How Rats Show Affection: A Handy Chart for Rat Affection

Rats are affectionate pets, as anyone who has ever had a pet rat can tell you. Many rat owners compare their rats to puppies in friendliness. But how do rat owners tell when their rats are being affectionate with them or other rats?

Rats show affection for each other and people with various behaviors such as grooming, bruxing, boggling, scent-marking, cuddling, and vocalizing. Spending time around a rat allows their owner to learn which aspects of their body language indicate how happy they are. 

Learning how a rat shows affection is all about paying attention to how the rat sounds and acts. Keep reading to learn more about how rats show affection and how you can show affection back.

How Do Rats Show Affection?

There are several different ways that rats show affection. Many of the ways that rats show affection to each other are also ways they show affection to people. Here are some of the behaviors that rats perform to show affection:

How Rats Show Affection - A Handy Chart

Rats are expressive animals and show their happiness in all kinds of ways. These behaviors become easier to identify the longer you know a rat. Like other animals, rats are individuals with their own quirks and personalities.

Vocalizations Can Indicate Affection in Rats

One thing that rat owners will quickly notice once they begin keeping rats is that rats tend to vocalize at them when they come near the cage, similar to how a cat will meow at its owner or a dog will bark or whine for attention. Like these larger mammals, rats use vocalizations with their human handlers to get their attention.

Rat Vocalizing

It’s easier to tell the intent of a rat’s vocalization in the context of the interaction you’re having with it. For example, if you sneak up on a rat while it’s sleeping and startle it, the rat’s squeak in response is probably caused by surprise or fright rather than excitement or affection.

On the other hand, a rat that chirps or squeaks while being stroked or while cuddling with its owner is probably making vocalizations that indicate happiness and affection. The longer a rat owner gets to know their rat, the easier it is for them to tell which of their vocalizations are affectionate and which are due to irritation or fear.

Here are some rat vocalizations that indicate happiness or affection:

  • Laughing: Did you know that rats like to be tickled? It’s true! Scientists have discovered that rats enjoy being tickled and will emit high-pitched ultrasonic noises too high for the human ear to hear that they have identified as rat “laughter.” Unfortunately, rat owners can’t hear their rats laughing, but a rat’s visible enthusiasm for being tickled usually indicates that they’re laughing whether you can hear it or not.
  • Short high-pitched squeaks: While some long, insistent squeaking can indicate that something is wrong or the rat is irritated, short high-pitched squeaks usually indicate the rat is in a playful mood, and if directed at a human can be interpreted as an invitation to cuddle or play.
  • Vibration: As part of their bruxing behavior, a rat will emit a low-frequency vibration similar to a cat’s purr when feeling peaceful and affectionate. Many rat owners will feel their rats vibrate when they’re cuddled up with them, and this is a sure sign that the rat is comfortable in their owner’s presence.

If you hear any of these vocalizations when interacting with your rat, you can rest assured that you’re doing a good job socializing them with humans. Shy rats or those who haven’t been regularly handled by humans may take longer to become adjusted, and rat owners who are taming these rats should listen for these auditory signals as indicators that the rat is becoming more comfortable.   

Rat Nibbling and Licking Replaces Grooming with People

Rats don’t groom humans in the same way that they groom other rats—after all, humans don’t have a coat of fur to brush through. But rats often begin to treat their owners and other humans as just giant funny-looking rats, and this includes attempts to groom them.

If you hold a rat and they have the habit of nibbling or licking you while you hold them, this is the rat attempting to groom you the same way they would groom another rat. Since humans don’t have fur, rats will make do with what they have by grooming your bare skin instead. This should be interpreted as submissive behavior and is usually done as a peaceful leisure activity between fellow rats. (Source: Rat Forum)

The nibbling that rats do when they’re grooming people is designed to help them clean and separate hairs, so it isn’t intended as an actual bite. If a rat bites you with hostile or fearful intent, you will know it!

