Today, while preparing for cage cleaning, we had An Incident. Before I go any further, let me assure you that no-one was seriously hurt. For a while it looked as though Radar had hurt his foot and I had been badly bitten but now, with the benefit of a few hours’ healing time, it’s looking much better.
We were getting the youngsters out of their cage. Sundays (as I think I’ve mentioned) are cage cleaning days. There are spot cleans in the week, but Sunday is the day for taking everything apart and disinfecting it to within an inch of its life. We have three carriers, one for each cage – the girls have a Pawprint carrier and the old boys use a hamster cage which we refer to as the Hospital Cage or the Invalid Carriage as it was bought for those times when someone has to be left at the vet’s for the day. The young boys have a clear plastic carrier with a lid but no handles – the lid has a sort of trapdoor in the top. It’s not ideal but more or less does the job.
So, Hawkeye was in the carrier and I was trying to get Radar in but he was having a squirm. I tried to get him through the trapdoor and thought I’d succeeded, but he’d hooked one foot round the lip and in the process got his toe caught in one of the little ventilation holes in the lid that are helpfully just the right size for a ratty toe. So for what seemed like ages but was probably a second or two he hung by his toes, screaming. It’s a horrible sound. Hawkeye was freaking out, J (who was holding the carrier) was freaking out, and Radar was panicking and in pain. I got hold of him again and managed to lift him out, freeing his toe, but as I took hold of him I felt a sharp pain in my thumb, just briefly. I comforted him, checked his toes for blood or broken claws (none, phew) and popped him back in the carrier. After which I was free to tend my own wounds.
To begin with, I assumed he’d bitten me. Not in a judgemental way, but because it would be entirely understandable. I had a hole in the pad of my thumb which was bleeding, and a matching one in the knuckle, bleeding a bit less freely. Now, here’s the thing. Rats do bite – there’s no mileage in denying that. But not without good reason. I’ve seen or heard of any number of people getting rid of rats because they bit, and I can’t help feeling they’ve misunderstood what was happening.
When a rat is getting to know you, he or she will nibble the ends of your fingers, as though testing what you are. Rats who are keen on grooming their humans will sometimes use their teeth, very gently, as they would on other rats. And sometimes you’ll get a deliberate warning nip, the nip that says “I’m really not interested in you – take your hand away,” or “Keep still, I’m trying to wash your ears,” or even “Open your mouth – your teeth need cleaning.” We should be flattered by these gentle nips, as they show our rats treating us as one of the gang.
A really hard bite, that breaks the skin and draws blood, is a much rarer thing. Before today, I’d had two such bites, both my own fault, and both caused when I went to stroke or pet a rat I thought was fully awake. A rat which is startled, frightened or panicky can be expected to bite, and bite hard. They are prey animals with little defence other than their teeth. So I was neither surprised nor upset by getting bitten this afternoon. I washed the bites and put a dressing on them, to keep them clean while we cleaned the cages. If you are bitten, of course, you need to wash the bite and get some antiseptic on it very fast.
Afterwards, taking the plaster off I had a good look at the little wounds, and they’re the wrong shape and configuration for bites. So on reflection I think they’re not from teeth at all but from claws. So far from digging his teeth into me in panic, I think Radar grabbed my hand and clung on for dear life. Which changes the whole story, really, doesn’t it?
And I’ve kept an eye on him since it happened. His toe is a bit inflamed, but the rest of the foot looks fine at the moment and he’s walking normally. What a relief.