Wild canines with high social status are referred to as "alpha dogs," the leaders of their packs. Dogs aren't the only animals out there with sophisticated social systems, however. Rats (genus Rattus) also have their own pecking orders, complete with alpha rats running the show.
Rat World Hierarchy
In rat social systems, male alpha rats are the ones in charge. The rest of the individuals in the social groups, such as beta rats, have lower rank than the alpha. Alpha rats running sizable social groups -- or "mischiefs" -- often are equipped with assistant rats that aid them in making sure things move along smoothly and without conflict.
When rats encounter each other for the first time, they have to determine their pecking orders and figure out who is alpha. They do this by battling it out and mounting each other, shoving, squealing loudly, grooming and biting others on their necks. Rats often even try to determine dominance by turning others over on their backs. When rats are in this mode, the hair on their coats often juts out prominently, too.
Power of Dominant Alpha Rats
Dominant alpha rats frequently show their power by keeping other males away from things they value the most -- namely sustenance and access to mating partners. If an alpha rat lives alongside a handful of female rats, he'll try his hardest to keep competing males far from them. Alpha rats also expend lots of effort to keep their food access out of other rats' clutches. They often behave aggressively toward juvenile males, which leads to the youngsters having no choice but to get out of the social circle. These same young male rats, however, often come back at later times to battle the alphas -- and succeed them in leadership.
Acquainting New Rats
Pet rats often thrive when they have cage mates, so many owners opt to keep them in same-gender duos. Some duos are successes and some aren't, because mature male rats are often aggressive with each other. If they're brothers who were raised together, however, they might get along well.
If you want a buddy for your pet rat, don't just toss them in a cage together. Once you make sure the newbie is free of illnesses, put her in a separate enclosure beside your older pet. By doing this, you allow the duo a chance to get to know each other through sight and smell. It's important they can't get to each other physically at this point. Try this daily for several days. Then, put them in each other's enclosures so they can adapt to the other's odor. Finally, allow them to meet face-to-face in a neutral space. If they react peacefully to each other, you can try placing them in the same cage, but only if you have ample time to monitor them. Fights for dominance -- and alpha status -- are common in adult rats who are just meeting each other. If your rats can't seem to get along, splitting them up is often the safest and most sensible option.
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- The Rat - A Study in Behavior; Samuel Anthony Barnett
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