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We've had her since December. Her "sister" Mochi was adopted at the same time, but slightly older and is totally well adjusted, and very sociable and playful. But Olallie has always been very skittish and fearful. She jumps at the slightest noise and always looks slightly panicked. She acts very much like a wild rat, and is always on red alert. Whenever we try to pet her, she usually will just freeze solid and very slowly pull away from the fingers that are touching her and looks like she's wincing. She also will occasionally bite if she thinks she can get away with it, like if a finger is through the bars and not directly next to her in the cage, or if she's in a hiding place and reaches her face out to take a little nip.

I "squeak" when she does this to let her know it hurts (even though she hasn't broken skin yet if I remember correctly, but the bites are very firm) and she will try to bite again, but does it lighter. I think she's about ready to run if I make a sudden movement. I think the more hesitant secondary bites are because shes waiting for me to react rather than learning she is hurting me, since I think she's biting me on purpose to communicate she doesn't like me near her.

I've tried some immersion inside and outside the cage, but she acts so terrified and screams when picked up and will launch herself out of hands at the slightest chance she gets. I usually can't pick her up at all before she runs and hides, and I don't want to stress her out more by chasing her around the cage. I always try to move as slowly and carefully as possible so I don't seem so scary. She just always seems so panicked. She does well with her 2 cagemates, but overreacts and screams if one starts to play with her a little too rough.

She is interested in us, and she likes to watch us from inside her cage. She comes to the bars when I call her name. She will take grabable treats from my hands, and will also lick off non-grabable treats (like nutrical or yogurt) when I try to feed her. I try to very slowly and gently pet her when she is licking a treat off my finger and she just winces and squishes herself to the ground to try to get away as she's licking the treat.

What else can I do to get her to relax? I don't care if she ever becomes my buddy or is friendly (thought that would be nice too), I just think living with that kind of constant fear your entire life must be TERRIBLE and very stressful.
 

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Terrified or super skittish rats can be a real nightmare to deal with... It's just so hard to make contact when your rat keeps running away or even fear nipping you. And unless you can make contact and open a dialogue you just don't make any progress. No matter how nice you are and how much you try, your rat bolts like you're a fox or a bobcat. And worse yet you feel awful about it. How do you get your rat to trust you when it won't give you a chance?

OK, first lets diagnose the problem, Your rat might just be wired super hot and can't take much stimulus of any sort... We had a part wild rat that was wired so hot she'd hit the underside of a table if the neighbor in the next house dropped a dish, but she really had no problems with the two people she knew and loved. Wired hot might be part of the problem, but it's not likely your central issue...

So is your rat afraid of you specifically... also not likely, I mean you never hurt her. Which means she's afraid of all people or just every new situation. She may be afraid of all humans because she was mistreated or abused before you got her or she just might be afraid of everything she doesn't know... For the sake of the rest of this discussion let's assume the later.

So I've been thinking a lot lately about skittish rats, I don't usually adopt rats that are skittish, I know what a problem they can be. But I do adopt very young pups, and we just adopted a 3-4? week old girl. And after a week with us she became terrified of everything. This happens when pups are adopted very young. They are friendly and unafraid for a week or two and then they suddenly realize they are very small rats in a very big world and the terror of their situation kicks in... we've been through this a few times before so we use the immersion blanket corollary. (I know it's a long term, but when people ask me questions, If I don't name things, I have no clue what they are talking about... it's part of getting old... just play along for now).

Realizing that we've already been playing with and handling our new rat for a week, we know she's not afraid of us, so why would she bolt off and hide? Because she's afraid of everything she doesn't know... which is actually everything except us. As we are dealing with pups, and me being older and less agile on the floor I cover my bed in bath towels and bring new pups under the covers... and wonder of wonders they start to play fight and popcorn around with us again under the covers, just like before the terror gripped them. This usually lasts a day or so, sometimes a little longer, but this new pup has been a challenge, she went into panic mode for almost a week... Yesterday, finally I got her to play above the covers and today she spent the day with me on my desk. I tried putting her on the floor and she tore up my arm to get back up my shoulder. Tomorrow hopefully we'll move on to the floor, perhaps under the bed... She already comes when called so I'm not likely to lose her.

