rat snoozing while held in hand
Many rats enjoy being held, especially when given time to build trust with a person. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

It’s not uncommon for new rat moms and dads to feel like their newly acquired rats don’t want to be touched or held. They don’t know that there’s usually a “getting to know you period.” It can take time for some rats to trust humans and feel comfortable being held. But if you don’t take your rats out of their cage regularly and hold them regardless of them being nervous, they may never come out of their shell.

This is why I always advise new owners to spend some time every day petting their new friend in the cage and outside of it, even if the rat protests (more context on this later). Bribing them with food works wonders as well.

Does this mean that all rats are eventually comfortable being handled and touched? Unfortunately, no. Some persnickety rats absolutely detest being held and treat your touch as if your fingers are made out of hot pokers.

Rats like this should not be confused with biters or rats showing aggression. I’m talking about non-aggressive rats that are perfectly safe to touch and may not even show signs of fear, but they act as if they have little use for you or your affection. For this article, let’s also set aside any health-related issues that could cause a rat to not want to be touched.

This article is strictly about rats trying to communicate their boundaries when it comes to human interaction.

“Don’t Touch Me” Rats

a rat standing beside a potted flower with left paw on edge of pot
Tru was a rat with firm personal space who didn’t want to be touched. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

I’ll give you an example. My girl Tru, who was in no way aggressive or fearful, happily took food from my fingers. But that’s about as close as she wanted to be. If she could have foraged for her own food, I would have been of little use to her (when she was young anyway).

She always immediately retreated to the back of the cage whenever I approached and watched me from a distance when I interacted with her cagemates. Never did she come running for scritches like the others did. If I did pick her up, she thrashed in my hands in a frenzy, trying to wriggle her way out of them. I worried she’d fall to the floor. To show just how mad she was, she pooped all over me. And I’m not talking fear poos (pooping out of fear). It was more like, “Maybe if I poop all over this woman, she’ll put me down!”

My girl Tulip was the exact same way, minus the pooping. Her never-ending thrashing if I held her and her continually running from me was a clear sign she wanted a hands-off relationship. I always got the sense her feelings stemmed from fear, however, and it made treating her Zymbal’s gland tumor (a fatal type of cancer near the external ear canal) extremely difficult.

Hands-Off Versus Needs To Know You

two rats out of cage with one being petted on back
Find out each rat’s touch preferences. Is it OK to touch both inside and outside the cage, or just outside, or just inside? Or not at all? Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

So how can you tell if your rat is a true “don’t touch me” rat or if they just haven’t gotten past the getting-to-know-you phase?

Thrashing and running away is a possible clue, however, it might only be temporary. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a clear-cut way of knowing the difference right up front. It takes time to learn the individual personalities and needs of each rat.

Some rats dislike being touched or held at first, but then become all cuddles once they know you better. Or you may discover that your rat only hates being held, but is totally fine with being touched. They may even love having their back rubbed while lying in a hammock or sitting next to you (as opposed to on you). Or you could have a rat that enjoys hanging with you on your couch, but doesn’t want to be petted while in their cage. And it’s not uncommon for some affection-haters to finally change when they are seniors and accept at least a limited amount of affection. That is what happened with Tru.

It’s also especially difficult to predict a rat’s boundaries if they’ve experienced trauma previous to adoption by you. Abused rats or those forced to endure a life of fear before coming to you might need additional time before they are begging for attention. Or they may never get over their fear and always prefer some distance.

Different Kinds Of Hands-Off Rats

rat held upright in hand
Pi and her sister Cinder didn’t like to be touched, but they enjoyed being held in a bonding pouch. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

My Topher Loafs needed time before he welcomed affection. At the beginning he screamed something fierce anytime I made the slightest attempt to touch him. After weeks of carefully working within his boundaries, he became one of my best cuddlers. He had been neglected (he was never held) and left in a tiny cat carrier, alone, for a year and a half before I adopted him. So, his fear of human touch was completely understandable. In his case, it was reversible.

