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Neutering does work sometimes

We've now had rats for a little over 10 years and every now and again I get an email from someone who has a male rat with, quite apparently, a hormone-driven issue, and after spending close to an hour detailing their options and possible plans of action, the main option being "neuter him," I get this reply back saying "But you said, 'don't bother'!"

OK, so I lied. Really, this is just another piece of evidence that you shouldn't believe everything you read on the Internet. But I'll tell you what happened:

At the time that I wrote "Neutering your male rats is costly and ineffective", the information available was this:

    If you don't like the way your rat is acting, snip him.

It's not the worst advice in the world, and though it's definitely a minimal-thought solution, it's a costly solution, particularly if it doesn't work. And with Wolfman, it didn't work. But now I know why it didn't work. Read on...

First, there are different types of behavioral problems:

    The rat's biting us - why?

    The rat's making his cagemate squeak - why?

    The rat's biting/slashing his cagemate(s) - why?

    The rat's mounting his cagemate(s).

    The rat's simply not getting along with one of his cagemates.

    The rat sidles against walls, or is constantly puffed up, or flaps his tail.

    And a wide range of other scenarios...

You need to figure out what your rat's behavioral problem is (and who exactly has the behavioral problem) and ask yourself why he is behaving like that. Why are the rats squabbling? Why is he biting you or his cagemates? What else is going on at the time? Are there any types of instigating behaviors? Are there any signals before the biting and fur-flying begins? How long have the squabbling rats been together? Etc.

It may even be useful to familiarize yourself with their strategies and tactics as it is important to understand that their methods of communication do differ from our own: things we may perceive as problematic may not be as problematic as they appear while other things we perceive to be harmless, may in fact be quite harmful.

It is important then, to remember that we are not rats and in many respects we do not think like rats however we must trust our instincts using what we do know and understand about their behaviors to decide how to respond: quite often the answers are there and quite possibly the solution is right there with it.

Some things to consider:

    Most fights have a pre-fight stage. Like us, rats will "talk" it out and we don't hear that part because they talk at decibels lower than we can hear. A quiet eek-eek noise is not an end-of-the-world scream. It's usually a rat's way of saying "OK, OK! I get it!" or "OK, OK, you're scaring me!" because he's already tried "talking" it through with the aggressor. It's not a sign that you need to intercede but it is a smart thing for the squeaker to just stay there and let the alpha give him a good sniff or power-groom or whatever it is that he's trying to do. If he takes off, he's testing the law-maker...and government doesn't like that.

    Mounting is a natural alpha behavior. It should be a quick process, one that shows the rat being mounted that he is boss. It should not last 4-10 seconds and be followed by a sheath cleaning. Most of the rats we have neutered fit the latter description. We call them sexual offenders. If the other rat(s) tolerate the behavior, it's not a problem - the behavior may subside over time (but it's not a short period of time). If the other rat(s) don't tolerate the behavior, they become angry and the rat fights begin. Knowing why the fights begin, then, is important. Usually the mounter is not even part of the squabble so you can waste $100 by simply neutering the wrong guy. And of course when all is said and snipped, the fighting continues because the mounter is still doing his thing, ticking everyone off.

    Rats consider the wires of their cage to be a territorial boundary: Inside is his, outside is yours. If they're not used to the intrusion, anything that gets through that boundary needs to be sent off running.

    Rats attack band-aids.

    A rat's fur should be flat against his body. If it's jutting outward, he's either sick or angry. They also don't normally "scoot" on the ground or rub their sides along wall edges and such behaviors are indicative of hormone-drive actions. Similarly, rats don't "wag" their tails like dogs and any wagging, or tail-flapping, is an instinctive hormone-driven behavior.

So...now that we know what's normal and what's not normal, you need to take that knowledge and apply it to what you're seeing.

Neutering will solve...

  • Biting escapades prefaced by the puffing of fur.

  • Biters that have a tendency to sidle along walls and/or flap their tails.

  • Biters that respond adversely to room noises or smells. Eliminating the stimulus is sometimes possible but generally these guys are so high-strung that neutering them becomes a health benefit as you don't want them dying of a heart attack at 1½ years of age.
  • Neutering will not solve...

  • Cage wire biting. The only solution to this problem is to offer them your fingers through the wires when they're young to bore them of the practice. If they're older, remembering not to stick your fingers through the cage wires is the way to go.

  • Band-aids. The solution is to remember not to put band-aided fingers in front of rats' mouths.

  • The biting of only one person. Chances are, that person is either inadvertently doing something that scares or annoys him or that person is using some kind of soap, lotion, fragrance that makes him nuts. Exploring the things they do differently and getting rid of whatever that thing is (behavior or fragrance) is the only solution.

  • The biting of one particular location. This is usually a smell thing and the "particular location" is usually an ear or a socked foot. Try using a different fragrance, soap, laundry detergent.

