would rather take the easy route out and just keep the rat alone rather than going to the hassle of trying to find a cage mate or intro method that works for them. Because intros aren't always easy or successful first time, and sometimes you have to think outside the box, try different rats, even have the offender neutered.
Neutering a buck can often solve the problem of rat aggression, and many people believe the risk associated with surgery is worth taking in order that the rat not have to spend its life alone. I have had many boys castrated specifically so they can live harmoniously with other rats, as the alternative was a life time in solitary confinement.
If you do nothing else for your rat, get it a companion. Company is second only to food and water in the list of a rat's requirements. This is not an opinion, it is simply a fact.
If you are not prepared to get at least two rats, do not get rats at all and perhaps get an animal that likes being alone, like a syrian hamster.