rat in towel eating
Can you tell if your rats are happy? Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Having a beloved rat can bring immeasurable joy to their people, but what exactly makes pet rats happy? We can’t ask our rats directly, but because I have shared my life with rats for 26 years, I believe I have a pretty good grasp of their likely top four answers. Just like people, every rat has their own unique personality and experiences that dictate their likes and dislikes. However, rats find pleasure in several common themes — and even people can relate.

Food Aplenty

group of rats around food dish
Offering a favorite treat is possibly the fastest way to make rats happy. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Rats love food! It’s possibly No. 1 on their list of life’s pleasures. The popular, animated movie Ratatouille was dedicated to one rat’s love of culinary cuisine. Food is so loved by rats that they are willing to steal a treat straight from a cagemate’s mouth without hesitation, and not be sorry for it. In my house, this is most often the result of impatience and being oblivious to the fact that I’ve provided snacks for everyone.

This frenzied behavior probably stems from their wild ancestors’ need to survive, but my rats are never without a full bowl of food in their cage. Instead, I think their enthusiasm is truly about the extra goodies they are offered outside of their main diet. The call of “treats, treats, treats!” almost always wakes up my sleeping boys and sends them running for the cage door. Their elation causes manners to be forgotten and food to be greedily snatched from my fingers.

What make it clear that this behavior is different than survival instincts is the look of pure disappointment they get when they taste something unappealing. A rat is quick to drop any unwanted treat and come back for something “better.” Domesticity affords them the luxury of being quite picky!

Bring a rat their favorite munchies, and they will love you forever! Food is one of the best ways to build a bond with a skittish adoptee that is still learning to trust you.

The Joys Of Enrichment And Activity

several rats snuggling in a box
Boxes, hideaways, toys, wheels, and other stimulating things in the environment are a must! Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Any animal, caged or uncaged, requires stimulation in their day to drive away boredom. When it comes to enclosures, providing a large multi-level cage with room to stretch out and run around vertically and horizontally is vital to rat happiness. Offering different kinds of beds and hideaways is also important, and you need go well beyond those if your rat spends a lot of time locked up. Tubes, digging boxes, food forgers, ropes, and ladders are all great options to provide. The bird section of a pet store is a surprisingly great place to find some of these items.

Some rats even enjoy running in wheels, but you need to ensure that the wheel is:

1. An adequate size for rats — extra-large is most preferable
2. Solid, with no bars for tails or feet to slip through
3. Attaches securely to the side of cage (if it doesn’t have a stand) and doesn’t leave a gap that a rat can get stuck behind.

I recommend doing your research on brands and types of wheels that are most safe, but I’ve personally used a Wodent Wheel or Silent Spinner for my rats. I also suggest checking out some of the blogs and YouTube videos about rat toys and cage decor for even more ways spoil your kiddos.

Enrichment shouldn’t stop at the cage either; there’s plenty of ways to keep them busy with adventure outside of it. Things like: food puzzles, mazes, teaching them tricks, free-ranging (only in rat-proofed rooms), digging boxes, and pea fishing, to name a few. I’ve even built a play area that sets on a table in front of my rats’ cage with a ramp that attaches to its door. During the days I keep their door open so that my rats can safely come and go as they please, without ever being able to get to the ground.

The Importance Of Friendship

rats sleeping together
Nothing takes the place of snuggling with a rat buddy. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

The Rattus norvegicus (or Norway rat), from which pet rats were bred, are extremely social creatures. In the wild, rats can live in packs of up to 150 different individuals, and spend their whole lives adhering to a hierarchy system. Scientist have even witnessed the lengths rats will go to for their friends, so it’s not a surprise that owners are encouraged to keep their pets in groups of two or more. There’s even a term for a group of rats — a mischief — which seems rather appropriate considering how naughty a group of them can be together.

Rats are known to experience deep depression when a cagemate or sibling passes away. I’ve lost siblings within weeks of each other, even when the second one to pass showed absolutely no signs of illness. While rats are good at hiding pain and disease, the immediate downward change in their mood after their sibling passes has led me to wonder if they died from a broken heart. I’ve also witnessed cagemates helping each other through the loss of one of their own by forming new bonds that weren’t formerly there.

two rats nose to nose
Sirius (right) stayed with Echo to the end. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

I think the most touching relationship I’ve witnessed in my group was between my spayed girl Echo and her neutered male companion, Sirius. Despite a rather bad first impression at Sirius’ doing and being in different stages of life, their bond became so strong during their time together, that Sirius spent the last hours of Echo’s life nuzzling his beloved lady friend.

Singleton rats can still live happy lives under the right circumstances, but all you have to do is watch a group of ratties play together, groom one another, and use each other as pillows, to understand the sheer joy they get from companionship.

Please note: When bringing new rats into your current mischief, follow a proper introduction strategy to avoid any major conflicts. Once everyone has been properly introduced and you are confident they get along, be prepared for the awesomeness that comes with watching your precious little cuties develop new friendships.

A Lovefest With Owners

rat enjoying being petted
Rats truly enjoy attention from their human. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Even with all the food, toys, and friends any rat could hope for, they always crave time with their trusted people. It’s often dogs that are credited as man’s best friend, but what so many non-rat people don’t get is just how sociable these darling creatures are. That sociability, ease of domestication, and the ability to form strong bonds with humans is what led to them becoming pets in the first place. What owners really need to be aware of is that their rats actually thrive from positive interactions with them, and it’s vital to their well-being. To prove how much delight a rat can experience with humans, you just need to “hear” them laugh when they are tickled.

The notion of joy may get lost in translation when new adoptees are scared and still untrusting, but with time they begin to flourish from quality time spent with you. My greatest example of this was my boy Topher, who had been neglected for a year and a half before being dumped at a kill-shelter. He was going to be put down out of fear he was unadoptable (even the volunteers wouldn’t touch him). That is when I stepped in and took him. After weeks of work to earn his trust, this rat became one of the most affectionate, loving creatures, I’ve ever had. He never bit me, not even once. He spent the rest of his days playing with new friends and contentedly napping next to me as I worked.

If you’re lucky, your happy rats reward you with bruxes and eye boggles (teeth grinding and eyes bulging), which is a rat’s version of purring. Not all rats brux and boggle though, so don’t assume the lack of it means they aren’t happy. Relaxed bodies during back rubs, or having your fingers, hair, or face groomed are also great indicators your rattie feels safe and content. No matter how they choose to show it, just believe that your rats will absolutely bliss out from time with you!

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