Why Do Rats Lick You?

Every pet owner is familiar with the desperate desire to know what your pet is trying to tell you. So, if you own a rat who licks you from time to time, you might be wondering what your little furry friend is trying to tell you by doing so. After experiencing the same behavior with my rat, I decided I had to know, too. Why would a rat lick their owners? 

It turns out, as a general rule, licking is a bonding behavior in rats. Through licking you, they may be trying to connect with you, as it’s one of the normal ways rats communicate with each other. So if your rat licks you, there’s no need to be concerned.

However, that’s not the end of this answer. There’s more than one reason your rat could be licking you. Let’s check out other common reasons why rats lick their owners so that you can better understand your pet.

Reasons Why Your Rat Might Lick You

There are various reasons your rat might choose to lick you:

  • They’re showing affection or trying to groom you
  • They’re interested in the food you’re eating
  • They’re interested in the scent of other animals they smell on you

If you pay attention to the specifics of their demeanor when it happens, you might be able to find out more about what they’re trying to do. Let’s take a deep dive into each of these three reasons so you can use tips and context clues to find out which reason your rat might be licking you for. 

Your Rat Wants to Show Affection

Yes, you read that right. Rats are intelligent creatures that actively seek out companionship with those in their pack—and that includes you! 

In many mammals, affection is shown by licking each other, and rats are no exception. It can seem a little bit odd to us humans, but this is because they’re actually trying to show that they care about you by “grooming” you! 

And no, this doesn’t exactly mean you need to go take a bath (although they will sometimes spend more time grooming you if they think you smell extra stinky). This is simply your special friend’s way of letting you know that they care. So even if it feels a bit weird, try to let them do it and reward them with a treat or pet, so they know you care about them, too! 

Your Rat is Interested in What You Ate

There’s also a fairly high chance that your rat is licking you because they are very interested in the snack you had before playtime. One Harvard study showed that rats have a particularly good sense of smell and experience much of their world through their noses. In fact, rats have even been used to sniff out landmines to help keep people safe.

That means if you’ve got the scent of some food on you, your rat will notice it quickly and might lick you to further probe and find out what exactly that strange smell is—and there’s a surefire way to know that this is the reason they’re licking you.

If you notice that your rat is licking you around your mouth or nose area, this is likely because they’ve smelled something interesting and are trying to get a better idea of what the scent is.

Your Rat Might Smell Other Rats or Animals on You

If you own a rat and a dog in the same household, for example, you may notice that your rat gives you a thorough sniffing or licking when you greet them after spending time with your dog, even if the two animals rarely come into contact with one another. 

This is because rats also lick you if they smell other animals on your skin. This is just another way that they can get a better sense of something they’re smelling. They may already know the animal, or it may be a completely foreign scent to them—this behavior simply shows that your rat is interested in the other animal they can smell. 

If you have female AND male rats, however, you may notice that your male rats go absolutely crazy licking you after you spend time with a female rat. This is because female rats leave behind a scent trail that your male rats will be very interested in getting to know.

If you notice a pattern of your rat licking you after you spend time with other animals or rats, it’s likely because they’re curious about the scent they’ve picked up on. 

Does Licking for Affection Mean My Rat Loves Me?

Now that we know the three main reasons a rat would lick you, we’re left with the final and most important question: does the fact that your rat licks you to show affection mean that your rat loves you? Every pet owner, myself included, is desperate to know the answer. 

The truth is, we may never know if this is the same “love” as defined by the human race or if it’s simply an emotionless evolutionary behavior developed purely to keep rats alive longer by improving their social connections. 

That said, there’s a solid chance that your rat is making a deliberate effort to bond with you, which is the closest answer you can get! Personally, I choose to believe that this effort to bond is indeed what we humans consider “love” to be.

If your rat licks you when you play with it or pet it, it is likely trying to create a special bond with you. In fact, studies show that rats show “positive facial expressions” when they are tickled by or play with their humans. So if your rat’s licks come around when you’re giving them extra special attention, you, too, can choose to perceive this as true love. 

Does Excessive Licking Mean My Rat Could Be Sick?

Now that you’re familiar with the most common reasons pet rats lick their owners, you may be wondering if there’s a possibility your furry friend’s licking behavior is a symptom of something more concerning. 

Licking is a very healthy behavior in rats; in fact, it’s so important to their health that you can usually tell that something is wrong if they stop licking you. 

As mentioned above, grooming is a regular behavior for rats—they will groom both themselves and you if you have a bond. However, an ill rat will lose motivation to do any sort of grooming at all. Here are some common behaviors of rats that are becoming ill: 

  • A lack of licking/grooming behaviors
  • Low energy
  • Poor hygiene (oily or greasy fur, unkempt fur)
  • Eating less than normal

(Source: Brisbane Bird & Exotics Veterinary Service)

Therefore, if you’re concerned that your rat is sick, you should keep your eye out for the above behaviors rather than being concerned by excessive licking.

Final Thoughts

Rats lick their owners for a variety of reasons, and it’s never anything to worry about. Rats may lick you to show affection and bond with you, to investigate the lingering smell of a tasty snack on your lips, or to find out exactly what animal’s scent they’ve just picked up on. 

Licking is not a common symptom of illness in rats, so rest assured. Be sure to give your pet rat extra cuddles when they lick you so you can cultivate a stronger bond with them, too.

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