New rat owners can avoid being bitten by their rat by ensuring that the rat is comfortable with human contact before trying to handle it. Never corner a rat in an attempt to pick it up, as this can encourage fearful or unsocialized rats to bite and defend themselves.

Bruxing Is an Indication of Affection and Contentment in Rats

Bruxing is a rat activity where they clench or grind their incisor teeth. This kind of behavior might seem odd as an indicator of affection for humans. When a human clenches or grinds their teeth, it is usually an indication of tension or even anger.

A rat’s teeth grinding can be compared to a cat’s purr or a cow chewing its cud. Rats grind their teeth and produce a low vibration, and they can also sometimes make a vocalization called chattering when bruxing. Loud chattering can also indicate displeasure, so it’s up to the rat owner to investigate if their rat is making noises consistently to figure out why.

Remember that rats are normally quiet creatures—most of the happy noises they make are so high-pitched humans cannot hear them. So, if your rat is squealing or making other continuous low-frequency noises, this is not usually a good sign. Check for other sides of anxiety, discontentment, or illness.

If you hear or see bruxing behavior from a rat, it’s usually an indication of affection and happiness in the following scenarios:

  • When a rat is cuddling or napping with another rat
  • When a rat is being petted or handled by a person it enjoys interacting with
  • When a rat is being held by a person it likes

It doesn’t take long to recognize when a rat is bruxing out of pleasure and seeing this behavior while petting or cuddling with it means that it feels affection towards you.

Boggling Is an Odd Display of Affection in Rats

Another rat behavior that might seem odd to those who have never kept rats is boggling, which is when a rat causes its eyes to bulge in and out of its head. Boggling is caused by bruxing and can be a visual indicator of contentment or affection (as odd as it can sometimes look to humans).

The cause behind boggling is pretty simple—when a rat bruxes, it quickly moves its lower jaw, relaxing and contracting the same muscles that cause the eyes to bulge in and out of the socket. It might appear strange, but this behavior means that a rat is both calm and happy.

Self-Grooming Means A Rat Feels Affection and Security Toward Others

This is one of the more subtle indications that a rat might feel affection for a human or another rat. If a rat feels comfortable enough to groom itself in front of a person or another rat, the rat is relaxed enough that it isn’t anticipating a sudden attack.

For a prey animal such as a rat, this is a major show of trust and affection towards anyone close enough to attack it. It’s especially trusting considering how much larger humans are than rats and the rather antagonistic history rats have had with humans in the past.

Nobody could fault either party for being a little jumpy around the other, so when a rat lets its guard down to this level is a good sign that the rat feels affection for its human handler.

Scent-Marking Can Be a Sign of Affection Towards Humans

Scent-marking is not one of the most popular behaviors that rats are known for, and male rats are more notorious for doing it than females. While it can be a sign of affection toward people, a rat scent-marking you with a drop or two of their urine can be one of the more off-putting signs of affection that a rat can inflict on a person.

When scent-marking as a sign of affection, rats will mark a person with their urine to smell more like them. This is their way of bringing you “into the club.” But it’s also important to note that rats will also mark their surroundings with urine for a few other reasons, including the following:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Fear
  • Sexual maturity/heat (females are more likely to scent-mark when going into heat)

As with many rat behaviors, it’s easier to contextualize their behavior as affection when you place it up against other behaviors. For example, a new rat that you aren’t familiar with who acts visibly nervous and scent-marks may be reacting out of stress or anxiety. In contrast, your favorite rat who is already comfortable with and bonded to you will scent-mark out of familiarity instead.

Cuddling Is an Affectionate Behavior to See in Rats

One fact that many non-rat owners are surprised to find out is how much rats like to cuddle. As with many other animals, cuddling is an affectionate, social behavior that reinforces bonds. Whether a rat is snuggling with other rats or a person, it is a clear sign of affection.

Rat being cuddled close to face

Cuddling indicates that a rat is happy and affectionate toward a person. It also indicates how comfortable a rat is with the person handling them since a rat that is on edge will not exactly be in a cuddling mood.

