Let Rats Use Their Teeth (Good!)

Does your pet rat use her teeth on you in seemingly odd ways,
and you want to know if it's okay to let her continue?

A great example of the good reasons rats use their teeth: In the photo on the right, Rikka Rat makes her wishes known that her human, Emily, should come inside the cage. Emily confirms, "Rikka is not biting hard, she just grabs me and tries to drag me into the cage with her." Hopefully Emily Human complied.


The General Reputation of
Domesticated Norway Rats: They Don't Bite!

That is - if they haven't been abused by humans in the
past, and have had any basic handling as babies,
and the human approaches them respectfully, gently,
then, in general, pet rats don't bite.

The short answer is, if she's not aggressive, and not drawing blood, then yes, let her use her teeth any way she wants, as much as she wants.

In fact, encourage it.

WARNING AND CAUTION: Stay safe! Assess for aggression! Do not encourage teeth activity if your rat is aggressive, fearful, or she has been abused or mishandled in the past. Obtain an assessment first, seek help, and work on the potential for biting to draw blood before beginning a process of helping your rat use her teeth for good tooth activity and Chomp-Stop-Checks.
My thoughts on why it's so important for rats to practice "good teeth activity" on their humans:
First, what's important to know about how pet rats use their teeth?
  • Rats have incredible micro-control over their teeth pressure. When they exert pressure with their teeth, they know how much pressure they're exerting - EXACTLY how much pressure. No more, no less.
  • This partly means that, except for true accidents, which are rare, if a rat wants to draw blood, she will. If she doesn't draw blood, she didn't want to draw blood.
  • This means the rat is doing something purposeful with her teeth, when she uses them on you without drawing blood. Drawing blood would be purposeful aggression. Every other kind of tooth activity that doesn't draw blood - and there is a whole lot of that, see below! - has a different meaning altogether.
  • This is worth saying again: If a rat kind of, sort of chomps on some part of you in some odd fashion, but doesn't draw blood, she purposefully did not draw blood.

My feeling is, praise and encourage your rat to use her teeth in every way that does not draw blood.

Misty uses her teeth to tell her human to keep on scritching her. Awwww! : )

Sweet Peanut shows how good she is with her teeth:

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What do rats use their teeth for?
Oh, my, the sky's the limit!
  • Teeth are for exploring: "So what are you, anyway? What's this part? What's that part? My, this is strange but interesting. Can I have this? I want this. Give me this. What's this? Is this detachable? No, okay then." This can include poking, prodding, shoving.
  • Chomp-stop-checks: This is my term for bite inhibition. The rat accidentally begins to bite human skin, then, in mid-chomp, realizes that she was mistaken, and stops herself. The "Stop" seems to be instinctual, before she even has time to think it. She Checks out the situation after it's over.
  • Chomp-Stop-Checks: accidental teeth activity, "Oops, sorry, I didn't realize it was you." "Hey, I thought you were a green bean. Sorry! And by the way, could I have a green bean now?"
  • Eating, of course. :)
  • Teeth are like fingers trying to assess something, such as when a human pokes a peach to check its ripeness, or pokes a package to feel what's inside, or feels the apple branch to see if part of it can be chipped off. Rats assess their world in a myriad of ways through touch.
  • Removing dead skin, as in carrying out a medical procedure. Rats can show extreme care as they inspect bits of scabs, torn nail skin, or dry lips. They inspect each bit carefully and then gently tug on the suspected problem. They determine which bit is dead or unnecessary, and which bit is alive and to be protected. Sometimes a rat shaves off the dead bit without my even knowing it, and sometimes she determines the dead bit is attached to something vulnerable and raw, and leaves the whole thing alone.
  • As a utensil, for example an eating utensil - a spoon to scrape food off things, including treats smeared deeply into human skin.
  • Grooming in the form of mowing or vacuuming flakes of skin, excess bugs, or anything else unnecessary.
  • Carrying or moving things around, as if holding something in one's arms, or carrying a bucket. Examples: taking hold of a human finger or or paper, and tugging it inside the cage, carrying shredded paper to one's nest, stashing one's treats, moving one's babies to a new location.
  • Social grooming - both other rats as well as their humans.
  • Rodentistry - cleaning other rats' and humans' teeth, as needed. Partly a snacking activity. Partly to assess if a particular food is okay to eat.
  • Manicuring Nails. Excess nails on human fingers are quite the annoyance. After all, what are nails? Nothing but dead tissue, which rats are adept at removing. Must keep our human's flesh and body parts well-groomed and certainly alive. Humans even report that pet rats will manicure dogs' nails. What would we do without our rats?
  • Positioning things and expressing wants and direction: Example: I slide my hand inside the rats' hammock and scritch them, and then at a certain point one rat may take hold of my scritching finger in her teeth and move it away. "Enough, Gwen, thanks anyway." Tugger takes hold of my finger and pulls me into the cage. Pulling your Personal Human around is one of the civil rights of rats. An example from Sara:
  • Throwing away dumb stuff, like broccoli:
  • The unknown: A rat is licking me in a social grooming session when she "takes hold" of some part of my hand with her teeth, and holds onto it. Just holds it, not doing anything. After a few moments, she releases.
  • A weapon to save humans from the evil bandaids. Protection of one's personal human from the evils of bandaid plastic is an important job for pet rats. Chancy, below, illustrates while she hiccups with happiness.

