Many rodents are sociable critters; among those commonly kept as pets, hamsters are the major notable exception. Rats are some of the most social rodents of all. In the wild, rats live in large, cooperative communities. This instinct for company and socialization hasn't been bred out of them, even with more than 100 years of domestication. Pet rats do best with company of their own kind and with attention from you.
First and foremost, because rats are so social, they need to be around other rats. Get at least two at a time, if not more. Unless you want a firsthand lesson in just how prolifically these social rodents breed, though, stick to rats of the same sex or have all members of one sex spayed or neutered. While it's possible to have a single rat, she requires lots of attention -- typically more than you'll be able to give -- to keep her happy. A neglected or undersocialized single rat is likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems that can interfere with her ability to bond with you. And, while rats often get along well with cats and dogs, they generally don't coexist peacefully with mice, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs or other rodents; stick to multiple rats.
Just because your rats have each other, that doesn't mean they won't be interested in you. On the contrary, well cared for, socialized rats bond readily with their humans. You just need to find the time to interact with them individually. Bonding begins with establishing trust by providing proper care and with hand taming; it continues indefinitely with continued physical contact and attention, along with the occasional yummy treat. It won't take long for your rats to want to be social with you. They'll desire being held and petted, and they'll happily hang out on your shoulder or lap.
Raising rats that act social and friendly toward you requires hand taming. In the beginning, the focus is on overriding your pet's natural fear of you, a large, weirdly scented, entirely unfamiliar being. Offer a few treats in your open palm once per day until your rats show they're comfortable coming into contact with your hand to take some food. Next, switch to feeding directly from your fingers. When your rats are OK with this, start picking them up one at a time. Hold them in your slightly cupped open palm, with your other hand gently over them. Pet them and talk in a friendly tone of voice, offering a treat, too. Soon your rats will associate your hands with good things and be receptive to handling.
Provide appropriate accommodations and accessories for multiple rats so they can fully engage in their social behaviors -- and so they can get away by themselves for a little while when they need to. Of course, an adequately sized living space is essential. As an absolute minimum, house a pair of rats in a well-ventilated cage that's at least 2 feet in every direction, but try to go bigger. They need pelleted paper or aspen bedding to burrow in, a solid-bottom exercise wheel for exercise and a few toys to play with. Don't forget, your rats' teeth grow continuously, so they also need chew toys or blocks of untreated wood to gnaw on. Each rat needs her own little rodent house to retreat into for sleep and occasional solitude; like people, even the most social animals need their own space sometimes.
Eric Mohrman has been a freelance writer since 2007, focusing on travel, food and lifestyle stories. His creative writing is also widely published. He lives in Orlando, Florida.