My girls Cinder and Pi were abandoned outside together as babies and left to fend for themselves for weeks before being rescued. To add to the trauma, Pi was born without a right foot and the left one was misshapen and missing all the toes. This made it difficult for her to navigate the desert terrain she was dumped in. Even with anxiety medication, these girls were not fond of being picked up. However, if I had them in a bonding pouch in my lap, they let me pet them for hours! The key was to always give them something to hide in.

Then there are rats like my boy Gatwick. I started fostering him when he was 3 ½ weeks old and then ultimately adopted him with three of his brothers. I had raised that rat since right after he opened his eyes, yet … he HATED being picked up and held for any real length of time. He loved back rubs, though, and sought those whenever he was on the couch with me — but only if I didn’t attempt to hold him. His brothers on the other hand, loved being held and petted.

Learn Your Rat’s Boundaries

two rats snuggled into a towel outside the cage
Many rats who might otherwise dislike being touched are OK with it if they have the option to burrow into something. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Personality plays as much of a role in a rat’s behavior as life experiences do. Figuring out which rats will be permanently standoffish can take time. Rats are social animals and thrive on spending time with their people. I strongly believe they need to come out of their cage daily, even the rats who hate it. How else will you learn your rat’s personality and what their boundries are?

So, while I always advise ignoring a rat’s protest about coming out of their cage, do so within their comfort zone. For overly scared rats, put them immediately into a blanket, a hammock, a rat hut, a towel, or even an old T-shirt after taking them out of the cage. Rats always feel safer if they can burrow and are covered.

Then take them to a place where you can sit and they can move about freely, like a bed or couch. You don’t need to hold them the entire time, especially if they are unhappy about it. Just being able to observe their behavior helps you learn more about them.

Does curiosity eventually bring them over to you? Or do they always hide in a panic? Do they flail about in your hands or run the minute you touch them? Spend time getting to know one another, and take it slowly. If it becomes obvious over days or weeks that the rat absolutely hates human contact, follow their lead and work within their specific preferences.

I know it feels like an insult when your rat refuses to be loved on, especially when they look wild-eyed and are frantically trying to get away from you. But it does not mean your rat hates you. They just don’t want to be touched, and they have the right to this choice. But it also doesn’t mean they are better off left alone, even if they think so.

Rats still require attention and care beyond food and a proper habitat. Ignoring them altogether can make them more fearful or aggressive, and can lead to depression. It could also prevent you from spotting health issues that arise.

Respect Your Rat’s Boundaries

rat peering head out of hideaway to take a hand-fed treat
Feeding a treat or having other rats around can put hands-off rats more at ease. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

I’ve always found it easier to deal with standoffish rats when I also have affectionate ones. Not only do I get my fix of cuddles from the others, but these hands-off stinkers tend to feel more at ease with friends around. You know, safety in numbers and all.

And if they don’t want to be held or touched, then do it minimally. Still bring them out of the cage with their cagemates, but always provide them a bonding pouch, an igloo, or something else for them to hide in should they need it. Keep them in close proximity to you. Continue making efforts to pet them, but of course, follow their cues. And again, bribery with treats goes a long way!

Ultimately, these rats will realize you are the bringer-of-food. At the very least, they will trust you more than they do any other human. They are likely to soften up a bit when they are seniors.

After Tru developed hind-leg degeneration and needed daily medication and constant hands-on care, she acknowledged I was useful after all. She eventually stopped flinching when I touched her. With time, she was actually content to sit in a bonding pouch on my lap (as long as I wasn’t holding her with my hands) for the length of an entire movie while I petted her. She even bruxed every now and then!

The bottom line? Rats can be fickle creatures with nuanced levels of how they connect with their people. The trick is balancing their needs in a way that allows you to continue providing them the love and care they require, while also giving them the freedom to be who they are.

One thought on “Honoring Your Rat’s Personal Space

  1. i have never had a rat that didn’t want to be my friend, and i’ve had rats for over 30 years. i make sure i get them at 2 months old, so i can hand train them right away. have never been bitten, have never had a stand offish rat.

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