But this got me thinking, what if some older skittish rats are afraid of everything too? What if your frightened girl is basically not just afraid of you, but everything outside her cage? What if you provided her with a nice safe blanket to hide under in your immersion area? And what if you shared it with her? Maybe offering some comfort, snacks and reassurance?

So if you can, bring an big old thick blanket you can share with Olallie into your immersion space and try to coax her under maybe at first without you, or maybe with you if she'll go for it... Give her some time to get comfy and relaxed and slowly try to work on making contact... engage gently, try to elicit a curiosity reply and respond with treats and gentle affection. Then work your way out of the covers from there.

I've used this method with great success with skittish pups. I've never had cause to try it with an older rat, but the method based on immersion theory seems sound... Still... you're sort of pioneering the application.. and there may be a few kinks your going to have to use you creativity and ingenuity to resolve.

The first issue being; sharing a blanket with a rat that nips or bites... glasses, sweat clothes and oven mitts at first might be a good idea... A very little gentle bop to discourage nipping might be OK to communicate that you don't like being bitten without freaking her out... But I really don't know how much of a problem biting will be outside your rats cage... I'd definitely be careful not to surprise her under the dark covers by sticking your fingers in front of her mouth.. but this issue would be up to your ingenuity and creativity to resolve, hopefully without blood shed on your part.

I'd be happy to help as best I can, but a lot is going to rely on your on the spot calls... To be honest, I think this is a pretty low impact approach and it isn't likely to do any harm... it might still take a while though.

The last resort is to get more pushy, while it sometimes works out, it can do more damage than good. I don't like an aggressive approach with rats that aren't aggressive towards you.

I usually like to promise people that something will work for sure, and if your rat was a pup, I would... but this is a new application for an old method... it should work, and any reasonable plan that won't do any harm to your rat is better than no plan at all, so it's up to you if you feel it's worth a try...

Best luck and please keep us posted.
 

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Olallie was probably 3-4 months old when we got her, and her "sister" was maybe a month older. Olallie was part of a group of black berkshire girls at the local rat/small animal rescue. They often have their animals at a great shelter animal only pet store so we went in to see the young girl rat family there and pick out a pair. But there was only Olallie there left, and the slightly older PEW Mochi. They were the absolute only girls left at the time. Mochi immediately hit it off with us great. She seemed nervous, but let us hold her was curious about us. Olallie had to be chased around the cage by the lady working there and I had to tell her to stop because she was clearly terrorizing her. I moved very very slowly and gently cupped her in my hands and lifted her and was able to hold her. We could tell she was about ready to explode out of my hands as I held her to my body, but she stayed still. We definitely decided to take Mochi immediately, but with Olallie being so totally scared and would have been left entirely alone, even if she didn't seem like a good choice, we couldn't just leave her, and we at least wanted to let her stay with her friend for comfort and give her a chance at a good home. We figured she'd eventually get used to us and relax once she learned we wanted to be friends and not eat her. But, now 5 months later she's only slightly improved!

She does seem afraid of everything rather than just a few things. I'm not sure how the blanket idea will work with her, but it sounds promising. But I get this image of her just being terrified as if I'm cornering her and blocking her off from everything by trying to hang out with her under a blanket. I know the idea is to shut down any other sensory input or stimuli, but I worry it might just make her feel trapped. She isn't aggressive, and I definitely don't think she would bite if outside of the cage (mainly when she's out, all she wants to do is claw away and bolt under the nearest place to hide). She only seems to bite when she thinks she can do it and hide quickly, like a sneak attack little assassin. I've tried a couple ways to deal with this. I've tried just letting her bite and ignoring her showing her that it has no effect on me, and usually she won't bite again after that, but other times she's increased the force behind the bite if she does bite again. I've tried squeaking loudly to tell her it hurts. I've tried acting like a grumpy boss rat and flipping her on her back and holding her down gently to tell her "no that is not allowed!" and will try to simulate power grooms by scratching my nail in her fur (not hard). I've also tried giving a gentle bop and loud "NO". I'm not sure what method would work best for her... But she only bites when she's in the cage and I'm in "her" space. What do you think of these things I've tried? Which do you recommend as the best reaction to this type of biting?
 

