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Pet Rats/Rat is very skittish

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Castiel
Castiel  
QUESTION: Dear Irene,

Hello there! I am a new rat owner and I have a baby rat (well a small rat as described by the petstore I got him from).  I know that it is better to have two rats but I could only afford one currently because my boyfriend and I are currently struggling.  We plan on getting him a companion once we get some extra spending cash of course but currently we cant afford another one. but let me get back to the task on hand.

Castiel my pet rat has been skittish since we got him.  When we first brought him home he let me hold him and he crawled all over me and was very curious like baby rats normally are I believe.  After we put him in his cage I had to move some things around for him in there while he was in there (for example, his water bottle broke and me and my boyfriend needed to get it out of there and I also put a little house in there for him).  we got him about 3 days ago now.  I put my hand in there and he comes up a few times to sniff and lightly nip at my nails (their painted so im assuming he is liking the shininess or something) but thats as far as he goes.  He doesnt explore further and when I pet him he sometimes will stay still but I think hes scared. I sometimes leave the cage door opened and he peeks his head and his front feet out of the cage, sniffs, then quickly runs back into the cage to hide.  I have started feeding him little treats (cheerios) and he will grab them from my hand and run into his house to eat.  But I know hes skittish because hes been chattering his teeth in his house or corner after i leave him alone.

Irene, what would be the best possible way to train my very skittish and young pet rat? I dont want him to hate me for the rest of his life, Ive been trying so hard to get him to trust me so he would climb on my arm and I could pick him up. I've even put a piece of clothing in there that i used to wear that has my scent on it so he would see that I'm not a treat.  What should I do?

ANSWER: Hi Jessica, I want to first let you know that you are not doing anything wrong to make him scared of you but I'll give you information and instructions to help you moving forward.  I'm glad you shared a photo...I just LOVE hooded rats, and his coloring is gorgeous!

You already know that a rat should never be kept alone, and believe it or not, this is the MAIN reason for his skittish-ness.  Remember, he's been kept at the pet store with plenty of his buddies or brothers and suddenly, he feels all alone.  Now he has no one of his kind to play with and is fearful of you who are much larger than he is.  Believe it or not, a companion will actually help to "tame" your boy and make him more social and not as skittish with you...this is a proven fact.  

I can't imagine the pet store charged more than $25 or so for him, so I hope for his sake that you can get him a buddy soon.  Also, I never recommend getting a rat from a pet store for several reasons, one of which is that pet store employees generally do not handle them as they should.  A good breeder will handle babies from the very day they are born, and several times a day until they are adopted to assure that they are not afraid of humans.  I myself witnessed in horror a local pet store employee lift a baby rat by it's tail to let me hold him!  The other thing about pet store rats is that they are bred in rat farms with no attention to breeding out health issues. So I highly recommend locating a good vet that is experienced with rats now, so that if you ever need to rush your rats to a vet, and you don't want to be scrambling at the last minute to find one.  Often with rats, signs of illness mean they need immediate attention or it might be too late.  Trust me on this...with rats, you should never wait.  They can take a downturn very quickly.

All that said, I will provide you with information about "trust training" your new buddy. This will take a good amount of patience and time on your part.  Take things slowly, and work at his pace.  I'm attaching a link to a website about trust training a pet rat.  You can also find plenty more written on trust training rats on the internet if you are interested in more ideas.  
Here's the link -->  http://ratguide.com/care/behavior/training_playtime.php

If you do everything you can to patiently work with your rat, I am confident that it will pay off.  But trust me when I say that getting a companion for him will NOT hinder your relationship with him at all, and is sure to make him happy during the many hours (especially at night) while you are away.  

I hope this is helpful and I'd love to hear your progress, so feel free to write to me anytime also if you need any more help or ideas.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

Me During Castiels training period
Me During Castiels tra  

Castiel relaxing
Castiel relaxing  
QUESTION: Hello Irene!

great news! I should be receiving enough money to get Castiels little cage mate soon! (I've been saving change that I've been finding around the house hehe). But Castiels training is going well! I found out he really didn't care for the Cheerios after a few days and we found him another treat that he just goes nuts for.  Peas!  He now will come to me when I call him AND he climbs up on my shoulder from his cage door!  I usually work with him at least 15 minutes a day and sometimes when he gets on my shoulder and I give him his reward he falls asleep on me! He will sniff my hand and put his two front paws on my hand but he wont crawl onto my hand just yet to sit, but I'm working on it.  Also I looked up vets in our area that specialize in rats and we have found one and gave him a call.  We will probably be taking him for a check up because his eye looks a bit weird.  Weird as in his right eye when he wakes up looks like hes slightly squinting until he fully wakes up.  I just want to get him checked out to make sure it isn't anything serious but he probably got some bedding or dust in his eye, but doesn't hurt to just take a look to make sure Castiel is healthy.  But I tell you what he is a very happy rat!  When he wakes up and is ready for training he popcorns alot! and theres no sign of the red stuff that leaks from his eyes or nose at all (except in the morning but that just a small bit and he wipes it away when he wakes up.)(I did find some red stuff stuck in his right eye and i got it out myself when he let me with a cotton ball soaked in luke warm water...maybe thats the reason his eye was acting that way but his eye is still slightly squinty)
I just want to thank you for your help Irene I will most definitely come back to this site again if I have any more questions about my little rat ^_^

