Most pet rats don’t bite. I’ll say that again for emphasis: Most pet rats do not bite. The vast majority of domestic Norwegian rats are far less likely to bite than hamsters, mice, or gerbils. Rats are friendly, sociable, and intelligent. They make excellent pets. Sadly, a very small percentage of rats have either been abused, were feral, or are congenitally prone to bite. If you happen to have kindly (or accidentally) taken one of these troubled fuzzies into your home, this post is for you.
If you’re not yet a rat owner, you might want to first read about choosing between male and female rats, or why two rats are better than one. Don’t let this post frighten you away from choosing rats as pets if they are otherwise suited to your lifestyle and family. Once again, even if you own 100 rats over your lifetime, chances are you’ll never have a habitual biter.
Now, on to strategies for those who already do have one.
What Causes the Biting?
Rats that bite usually do so because of fear. Some may have been injured by human hands in the past. Others may have become essentially feral due to poor breeding and neglect, and simply don’t know how to interact in a friendly way with humans. Still others are simply very nervous and easily surprised. A very few rats bite in an attempt to establish dominance or because they simply would really like just to be left alone.
If you can identify what usually happens before your rat bites, you can probably discover the cause. Analyze the 10 seconds before each bite, and look for patterns. Did you wake the rat from a sound sleep? Did you put your fingers through the cage bars smelling like hot dogs? Did you reach for a rat while he was tussling with a cagemate? Did he simply run up out of an Igloo or hammock and attack while you were playing with another rat?
Reducing or Eliminating Biting Behavior
Once you’ve found the pattern, the first step is to look after your own safety by avoiding the circumstances that precipitate biting. If the rat only nips when you reach your fingers through cage bars, the problem is easily solved: Don’t do that again. Rats have poor vision and may think that your fingers wiggling through the bars are food or an intruder.
If the biting happens in another circumstance that doesn’t involve something that you must do for the biter or other rats, try to eliminate that situation if possible. You obviously can’t stop feeding your rat if he bites when fed, but you could try feeding without reaching your hand in the cage, or putting a small pile of treats in another corner while you fill the dish.
Once you’ve done what you can to reduce or eliminate situations that lead to biting, work to build your rat’s trust in you. If you must use thick gloves to handle the rat at all, do so; but if you can handle the rat without the gloves and avoid being bitten, that’s best. You could also purchase a bonding pouch, which hangs around your neck to keep a rat in place while you move about the house or sit with the rat. Handle the biting rat gently at all times, and try to end each handling session on a good note. Feed treats by hand if you can (but never through the bars!) and make sure the rat is getting enough playtime in a rat-proofed area like a playpen.
If trust training and changing your habits to avoid situations that precipitate biting doesn’t help, some aggressive male rats may benefit from neutering. There is also the sad possibility that a very aggressive rat may be suffering from a brain tumor or hormonal defect causing this behavior. In these cases, euthanasia is often best, because the animal is not usually happy and quality of life is poor. Finally, some rats that bite really just do best being look-but-don’t-touch pets for the rest of their lives. Rats have been domesticated for centuries, if not millenia, but some individuals still seem to almost be throwbacks to wild ancestors, eschewing physical contact and biting when frightened.