One question that I frequently hear from prospective rat owners is, "I have a cat. Will the rats be safe with a cat in the house?"
Unfortunately, there is no single right answer to that question. In fact, there are as many answers as there are cats and owners. Some cats have a very high prey drive and will attack any small mammal introduced into the home. Other cats couldn’t possibly care less that a "prey item" is sitting on the kitchen table stealing tidbits from the humans’ breakfasts. Most kitties fall somewhere between these two extremes.
General Mao, my former foster kitten who now lives with my significant other’s brother (black kitten at right) and my cat, Monster (tabby at right), are two very different cats, but both were raised around my rats from a very young age and both are safe around caged rats and even safe with free-ranging rats when closely supervised.
Most cats can achieve this level of tolerance of rats through patient, persistent training, but no cat or other predator, like a dog or ferret, should ever be left unsupervised with free roaming rats .
If you’d like to find out whether or not your cats can coexist peacefully with rats, follow these simple steps before adding rats to the household, and you’ll avoid conflict or potential harm to your new rats.
The best way to begin to expose a cat to rats is by smell. Try posting on rat forums like Rats Rule to find a rat owner near you, and borrow an item the rat has used, like a hammock or igloo. Bring the item home quickly and without touching it any more than is necessary, and present it to your cat. Some cats will ignore the smell of rats entirely. Most cats are briefly interested in the new, smelly item, but will lose interest quickly. If your cat’s eyes dilate and he begins swishing his tail, batting at the item, or crouches low to the floor, you may have a cat who will not coexist peacefully with rats.
If your cat passes the "sniff test," try borrowing a pair of rats for the day. Have a friend or family member hold your cat in another room while you bring the rats into a bedroom or bathroom and close the door. Let the cat roam freely once the rats are settled in. Give the rats time to go about their normal daily routines, like wheel running, drinking from a water bottle, and eating, and let the kitty listen to the sounds and smell the scents emanating from the closed-off room. Most cats will be curious about the closed door and may try to scratch at or open it. This does not necessarily mean that they are interested in attacking the rats; many cats just don’t like to be shut out of part of the house! Try exiting the closed room and playing with your cat. If she is more interested in trying to get into the room the rats are in than in playing with you and a favorite toy, think carefully before moving on to the next step.
If your cat has been able to ignore the presence of rats in a room with the door closed, your next step, with permission from the rats’ owner, is to expose the cat to rats that are visible but out of reach. Put the rats in a small cage or a carrier and place it on a counter top or table where the cat can’t reach. Let the cat investigate the area and stare at the rats if he wants to. Encourage paying attention to things other than the rats by offering a tasty tidbit every time your cat looks or steps away. Soon most cats will either be more interested in mooching treats from you than in the rats, or will wander off to see what’s going on in another room of the house. If your cat needs more motivation to ignore the rats, get out a favorite toy and encourage playing across the room– not right next to the cage. If after 15 minutes your cat is still trying to get to the rats and has dilated pupils or other signs that he’s interested in hunting, your cat may not cohabit successfully with rats.
If your cat has passed each of these tests and you decide to add rats to the family, you will need to be vigilant and cautious about introductions even to the most mellow cat and the ongoing management of a household with rats and cats. Keep your new rats behind closed doors for a few days to allow them to settle in. Most rats that have never met a cat will be initially frightened of the smell and sight of your cat, but will soon relax as they become comfortable with their new territory.
After a few days, you can allow your cat to enter the rats’ room under your supervision. Keep a squirt bottle on hand in case the cat attempts to harm your rats but, in general, your role is only to supervise. If your cat sticks a paw in the rats’ cage, as long as his claws are retracted and he isn’t actively swatting the rats, allow it; most rats will defend their territory with a nip to your cat’s paw, or at least come rushing forward to investigate, which startles a cat expecting meek, skittish prey.
My two kittens pictured above both got a couple of nips on their paws when very young, and have remembered the lesson. They do not stick their paws into the girl rats’ cages anymore! The male rats get along well with Monster, and he will occasionally offer a paw, which the boys will politely groom for him.
If you’d like to allow limited interaction between your rats and cats without the cage bars dividing them, be very cautious. Only cats very used to rats and rats very confident around cats should be allowed to socialize, and you must always be within arms’ reach of both animals. I only allow the cat in the room with a loose rat if the rat is on my lap or shoulder. Some people allow both on the floor together, but I don’t recommend this, except perhaps with small kittens and very confident rats. Sometimes rats will chase young kittens, which is very comical!
A multi-species household is often funny, touching, and always full of surprises. Sometimes unusual friendships develop between pets that would naturally be part of one another’s food chain. Remember, however, never to stop closely supervising interactions, and always be prepared with a plan and a backup plan in case of a conflict.