Cage-cleaning, handling, training etc. for the fancy rat.

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Most rats (except for a few sweaty individuals with BO!) have no strong smell provided their cage is cleaned regularly. Even the males just have a faint, fairly pleasant smell like digestive biscuits, though agoutis tend to smell stronger than other colours. A Finnish lady called Dr Birgitta Edelman, who at the time was living well inside the Arctic Circle, had a pale champagne-hooded doe called Luah who actually had a floral scent like white clover, and used to be passed around at parties like a pot-pourri for visitors to sniff (and then go to sleep up their sleeves).

Cages should not be cleaned too obsessively - certainly not more than twice a week, and once every week to 10 days should suffice for a fair-sized cage which isn't too crowded. Rats like to be surrounded by their own smell, and if you take that away they will just spend all their time making their cage smell ratty again.

Some rats scatter their urine and droppings freely around the cage: some, especially bucks, establish a lavatory-corner and stick to it. In the latter case you can clean out just the lavatory every few days and leave the rest of the cage for longer.

A lot of rats like to follow your hand around and interfere while you clean their cage. Some dominant bucks regard your cleaning off of their personal scent-marks as a challenge, and may become aggressive about it: in this case they should be placed in a holding cage until you've finished.

Rats are active, playful and friendly and can and should be allowed out regularly to run round the room (not with other rats of opposite sex! - nor two different groups of bucks, who would fight). Their droppings are neat and fairly dry and go up the hoover, and their urine is odourless and non-corrosive and can just be wiped off.

But they do tend to shred things, and should be kept away from valuable books, papers and clothes, delicate or poisonous house-plants, and electric cables. Any small items of clothing, letters etc. which you leave lying around while your rats are out are quite likely to be discovered later shredded, peed on and buried in someone's nest-box. But adult rats rarely bother to climb up onto high furniture unless they can smell that there is food up there: so it is usually sufficient just to stack books, pairs of tights etc. up on the table for the duration.

Make sure the room (or house if you let them roam from room to room) is secure and there are no openings they could use to get under the floor or out of the door or window. Remember to check for even quite small gaps around pipes, both at floor level and higher up, and e.g. gaps where plaster has crumbled away and left a space where someone could get behind a skirting-board. You may well find that your rats stay in one area anyway and don't want to leave the room: but it's as well to be on the safe side until you see how they behave.

If you have a new rat, or a rat who has just been moved to a new cage, I would recommend keeping him/her in for a week or two to give them time to accept the new cage as their home territory. Once they have accepted their cage as their territory most rats will put themselves back to bed after a couple of hours, without you even needing to catch them. But don't be too alarmed if one or more of your rats fails to show up to go back into their cage. Nearly always it just means either they're being bloody-minded or they've fallen asleep in some obscure corner: either way, they'll turn up faithfully at feeding-time.

Some people also like to let their rats have a run outside. Unless you are absolutely sure your garden is escape-proof and cat-proof (such as a roof-garden with fine wire-mesh over the top) and contains no poisonous plants, or slug-pellets, or slugs which may have eaten slug-pellets, it would be dangerous to let your rats out unsupervized. Provided you are with them, however, tame rats can usually be allowed to run about in grass and will not go very far away from you. You can also put them outside in a mesh pen of the kind used for guinea-pigs: again, it must be cat-proof and escape-proof, which means making firm contact with the ground all the way round, and should have a box the rats can retreat into if it gets too hot or wet: this box must not be one which will get very hot and stuffy in the sun. Until you see how the rats behave in the run, check every 20 minutes or so to make sure they aren't busily tunnelling their way out. They will probably prefer a shady area of the garden to direct sun - especially in hot weather.

Some rats like to follow your feet around, so it is advisable to go barefoot when your rats are out. That way, you can feel if you are about to step on somebody: and if you do inadvertently tread on someone's foot or tail you'll do less damage. If your rats are too fond of nibbling human toes for you to go barefoot, wear soft-soled slippers.

Many rats also like to get inside the furniture - sofas, armchairs and so on - and build nests. If you can't see where all your rats are, sit down slowly on furniture containing springs, to give them time to get their tails out of the way if they happen to be inside. Also watch out for little paws and tails around moving furniture such as rocking or swivelling chairs.

Many does have a bad habit of biting the feet and tails of other rats who may walk across the top of their cage, sometimes breaking claws or even biting off whole toes. Many bucks, when out, like to amuse themselves by dancing up and down on top of other bucks' cages, winding up the occupants. Therefore, if you have more than one cage of rats and are only letting out one cage at a time, it is often a good idea to put a solid board on top of the closed cage to protect the loose rats from the shut-in ones, and vice versa.

Many Norway rats, especially does, love "playing snowploughs" - waddling across the floor of their cage whilst using their hands to throw their wood-shavings up into a growing heap in front of them. This is the same action they would use in the wild to push loose earth out of a burrow which they were digging: piling the spoil up and then pushing it out in front of them, so that they emerge from the tunnel face-first and on the alert for danger.

The best method of picking up a rat is to slip one hand underneath it and cup the other round the rat's behind. Small, tame rats can also be picked up one-handed either by scooping them up or by grasping them round the rib-cage; but don't pick up a big heavy rat by the ribs or abdomen without supporting its behind if you can avoid it, as its swinging weight could cause it to pull a muscle and would at best be uncomfortable.

You can restrain a fidgetty rat by holding the base of the tail, and in an emergency you can lift it very briefly by the root of the tail provided you then immedately support the animal's weight. Never lift or restrain a rat by the end of the tail, or lift it by the base of the tail for more than a second or two (literally a second or two - that's not just a metaphor for "not long"). Lifting a rat by the end of the tail will always be painful, and in extreme cases, if the rat is very heavy or wriggly, even restraining it by the tail-tip can result in the entire skin on the end of the tail breaking and peeling off - see Common Injuries.

