Official Loofah Tester
Join Date: Dec 2009
Location: SE United States
With the nipping in the cage...do they nip any time you put your hand in, or just when you go to pick someone up? Is it just you they nip or do they nip your husband also? Are your hands clean when you put them in the cage, with no food smells on them? Is it only in the cage when you pick one up, or is it any time one of them is picked up? Do you feed them treats through the bars? There could be many reasons they are nipping in the cage. Part of knowing how to deal with the problem is to figure out all the reasons it may be happening. Nibbling you because you taste yummy is a different cure than working with them for being terrified you are in their house.
Know that unlike, say, hamsters, a true biting rat is very rare. A true bite, which sounds like what you're really afraid of, will break the skin. It is most of the time a sign of extreme fear of pain in the rat. Even more rarely it may be something like genetic aggression.
The best way to deal with their fearfulness is to go slow, and speak calmly. If they come to you no problem, pet them in their cage in passing and get them used to you just touching them on their turf. Don't pick them up unless they come to you, and then only do so gently, calmly, and matter of fact by scooping your hands under their bodies from either side. Speak to them gently and constantly, and always come in low so they know it's you and not some big ratty eating monster come to get them. Picking them up from above is a predator act and of course picking them up by the tail hurts them (compare to someone picking you up off the ground by only your wrist and letting you dangle).
They will, when they're getting to know you, put their teeth on you to determine if you're food, but that will be a mild nip. Do your best to /not/ jerk back (oooh, fun game, I can make the human twitch funny) and give a high pitched squeak. Which is rat for 'Not food, that hurts'. They will back off and not do it any more. Later, as they grow to love you, they may then nibble on you with mild pinches because they are grooming you and have fully accepted you into their family. But that will never be a skin breaking bite.
One thing you can do immediately is get a basket or travel cage and put one of their stinky blankets in it (thus letting them claim it as their own), put treats in it and call them. I churp at them with an almost kissy sound when I call mine. They will soon learn to jump into the basket/cage when it's time to come out. That way you don't have to put your hands in the cage to retrieve them.
Another thing you might do is tie a scarf around your head until you feel more comfortable with them. That way if they do climb to your shoulder (where they feel you can keep them safe from the big mean world), you have a layer between them and you. The rest is desensitization. The longer you go without being bitten, ideally the calmer you will be. Going slow with them and letting them get comfortable with you will help them be calmer with you. And like I said, biting rats are really rare. They are the least likely to bite of any rodent.
I know others with lots more experience than me will have much better advice.
I am assuming that what you have is a workable fear and not a true full blown phobia. If it's a phobia, then that is well outside the area of general advice but can still be treated by a doctor if it's important to you to overcome.
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