Rat Care Articles

Boys will be Boys

Lisa Irvine

Buck rats, don'tcha just love em! Cuddly, amiable, kind, chunky, personable and sort of slow.

That's our perfect ideal of a buck rat, but of course the fact that our boys turn out this way is something of a miracle.

Nature intends for the male of our favourite species to be an independent individual, roaming his own territory constantly looking for sex. He needs to be, bigger, butcher, smellier and meaner than any other lad who wanders onto his patch so that he can see off all rivals and win all the lovely girls that pass through, any other bucks that want to remain on his patch must be smaller and more subservient - but of course they will always have their eye on his top spot, waiting for any opportunity to take it from him. He may even have a nice harem, or live as part of a colony, but his overwhelming desire will always be to be top rat and get all the girls.

You will see a similar kind of situation with many creatures within the animal kingdom; prides of lions have similar social structures, as do wild deer and wolves. All can and will live in large social groups, bound by complex hierarchy. To be the top male is the main objective, he is the guy who ensures that the future generations carry his genes and any other male who dares to challenge his status may be driven away from the group to wander and look for another group to infiltrate.

Anyone who keeps a group of rats will find their interactions with each other endlessly fascinating. Rats do have an incredibly complex social structure and they communicate in many ways that we still do not understand.

All pet rats will live as part of a social structure, even rats kept on their own will still be part of a social structure as you, their owner will be their social group and it will depend on your relationship with your rat/s as to where you fit in that structure. Ideally, especially with bucks, you must be top rat in your home.

Even the most amenable pair of male rats, litter brothers, who do not fight, sleep together, play happily together and never squabble will have a complex social structure that you may not even have noticed.

Hierarchy is very important to all rats, but more especially males. They cannot help it; they are driven to it by hormones. In fact, where a male rat will stand in his social hierarchy can sometimes be predicted at a very young age by how early his testicles 'drop', how large his testicles are and by how early he matures. The younger and the bigger - the more dominant the buck will probably be.

So, why do I rate it a miracle that male rats become the fluffy rugs that we love them to be?

As breeders we specifically select the largest bucks, the ones that mature earliest, have the biggest, broadest head, the thickest fattest tail, strong shoulders, powerful bodies and ooze manliness. Then we expect these dominant fighting and breeding machines to have the personality of a slug.

By nature this sexy, manly buck will want to scent mark his territory endlessly; he will want to be in charge of his cage, his sofa, his floor! He won't want you getting him out of his cage when you want him to - he will exit of his own accord, when it is patrol time. He will rule his cage with a rod of iron, woe betide any other buck that gets to the food bowl first, pees in the wrong place or even attempts to shut his eyes on the top shelf, let alone have a snooze!

Luckily when we select bucks for breeding as well as selecting the big chunky boys we also select the ones with the more 'relaxed' personality, the ones that rule the roost using the more subtle methods, if at all.

Pheromones, these are the key. I always knew that the higher up the pecking order the buck was, the more hormones he exuded, but I never realised the extent that Pheromones play in a rat's social structure until watching a documentary on Naked Mole Rats coincided with me owning an extremely large cage and a group of 11 bucks.

Whilst scent marking his territory, the top male will also either inadvertently or deliberately scent mark the other bucks in his social group. Not only does this create a 'smell' of belonging but also the pheromones exuded during this process will actually inhibit the production of pheromones in the buck that is lower down in the pecking order. This happens to a greater or lesser degree depending on the individuals, but the Alpha male will always dominate his minions in this way. Naked Mole Rats take this to such an extreme that lesser males become drone-like, lose their fertility and take on a similar role as a worker bee may in a hive. I looked again at my group of 11 males, watched them constantly and measured and weighed them throughout the natural cycle of the group.

I watched and realised that Talisman, the Alpha male, although a very subtle leader, was definitely only just in charge. His second in command, Torridon was a slightly bigger buck but always, eventually, deferred to Tali's demands for grooming, grabbing of the best food and sleeping where he wanted to sleep. The remaining bucks then split into two very obvious different groups. There were the smaller, subservient, worker bucks, the ones happy to be groomed and do grooming when it was demanded of them, the ones who ate when everyone else had finished, the ones who came out of the cage last and hid behind the bigger boys. Then there was what I called the middle pack. They were subservient only to the two top dogs and did a bit of picking on the workers too; there was much jostling of position amongst them, but only when the boss wasn't looking. Only when very old or very young did age affect this. Only when testosterone levels were increasing or decreasing in any one individual was there dissention amongst the ranks and a danger of disharmony.

