Rat Relationships: More Complex Than You Might Think

If you’ve never been fortunate enough to interact with a large group of domestic rats over an extended period of time, you may not know that rats are very similar to humans in terms of social behavior and relationships. Rats possess empathy and metacognition (they know what they know and know what they don’t know), two traits rarely found in non-primates. Each rat is an individual with a unique personality.  This can make keeping numerous rats– I have 13 now– a challenge not simply because each needs care and attention, but also because the pet parent must be respectful of the rats’ bonds and relationships when caring for them. In this blog, I’ll share some anecdotes about my rats’ relationships, ranging from amusing to bittersweet.

Molly Brown, McTavish, and Connor the Third Wheel

I’ve had my rats Molly Brown and McTavish paired for some time, hoping that Molly will conceive a litter. Molly and McTavish immediately bonded upon being introduced.  They sleep together, eat together, and are rarely more than a few inches from one another. Unfortunately, they seem to me like a young couple introduced in Sunday school or at an abstinence rally: They’re crazy about each other, but they spend all their time innocently grooming and cuddling or feeding each other, rather than mating!

As a result, McTavish has been away from his normal cagemate, Connor, for much longer than I had expected. Normally, rats conceive rapidly after being paired with a partner. Molly has not, so Connor is beginning to miss McTavish. I allow McTavish to spend some playtime with Connor as often as possible, but I don’t let them spend the night together, since he might miss one of Molly’s heat cycles. Unfortunately, all my other males are too elderly to tolerate Connor, so he’s been alone. Connor, feeling lonely without a playmate, has become grouchy and sullen. When McTavish is returned for playtime, though, he cheers right up! His ears come up, he bounces around the cage in excitement, and grooms McTavish enthusiastically.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it a love triangle.

(Note: Molly and McTavish are pedigreed rats of show quality bred for health, temperament, and looks, in that order– I am a responsible, reputable breeder and I do not under any circumstances advise pet owners to undertake breeding simply for the fun of having a litter. It’s expensive, heart-breaking, time-consuming, exhausting, and entirely not worth it unless you’re truly committed to doing whatever it takes to produce top-quality rats in an ethical way– and that goes for breeding any animal.)

Magellan and Crimp: Loving Siblings

When I first became a rat owner, I fostered a pregnant female and her litter for a breeder overwhelmed by circumstances. The litter consisted of twelve rats. Of these, I kept three, and the remaining nine were adopted by various individuals. Sadly, I lacked the experience necessary to choose the right homes, and two of the adopters returned their rats to me after they’d already become adults and would be much harder to adopt out than cute little baby rats had been. Two of the four rats returned found a lovely new home. The other two were slated to go to a great home, but needed to be neutered in order to live with the adopter’s female rats. Sadly, one of the pair didn’t survive surgery, and I ended up keeping the remaining male, Magellan.

Magellan was the spitting image of his sister, Crimp, despite spending most of their adult lives over 100 miles apart with very different owners. After he was truly sterile (rats can still impregnate a female for up to three weeks after neutering!), I reintroduced the pair. At first, Magellan was too busy being fascinated with the experience of meeting female rats to be interested in individuals– Crimp lives with four other females, and now, so does Magellan. But as time went on, it quickly became clear that his favorite friend and partner in crime was his sister. The two now sleep together, groom one another, and band together against Una, the petite but fierce bully of the group.

Magellan and Crimp are both fairly elderly rats now, and remain closely bonded. Both have (knock wood) had good health thus far, but I find myself worrying about the future. I hope that their many similarities extend to a very similar lifespan– I don’t know what either would do if the other passed first.

Did Magellan and Crimp recognize each other after living apart for so long? Common sense says no– after all, rat siblings will happily breed quite happily. There is no instinctual incest taboo in rat society. But sometimes I look at them curled up together and wonder if, somehow, they knew they’d met before, or at least each felt the other “new” rat was strangely familiar.

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