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Not sure if this is worth anything but with skittish dogs it usually helps to have a more confident dog around to say "hey, these large fur-less beings aren't so bad!" Is she bonded closely to either of her cage mates? Maybe you could try an immersion session under a blanket with her and a more confident rat to try and show her you aren't so bad?
 

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Best tip I can give is don't look at her and move confidently. I know that sounds odd but if you consider a predator, when stalking prey it would approach face forward looking directly at the prey. If you ignore them when near them they eventually realize you aren't interested in them and are just part of the environment. I always approach skittish rats side ways or backwards and sit down near the open cage door not looking at them. I also don't pick up skittish rats I let them choose to come to me or not. You should get rid of any enclosed space in he cage otherwise they will get the whole, I'm hiding in a hole and there is a big monster outside thing going on.

Just some things I do, hope they help :)
 

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Normally, we like to take advantage of fear and stress in a new rat to help inspire it to bond with us for safety and security.

Look at it this way: You're lost in an arctic wilderness in a snow storm surrounded by wolves and a big friendly Grizzly Bear comes along chases off the wolves and huddles with you to keep you warm... You may not be a big bear fan, but more than likely you've just made a giant new friend. But what if you were so terrified you couldn't wrap your head around the bear being friendly, not so much because you are terrified of it, which you may very well be, but because you're freaked out about everything and just in a panic.

In immersion and in shoulder rat training, fear can be your friend while panic is always your enemy...

We're not just trying to reduce the stimuli, but I'm thinking we're giving the rat a safe place under the blanket to relax with you... The idea is to reduce her natural agoraphobia. Imagine if you could get into Olallie's igloo or rat house with her and make friends there, you're just too big to fit, so you're making a bigger igloo or rather tepee. Someplace warm and cozy where she can relax a bit and get to meet you... A giant womb if you will... She's still going to fearful, but hopefully not to the point of uncontrolled panic. And under the covers you can show her you are the friendly bear.

It's more than just reducing stimuli, it's managing fear and introducing yourself as someone safe in a safer place...

Oddly skittish rats don't just learn to trust you over time... because you don't have any meaningful contact or communication, nothing ever improves... days turn into weeks and then into months and you spend your time in perpetual stalemate or groundhog day, all over again. The longer this stalemate goes on, the more it becomes the "norm" and normal is good for a skittish rat, in any case the rat feels it's better than "worse". And the normal becomes harder and harder to change.

As to biting, this morning I've been "bitten" at least 100 times by Misty. She mock bites and attacks me because she's playful and also it's a meaningful communication for her. She mock bites and mock attacks, I mock defend myself and eventually she flips over and I skritch her belly and then she licks me and grooms my fingers... we do this every morning and several times after that. It's a ritual. It's her way of saying good morning or hello. Now when my neighbor grabbed my part wild rat, his hand and forearm sprouted fountains of blood almost instantly, I suppose it looked a lot like Misty play fighting, except a lot faster, but this wasn't any friendly greeting ritual. This was full on survival aggression and the blood soaked towel around his hand and forearm made it pretty clear that this was no game. That rat turned from the sweetest thing to full on vicious on a dime. And she went for the face and eyes first if she could get at them, even when play fighting. She let my 5 year old daughter stuff her into doll clothing, but for me, she was handled with kit gloves and she loved me, just not as much.