  • Biting preceded by warning nips or attempts to get away. This is generally a very young children thing: They squeeze and prod and squish and stretch the rat past his limits. Teaching the child to heed the warnings (his attempts to get away, the warning nip(s)) is the solution.

  • Neutering will solve...

  • Aggression between males that lasts more than a day or two. This is common amongst teen or adult males who are of equal size and neither are willing to give up the notion of being alpha. The big sign that this is the case is that neither of two same-sized rats standing tall to one another ever backs down. They will fight to the death if you don't pick the group's alpha and neuter the other. And your guess is as good as anyone's, but alphas should be rational and fair to everyone in the colony. Neutering the less rational of the two alpha contenders will result in peace.

  • Screamers that just don't stop screaming. Every now and again there may be a rat who is spooked by everything including non-offensive attempts at a butt-sniffing or even just some rat walking past doing absolutely nothing. These little men are high-strung and though there's a slim to none chance of that guy ever becoming alpha, he'll be so stressed out by everything that he'll have a heart attack at 1½ years of age or he'll end up getting himself killed because even the best alpha can only take so much crying. Neutering the screamer takes away the hormones that drive his fright responses and peace is found quite quickly.

  • The guys who spend more time with their fur fluffed out rather than flat against their backs (they don't necessarily need to be the alpha nor do they need to be contending for the alpha position). These guys are your high-strung heart-attack candidates. These are the guys who will just up and die on you because of a respiratory illness that you saw no signs of because instinct drives them to hide the illness. They're the chasers. They're constantly cranky and having a rat simply walk past them is usually enough to stir up a rage of fury. Neutering that guy and temporarily removing him from the colony is the only solution.

  • Tail biters, neck biters (under-side), and shoulder biters. There are rules to every relationship (your relationships and rat relationships) and there are fair ways to enforce those rules, and unfair ways to enforce those rules.

    For rats, "fair" is power-grooming a rat that has been pinned down (this involves him licking and drilling multiple various spots of the pinned subject's belly) while "unfair" is clamping his teeth down on the pinned guy's chest and not moving ("standing" on him and looking like he's lounging on the pinned guy is OK) or biting the guy in the testicles.

    "Fair" is boxing the contender down and bruxing loudly to intimidate the contender downward while "unfair" is taking pot shots with his teeth at the neck and chest of the subject.

    "Fair" is taking a guy you've been chasing down and grabbing him at the scruff with one's teeth to stop him while "unfair" is taking pot shots at shoulder blades by driving a single stapler-style bite into his arm or tail.

    If you have a rat who is exhibiting "unfair" behaviors (this is very rare but you'll know: stapler-bites on shoulders and tails and the underside of necks always gush blood...the cut is usually barely visible and the mess it creates very visible) you'll want to neuter that guy post haste (after stopping the flow of blood on the guy he bit). Usually they're not bad guys, but the instinct to chomp at those locations is only useful if you're a wild rat fighting an intruder: Those are "fight to the death" types of behaviors and while our pet rats, I believe, aim for these areas unintentionally, the damage can still be quite permanent (in that death sort of way). Neutering him and separating him from the colony temporarily is the only solution.

  • Neutering will not solve...

  • Little squabbles. Again, we worry too much about yelps and squeaks and while it's natural for us to worry, they need to all speak the same language and abide by the same rules. Some rats take more time to adapt than others, of course, but time is generally all they need. Or, just one bite. Generally if you have a squeaker who just won't let up, the fair alpha will bite the back of his neck and that will be the end of the crying. Sometimes the little guy will, despite the fact that the alpha's teeth are lodged in the nape of his neck, take off and you'll see a larger gash which looks horrible and you'll find yourself wondering why the alpha is "so mean." He's not mean, he had enough of the childish antics and had to resort to tougher measures. Skin glue will resolve the bite itself and usually the screamer stops being a pest from that point on. If he doesn't, see the "Screamers that just don't stop screaming" blurb in the left column.

    • The rat's mounting his cagemates: Mounting is normal and sexual aggression rare and if you ever see one rat mounting another rat, I would first assume it normal and only if squabbles ensue on a routine basis would I worry at all about it. Any alpha has a right to mount another rat to show dominance over that rat. His first subordinate has a right to mount every rat except the alpha himself. When you get down to the very bottom of the social pecking order, rats mounting other rats with the exception of the alpha (and often the 2 or 3 rats directly below the alpha) is perfectly normal and acceptable behavior.

      However...the one being mounted has to tolerate it, it should't last more than 4-6 seconds, and it should be infrequent behavior. Rats that run around mounting multiple rats in a short period of time (some period of time less than once a day) are "sexual offenders." Rats that mount the same guy repeatedly in a short period of time (for example, within 10 minutes time) or who spend more than 4-6 seconds mounting an individual rat and follow up the session by "cleaning his sheath" are usually "sexual offenders."

    Neutering will solve...

