Rats and Choice

Choice can mean many things to many people, and I think that when people say choice, they often mean a choice between available options. So, choosing between the things that they see as possible. This is primarily what I mean when talking about rats and choice. We’re not talking about ‘heart’s desires’ – or the thing we’d do if every possible option was available – we are using a choice to mean showing preference. So, the most important element of this is that choice only becomes available if you give options.

If you create a cage space and you place your rats in the cage environment and it doesn’t offer options, then your rats can’t show a preference. Unless a cage is completely bare there is always some choice, but if options are limited that choice might be binary – do or don’t do – which can barely be considered choice and certainly doesn’t allow for preference.

For instance, if you have a cage and it only has one sleeping place – say a hammock – then the rats have two choices, they can sleep in the hammock or they can sleep in the open on the cage floor or a shelf, neither of which is a common place for safe rest and sleep for a rat – and that’s the choice.

In this situation, if a rat is feeling sociable and wanting to sleep with his friends, then they will likely all sleep in the hammock as that’s the most comfortable, enclosed and safe-feeling place in the cage. But if the rat is feeling less sociable and wants to sleep alone, then the only option is to sleep in the open on a shelf or on the floor.

You don’t need as many beds as there are rats, but you might want to consider multiple possibilities of where your rats could sleep – beds, boxes, tunnels, under a low hanging hammock and on. So, whatever area of your rats’ life you might be thinking about – are you giving options? Are the rats able to make any real choices?

rat beddingThe substrate is a good example – if you put fleece over your cage surfaces, without any substrate and don’t have a digging box then you are not giving the rats any option to engage in several natural behaviours. Not only digging behaviour, but manipulation of the environment, picking things up, moving them, and creating something new like a nest.

These represent big choices – natural instinctive behaviours that almost all rats will engage in, given the opportunity. They are linked to foraging (the emotional seeking system) and temperature regulation for the rat. That feels like a lot to leave out of a rat’s life.

This brings us to thinking about how we make our choices. Are they based on what our rats need or what is easiest for us – our preferences, instead of theirs? Sometimes our choices are based on health issues. It might be that we’re allergic to certain beddings, or that they make us – or our rats – sneeze or itch, or we don’t like the smell of certain beddings.

But usually, there will be usable alternatives. An ideal way to look at preference is to look at the alternatives that work for us and then consider what each will bring to our rats. This usually leads to multiple selections – so, perhaps using chopped card, hay and shredded paper all at the same time in our cage – which allows our rats choice.

jumping ratIdeally, when setting up a cage environment, it’s good to think through the behaviours that you want the rats to be able to engage in (e.g. climbing, digging, foraging, sleeping, nest building, balancing, problem-solving, social engagement, solitude, jumping, drinking, grooming, chewing, running and so on) then try to create a number of options for each.

Now, if the provision for a behaviour – say a water source – is something that can be shared by all the rats, then you only need maybe two or three options. In the case of water, these could be a bottle, an open water source on the base/shelf, and perhaps a crock attached to the cage side.

If you are looking at something like sleeping options, where multiple options will allow for different preferences at different times, more can be better. But rather than lots of hammocks – try giving a variety of options that allow for sleeping in, on and under different items. So, you are applying a thought process to your practice of setting up the cage environment to provide multiple options for your rats. That’s the easy bit!

It’s also important to consider that a rat is not necessarily going to want the same thing repeatedly over time. For instance, an overheated rat will often lay happily on a cool surface with no substrate or cover. This is a behaviour that is rarely seen as the norm. Most rats like to be in or under something to rest and sleep – but not always.

A rat who shows little interest in an object or activity can suddenly decide to engage. The reasons why rats do anything only have to have meaning to them… we may not be able to rationalize these changes from day to day, but a rat still has the right to want what has meaning to them in the moment.

Most behaviour is reward-driven, and variety (novelty) and reward are intricately linked. It is known that an uncertain and varied reward is a stronger motivator than repeating a high-value reward until it becomes an expectation. It’s really about remembering that:

  • just because a rat shows a preference for something today – doesn’t mean that will always be their preference.
  • it’s best to keep offering new things even when your rats show a strong preference for something.
  • It’s good to keep offering an option even when your rats have yet to show much interest in it. Today might be the day!
  • if you are training, it’s always worth swapping treats to renew interest!

There is another way of offering choice and that is by setting up zones – anything from a particular hammock to a place in the free-range area – and attributing meaning to these zones. A couple of examples should explain what I mean.

One rat guardian told me that she always placed a certain style of hammock in a certain place, hanging from the roof of the cage, and the meaning she attributed to it was – if one of her rats is in that hammock she would not engage with them in any way (look at them, talk to them or go to lift them out). This meant that, over time, they could always opt-out of whatever she was offering to her rats.

Another guardian clicker trained her rats and she always used a particular table in the free-range area that she didn’t use with the rats for anything else. Over time she noticed some of her rats would use the table to ‘ask’ for a training session, a request that she tried to respond to positively, whenever time allowed. This is a common behaviour in dogs – certain contexts will trigger them to offer a learned behaviour to get an anticipated reward.

rat whiskers I, myself, am in the habit of asking my rats whether – or not – I can pick them up from the floor of the room where they live. I do this by first offering my hand to sniff and then stroking them once on the head and shoulders. If neither of those actions elicit any kind of withdrawal behaviour I place my hand around them and, even then, I only lift them if I can do so without any physical resistance on their part.

By that I mean no retreat, no struggle and certainly no vocalisation. All my rats will allow me to pick them up – but not always every time I ask. Sometimes ‘heat cycles’ affect their resistance. As might, being unsettled by a squabble within the group. Some of them don’t wait for me to ask but climb my leg to hasten the process!

Now, if our rats always opt-out of any behaviour that is likely to be essential to their well-being (and basic handling is one of those in my opinion) we would probably want to work with them to improve their compliance. That might mean training to jump into a pet carrier first to get them from A to B – while all the time using trust training to encourage them to accept our hands-on attention. Most individuals will get there with patience and respect.

Sadly, especially where small animals are concerned, we can get used to dictating when and how they will do what we want them to do. Okay, so now it’s free-range time… time for you to come out of the cage. Now I’m taking you to a rat show. Now I want you to sit on the sofa with me. Now it’s time for play, for learning, for a photo opportunity, to get weighed.

rat carrierEven if you try to work with an opt-out (say – stay in the opt-out hammock) or opt-in system (say – jump into the carrier to be carried to the free-range area), you’ll still find that many rats are up for just about anything most of the time. But not all… and not all of the time. It’s down to us to work out when a rat is saying no!

It’s also important to realise that all rats have stable temperamental traits and can express the traits of extraversion and introversion – requiring very different things from their human. It’s also plausible from the current research that some rats have traits and behaviours that would mirror autism, PTSD and depression. Scientists talk in these terms about rats – maybe, as pet guardians, we need to consider them too?

Hopefully, all our rats are experiencing choice, preference, and control over their environment. So, they can opt-in to the things that are meaningful to them at the point where they choose to do them. And they can opt-out of the things they don’t want to engage with.

Our rats are with us through our choice, not theirs, and with that comes a weight of responsibility. Such responsibility includes us offering them as much control over their lives as possible, because without us, within a cage environment, they’re unable to do that for themselves.

Alison Campbell © 2020

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