If you’re considering adding pet rats to your family, you might be wondering how affectionate they can be.
Do pet rats love their owners? And are they able to show it?
Being extremely social animals, rats are hard-wired to exchange affectionate gestures with other rats. Since they are also very intelligent, they can understand when they are being loved by humans, too, and bond with them.
If you’re interested in learning how to read your pet rats’ signs of affection and how to reciprocate them, read right on!
Are Pet Rats Affectionate?
When speaking of rats, many people will think of dirty, feral sewer rats.
Our pet rats, however, are descendants of laboratory rats and are therefore well adapted to interacting with humans.
Pet rats are – biologically speaking – Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus)1. Norway rats still thrive in the wild, all over the world.
Pet rats share many traits with their wild counterparts, most of all their complex social structures and a wide repertoire of interactive behaviors to enforce peace within their social groups.
Rats are extremely social animals and have been shown to display affectionate behavior towards their cage mates. In fact, they need company to thrive. If rats are kept in isolation, they will suffer – this goes for lab rats as well as pet rats2,3!
Are all Pet Rats Equally Affectionate?
In theory, all rats are equally capable of showing and receiving affection. However, there are always some individual differences (as in humans!).
Anecdotally, male rats are said to be more loving and friendly than female rats, especially if they are neutered.
Female rats tend to be more active and playful, spending less time grooming each other and cuddling than neutered males do.
And, of course, if your rat has had negative interactions with humans in the past, they might be fearful and less willing to interact with you.
No matter what your rat’s temperament is, they should always have at least one cage mate – ideally more – to cuddle with4. Pet rats do not like to be kept alone, and human company cannot replace their “rat pack”.
How Rats Show Affection to Each Other
Rats show affection by grooming each other5, playing together6 and huddling together to sleep7,8. Some rats have even been shown to share food with their cage mates9,10.
All rats are capable of reading their rat friends’ facial expressions11,12, so they are able to express friendly sentiments towards each other.
Time and time again, experiments have demonstrated that rats are very willing to cooperate and help each other, even when this behavior does not directly bring any personal gain1.
How Rats Show Affection to Humans
So, do rats show affection towards humans in the same way as they do among each other?
Certainly, they will also show grooming behavior with their caretakers: licking and nibbling their fingers or ears and meticulously cleaning under their nails. Sometimes, your pet rat may even try to groom the inside of your mouth (but you should not allow this for hygienic reasons).
Some rats love to hang out on their owners and cuddle up under their sweatshirt.
How can you tell if your rat is being affectionate? The sounds rats make when they are content are generally not audible for humans1. But you might sometimes notice your rat “bruxing” (grinding their teeth together, often accompanied by eye boggling) – while this can be a sign of stress, rats will also do it when they are very relaxed and content.
Generally, if your pet rat voluntarily seeks to be near you, that is the best sign that they enjoy your company.
How to Show Affection to Your Rat
There are several ways for you to show affection back to your pet rats! The most important one is certainly to hang out with them and give them your time and attention.
Rats love to play with their humans, and they are interested in learning different tricks and exploring new things – a cardboard maze you made for them, for example.
A simple way to show love to your rats is to give them a treat, but don’t do this too often or they will become overweight.
Some rats like to be pet: You can scratch behind their ears, massage their forehead, or give them belly rubs. Pay attention to your rat’s body language to figure out how they like to be cuddled.
When you bond with your pet rats in these ways, they can make you feel like you are a part of their “rat pack”, too!
1. Schweinfurth MK. The social life of Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus). eLife 2020;9:e54020.
2. Mogil JS. Mice are people too: Increasing evidence for cognitive, emotional and social capabilities in laboratory rodents. Canadian Psychology/psychologie canadienne 2019;60:14.
3. Wrighten SA, Hall CR. Support for altruistic behavior in rats. Open Journal of Social Sciences 2016;4:93-102.
4. Hurst J, Barnard C, Nevison C, et al. Housing and welfare in laboratory rats: welfare implications of isolation and social contact among caged males. Animal Welfare 1997;6:329-347.
5. Calhoun JB. The ecology and sociology of the Norway rat: US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, 1963.
6. Himmler SM, Himmler BT, Pellis VC, et al. Play, variation in play and the development of socially competent rats. Behaviour 2016;153:1103-1137.
7. Alberts JR. Huddling by rat pups: ontogeny of individual and group behavior. Dev Psychobiol 2007;49:22-32.
8. Sokoloff G, Blumberg MS. Competition and cooperation among huddling infant rats. Dev Psychobiol 2001;39:65-75.
9. Barnett SA. The rat: A study in behavior: Routledge, 2017.
10. Galef BG, Jr., Marczinski CA, Murray KA, et al. Food stealing by young Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus). J Comp Psychol 2001;115:16-21.
11. Nakashima SF, Ukezono M, Nishida H, et al. Receiving of emotional signal of pain from conspecifics in laboratory rats. R Soc Open Sci 2015;2:140381.
12. Sotocinal SG, Sorge RE, Zaloum A, et al. The Rat Grimace Scale: a partially automated method for quantifying pain in the laboratory rat via facial expressions. Mol Pain 2011;7:55.
Nina has a degree from the Veterinary School in Zurich, with a special focus on microbiological research. Nina has a passion for sports, nutrition and the outdoors and she loves all pets, but rats have a special place in her heart. When she’s not working or reading and writing about all things related to pet health, she loves to travel and surf.
As a small animal veterinarian, Nina is your go-to expert on pet health and nutrition.