People get rats from lots of different places and they aren’t always the tamest of rats. There is no point telling someone who has just picked up a couple of unhandled babies that they ought to have looked for a breeder who selects for calm temperament and handles their baby rats daily. First, they probably tried that but didn’t want to wait 4-6 months for baby rats from these (frankly rare) breeders who handle daily. Second, it’s too late!
However, the good news is that for most rats, taming is just a matter of time and patience. While it may not seem easy, it is definitely possible to bring a rat around from a skittish scared baby to a great pet. In fact, some of the nicest adult rats I’ve had started out as not very confident babies.
There are different ideas about taming rats. Whatever method you choose, I’d suggest that early on (immediately) stop chasing your rats around a cage. The more you chase, the more they’ll run and you are encouraging them into a habit of running away from you. Also, while you know you aren’t going to hurt them, you are associating your hand with fear and this actually works against you.
If you have fearful babies (or even older rats) you might start with a smaller cage than the big (I hope!) one to which they will eventually graduate. If your babies aren’t too skittish, you could try a Ruffy Savic or a Ferplast Mary , for example. But really, any relatively small cage that is advertised as suitable for two rats (but frankly, is not suitable for two adults, though great for taming babies). Don’t worry that you will never use this cage again after you’ve tamed your rats – you will! Such small cages are great as “hospital” cages for the sick or elderly or for taking a few rats away with you overnight or to a rat show. Yes, I said rat show. The NFRS has many shows throughout the year and you may like to go along and even enter your own rats – they are quite fun events!
One method for taming rats is to gradually and softly get your rats used to you. This is what I do. People have various names for this method, but the idea is that you help the rats to gradually think of you, your smell, you gaze and your hands as the precursors to Good Things To Come! Gradually get closer and closer to them, always stopping before they freak out. Eventually, they will no longer afraid of you being there. However, this can take anything from 5 minutes to 5 days.
I’ve done this for hours every day with older rats who otherwise may have bitten me and it works very well. I’ve also done it with babies. I can attest that eventially your rats will come to trust you, but you do need to clock up the hours, allowing the rats to gradually build confidence. It takes time. It takes patience. It is by far the most humane way you can get your rats to like you and associate you with all that they love.
However, make sure you start off with serious motivators. While a terrified rat will not eat (usually) you may find that a greedy rat is willing to take a risk to get to something very yummy. It’s hard for a rat to totally ignore the offer of “junk food” by way of digestive biscuits or small bites of cake. Start with a fair chunk so that they can take it and run further into their cage and gradually build up to cake crumbs they have to lick from your palm. Smear your hands with treats like yoghurt or pudding for them to lick off, that sort of thing.
You can then graduate to putting the treats on your arms, etc until the rat feels confident walking onto your body to retrieve them. After initial reluctance, rats almost invariably find the food irresistible and associate you with good things. It is very satisfying to watch the process unfold. Over time you can hold the rat and allow it to hop back into its cage when it likes. Before you know it, your rat readily walks out of the cage onto you and forgets all about being scared. You won’t even need treats anymore as your rat’s natural curiosity means they come check you out whenever you give them the chance. However, at some point you may want to practice picking up your rat and putting it down over and over and over so that if you have to do there is no question of the rat running away.
The other popular method for taming rats is total immersion – sometimes known as the confidence method. In this case, you take your rat out and handle it for twenty minutes at a time regardless of how it feels about the situation. This is a great method for babies who aren’t really all that scared in the first place. But it’s easy to overwhelm them so be careful. You have to always be thinking from the rat’s point of view. I know you love your rats — but do they love you? And is there anything in this immersion process that is the least bit fun for them? The answer should be yes.
If your rats are particularly nutty, even the size of a Savic Ruffy or Mary cage being used as a “training cage” is probably too big. They may still be running away from you. If so, do your best to catch them and put them into an animal carrier for the duration of your taming sessions, which should take place a few times a day. Again, even if you are using the “immersion” process be as respectful as you can of the fear the animal is feeling. You need to be sure you aren’t making things worse.
Inside a carrier, there really isn’t a lot of room to run, so they are well and truly stuck. This has the advantage that you can pick up a rat without cornering it. On the other hand, you’ve kind of already cornered it so it may be scared to death. At least the act of running, itself, has been eliminated which may mean the stress is less for the poor rat. Hard to say. However, you may be cornering it so that all it feels it can do is bite you. The rat will soon learn that biting works really well to get rid of an unwanted hand — and now you are in worse trouble than when you started!
Most babies are not going to bite you during the “total immersion” method (though don’t bet on it). When using this method, take the carrier with the rats inside to a secure room and stick your hand into the carrier for 5-minute stretches until they settle down with the notion of a hand. Beware they may nibble your hand investigating whether it is food (let them). Nibbles from babies are one thing. Fear bites from adults are quite another. I prefer the softly-softly method for adults when possible for this reason and am more likely to take a few chances with the babies. Having said that, you really don’t want to scare rats during their most sensitive periods (for example from age 6 weeks to about 12 weeks). Make sure the babies are more excited that afraid and that every session with you is as positive and rewarding as possible.
But back to babies. Now that you’ve put your hand in and out many times and the rats are tolerating it, you can do one of several things. You can take out a single rat and try to keep it in your hands, allowing it to run from one hand to the other for a period of time up to about 20 minutes. Or you can purposely move it from one hand to another, which will not be difficult. Once you see a little improvement (this can take up to twenty minutes) swap it for the other rat, and so on.
When picking up your rats, remember to scoop the rat from underneath, and never pick it up by the tail. I know you will hear of people who “tail” rats (pick them up by the base of the tail) but that is not a great way to make friends with a rat. In fact, you could be bitten.
The use of a cloth or light blanket or something the rat can hid under, or even better yet “bonding” pouch which you wear around your neck, can help your rat feel safe. Using a bonding pouch, you can put a couple of babies in at a time. However, if you are using your bare hands (apparently a faster method, though not if you are at risk of the rat jumping) only have a single rat out at a time.
Whichever process you choose, or whichever combination of processes you choose, always remember that the rat is doing his best. You can’t ask a rat to try harder when they are trying their hardest already. The poor rat doesn’t know you want to love him. He thinks you want to kill him. So be patient – most rats do come around!
For more information and an excellent step-by-step description of the “immersion method” have a look at Isamurat.co.uk’s page on the subject.