Cage-cleaning, handling etc. for ship rats.

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Ship rats generally have a strong, bitter smell like wet wood-ash, which comes off on your hands when you touch them. Animals which live on their own, however, seem to be less pungent: probably because they don't feel the need to scent-mark and so their scent-glands are less active.

Their droppings are completely dry and they produce very little urine, so they need cleaning-out far less often than most cage species. For a fair-sized cage which isn't crowded, once a month should be more than adequate.

Be aware that many ship rats are determined escape-artists, and will attempt to shoot through the door while you are cleaning their cage, or possibly even just while you put their food in. If the animal concerned is not hand-tame enough to catch again easily you have a big problem, as you may not get it back again for weeks - or ever. In areas where wild ship rats are common it could be argued that if you have a ship rat who really doesn't want to live in a cage you should just let them go anyway: but this would not be a good idea for the animal if there are no other ship rats for hundreds of miles and the climate is too cold to carry them; nor if it is likely to treat any random human it meets as a friend. With such a hairy Houdini, be very cautious about opening cage doors. It may be necessary to construct some sort of baffle to confine the rat to one end of the cage while you clean the other.

The only nearly reliable way of ensuring that a ship rat will be handleable is to take it off the mother a few days before its eyes open and hand-feed it - as often happens naturally with ratlets rescued from cats. Ship rats which have not been hand-reared vary very much in temperament and tameness: some will let you handle them, some will barely let you see them. The majority of non-hand-reared ship rats are like chipmunks in that they will take food from your hand, and may even let you stroke them, but can't be picked up without a struggle except in a live-trap, or in a butterfly-net or similar.

Ship rats are active and playful, and provided they are hand-tame enough to let you pick them up to put them back in the cage, they 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 dry and go up the hoover, and their urine, though smelly, is non-corrosive and can just be wiped off. They are less likely to shred things than are Norway rats, but should still be kept away from valuable books, papers and clothes and delicate or poisonous house-plants.

Also 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. They are far more likely to go exploring than are Norway rats - and much harder to get back.

If a rat is new to you, or in a new cage, don't let it out for a week or two, so that it has time to learn to regard the new cage as its home territory. That way, even if it won't let you pick it up and put it back in, it will probably go back into the cage by itself after a few hours.

Do not let non-hand-tame ship rats out to run: your chances of getting them back any time within the next several weeks are minimal. You will just have to ensure that unhandleable ship rats have good big cages to play in.

Ship rats are unbelievably fast and extremely intelligent: you won't catch them the same way twice unless they want you to. Nor can they usually be lured with food as Norway rats can. But hand-tame ones will usually come up to you to be picked up just to see what you're up to.

It usually takes both hands to hang on to a ship rat. You can restrain a fidgetty ship rat by holding the base of the tail, or even lift it briefly by the tail-root. They are so much lighter than Norway rats that the strain on the tail is less. However, you must never attempt to restrain them by gripping the end of the tail. Any grip on the tail should be used only as a last resort, and you must let go if the animal starts to twist about very violently: the skin on a ship rat's tail is delicate and sheds easily.

Generally speaking it is extremely difficult to restrain a ship rat, especially a young, active doe. You usually just end up passing them from hand to hand to keep them in one place.

Unlike Norway rats, nearly all ship rats have a powerful scruff-reflex. If you can once get hold of a good fold of skin on the shoulders and lift a ship rat up by it, or lift it by grasping it around the ribcage, under the armpits, it will tuck its feet up and hang completely still and placid - though sometimes with a sullen "Blast - caught again" expression. It puts them into a trance which lasts for a couple of seconds after you let go - so you can lift them into their cage by the scruff and then whip your hand out and slam the door before they beat you to it.

Rats are generally tamer if they are handled regularly. Ship rats, however, are prone to fads and fancies: your tame, sweet-natured ship rat that you've handled every day for a year may decide not to know you for a fortnight - then as suddenly be all over you like a rash. I know of one case of three or four adult, completely unhandled, probably wild-caught ship does who just decided one day that they were all going to be hand-tame now, and wasn't this cuddly pet-rat thing fun...

All rats use their teeth as extra hands and a means of 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.

Many ship rats have a particular passion for chewing human toe-nails: this isn't too bad until they accidentally get a fold of skin with it. They also tend to like to wrestle with human fingers.