Assuming the rat is not aggressive and drawing blood, it is best to allow rats to use their teeth on their humans in as many ways and as much as possible. The importance of doing so includes:

  • When you allow the rat to treat you like a rat (using her teeth), you are communicating with her by using the language of the rat with her.
  • The rat who knows her human very well, including all aspects of her skin, is less likely to accidentally bite hard.
  • The rat who is allowed to use her teeth on her human gets better and better at Chomp-Stop-Checks, and will actually do them less, as her skill gets better at differentiating between her human and everything else.
  • The more you allow the rat to use her teeth on you, the more she will allow you to use your "teeth" - read: Fingernails - on her. Being able to give your rat gentle, brief, or even full body scritches, helps strengthen the bond between a rat and her human.

Why are "Chomp-Stop-Checks" so important in all of these teeth activities? They are an important way rats learn about how their human is not to be bitten, even accidentally. I have witnessed this to be true countless times.

Three awesome examples of Chomp-Stop-Checks:

  • Once I had a hefty bite of avocado, which is my rats' all-time favorite, and then without thinking I picked up Bonny - the World Champion Professional Feather Hunter Extraordinaire. In a flash, with a look of shock on her face, she yanked my mouth open, shoved her head inside, took hold of my tongue in a pincer grip between her top and bottom teeth, and went CHOMP-STOP-CHECK. In a millisecond she recognized Tongue = Gwen, does NOT = avocado, and stopped herself from biting. I felt only a pinch that truly did not hurt. Bonny emerged from my mouth sopping wet with avocado and gave me a, "That wasn't fair Gwen!" look. (I gave her some avocado!) Bonny was the gentlest of rats despite being a fierce predator with Feathers.
  • Example: I visited Karen Borga's 7 adopted lab rats in 2008, and they had not had a lot of certain kinds of socialization. Within 2 minutes of getting to them, I read their body language to be saying, "We're good rats," and without a lot of thinking, I stuck my fingers through the bars and then my hands inside the cage. Immediately I was subjected to a full-out inspection, and about 100 chomp-stop-checks. I let the rats freely explore me. I gently petted them and touched them in little bits, with my arm up to my elbow laid inside their cage, crooning good rats good rats good boys good boys. I let them have at me to their hearts' content, and eventually they stopped naturally. Over my two-day visit, I repeated this routine often, and while I was often greeted with more Chomp-Stop-Checks, I was never bitten. Karen's rats just needed a chance to get through some of their suspicion about humans.
  • If Chomp-Stop-Checks seem odd, well, humans do it as well. Once when I was holding Bonny, her tail whipped around, helicopter style, and then flashed right inside my mouth - exactly at a moment I was saying something to someone on the telephone. I began an involuntary CHOMP, but STOPPED. Instinctively I managed to not bite down on Bonny's tail.

Chomp-Stop-Check is actually pretty sophisticated. Some examples using humans to draw this out:

  • Someone hands you a closed box with a small opening, and says it contains rocks. You're asked to reach in and grab a rock and bring it out as fast as possible. You reach in quickly and GRAB - and - STOP - your hands sense you are touching eggs, not rocks. You ease up immediately and because your brain automatically recognizes how to handle eggs.
  • You bite down hard on a peach and meet the pit sooner than you expect. You're able to stop in time and avoid a tooth chip.
  • As you eat a cherry with the pit, you automatically chew around the pit. You don't think about it, exactly, you just know how to move it to the side without thinking. Of course, when you first practice this, you might be clumsy and bite the pit, but the more eat cherries, the easier it gets to avoid the pits.
What should you do with a rat who Chomp-Stop-Checks you? If you have a shy rat who needs to get to know you, and you want to let her check you out, and she subjects you to some Chomp-Stop-Checks, here are some ideas about how you can relate back to her:
  • Praise the rat for her good decision to not draw blood: Coo at her, baby-talk her, "Good girl!". Do nothing, and don't pull away after she is done.
  • Over time, let your fingers interact with her, touch her briefly, scritch her a bit. Otherwise don't do anything else and stop when she looses interest.
  • As you stay with her and her teeth activity, you will help her answer her question of "Who are you?" This sounds counter-intuitive but it works.
  • Work with your rats in the cage, Bond with your rats in "pouches", Groom your rat to bond, and Read some Must Must Reads about bonding with your rat. The idea here is to expand the experiences and places you touch your rats.

If your rat does draw blood, that's in another category for a different discussion!

  • STAY SAFE! Wear gloves to stay safe. Work on the agression before anything else.
  • I am not advocating that a human should just stick her hand in a cage of strange rats, because some defensive rats will bite, and cage aggression can be an issue.
  • Seek help if you have an aggressive rat. Helping a rat learn not to be aggressive calls for special handling and skill.
  • Being able to read a rat's body language is an extremely important skill to assess whether to proceed with touching a rat or reaching into a cage. Karen's rats, in the example above, were a special example because she had done so much work with them leading up to that point. And I want to emphasize that I did read their body language to say, "We can be trusted! We like you!" As you gain familiarity with your rats' body language, you will feel more confident about situations of touching them as well.
I hope you have found some inspiration to snuggle and scritch your rats,
and to let them explore you with their teeth.
This is one of the best bonding activities you and your rat can have.
~~ HUGS ~~
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