Answer
That IS great news!!  Are you getting the new rat from the same pet store?  I have some advice for you if you don't mind.  Since you don't know the exact age of Castiel, and it's possible he could be over 3 months old, I highly recommend making sure you get a very young baby boy, under 3 months if possible.  That is because male rats are very territorial and often don't accept another mature male easily if at all, once hormones kick in, which is as soon as 3 months of age.  So if you get a very young baby, he won't yet have that male scent that would cause Castiel's male instinct to kick in and fight him...that is what male rats do.  It would be much easier to socialize a baby to an older male rat.

Since you are a new rat owner, I will make the assumption that you don't know this, but in a rat's social system, generally, rats "fight" for dominance and one rat will usually establish himself as the "alpha" rat and the others will take their places as the submissive ones.  Every time a new rat is introduced into this family, the fight for dominance begins again until an alpha rat is established - it might be the same alpha rat as before, or perhaps a new alpha may emerge.

That said, here is how you should introduce the new rat to Castiel.  First, you will need a seperate cage for him, a small one-level cage will be fine as it will be temporary.  Perhaps the pet store can sell you a used one or you can find one on craigslist or something.  Place the new boy in his cage and place this cage a couple of inches away from Catiels's cage and let the 2 boys co-exist this way for a couple of days.  They will be able to smell each other and get used to each other through the bars.  In a few days, find a neutral small enclosed space (a bathtub or small safe room is good) and place the new boy and Castiel in there and stay with them to supervise.  They might fight...monitor and don't interfere unless it is really violent or blood is drawn.  Limit this session to 15 to 30 minutes.  Repeat 2 or 3 times that day with breaks in between and repeat for a few days in a row until you feel that things are going fairly well.  

At this point, you can have the 2 boys explore each others cages.  Place Castiel in the baby's cage and the baby in Castiel's cage and let them explore for a short time and smell each other's scents in there.  Then transfer each boy back to his own cage.  Do this step once or twice a day, while continuing the neutral space "playtimes".  You may not need to repeat so many times if you feel things are going rather smoothly.  With some of my new rats, I've actually been able to do ALL of this in one day, but with some stubborn more aggressive rats, it's could take several days.  Be patient and don't give up.

Once you feel comfortable, the next is the BIG step: place the baby boy in Castiel's cage with Castiel.  Regardless of how well things went during all the other phases, be prepared for some fighting now!  Rats are very territorial and Castiel will probably look at the baby as an intruder to his home, even though they have already met before.  Again, monitor the fighting closely but you must allow them to work things out on their own.  Again, don't interfere unless it gets very violent.  You may see hissing, the boys standing in fight stance on their hind legs, kick-boxing, etc.  More likely, Castiel will be the aggressor and the baby might just lie on his back being pinned down by Castiel.  You may be quite shocked if your sweet Castiel shows this aggressive side but remember it's normal. This may subside and then restart again and again.  They may settle it in a few hours, or it may go on for a couple of days.  You may feel sorry for the baby and want to take him out of there but if it looks like he is holding his own, or laying on his back and being submissive, let it alone but continue to monitor.  If you feel bad for the baby and take him out, this whole thing will have to start from square one the next time you put him in there.  

Because Castiel is probably still quite young, and the new boy will be a young baby, I don't imagine there will be much fighting as younger rats more accepting of a new "playmate", and the baby being a baby may not fight at all.

Let's however say that it does become too violent and you must remove the baby for his safety, after you've given it a few fair attempts, you may have to accept that it may not work out.  At that point, you may want to consider neutering Castiel, which is a fairly simple procedure and would almost guarantee him to mellow out and be more accepting of a companion.  I know people that have done this for the same reason with great success.

So good luck, thanks for sharing your good news and photos (such a cutie!) and keep me posted or write me again if you need help with anything else.

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Irene Murphy

Expertise

I can answer a variety of questions regarding adoption and care of pet rats throughout their lifetimes, including questions about their health and well being, temperment, diet, bedding, cages, toys, etc. I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability in a timely manner and I have an abundant amount of resources to help me to help you with your pet rats. I love rattie pictures, so include pics with your question if you can. You may ask me medical questions, but please be advised that I am not a vet. I may use my resources to answer some medical questions, however, I will need to refer you to your local vet with medical questions that I feel I am not qualified to address.

Experience

I have been a huge rat enthusiast for many years. Since becoming a rat owner, I have educated myself in all areas of pet rats from every resource I could find including the internet, books, conversations with local exotic vets, as well as several local rat breeders.

Education/Credentials
I have a college degree but not in the area of animals. I have obtained my extensive experience and knowlege of pet rats all on my own because in my eyes, pet rats are the most interesting and fascinating creatures you can ever imagine to have as pets. I also am saddened by how mislabeled and misunderstood these amazing and extremely smart animals are by the majority, and my mission in life has become to educate and change as many people's perceptions of rats as I possibly can.

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