If you’ve been reading my articles, you might have guessed by now that rats are my favorite pets. They are just so affectionate and interested in interacting with their owner and the world around them, it’s a joy to watch.
But which type of rat is the friendliest? Are male rats really cuddlier than females?
It’s not just an old wives’ tale that certain coat colors are associated with friendlier behavior in rats. And, of course, hormones also play an important role in the way rats interact with the world – so male and female rats will be different as pets.
Let’s have a look at which rats make the friendliest and cuddliest pets!
The Friendliest Rats
Which Variety Of Pet Rat Is The Friendliest?
There are seven distinct varieties of pet rats1. They differ from each other in the position of their ears, their body shape, coat type, and the absence or presence of a tail.
Anecdotally, some varieties are said to have a calmer temperament and make better pets than others. Especially dumbo rats – with their big ears set low on the side of their heads – are often professed to be more affectionate and docile than other rats. To this date, there is no scientific evidence for this claim, so you’ll have to be the judge of that.
Hairless rats are also sometimes praised as especially cuddly and tame. Since they suffer from various health problems, I would not recommend them as pets. Their apparent cuddliness could also stem from a reluctance to move and explore due to some of their handicaps.
Which Coat Color Of Pet Rat Is The Friendliest?
Pet rats come in over 40 different colors and markings1, so there is something for every taste. For centuries, people have claimed that an animal’s coat color and its temperament are tightly linked. This has been said for different species, such as horses, dogs, and cats.
But is there any truth to that?
A very interesting experiment that was conducted over 15 years’ time showed that depigmentation (loss of color) and white markings were associated with tameness in Norway rats2.
The experimenters took a population of wild Norway rats (the ancestors of our fancy rats, and genetically speaking the same species) and selected for tameness in captivity. This means that they always bred the friendliest specimens, ignoring any other traits.
After 30 generations, 73% of these rats had white bellies (hooded or Berkshire rats) and often white feet. Solid-colored rats (“self” rats) disappeared almost completely from this rat population.
The researchers had also assigned rats to a control group: These were bred randomly, without selecting for temperament. In the control group, the white-marked rats only made up about 10% of the population, and the marks were generally smaller.
Can we therefore conclude that depigmentation (loss of color pigments) causes rats to be friendlier and cuddlier?
It’s not exactly a causal relationship, but many of the genetic traits that cause depigmentation happen to also change the brain physiology and hormonal response in these rats3,4. For example, agouti rats (the brown-grey color that most wild Norway rats have) are known to have different hormonal stress response patterns from non-agouti individuals5.
By now you’re probably thinking:
Okay, the whiter the rat, the better?
While white markings are associated with friendliness to a certain degree, extreme depigmentation correlates with neurological problems and overall nervousness of character in many animals6.
To sum up: Rats with extensive white markings, such as hooded, variegated and Berkshire rats, are likely to be friendlier and seek human interaction more. This is not to say, though, that some individuals of other coat colors can’t be exceptionally friendly, too!
Are Male Or Female Rats Cuddlier?
It’s not a secret that males and females differ in their behavior. This applies to all mammal species and is linked to differences in hormonal patterns and stress responses.
Researchers all over the world are interested in this phenomenon in Norway rats, as scientific knowledge gained from rat experiments is crucial for the development of drugs and treatments for humans.
If some of these research results are skewed by the difference between using male and female subjects, that’s very important to know. Therefore, a whole field of study is dedicated to exploring the differences between male and female rat behavior.
So what have we learned?
We know that female rats are more timid and less inclined to interact with new objects or caretakers7. They are less likely to take risks and tend to prioritize safety8.
Does this mean that they are less cuddly than male rats when kept as pets? Not necessarily – it just means that it might take longer to gain their trust. Once they feel secure, female rats can be just as cuddly as their male counterparts.
Anecdotally, males are often considered to be more affectionate. However, this seems to apply mainly to neutered male rats and could simply be linked to them becoming more sedentary after castration.
Individual differences will also play a role, so your mileage may vary!
Mixed Sex Rat Mischiefs
If you want the best of both worlds, you don’t have to choose between male and female rats as pets. In fact, it’s arguably more natural for pet rats to be kept in mixed sex mischiefs .
The most important thing to keep in mind is population control, though: Never keep mixed mischiefs if pregnancies could occur – you’ll be sure to witness exponential growth in your rat numbers in no time!
It’s generally easier to neuter male than female rats. Neutered male rats are also friendlier with other males, and therefore better suited for mischiefs with multiple bucks.
By keeping mixed sex rat mischiefs, you can enjoy the cuddliness of the neutered bucks as well as the endless energy of does.
It’s also fascinating to watch their interactions in the group. You can start your own study of the differences between male and female rat behavior just by observing how they play and learn!
Should I Get Baby Or Adult Pet Rats?
Like with other pets, people will often tell you that by getting pups, you can get them accustomed to you from the start and ensure that they will make cuddlier pets. This doesn’t always hold true, though.
As we’ve seen, tameness is linked to certain genetic traits and can therefore only be influenced to a certain degree. Additionally, you’ll get your pet rat pups from the breeder once they have reached a certain age and are weaned from their mother.
By this time, most of the early socialization is already completed, and the pups have learned from their mother how to react to their caretakers and to the world around them.
Shelter rats are not necessarily shyer than rats from a breeder. Anecdotally, some of the cuddliest rats I’ve had were rescues. Even if you get them as grown rats, they can still be very friendly.
How do You Pick a Friendly Rat?
If you want to make sure you end up with the cuddliest rats, take some time to interact with them before you choose which ones to take home.
Are they curious, do they come out to look at you and smell your hand? These are signs that the rats are used to humans and feel comfortable in their presence.
Even shyer rats are deserving of love, though, and they might surprise you once they open up. Either way, I hope you get to enjoy many ratty cuddles!
1. American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association. Rat Standards 2018. https://www.afrma.org/fancyrm.htm.
2. Trut LN, Iliushina IZ, Prasolova LA, et al. The hooded allele and selection of wild Norway rats Rattus norvegicus for behavior. Genetika 1997;33:1155-1161. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9378309/.
3. Wendt-Wagener G. Studies on the distribution of melanoblasts in all-black rats and hooded rats. Z Vererbungsl 1961;92:63-68. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14006116/.
4. Nagatsu T, Levitt M, Udenfriend S. Conversion of L-tyrosine to 3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine by cell-free preparations of brain and sympathetically innervated tissues. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 1964;14:543-549. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5836553/.
5. Cottle CA, Price EO. Effects of the nonagouti pelage-color allele on the behavior of captive wild Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus). J Comp Psychol 1987;101:390-394. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3691061/.
6. Grandin T. The Way I see it: the dangers of trait over-selection.: Colorado State University. Libraries, 1998. https://mountainscholar.org/bitstream/handle/10217/4424/H105.pdf;sequence=1.
7. Klebaur JE, Bevins RA, Segar TM, et al. Individual differences in behavioral responses to novelty and amphetamine self-administration in male and female rats. Behavioural Pharmacology 2001;12:267-275. https://journals.lww.com/behaviouralpharm/Fulltext/2001/07000/Individual_differences_in_behavioral_responses_to.5.aspx.
8. Neuronline. Exploring Sex Differences in Rodent Behavior. 2019. https://neuronline.sfn.org/scientific-research/exploring-sex-differences-in-rodent-behavior.
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.