How Many Rats You Should Get: Complete Guide

How Many Rats To Get

If you’re considering keeping a rat as a pet, you will need to learn about their social behavior and preferences. Are rats solitary animals like hamsters? Or do they prefer to live in groups, like mice?

How many rats should you keep together? Rats are highly social animals and should never be kept alone. At a minimum, rats should be kept in same-sex pairs. They will also happily live in larger same-sex groupings so long as they have an enclosure large enough to accommodate them. 

Just how social are rats? Read on to learn more about wild rat colonies and how rats cooperate and help one another. If you do have a lone rat, you will also learn how to introduce new rats to your existing pet.

How Many Rats Should You Keep Together?

As we know, rats should never be kept alone. They will become depressed, will become nervous, and will be generally unhappy. Therefore, it is vital that rats be kept with others of the same gender. You can do this by keeping them in pairs or groups. This is usually up to the preference of the human. However, the personalities of your individual rats may also dictate whether you keep two or more.

Keeping Rats In Pairs

Many rat owners decide to keep rats in same-sex pairs, often brothers or sisters from the same litter. This is what I have done – my last rats were brothers from the same litter. They were together from birth until the first brother passed away.

The second rat died shortly after – I believe from heartache. While most rats can live happily and peacefully in pairs, occasionally, problems can occur if one of them displays excessive dominant behaviors.

If this happens, the submissive rat can become unsure of himself and may become insecure. Though it sounds counter-intuitive, this kind of problem may be resolved by adding more rats to the mix.

Keeping Rats In Groups

Group living is natural for a rat, as this is how they survive in the wild. Some rat owners prefer keeping groups of same-sex rats, some add new same-sex rats to their current population as they grow (it’s hard to stop at just two!), and some add new rats of the same gender to prevent fighting between their current pair.

Often keeping several rats together can squash the little squabbles that occur when only two rats are together all the time. Adding other rats to a pair can distract the more dominant individuals and will allow a more natural social hierarchy to develop. 

Rats Are Even More Social Than Once Believed

The more rats are studied, the more we discover about them and their social behaviors. Rats are remarkably dependent on one another and have even been shown to display cooperative behavior when receiving no benefit in return. They will help one another, regardless of whether they will receive a reward of their own, and often will come to the aid of complete strangers. 

Rats have also been discovered to make high-frequency chirping sounds when playing or when being tickled by a human handler. Researchers have discovered that this chirping noise is most closely related to the sound of laughter in humans.

In the case of “laughing” while being tickled, they will also seek out more of this behavior once the handler has stopped – engaging with the human to “ask” for more tickling.

If these factors do not convince you about the importance that rats place on one another, consider another study that was done in recent years. Male rats were reared from the age of weaning in total isolation from other rats for fifteen weeks.

After these fifteen weeks, the rats were tested in the lab with telling results. The rats who spent fifteen weeks alone were shown to have a decrease in total brain size, abnormalities in how the brains had developed, and a decrease in body weight. Not only does isolation affect a rat’s emotional state, but it negatively impacts its physiology as well.

How To Introduce Rats To One Another

There are several reasons you may decide to introduce new rats to your existing pets. Perhaps you were told that you only needed to have one rat, and you’ve since realized that your lonely pet needs a friend. Or, maybe you had a pair of rats but one of them passed away at an early age.

And, of course, there is the fact that rats can be addicting – even if you already have two healthy rats, it is perfectly reasonable to want to add even more to the colony. If you do this safely and patiently, your rats should have no problem accepting one another.

The first step to introducing rats to one another will be to allow them to get familiar with one another’s scent. To do this safely, place a second cage with your new rat(s) very close (but not touching) to the cage of your current rat(s).

This will allow the rat strangers to learn more about one another, smell one another, and even see one another. As they become familiar, you will likely have an easier time when the real introductions occur

After a few days of being cage neighbors, your rats will be ready to meet each other in a neutral space. The bathtub is often used to introduce rats to one another because they will be contained, neither rat will feel particularly territorial, and there will not be anywhere to hide.

You will want to avoid putting enrichment inside this neutral space – if the rats are each focused on hiding from one another, they will not allow themselves the opportunity to get to know each other. Put a pile of treats in the middle of the tub, encouraging them to hang out “together.”

You will want to keep a close eye on your rats during this introduction period. There will be perfectly normal behaviors of dominance as they attempt to create a new social hierarchy. Common (and usually harmless) dominance behaviors include pinning, raising up on hind legs, and chasing one another.

You do not need to intervene unless there is audible screeching during a scuffle – and if you find yourself in this position, make sure you have gloves on.

After the rats have calmed down and seem at peace with one another, you can put them into a neutral cage (possibly a cat carrier or other small contained space). Again, leave out enrichment at this point – you want them to spend time together.

They will likely stay in this neutral cage for a couple of days before they are ready to move into their permanent accommodations. You can slowly add back in their hammocks and enrichment, as they will hopefully be bonded at this point.

Rat Social Needs In The Wild

Pet rats are not far removed from their wild ancestors – in fact, the only thing that separates them is intentional breeding. It is understandable, then, that wild and domestic rats will share many of the same social behaviors.

Rats in the wild are just as social as rats that live in captivity. In the wild, there have been reported observations of colonies containing as many as 150 individuals. 

It should be noted that in the few studies of their kind that have been done, wild rats and domestic rats do show a few key differences when considering behaviors and traits. Wild rats have been shown to burrow less often than their domestic relatives.

The reasons for this are not well-understood but could simply be a result of the softer substrate that domestic rats are accustomed to. Wild rats have also been shown to be more neophobic. This is easy to understand – pet rats have been accustomed to “safety” from birth, whereas wild rats learn from a very young age that they must be on constant watch for predators.

Wild rats also seem to learn more slowly than pet rats – again, this may be the result of focusing their brains on safety above all else. Lastly, wild rats also tend to be more aggressive toward others of their kind than domestic rats. Because of this, wild rats tend to be dominant over domestic rats when introduced.

Rats Need Friends

Rats are highly dependent on their social relationships. While they can form close bonds with their humans, they also need others of their kind to live with. Rats like to play together, explore together, eat together, and sleep in piles together.

This is their natural behavior and one that we humans should respect. It is usually up to a rat’s human whether to keep two rats or more than that – the only limit is really the cage space. Rats are large rodents and need ample space to explore and exercise.

The more rats that you keep, the larger your enclosure will need to be. Space constraints aside, it is typically up to you whether you want to keep two same-sex rats together or twelve! Learn more about rats and other small pets in my latest articles here.

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