Rat Tickling

In the Gaskill lab, we conduct research to better understand the best methods to improve rat welfare.

What is rat tickling?

Rat tickling is a technique that was developed to study play and positive affect in laboratory rats. It mimics rat rough-and-tumble play using a human hand. Typically it involves using your hand to "wrestle" with a rat in a playful manner.

This video is a great overview of the technique from Dr. Jaak Panksepp

When we tested these animals to ask whether they were enjoying this kind of activity the unambiguous answer was yes.“ — Dr. Jaak Panksepp

How do we know that rats like rat tickling?

A summary of the research of rat tickling finds that rat tickling can result in feelings of joy in rats as measured by positive vocalizations. Rats that have been tickled with preferentially approach handlers that have tickled them faster. Tickled rats prefer to be environments where they have previously been tickled. Rats can learn new tasks using tickling as a reward. Rats that have been tickled show less fear and anxiety. Finally, tickled rats also show better responses to handling and stress. 

Why should I tickle my rat?

Tickling increases positive affect, improves handling, minimizes fear, and can act as social enrichment. Tickling is also fun for the handlers and can increase personnel satisfaction! increase their positive approach behavior, reduce rat fear, minimize negative effects from negative procedures such as transport or injection, may decrease handling time, increase personnel satisfaction, and act as social enrichment for isolated rats. Rats prefer to be tickled than stroked by their human handlers. 

How do I tickle my rat?

Begin by ensuring your rat is on bedding or something soft without hard huts or items. Begin with allowing the rat to sniff your hand for about 15 seconds. Then start tickling with a dorsal contact followed by a pin. These components are described in detail below. Tickle for about 15 seconds and then give the rat a break. Alternate between 15 seconds of tickling and 15 seconds of rest for as little as 15 seconds to as much as 5 minutes.

There are three main parts of tickling:

  1. Dorsal Contact
  2. Flip
  3. Pin
Dorsal Contact with the rat
Flipping the rat
Pinning the rat

1. Dorsal Contact

  • Tickle your rat on the nape of her neck.
  • Be light and quick in your touches.
  • DO NOT touch your rat on her haunches or near the tail. This is where aggression from other rats is usually directed.

2. FlipA rat being picked up

  • Grasp your rat snugly around her front legs when you flip her as shown.
  • Prevent your rat's tail from kinking beneath her when you flip.
  • Keep her body low to the ground.
  • Be gentle! Don't slam your rat down.

3. Pin

  • Tickle your rat between her front legs on her chest.
  • Use light, but firm contact pressing down.
  • Each pin should last about 2-4 seconds
  • In each 15 second tickling segment you should aim to have about 4-5 pins

Tips and Tricks

  • Use vigorous, but light and gentle movements.
  • Keep your fingers in contact with your rat's body.
  • Remember this is ROUGH and tumble play. Don't be too gentle or slow.
  • Use one hand only.
  • Give your rat a little rest from tickling every now and then. We recommend 15 seconds of tickling and 15 seconds of rest repeated for 2 minutes.
  • Tickle your rat for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Two minutes of tickling a day is enough to see positive results

This video shows rat rough and tumble play with each other. Try to see the similarities between this and tickling. 

What not to do

  • Be too hesitent, too slow, too gentle or too rough.
  • Contact the rump (this is where aggression is generally directed by other rats).

How do I know if I am a good tickler and my rat likes it?

  • Generally rats that like tickling will grab or nibble your fingers, follow your hand, and approach you.
  • Their bodies will generally be more relaxed during tickling. 
  • They will make 50-khz vocalizatins which you can measure with a Magenta Bat Detector

How do I know if my rat does NOT like tickling?

Rats that do not like tickling tend have stiff bodies and tails during tickling, make audible squeaks, run away during a tickling session, and make defensive postures. They also may avoid your hand and not approach before or after tickling

What factors should I keep in mind during tickling?

  • Some rats like tickling more than others. However, you should wait to make an official judgement until you have tried tickling for at least 3 days in a quiet and calm environment.

  • Younger rats (20-60 days) are more playful and seem to enjoy tickling more than older rats. If you have an older rat that has never been tickled before, he or she may not like it.

  • Tickle rats BEFORE stressful procedures rather than after

  • Rats in larger groups may get enough playtime on their own and be less keen to play with you via tickling

  • Tickle rats in calm and quiet environments

  • Rats may prefer to be tickled at night or in lower light conditions

Overall have fun and remember that rats are individuals. Find what works for you!

Written by Megan LaFollette. For more information the research in rat tickling is summarized in a recent Systematic Review of Rat Tickling that is open access for anyone to read. 

Additional Links

Google Scholar

Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, 625 Harrison Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907, (765) 494-7607

© 2017 Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Copyright Complaints | Maintained by PVM Web Communications

If you have trouble accessing this page because of a disability, please contact PVM Web Communications at vetwebteam@purdue.edu.