Wriggly rats will often stick their feet out to the sides and grab hold of the cage doorway as you lift them out. Forcing the issue can result in broken claws. With such a rat it is usually easier to turn them round (tails make useful handles in this context) and lift them out bum-first; or roll them over and lift them out head-first but on their backs.

Rats have very individual preferences, and sometimes even a perfectly friendly rat will dislike being picked up, although they'll come to you and climb on you freely. My blue buck Mountjoy, for example, doesn't like to be picked up, or even stroked, but loves to rub noses with me through an open cage-door.

Rats are generally tamer if they are handled regularly - but some rats are never very interested in humans and never like being picked up, and some are fascinated by humans and will be all over you like a cheap suit even if they have rarely been handled. Very tame rats will often ride around on your shoulder or inside your clothes: it is not advisable to do this while wearing anything expensive, since if they want to look out and can't be bothered to climb back up to the neck they are likely to cut a window in your shirt.

A rat who habitually rides around on your shoulder is called, unsurprizingly, a "shoulder rat". A rat who spends so much time riding around on your shoulder and/or inside your clothes that it regards your body as its home-territory, and you are effectively wearing the rat like a rhino playing host to an ox-pecker bird, is called a "body rat".

Having a rat climb about inside your clothes with its claws hooked into the fabric and its furry back against your skin is quite pleasant. Having a rat climb around inside your clothes with its back to the fabric and its claws hooked into your skin can be seriously painful, especially if the rat is heavy.

Rats need to grind their teeth a lot to keep them short and sharp, and some commonly do so while being held. This is either neutral or a positive sign of contentment, so don't be alarmed. Some rats, when being held, do a thing which US rat-fans call "bruxing", in which they not only grind their teeth but also bulge their eyes and wobble them in and out. This is something to do with pockets of empty space forming around the hinge of the jaw as they grind the teeth. Emotionally, it seems to be roughly equivalent to a cat purring: like purring, most rats do it when they are content, but a few do it when stressed.

A member of the principle ratlist, named Robyn Frankland, described the stages of bruxing thus:

intermittent teeth grinding/chattering

interspersed with a break during which the tongue moves around in the mouth and the mouth opens and closes while the head lifts up (like smacking their lips after a particularly good treat)

the fooffing sound with air puffed into their cheeks/nose

the air pressure becomes so great the upper face puffs up and eye balls bug out and vibrate

Rats use their teeth as extra hands and a means of self-expression. An affectionate rat is likely to want to groom you, which feels like being scraped with a small blunt razor - this can be quite painful, but it's meant nicely, so put up with it as long as you can. But be warned they can get rather personal: my late boyfriend Norman didn't mind at all when an elderly free-range buck named Edmund crept up on him and started grooming the top of his head - but when Edmund got into bed with him and began combing his pubic hair it was time for a swift ejection.

Some rats also have a thing about chewing human toe-nails: which is OK provided they don't accidentally get a mouthful of toe as well. Some rats deliberately grab a mouthful of toe and give it a pinch, just to see the funny human hopping and swearing.

A bright rat is probably about as clever as a dim dog, and they can be trained to some extent. Most rats will learn their own name if you call them by it every time you speak to them. There are records of at least one rat-circus in the Victorian era, and more recently scientists have successfully trained young does to play basketball - although only as every rat for herself, competing with all the others to grab the ball in her hands and drop it through the hoop. They don’t get the idea of forming teams.

Personally I feel that training a rat actually to do tricks is a little, well, control-freaky - but then again the rats would probably find it stimulating and enjoyable if not taken to extremes. It’s certainly useful to train your rats to come to you on demand. Choose a simple signal - rapping your nails on a hard surface; snapping your fingers; rattling a jar of treats. Often, they will come towards such a signal just because it interests them; if not, wait until the rat comes to you spontaneously and then make the signal as it does so. When it gets to you, give the rat a treat. Quite soon they will associate the signal with coming to you and with being rewarded.

When you are first getting to know your rats, it is advisable not to put them back in their cage the first time they come to you in any given run out - even if you’ve been trying to catch them for ages. You don’t want them to think that every time they come to you they get put back in. Handle them, maybe give them a titbit, and let them go again a few times before shutting them in.

A sharp hiss can be used to tell a rat to stop doing something dangerous.

They can also be encouraged to perform other behaviours, such as jumping, or standing on the hind-legs, to order. But keep training sessions short - a couple of “Come here!” calls or similar a day.

Anyone who is interested in getting into rat-training can go to the archives of the alt.pets.rodents.rats group and do a search on “Robert W Cunningham”, who has done a lot of training-work with his rats.

Personally, however, I’ve never really bothered with most of this stuff. I find most rats come if you make an interesting noise anyway, out of sheer nosiness. And the most intelligent and highly-trained rat I’ve ever known trained himself, without any effort on my part. Biting Bernard hated to be picked up, and if you tried it he sank his teeth in and didn’t let go until you did. But when I wanted to put him back in his cage, all I had to do was hold out his nest-box and tap on the lid, and he would climb in so I could put him back in without touching him. He used to comb his hay into straight lines, stack up his chicken-bones standing on their ends together in the corner of his cage, and carefully separate full from empty sunflower seeds. He had a special off-cut of pine for chewing on, and was so bright that when I caught him chewing the edge of a shelf instead I only had to say “Bernard…” in a critical tone and then point to his chewing-stick, and he actually followed the line of my finger and then shuffled over to what I was pointing at and chewed that instead.