Owners can encourage their rats to cuddle with them by using a bonding pouch. These pouches can make a rat feel more secure while they’re being handled and can also help make them more comfortable while they’re snuggling. Another benefit of snuggling with a rat using a bonding pouch is that while the rat is in the pouch, they will not be tempted to scent-mark or use the restroom on you.

Rats Share Treats as Affection with Each Other and Humans

If a rat takes a treat easily from a person, it is a good indication that they are affectionate. Rats are generous animals that have been shown to share food as a sign of camaraderie based on need. (Source: Newsweek) Since a rat sees its human handler as the provider of all of its food, taking food directly by hand is a great indication of trust and affection.

This behavior shows that rats have a much higher level of empathy for both each other and for people than many non-rat fans would like to believe. This behavior shows that rats are capable of a much greater level of affection than many other animals. Rat owners even report their rats attempting to share treats with them, too.

Rat Ears Turn Pink When They Are Happy

It’s one of the more subtle indications that a rat is happy and showing affection, but scientists have shown that after being cuddled and tickled, rats’ ears would turn noticeably pink due to increased blood flow.

Since this behavior was seen paired with vocalizations that scientists have determined to be the equivalent of rats laughing, scientists concluded that these “tickled pink” rats were showing signs of happiness and affection.

Tickled Pink

Naked human ears can’t hear rat laughter, but if you’re trying to figure out if your rat is having a good time, taking a look at the color of their ears can be a good way to check.

Rats Get Excited to See You as a Show of Affection

Like cats and dogs, rats get emotionally excited for their owners’ return, not just because their owners bring the treats. These intelligent animals are prone to boredom when they aren’t socially interacted with and will often become agitated in response to seeing their owner, knowing that they will soon get some cuddles or playtime.

My Rat Doesn’t Want to Cuddle, Does It Not Like Me?

Rats do like to cuddle to show affection, but you might notice if you first get a young rat that they don’t seem that inclined to cuddle with you. This can be for a few reasons:

  • Anxiety/unfamiliarity: Like people, rats take a little while to warm up to someone. Remember that young rats are small and new to the world, and humans are big and scary. When a rat is first getting to know you, it may be mistrustful, which means it’s not going to want to cuddle with you right away. You’ll need to gain its trust first.
  • Curiosity: Some young rats are very high-energy and curious, so they may be more interested in investigating their surroundings or scrambling all over you than they are to settle down and cuddle. These rats may be more inclined to relax after a high-intensity game on the floor or once they’re more familiar with their environment.
  • Aloofness: Rats have individual temperaments, and some rats may not be as into cuddling as others. If you have a rat with a somewhat shy or aloof personality, it may be a part of their general temperament, or they may need to warm up to you over time.
  • Not in the mood: Sometimes, a rat wants to cuddle, and sometimes they’re more interested in play or exploration. After getting to know a rat better, you’ll get better at recognizing when a rat doesn’t want to cuddle out of a bad mood versus just wanting to do something else instead.

In many cases, a rat being less inclined to cuddle is a temporary condition as they get used to their new owner. Once they learn they’re in a safe place with lots of treats and kind attention from their handlers, they will often blossom into natural cuddlers.

Rats being held

Cuddling can be encouraged both by investing in a bonding pouch and carrying or sitting with the rat in a way that makes them feel secure. Rats often get nervous when held at waist level or higher from the ground since a fall from this height could injure or kill them. Instead, it’s better to cuddle with a rat by getting down on their level and interacting with them either on the floor or on a couch.

How to Win Over a Shy Rat with Affection

One obstacle to a rat showing affection to its owner is nervousness—some rats are naturally more timid and nervous than others. This results from the fact that rats are prey animals that do not interact with creatures many times their size unless the larger creature is actively trying to eat them.

