two rats under a blanket, one nudges other's ear
So what are these rats saying? Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Ever wonder what your rats talk about? Do they discuss current affairs or gossip about the rats in the next cage? OK, probably not. But our amazing rats actually have a very sophisticated rat communication system among one another.

This rat communication involves olfactory receptors and pheromones, body language/behavior, and vocalizations. All of these things are an integral part of how rats coexist with one another. We previously reviewed how rats communicate with you, but now let’s explore how they communicate with each other.

Secret Ultrasonic Vocalizations

Did you know there’s an actual “language” being spoken between our rats every day that we never hear? Rats speak to one another using ultrasonic vocalizations that range in frequencies far above what human ears can hear. One frequency might express pain, while another expresses happiness. Rats also have specific vocalizations during play that can help deter playful actions from escalating into aggressive ones. Separated pups will even make vocalizations to their mother to let them know where they are. This rich language among rats is still only in the early stages of study though, leaving a lot left to explore.

Rat Communication With Dominance

rat power grooming another rat
Power grooming is a forced version of allogrooming. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Let’s discuss the communication we can actually hear and see. Rats create a hierarchy among their mischief (a group of rats). This is easier to observe in groups of three or more. Body language and behavior are a big part of rat communication and help establish the different ranks.

Dominant alphas display different tactics to earn their role. You’ve probably seen one of your rats pinned down by a cagemate while being “power groomed” around the face, neck or belly. This is forced allogrooming and is different from social grooming. Power grooming is done in rapid, short stroked nibbles, in an almost frenzied manner. The subordinate may peep or squeak, but any attempt at movement or refusal to obey could be met with aggression. The alpha might even mark the subordinate with urine once they are done.

I caught video of my rat Paddington, the alpha, power-grooming and marking his brother Camden, the beta (second in command). Camden helped Paddington rule the cage, but after Paddington passed away, Camden took over the alpha role and continues to maintain it.

Fun With Playfighting

two young rats play fighting
Play fighting is a natural behavior that usually just burns off excess energy. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Play fighting is common among younger rats with lots of energy and is nothing to be concerned about. Interestingly, a lower-ranking rat usually initiates the play, while the dominant one lays low to learn counterattack moves.

But can you tell the difference between playfulness and aggression? Happy rats in a wrestling match tend to nip each other’s nape, whereas angry rats target the back of the body, such as the rump and back legs. Before Paddington passed away, he and Camden also liked to bully the other rats by nipping them near their groin, which often resulted in an abscess. Thankfully, Camden has since stopped this behavior.

Revealing The Serious Side Of Rat Boxing And Sidling

two rats boxing
Boxing is more serious than play fighting. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Play fighting can also take a turn if a rat gets irritated or a subordinate decides to stand his or her ground. This can lead to “boxing,” a defensive move to avoid aggressive bites to the bum. Boxing occurs when two rats closely face one another in a standing position and paw, bat, or push each other. If this confrontation escalates, the dominant rat might switch to “sidling” or what I like to call “butt bumping.”

Sidling is done with an arched back as the side of the body or the rump is pushed into the other rat. Their fur is often puffed up as well. The aggressor is attempting to get close enough to bite or attack the other rat’s back end. The submissive rat might use their paws to push or kick in defense. Both boxing and sidling can end with a rat backing down and running off, or it may trigger a bigger fight.

If you notice boxing or sidling, watch carefully to see where it goes. These and other types of fights can lead to screeching, shrieks, and hissing; all of which can mean anger, pain, or protesting. Most of the time the rats work things out; this is how their hierarchy functions.

If a fight results in skin punctures or bloodshed, the rats need to be separated. Absolutely do not use bare hands to stop a fight! Instead, grab a towel or use something in the cage as a barrier between them until one of them can be safely removed.

Sniffing Out The Message

rat sniffs butt of other rat
A little sniff delivers a lot of information! Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Rats use olfactory communication and rely heavily on their noses. The practice of sniffing one another is not only used during introductions, but it also communicates their status among the hierarchy during other interactions. You can easily watch rats “explaining” their established status to a newcomer as they intrusively shove a nose up a bum and around body parts. Plus, rats learn about one another through the scents left by body secretions, feces, and urine.

Marking, which is not the same as emptying the bladder, is often thought to be about ownership. The use of urine and how it is left actually communicates a much larger scope of information. Not only does urine contain pheromones, but it also reveals the species of the rat, their age range, their sex, their reproductive and social statuses, and their stress level. Rats can even determine how long ago the mark was left.

rat that was marked with urine
It’s probably not fun to be the recipient of urine marking. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Both females and males partake in urine marking, but their gender determines the marking patterns and the quantity of urine used. It’s also common for rats to mark each other. This is done by both young and adult rats and can disclose their status. Because marking is associated with hormones, neutering a male reduces the frequency of it.

Explore Other Rat Communication Behaviors

The ear wiggling or ear vibrating of a doe is her unsubtle way of letting a male know she’s ready to mate. Back arching and a little dance of solicitation that involves running, darting and stiffening usually accompany this. The pattern of these movements tells the level of her interest.

rat pushing another rat away from food dish
Rats are not above shoving another rat out of the way. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

A hand shove to the face means, “Get out of my way!” You’ll most definitely see this around a food dish.

Tail movements such as wagging, wriggling, or swooshing, can be an indication of happiness, anger, or warning. I haven’t had many tail waggers, but I’ve had a few that were notable. One would wriggle his tail like a snake whenever he smelled one of our cats near by. He always looked alert when he did this, and I took it to be a warning to the other rats. I had another who would sometimes swoosh his tail during a full body massage, which usually lead to happy bruxing and eye boggling. And I’ve witnessed some angry tail movement from one of my boys during a boxing match with his brother.

While we can’t speak “rat” or hear their ultrasonic frequencies, time spent actively observing their interactions helps you figure out what they’re all “talking” about. With all their different ways of communicating, it’s almost as if they’re never without something to say.

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