Rats are often very misunderstood animals; associated with disease and fear, most people cringe at the thought of them. However, there is no reason to be afraid of a pet rat; they are intelligent and well-groomed creatures that learn to adore their owners. But, if a rat licks you, you may be concerned about the meaning behind it, malicious or not.
Licking is normal behavior for pet rats, and some of the more common reasons they do so are because their owners smell like food or other rats, the rat feels their owner needs grooming, or it simply wants to bond.
Every rat has a unique temperament. Some are compulsive lickers, while others will only give you the occasional touch of the tongue. If you pay attention to your rat, you can start to uncover the secret motives behind your rat’s actions. Unless your rat decides to chomp down on your finger or nose, you can assume that any licking behavior is done with good intention.
Why Do Rats Lick?
Apart from humans, many mammals lick others in their family group. Grooming and affection are typical reasons that an animal will lick another. When it comes to pet rats, you are part of their rat pack, so the honor bestowed upon you is to be on the receiving end of a nice licking.
It may be unnerving to feel that tiny pink tongue rubbing against your skin, but fear not: your rat licks you because it cares. The following are other reasons why your rat may lick you:
You Smell Like Food
Rats rely heavily on their sense of smell. Born blind, they use their noses first to navigate their world. Their sense of smell is so strong that in some areas, rats are used to sniff out land mines and detect cases of tuberculosis.
When out searching for food, they follow their sense of smell. After a tasty hamburger and fries, your fingers will have aromatic compounds stuck to them. When you go to pick up Zippy, their nose will go crazy.
In other words, a sizzling burger and fries can make your mouth water, and your rat’s mouth too. Even the slightest smell that lingers on your fingers will excite your rat’s nose and the temptation to taste will be too strong to resist.
You Smell Like Your Other Pet Rat(s)
If you have more than one rat, chances are they are sniffing and tasting to find out who got your attention before them; this is especially true if you have both male and female rats.
Pheromones are chemicals that are released by an animal to communicate to another animal of their species. Often pheromones are used to attract a mate. If you have a male rat that tends to soak areas he frequents in urine, there is a good chance that you also have a female rat somewhere nearby.
When a male rat picks up a female’s pheromones, he will lick to investigate and then mark his territory—for the latter, make sure you’re prepared!
They Think You Need Grooming
Grooming is a social activity shared by many animals. It can be hard to pick off lice and mites from your back, so having a friend lick them off for you is handy. If your rat sees a spec of dirt or a freckle, they are just trying to help you out by licking it off.
Grooming and bonding are closely connected. Grooming can release pheromones that strengthen the bond between two individuals.
Your Rat Wants to Bond
This goes along with the previous point. Rats are social animals, and that requires bonding. Once your rat is familiar with you, they will want to spend time grooming you or simply hanging out. They may rediscover you with licks and sniffs to restore the bond.
Understanding Your Rat’s Licking Behavior
Humans and rats share about 92% of genes. The high genetic similarity makes rats a prime choice for studying the processes of the body. While under observation, some fascinating discoveries have been made about the behavior of rats, including why they tend to lick.
Why Does My Rat Lick My Mouth?
Don Katz is a psychology and neuroscience specialist who works with rats; his research has shown that rats will learn about safe foods from smelling the breath of fellow rats. In other words, since your pet rat considers you a friend, they are most likely interested in knowing what you ate.
A mammal’s—humans and rats included—sense of taste and smell are tied together. So if your pet rat smells your breath, they may investigate the scent a bit farther by licking your mouth.
You can test your rat’s behavior yourself with a few simple steps:
- Pick two foods your rat has never tried
- Eat one of the foods
- Let your rat sniff your breath
- Lay both foods out and see which one your rat picks
- Repeat the steps with other foods
Record your observations; after a few trials, you might notice that your rat prefers the foods that were detected on your breath.
Do Rats Show Affection?
The full extent of the emotions of rats is still unknown, but there is evidence that rats experience some form of affection. A study published by PLOS One observed that rats exhibited positive facial expressions when exposed to tickling.
Many rat owners claim that rats show affection in a way similar to dogs. This affection is displayed by:
- Licking – A rat will lick their owner to strengthen the bond.
- Playing/Wrestling – A rat may bat at your fingers, tackle your hand, or even play tug-of-war.
- Exposing their Bellies – When being petted, a rat may roll onto their back, exposing their belly. (The stomach is a vulnerable part of most animals, so exposing it is a sign of comfort and security.)
How Do You Tell If Your Rat Loves You?
Spend some time watching and listening to your rat; you will quickly learn to understand it. Besides licking and grooming, a few key things to pay attention to are:
- Sounds: You might not be able to speak rat, and even if you did, most of their sounds are too high a frequency for us, humans, to hear. When you do hear your rat squeaking and clucking let your rat know. Your rat will learn what sounds get your attention and will use those to show affection.
- Scent Marking: Although scent marking is a sign of a rat’s love for you, it’s not always welcomed. Rats have scent glands, so if you notice your rat nuzzling you, they are marking you as theirs. The other way of marking you is with urine. Male rats are notorious for showing their love with urine. You can check out Animal Know-How for tips on redirecting this behavior.
- Cuddling: if your rat wants to hang out in your lap or on your shoulder or head, feel the love. You can pet them back or gently cup them in your hands, but don’t squeeze. Rats are delicate creatures.
- Taking Treats: Something is either food or not. When your rat trusts you, they will accept food from you. Hand-feeding your rat some treats such as fruits and veggies is a great way to foster a loving bond.
- Bruxing and Boggling: For a new rat owner, a rat bruxing and boggling can seem like a
medical emergency, but it’s actually a sign of happiness.
- Bruxing: a grinding and chomping of the teeth while exhaling
- Boggling: while bruxing a rat’s eyes might jiggle and bounce
Rats are intelligent and social creatures. You can be sure that your rat is sharing its feelings with you if it ever displays licking behavior; it’s just your job to interpret them.