I then began to realise how much this affected the fertility of my bucks. It is not often that the Alpha male in a pack will be infertile, and I have never known an Alpha male to be uninterested in sex, or at least only when affected by illness. However as I looked down the pecking order I found that the more subservient the buck the less likely I was to get nice healthy babies from him, if any babies at all. The worker bucks were often disinterested in does, even frightened of this mad, scary female rat, leaping about and waggling her ears in strange ways. I also found that some of my does were really not keen on having a relationship with such a wimpy suitor. Does much prefer a rough and ready buck who will service them with great speed, style and aplomb!

The middle pack bucks were only too pleased too show off their sexual prowess when allowed away from their social structure and for a night out on the town, but they seemed to either sire smaller litters or there were more instances of the does not taking during the first mating with these bucks.

My big group of boys eventually dwindled, with Torridon dying before Tali, and a 'middle pack' rat Leevon eventually becoming the next Alpha. I watched as he suddenly at the age of 17 months blossomed, he gained weight, muscle tone and confidence. I watched each successive Alpha do the same to a greater or lesser degree, but always in some way they became a bit more attractive to the opposite sex (and to me) whilst they were the ratty in charge.

The final two guys in the group eventually gained two old wives as cage mates and I was interested to see how the introduction of two women to the equation would change their relationship. The simple answer was that there simply was no real change, not in their relationship with one another. The Alpha female became second in command in the group, but there was no argument between the boys as to whose turn it was to mate with the girls when they came into season (invariably together). They both did, but the Alpha boy was always first. As the four old rats grew old together first to go was the most submissive doe and then next was the Alpha male. However, the by now, big, butch doe stayed in charge of her old husband, his testosterone declining and his sense of smell and eyesight failing he opted for an easy life for his final months. (Note, I have an age old habit of placing old does that have refused after many attempts to get pregnant into large colonial groups with older bucks to live out their lives in 'retirement homes' together. Please do not practise what I preach, unless you are happy to cope with an unexpected litter or the expense of taking an old doe with birthing problems to a vet).

Most of my Alpha bucks now never ever have to flex their muscles to prove it. I guess because I have selectively bred for them to be huge, sexy and strong they just have to pose to prove it. I do have problems sometimes when I keep two brothers from the same litter or sell two brothers from the same litter together that are of similar size and construction. These bucks will constantly battle to be Alpha and give their owners a very worrying time.

I am very aware of this and now, if I offer bucks for sale as pets do try to pair them up deliberately. I will select two bucks from two different litters, one a week older than the other for example, or select two brothers where one is very obviously more subservient than the other. These boys will live happily together for the rest of their lives, comfortable in their (pre-ordained) social hierarchy. Even new introductions of younger rats are fine as the smaller buck will usually happily assume the bottom ranking role immediately just because of the sheer impact of the Pheromones he is met by.

I recently introduced an extremely typy kitten buck to one of my sexy Alpha boys hoping that he would settle into the group with little fuss. However I had timed the introduction wrong and the kitten buck already had the makings of an Alpha rat and really thinking about it afterwards he obviously thought of himself as one already. The introduction did not go well and although my big old Alpha boy won the battle he did not win the day. Neither buck had a mark on them following their very short scuffle and 10 minutes of posturing and kickboxing, but all the unaccustomed exercise left my Murphy with a small undetected hernia, which unfortunately killed him. Murphy was a very successful stud buck who sired stunning kittens, he also ruled his fellow bucks and wives simply through being big, smelly and Pheromonal. I had never known him to battle with anyone, no one had ever tried. Apart from running to and from the food bowl and wooing a few does the poor lad really had little exercise. He now lives in my memory as the ratty equivalent of Barry White, big, sexy and unfit!

I have also found that my bucks are also more likely to accept other bucks bred by myself from my lines into their social group rather than a buck from another breeder. I have no real explanation for this. I at first thought it was due to their different smell, but have tried bathing the new buck kitten and the group I want to introduce him to in the same smelly stuff or leaving him 2 weeks before making an introduction and they are still met with some hostility. Maybe they recognise their relatives somehow, maybe the Pheromones tell them more than we know. Or maybe they just talk in a different ratty accent ?

Bucks, male rats, bless em are very misunderstood. It is often thought that they are just plain grumpy or bad tempered when it is often just because they have been bred to be manly and hence are acting in an extremely male-rat way. Poor lads, they can't help it sometimes.