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Introducing New Rats

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It's always exciting to bring home a couple of new rats, whether it's your first rats or an addition to existing rats. If you're relatively new to rat-keeping, however, you might be a little concerned about whether the new rats are settling in all right. One important thing to keep in mind is that rats are very social creatures. They are happier and live longer when they are kept in groups of at least two of the same sex.

Rats should not be kept on their own, there is an excellent article on the NFRS website on why rats should not be kept alone. Rats thrive with company of their own kind and it's much easier to let someone else scratch and groom the bits you can't quite reach. Also even the rats who get the most attention are likely to spend about 20 hours per day in their cages.

There are two areas to watch: health and behaviour. Both are likely to be under stress, because the rats are experiencing some very large changes in their lives. Nearly everything around them will be new. Their cage will be different, the litter and bedding may be different, their diet may be changed, and the people around them will be new and strange to them. If you're introducing them to an established group of rats, that's an additional strain on them - it's better to wait for a week or so before introducing them to existing rats and also good to consider quarantine procedures.

During the first few days they may exhibit signs of physical stress, including mild diarrhoea and porphyrin staining around the eyes and nose. (Porphyrin is a red pigment in their mucus which can make it look like they've had a nosebleed.). During this time especially, you need to make certain they're getting proper nutrition and a comfortable cage environment. Watch them closely to make sure they're eating and drinking enough, although it has been noted by quite a few that during the first 24 hours of being in a new home, they don't seem to eat much food.

Your new rats may take a few days or weeks to settle down in their new environment. They may be shy and skittish at first, and may act like they don't want to be handled. Be patient with them but don't let them hide away! Ensure you take them out of the cage and handle them daily, several times a day if possible and handle them for at least 20 minutes at a time. You need to confidently assert your status as the rats alpha and by doing this, it helps build their confidence and trust in you.

If they are particularly nervous, reduce the size of the cage they are in to a small cage, even a hamster sized cage or similar for a few days will do, and get them out loads during that time. Their confidence and trust will soon build.

Another behaviour that many of our new rats have demonstrated is a habit of pooping everywhere when they are taken outside the cage. This is a bit of a nuisance, but once they have settled, they should house train themselves and not do it outside of the cage as much.

Also, if you're new to rats, you might be a little surprised by the marking behaviour of male rats and some females. They may leave a little trail of urine on carpet, furniture, and even (perhaps especially) their owners. Although neutering male rats certainly does diminish this behaviour, it's not recommended having a rat castrated merely to stop him marking.

Remember that these young rats have just gone through a huge upheaval and it is natural for them to be a little frightened and uneasy at first. Don't give up on them if they don't seem friendly right away. Once they realise their new home is safe and stable and that you won't hurt them, they'll relax and start enjoying life in their new home and hopefully with their new companions as well.

Tricks and notes to help with new rats and introductions to existing rats

  • Does intro best when slightly older as older does seem to find kitten does an annoyance, so it's often best to wait until around 12+ weeks old for doe intros to an existing group. Adult does are generally very easy to introduce to each other and it is rare to have a particularly dominant female causing issues.

  • Bucks intro best when as young as possible and will usually become harder to introduce the closer they get to puberty. Older bucks don't see kitten bucks under about 10-12 weeks as a threat as they don't smell like bucks yet and don't have the hormones flying around, so the older bucks can assert their alpha status and usually the younger ones just accept this and only challenge alpha status much later in life as the older ones leave the group.

  • If you are introducing new babies of either sex to an older adult who has not had rat companionship either ever or for a long time, please do be careful and take it slowly and on neutral ground while being well watched. It is not unheard of for rats who have no knowledge of other rats previously to attack and occasionally kill a young kitten.

  • When balancing the best time to do the intros, you do have to bear in mind that the dietary requirements of young kittens is different to that of adult rats. For either sex, it is best to leave the intros until at least 8 weeks old.

  • Once they have started to settle into their new environment, you can start introducing them to your existing rats. All introductions should initially be in neutral territory, somewhere like a bed or bathroom. With young rats, it may not take much time before you can put them in the main cage together.

  • Put the newbie's cage and existing rats cages next to each other so they can see and smell each other through the bars. You can cage swap to get them used to each others scent a bit and see what the reactions are like - fluffed up rats foofing the bars might indicate your intros are not going to go well, but this can also indicate they are not happy with being unsettled from their regular environment, so the choice is yours on this one.

  • Before you put them in together in a cage, you should disinfect and rearrange the cage and toys, so they all see the cage as neutral territory - also remove anything that can be used to hide away in like igloos and tubes.

  • Adding a little rescue remedy to their water, about 4-5 drops can also help relax the rats. Vanilla essence can also be used to hide scents.

  • Ensure you have plenty of time to watch the rats when you finally put them in together and make sure they are happy together. Don't worry if some minor 'fighting' occurs, especially among several male rats kept in one cage. As long as no injuries result you shouldn't worry about the occasional tussle. My usual rule is no blood, no worry, although if rats are appearing terrorised, you may want to start again with the introductions. Among young rats in particular wrestling can be a form of play, and it's not uncommon to see a youngster 'pinning down' a much bigger rat during a wrestling match. This is one way rats get to know each other and establish their social structure.

  • With does, you can trick them a bit by using does seasons to introduce them - a troublesome female becomes daft when she's in season and will only want the newcomer to play and 'hump' her and by the time she comes out of season, she has usually forgotten the rat is a newcomer.

  • Another trick for more difficult intros is to put them in a carrier or cage with easy access with a passenger on the back seat of a car and go for a drive - the stress of the travelling can often bond them a treat.

Do bear in mind that not every introduction will go perfectly and some rats are not destined to live together so be prepared when you take on new rats, that you may need to keep an extra cage for them if they won't settle in with the existing group. You can attempt to retry the intros later as sometimes the older rats mellow with age, but do not force a situation as this will almost always result in either injury to the rats or a nasty rat bite when you try to separate them.

If you are trying to reduce a lone buck to additional bucks or buck kittens and he is refusing to accept company, you can consider castrating him and introducing him to does instead as this often works. I do not believe that castrations should be routine for cosmetic or convenience though, only for temperament and health reasons.

Additional Reading

A couple of good online articles on rat introductions and socialisation methods are linked below:

The Rat Fan Club - Introducing New Rats

The Forced Socialisation Method - by Jane Adamo

Article written by Estelle

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Images & Text Copyright 2008 Estelle Sandford, Alpha Centauri
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Last modified: September 06, 2009