Reply: It's too soon to give up on Charlie. Here is an outline of how you can work to win his trust. Please show this post to your Mom and ask her to let you try. Charlie needs:
1) Patience. He is intelligent but he is also a small frightened animal in a world of giants. You can't explain things to him, so he needs time to understand and learn that he can trust humans. Part of the problem is that Charlie is uneasy at being in a new environment. Remember he is a very small animal which in nature is preyed upon by many predators. Being out of his familiar environment is scary - he needs to get to feel at home in his new place.
2) Teaching. You need to show him that humans can do nice things for him. I've been through this adventure with a number of rescues. I've had a few rescues who started out terrified of people - they would actually fear-bite if restrained too tightly while trying to run away. (I think this is what may have happened with Charlie - you sister insisted on picking him up and he didn't want it.) Nothing is guaranteed - but with time and patience, more than once I have ended up with a very affectionate rat who would literally push another rat out of the way so he could snuggle down into my hand! :-) This result takes time and patience, it will not happen overnight. Food is the key to taming. It's the way to break the ice. GENTLY take the rat out of his cage every chance you get, for a SHORT time (a minute or two). If he is too frightened to be picked up in your bare hand, pick him up using a small hand towel or a thick face cloth. EVERY time you take him out for that short time, you must offer him a tiny treat (one regular Cheerio works beautifully!). At first he will probably be too nervous to eat it or even take it from you while you are holding him. Put him back in his cage with his treat, so that he can eat it. When he is finished, take him out again, and offer him another one. Repeat as often as possible during your daily routine. Don't let him be frightened or upset by anything during these short handling sessions. That's very important. Just peace and quiet. Soon he will start to figure out that being picked up is not so horrible after all. Eventually he will be glad to see you because he has learned that you equal treats! So... short gentle handling sessions...food in the form of tiny tasty treats ALWAYS associated with handling, repeated a number of times every day, as often as possible. This way, handling becomes a thing for the rat to look forward to, rather than an ordeal. You can then show him that humans can do other nice things for him - like scritchies!
3) Security The rat needs to learn to trust humans not only to do nice things for him, but to give him security. His environment should be predictable and as quiet and un-scary as possible. This includes a "safe area" where he will not be disturbed by people if he wants to be left alone. This is normally the sleeping box in his cage. Do not reach in and take him out of his sleeping box unless it's absolutely necessary. Let him come to you instead - it may take a little time and patience. Whenever you want to interact with him, rattle his box of treats and call his name at the same time - he will soon learn that the rattle (and his name) means treats, and he will come out to see what's up. NO rough handling, ever. About biting: Picking him up slowly and gently using a small towel will almost guarantee that he does not bite you. Later on, this will not be necessary. Never use gloves - they only blunt your sense of touch, and tempt you to squeeze too hard. They also smell and feel alien and scary to the rat. I'm sorry the rat bit your sister. This is an opportunity to explain to her that she needs to learn to respect the animal's space and the animal's needs. This is part of having pets - they are not just toys. I don't know how old your sister is - the rules, and the manner of explaining them to her, will depend on her age. Your mom can help you with this. Okay, those are my main points! Actually I have a couple more things to say about food (that all- important factor to a rat): Don't feed him through the bars of his cage. Though it's tempting, it can teach a rat to nip, and it only slows down the taming process. He needs to learn that he only gets special treats when he is being held by people. It's also best not to put your fingers through the bars of the cage, until he is thoroughly tamed. The fingertip offers him a target to nip, if he is thinking about it. After he is tame, this will not be a concern. His regular food must be available at all times and never withheld. But while he is being tamed, don't feed him his special treats at any time unless it is part of his taming and training. After taming is successful you can start offering treats freely.
4.) Sound. Whenever you come near Charlie, or your other rats, you should always talk to them. And certainly you must talk softly to them while you are handling them. Not because they understand human language, but because rats are nearly blind by human standards. Rats use hearing (as well as scent) to identify you - not vision. Many people think in human terms, and do not realize that rats have extremely poor eyesight. When you come up to the cage, they can't really *see* who, or even what, is coming. They will come to know you through your voice and your touch (and through the sense of taste - those yummy treats!). Eventually the sound of your voice will actually be a reassurance to them. I talk to my rats a great deal - and I always speak to them before I pick them up. This becomes a habit, and is one of the little things that results in very trusting rats.
5) An Example. I'd like to tell you a bit more about one of my rescue rats. He was a little guy from the SPCA, about 3 months old when I got him, and was terrified of people, probably because of a lack of handling in babyhood. At first, when I let him out of his cage for playtime (in a rat proof safe area!), he'd hide under the furniture like a wild creature. It was quite challenging to catch him without frightening him. Once I allowed myself to get impatient and grab him. He SCREAMED LOUDLY in sheer terror and bit my hand in a panic! He was defending himself - he must have thought he was about to die in my clutches. Well, apart from the mistake mentioned above (everyone makes mistakes), I patiently worked on the little guy, using the method I described to you... Take him out of the cage, give him a treat, put him back in, all done gently... I repeated this many, many times. It took weeks to see results. But it was so rewarding to have him slowly come around! Eventually, he was the adorable little sweetie who would run up to me for some lovin', and if there was another rat in the way, he would shove the first rat aside to get close to me. Then he would actually snuggle down into my hand like a baby bird into the nest. He died a few years ago after a happy time with me, and I still miss him something awful.
6.) Another Example. More recently, I fostered a litter of 9 baby rats for the SPCA. They were about 6 weeks old and I don't think they had ever been touched by a human being. They were as wild and terrified as a cage full of wild mice. If I couldn't tame them the SPCA was going to put them to sleep - they were much too wild to be offered for adoption. It took a long period of patient training and gentle handling. Progress was slow at first, but you need to lay a foundation and build upon it. The treats were indispensable - I went through several boxes of Rice Krispies and Cheerios! But after a few months they were much better. Nowadays, they are mature rats and all of them are confident around people. I kept the 5 brothers from the litter and all of them are friendly, trusting and outgoing - lovely pets! It's not certain that Charlie will become so utterly trusting and affectionate. He might, or he might not. It depends on his background and other things you can't control. But with the patient treatment I described, he will at least become a happier guy and a better pet. You have to be willing to stick with it and not give up if he doesn't respond right away. It could take weeks, even many weeks. Don't give up on him! :-) One of the most interesting things about this taming process is that you really need to challenge your brain. You must try to imagine what your rat's world is like - enter into his point of view, and use this to guide your taming and teaching activities. Watch him closely, observe how he reacts. Also, pick the brains of other experienced rat owners by asking lots of questions! It's fascinating to gradually understand more and more of how another species "sees" things in this world that we share. Hope this helps.
Susan Armstrong ("mom" of many rescue rats)
Basic Guide to Socializing Rats through Positive Reinforcement
Tips for working with poorly socialized rats
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