Most rat nipping or biting is somewhere in between those two extremes... A rat might tell you "lets play" with lots of gentle little play chases, and mock bites, or it might be warning you to back off with a firmer nip, or it might be telling you it's in charge by attacking you and trying to get you to submit (as in hormonal aggression), or if it's cornered it may be self defense biting like when our part wild rat defended herself against my neighbor. He grabbed her, not realizing she was part wild... she looked a lot like Fuzzy Rat who he knew was sweet and safe, and she went into full on wild rat survival mode.

It's hard to know for sure why your rat is biting... it sounds like it's a warning to back away, which is better than survival mode panic biting by a long shot but not nearly as good as friendly and playful mock biting for the sake of greeting and bonding. I'd say that how hard you're getting bitten can give you some clues. But I'm thinking, my neighbor didn't need quite so many and such painful clues and neither do most of us, so it's a reality that can be hard to test.

If Olallie is biting when cornered, it's defensive survival biting, if she's gently nipping when she's got plenty of running room, it can be a greeting or it might be leave me alone... that's hard to tell.

As long as the biting or nipping is playful and painless, I always play along. But when it hurts, I don't squeak, I shout and bop... No, I don't bop to hurt or punish a rat.. but I am communicating that biting is wrong. I'm not looking for empathy or to try and make my rat feel bad because she hurt me... I'm saying "No way, no how! Never and Not Ever!" Everything I communicate to my rats is that I'm their friend and that I love them, but when they bite or nip too hard, they get an immediate reminder that I'm also the bear in the room... I may be the nice bear and they know I'm a super soft touch and that with a little persistence they are going to get most of my pecan pie, but they also learn that biting is the one thing that is going to make me very angry and no one likes it when I'm angry. Oddly, when I do bop a rat, which is so very rare, they almost immediately come to me to apologize. They give me lots of kisses and licks to basically say that they are sorry and "lets be friends". They don't think I'm evil or terrifying, they know they have done wrong... So yell and bop if necessary it isn't so much punishment as it is communication, with all communication there is a reply which is the I'm sorry phase to which I reply by giving them lots of snuggles and skritches and hugs...

Now as Olallie isn't bonded to you properly, you run more of a risk of her getting more fearful when you enforce your no biting policy, so try and be a little bit more gentle at first... Try a loud NO BITING! first... But don't play submissive rat, be the bear. I know, you really don't want to be the bear, but as long as she is biting you it's hard for you to be the "nice bear". And as she's already afraid of you and sees you as the bear anyway, there's likely to be no or very little harm done to the relationship you don't have in the first place.

So in short, nipping and biting can have several meanings, it's rat communication to which you need to reply... Try to determine what your rat is saying and reply appropriately. I'd love to make the call for you as to what she's saying, but I can only reply to the way you see things. I'm looking through your eyes and interpreting your words which may or may not be accurate... so you need to do the assessment yourself as you see it on the fly. She may be biting for different reasons at different times.. because you are hands on, it's got to be your call.

Odds are that Olallie may have been mistreated or even abused as a pup, she may have been taken away from her mom too young and just neglected... Since we have had Misty we've spent many hours each day with her holding her and playing with her and napping with her and in general replacing the love she should be getting from her mom... and she's still a bit skittish. She's napping on my desk right next to me now. We had to go backwards (under the blanket) in order to move forwards. But the goal for now is always the same; to build a bond based on communication and understanding and eventually trust. We are socializing her into our family, building her confidence and making sure she understands we are safety and comfort and her forever family. I just had to stop for a 5 minute skritch and lick session with her... in which I kept repeating "Misty's a good girl" which will come to be her reward phrase when she gets older. Reward phrases work better than treats.

In any case, you adopted a problem rat, over time the problem has become the norm and you have to do something to get out of groundhog day. Olallie is going to resist change and it's going to be traumatic no matter what you do... the blanket corollary works a treat with terrified new pups, so it 'should' work with some older terrified rats too... Normally with thousand of immersions done worldwide, I can pretty much tell someone how something will work with a good level of certainty, but I really can't see any harm to your current situation and my best guess is that this should work if you can get Olallie to come under the covers with you.. Try and find a blanket that will be dark and cozy underneath.

Best luck and keep me posted.
 
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