  • Death matches resulting from a single rat's aberrant sexual behaviors. Honestly, no harm's done in the process but if the rat(s) being mounted aren't going to tolerate it, what usually happens is that they become cranky because they're being mounted, they set off in a fury to set the mounter straight once and for all, and some other rat who's in the wrong place at the wrong time ends up being the target of the mounted rat's aggression while the mounter gets away. With these types of situations you usually have a little time to see if the mounter will grow out of it - of course if the guy's mounting faces, rumps, sides, everything, he probably won't. Usually they're just very nice rats with a very annoying habit. And often they'll limit themselves to those that will tolerate it and/or grow out of it. If it goes on for a month or two, however, and if the fights continue, neutering him is the best you can do for everyone's well-being. You don't need to separate him post-neuter and the behaviors will soon subside. You'll also likely receive greeting cards from his cagemates :o)

  • Neutering will not solve...

  • Just random mounting behavior. Well, it will solve it but it really serves no purpose unless you just have money to burn.

    • The rat sidles against walls, or is constantly puffed up, or flaps his tail: These are all hormone-driven behaviors. If you have a tail-flapper who doesn't puff out his fur and/or sidle walls, and if he doesn't instigate fights, I wouldn't worry about it. Those guys are usually OK. Any rat that is constantly sitting, walking, and sleeping with his fur puffed out needs to be, if only for his health, neutered. Ditto with the wall-sidlers and floor-scooters. If it's just a random new-situation thing, the behavior is fine. It shows the guy has some alpha tendencies but he's still rational. But if they're doing this all the time, anywhere and everywhere, in the cage, in previously visited territory, etc, it's a problem.

    Neutering will solve...

  • You have to neuter these guys. For a lack of a better description, they're just not right in the head. Some people conclude that they're better off living by themselves because, by removing all of the stimuli, they behave normally, but it's really not fair to the rat. If his hormones are surging, he's not thinking in any sense of the word. He's just reactive. And by doling out a sentence of solitary confinment, while protecting the rest of the colony from his random outbursts, you still have the issue of his health to consider. Rats like that don't live long if they remain intact, they hide illnesses, they're constantly under stress. Neutering them, removing them from the colony while they heal, and putting them back in with the colony 3-4 days after the neuter is generally more than enough to set the situation straight.

  • In all cases where neutering is the solution,

      The rat should be kept with his cagemates, even immediately after surgery. The only one that will remove stitches is the one with the stitches so the only thing that needs to be protected is the neutered rat from himself. Reintroducing a neutered male to his colony more than 48 hours after separation is just as challenging as (and often impossible) introducing two full-grown strangers to one another. If, however, he was neutered because of aggression toward one or all of his cagemates, you'll want to seaprate him from the rest of the gang for the 10 days it takes to heal and reintroduce him slowly back into the colony (tip: Don't scrub his smell out of the main cage - just replace bedding for that period of time).

      The rat should be removed from any stimulus that was part of the chain of events while he heals. If the room in which he dwells is the place of his aggression, move the whole cage to a quiet, dark place for the 10 days it takes for the surgical site to heal. If it's something about you or something about a room you and he spend time together in, don't handle him for the 10 days it takes him to heal except to briefly and unobtrusively check on his healing progress. If he's a "sexual offender" don't do anything different - the mounting will stop in a few days and you and his cagemates will find peace.

      The reasoning: Rats have very poor memories. Neutering alone just breaks the chain of events. But rats are smart: If, while healing, they are being bombarded by whatever it is that spooked them, they just create a new chain of events. If the stimulus is removed when the drive is removed, they forget about whatever it was they had issues with. After the testosterone is no longer an issue for them (about 3-4 days after the surgery), and if the stimulus is removed, they tend to forget about the whole thing. You can then, usually, safely put them back into their room, put them back with their cagemates, take them out for play time wherever they previously had problems, and more often than not, they'll no longer respond adversely to the situation.

    And lastly, if you're seriously thinking about neutering your rat(s), do think of all of the consequences ahead of time. Rats do have their social pecking order. If you, for example, snip the good and fair alpha by mistake, you're going to have another neuter on your hands very soon. If you eliminate a non-obtrusive "sexual offender's" drive, you may disrupt a fragile portion of the social ladder. So, in general, unless you're planning on neutering all of them, you want to think twice and maybe even three times about who you're neutering and why. When you start shifting the social hierarchy, particularly in larger groups, it can get very noisy (and bloody) in that cage as they reassess their social order.

    Almost forgot: Click here to find out why it didn't work with Wolfman (we didn't remove the triggers after the surgery, oops!).

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    Disclaimer: There are many non-sarcastic accounts and tips on the web regarding rat care. This is not one of them. These are merely accounts of our experiences with rats, our perceptions of these experiences, where we've failed and where we've succeeded. These accounts are here for two purposes:

      1) To entertain.
      2) To help avoid repetition of mistakes

      Remember! Your rat is not a science project, he is your friend!

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