Don't let their small size fool you. A little rat can have a whole lot to say! Your average, everyday domesticated pet rat has a host of messages within his body language repertoire that you can easily learn to interpret. Read on to learn more.
How to Read a Rat's Body Language
Means of Communication
Rats often communicate with other rats and their human friends utilizing techniques that implement scents. Even though you may not, at first, detect these scents, you may observe rats scent marking. Other communication is achieved through sounds and body language; all of which contribute to the communication effort of the rat.
Squeaks & Screams
The sounds a rat makes that a human can hear are usually sounds caused by distress, sickness, or annoyance. Intense fear or pain results in a long scream. Short squeaks or longer whiny squeaks mean a rat is annoyed by something such as a bullying rat or a thieving rat stealing food! Recent studies have suggested that rats can even laugh using squeaks, but their vocalizations are far too high pitched and remain undetected by the human ear. Thankfully, their body language is clearly visible for human interpretation.
That Nosy Rat!
When rats notice something of interest, their curiosity takes charge. They'll sniff the air, move their ears forward, and stand upon their hind legs and stare. These behaviors may be mixed and matched, but they're all curiosity-fueled! Some more nervous rats may go one step further and give a stare while slowly (some would say, eerily!) moving their head side to side. The occasional observer could be shaken by this action but because of the rat's poor eyesight and lack of good depth perception, this is simply the rat-equivalent of a human squint. Their head movement allows them to better discern the object they're attempting to view.
The Signs of an Annoyed Rat
The body language of an annoyed rat is not to be ignored For instance, a swishing tail can mean a number of things. When play fighting, the swishing tail denotes excitement but in an actual fight this deepens to anger, fear, and resentment. If you happen to notice a rat doing this while approaching your cat, dog, or other pet, it would be advisable to interrupt this encounter as quickly as possible!
Swinging their tail wildly (especially when they are being handled) is a sign of insecurity. When holding a rat, it is best to support their feet in order to lessen their insecurity.
Rattling and flicking their tails back and forth could mean your rat is experiencing social distress or worry.
Uncertainty or fear will have a rat twitching its ears back and forth while shrinking backwards.
Rats aren't happy when they push something away with their forepaws (like a snack or treat they don't want) or when they don't want to be petted. Oftentimes they may simply turn and walk away from you.
When Not to Handle a Rat
Take note that puffing out its fur can mean your rat is cold, fearful, angry, or sick. An aggressive rat will do this puffing and hunch it's back. If you try to handle him at this time he may try to bite! If the rat is threatening another rat in this manner, quickly remove the other rat. You can pick the rat up in a towel to reduce the possibility of being bitten, but keep in mind that a lethargic, puffed-up rat could indicate illness.
Bruxing & Boggling
Rats are very social animals capable of displaying affection and may even express their love by licking you or another rat. When a rat is perfectly content and happy, they emit a soft sound by grinding their teeth. This is known as 'bruxing.' Alternatively, his eyes may bulge (known as 'boggling')—which may also be a sign of affection. So when you pick him up and his jaw moves or his eyes google, rest assured that your rat is a happy, content, and delighted rat!
The Heat is On!
Romance in a rat's life may become quite apparent when a male rat runs after other female rats and tries mounting them. Even more dramatic signs come from the female rat however, especially when they go into heat—which can occur as often as every few days. The girls tend to become more energetic than usual and their ears flap so wildly and fast that they often appear as a blur. Females in heat are also prone to suddenly jumping when touched (much like a jumping frog toy!), as well as vibrating and arching their backs if petted on their lower back region. Some say that the latter is the surest way to tell that a female rat's heat cycle is in full swing.
Signs of Distress
Rats are prone to suffering from respiratory distress among other ailments. Common signs of illness include lethargic behavior and a lack of appetite, so if you notice either of these symptoms, it's very important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Illness in rats can take a turn for the worse in as little as a few hours, rapidly moving from a small cold to life-threatening pneumonia! For this reason, it's advisable to act fast at the first sign of distress.
Observation Equals Understanding
A playful rat will dart and scamper around in a circle or in a jerky, crazed manner and if they want you to pet them, they'll approach you with their heads hung low. Carefully observing your rat's behavior is very important as it aids you in recognizing when your pet is 'talking' to you. Taking time to observe your pet cultivates a bond enabling you to understand what your rat wants or needs when he squeaks, screams, scampers or darts.
By Tom Matteo
About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He specializes in hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and occasionally writes about such topics as animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife Tina and his beloved cockapoo, Angel.