Therefore, you might have to work a little harder to win over a shy rat, but it can be done in a few different ways. Here are some methods for winning over a shy rat with affection:

  • Feed the rat by hand. Sometimes if a rat is nervous, one of the only ways to get them to recognize that a human will not hurt them is to feed them by hand for a few days. While this may seem like a harsh lesson, it is often the easiest way to break a rat of hand-shyness. After teaching a rat to be fed by hand, rats that were formerly terrified to see a person near their cage can be taught to tolerate human contact without running away.
  • Interact with the rat gently. Once a shy rat has relented enough to let themselves be touched without extreme fear, work them up to more intensive handling by gently stroking the rat with one or two fingers down their back or rubbing them behind their ears. These gestures mimic a rat grooming another rat and can help to instill trust. Don’t push the rat for interactions like being held or lifted out of the cage until you progress with small petting interactions.
  • Work up to holding the rat. Once a shy rat has learned to take food by hand, it’s time to start getting them used to being picked up out of the cage. Do not ever pick up a rat by its tail. Not only is this very painful and stressful for the rat, but it’s also a very scary way to be held and will not teach the rat to trust their handler. Instead, work the rat up to being gently lifted by their middle. Using treats such as frozen blueberries as a reward for being held can work wonders.
  • Use food as a motivator. Rats are very food-motivated animals and offering them delicious treats such as frozen berries, pieces of hard-boiled egg, shreds of kale, bits of cheese, plain popped corn, and grapes can help win them over. In small amounts, rats can also have human scraps such as small bites of pizza, chicken nuggets, or crackers. Remember that, while rats are omnivorous, they should only be fed human foods in small amounts to preserve their health.

It may take a bit longer to win over a shy rat with shows of affection, but it’s well worth the effort to see them blossom from a rat that runs in fear every time you open the cage door to a rat that gets excited to see you come home from work.

How to Show Affection to Your Rat

Rats have plenty of ways to show their affection to people and other rats, but what about the best ways for humans to show affection towards rats? If you want your rat to know that you love them, here are some things you can do to show your affection:

  • Take them out to play. Rats are smart animals and get bored when they’re left in their cage all day, so be sure to take them out for plenty of playtime and exercise. If you’re afraid of them becoming lost, invest in a rat ball so that they can explore safely. Playpens filled with rat toys are also a good choice for letting them get some play in.
  • Provide them with plenty of enrichment activities. Because rats are so bright, it’s easy for them to get bored in their enclosures. Giving them toys, puzzles, and things like hammocks can help keep them entertained and happy, making them more likely to show you affection.
  • Provide a varied diet. While rats can get the bulk of their nutritional needs from a rat kibble or dry food, varying their diet by adding in bits of fruit, vegetable, meat, and dairy can help provide sensory pleasure to your rats and give them something fun to do.
  • Increase the size of their habitat. Rats are active animals, and they do best in a large cage habitat with multiple levels to entertain themselves by running up and down the ramps inside. It is harder to keep rats happier in a smaller habitat but can be done by dedicating a playroom for the rats and making sure they get plenty of time outside of their cages.
  • Get them a friend. Rats are social creatures that enjoy the company of other rats. Keeping a rat friend with your rat can help keep them from becoming bored and lonely when you’re not around. This can make them happier and more affectionate.
  • Make sure to handle them correctly. Rats can become nervous and mistrustful if they are grabbed suddenly, cornered in the cage, or lifted by their tail (which also hurts!) Be sure to show affection towards your rats by respecting them and carrying them close to your body around their midsection, making sure their feet are supported so they don’t feel like they’ll fall.

There are many ways for rats to show affection, but going out of your way to show your rat that you feel affection towards them can help make the bond between the two of you to grow stronger.

Rats Are Affectionate Animals

Some people who aren’t familiar with rats may not consider them affectionate animals, but that’s just because they don’t know them. The reality is that these cuddly pocket pets are one of the most affectionate pets you could ever own.

Lee Cameron

When I was younger, I had guinea pigs and hamsters as pets. There was limited information back then as to how to take care of rodents, and indeed information on the various types of rodents that could be kept as pets. In this website, I hope to make it an easy, one-stop information portal on raising rodents!

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