The relationship between pet mice and their humans is one that can be loving, affectionate, and highly rewarding.
Sometimes this includes physically handling your mouse, while other times it means allowing your mouse the space it needs. Ultimately, building a relationship with your mice means creating a foundation of respect and trust that grows with time.
This step-by-step guide will provide you with the best ways to create a lasting bond with your pet mice.
About Bonding with Pet Mice
Before we get to hands-on bonding tips, it’s important to understand several points about human-mouse bonding:
- Mice are prey animals. Pet fancy mice may be somewhat domesticated, but they’re still naturally prey animals, unlike cats and dogs. This means that they’re still timid by nature, and even the most trusting mice will have their limits. Feeling like they’re being hunted by a predator also induces high levels of stress in mice, which is why it’s essential not to push interaction too quickly.
- Every mouse is different. Some mice may allow you to pick them up easily from the beginning, while others will never be comfortable being handled. This is normal, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with either type of mouse. Some are simply “look-but-don’t-touch” pets, while others grow to enjoy human interaction.
- Male mice may be easier to bond with. Anecdotal evidence shows that male mice are a bit easier to handle and build a bond with. This may be because female mice build stronger bonds with one another, rather than with humans. Female mice also tend to be quicker and more prone to startling than males.
- Petstore and backyard-breeder mice can be harder to bond with. We never recommend buying pet mice from a pet store or an unethical breeder, and we always recommend adopting mice from a rescue whenever possible. There are many reasons for that, but one important point is that adopted mice can be easier to create a bond with.
Rescue groups typically work with their rescued pets to help them become more trusting and social. An adopted mouse from a rescue is more likely to be somewhat used to handling and interacting with humans. You can also consult with the rescue about the mouse’s personality prior to adoption, which can help with bonding.
Steps for Bonding with Pet Mice
Below are the key tips that we and other mouse owners have used to successfully bond with or “tame” pet mice.
1. Give new mice their space
If you recently brought home your mice or introduced new mice to the group, it’s important to make sure you give them time to feel at home.
It’s impossible for a mouse to feel confident enough to interact with you if it doesn’t feel safe in its surroundings. Give your new mouse or mice about a week to settle in to their new home before you try to touch them or bond with them.
2. Make sure they have everything they need
Just like it’s impossible for a mouse to feel confident without time to settle in to its new home, a mouse can’t feel confident without having its necessities met.
- Plenty of space. We recommend at least a 40-gallon tank or a Prevue 528 for one or more mice.
- Plenty of bedding. Mice also need deep bedding to create cozy burrows. We recommend at least five inches of bedding in at least a third of the tank, plus a layer of bedding in the rest of the enclosure.
- Water. Mice will quickly become uncomfortable and anxious if they don’t have access to water for any period of time. You can provide water in a small bowl (this provides a more natural way of drinking) or in a water bottle. We recommend providing both options.
- Food. Similarly, mice need access to food at all times. Provide more food for your mice as soon as their dish is empty or you notice there’s little scattered food left.
- Clutter. Mice are highly sensitive to open spaces because they’re dangerous areas for prey in the wild. Mice feel much more comfortable if their enclosure is filled with lots and lots of clutter.
- Wheel(s). Mice in captivity need a wheel to get sufficient exercise and reduce stress. Mice who don’t have access to a wheel may be more difficult to bond with because they’re likely to have higher levels of stress.
Learn more: Mouse Cage Size: What Size Cage Do Mice Need?
3. Avoid these bonding-breakers
Just as important as what you do to bond with your mice, if not more important, is what not to do if you want to bond with your mice.
These “bonding-breakers” are some of the biggest ways you can set yourself back in the bonding process.
Try to avoid these as much as possible, especially early in the bonding process.
- Sudden movements
- Loud noises
- Grabbing them more than necessary
- Grabbing them from above
- Picking them up by the tail
- Using strong scents (like perfume or lotions)
- Waking them up
4. Hang out around their enclosure
Once your mice are comfortable in their enclosure and have settled in, you can begin bonding with them by simply sitting or standing near their enclosure. Try to get on a level where they can see you clearly, whether that means sitting on the floor or sitting in a chair beside their enclosure.
Just getting used to your presence and learning that you’re not there to harm them or make them uncomfortable is an important first step for your mice.
When your mice start coming up to the glass or bars and staying for a few moments at a time, you’ll know that they’re comfortable with your presence.
5. Talk to them in a soft voice
While sitting near your mouse enclosure or just when you check on your mice throughout the day, try speaking to them in a soft voice. It’s important to use a low, quiet voice because loud or sudden noises can startle them, which can set you back in the bonding process.
It might feel awkward to speak to your mice at first, but it will quickly become something that feels normal.
Talking to your mice helps them understand that you’re not a threat and that you’re not trying to sneak up on them.
Many mouse owners have found that talking to their mice helps the bonding process quite a bit!
6. Offer them some treats from your hand
Once your mice are comfortable with seeing and hearing you, you can try offering them some treats on your open palm in their enclosure.
Use high-value treats like sunflower seeds or mealworms, and place them on your palm. Slowly place your open hand on the bottom of the enclosure where your mice can easily reach it and see the treats.
Have patience! This step can take a while, but it’s important to keep your hand still and not move suddenly. Stay in this position until your mice start coming up to your hand and looking at the treats.
They won’t necessarily take a treat the very first time, but they’ll likely come up and check out what you’re doing. Mice are extremely curious, and eventually, the curiosity about what’s in your hand will outweigh their nervousness.
7. Use their scent to make them comfortable
If your mice are very hesitant to approach your hand at all, you may be able to help them feel more comfortable by getting some of their scent on your skin.
Try picking up some of the bedding from their enclosure and holding it so that their scent gets on your hands. The familiar scent will help your mice understand that it’s safe to approach, and you may be able to disguise a smell that is making them feel threatened (like hand soap or something else that’s not familiar to them).
8. Have patience and let them come to you
Keep hanging out near your mouse enclosure, speaking to them in soft tones, and placing your hand in their enclosure. Eventually, you’ll begin making strides with your mice and noticing that they’re more and more comfortable with having you around.
The most important thing you can do for bonding with your mice is to be patient. Go at their speed, and keep in mind that mice are prey animals; it’s understandable that they would be fearful of a potential predator.
9. Once they climb onto your palm, try lifting your hand
Next, you can start trying to lift your mouse up slowly and gradually. It’s important not to start picking up your mouse too fast (except in emergencies).
Once a mouse has started climbing onto your hand or arm, you can try lifting your hand up a few inches, then lowering it back down. This indicates to your mice that being lifted up isn’t a threat, and that they’ll be returned to their comfortable environment soon.
Gradually, you can try lifting your hand up a little higher and a little higher, until you’re able to lift it out of the enclosure without your mouse startling or jumping.
10. Interact with your confident mice in front of the more hesitant ones
Once your more confident mice begin interacting with you by climbing on your hand or taking treats from your palm, this will help your more hesitant mice to trust you, too.
It’s important to try to interact with all of your mice, but they will naturally go at different speeds. Seeing their friends safely interact with you will help your hesitant mice to understand that it’s OK to do so.
Even if you’re not able to interact very much with some of your mice, it’s important not to stop trying or stop interacting with your more confident mice. It might feel unfair to pay more attention to those who are more outgoing or less nervous, but it’s actually helping you build trust with the more anxious mice, too.
11. Find a comfortable way to pick up your mouse
Some mice will feel comfortable being picked up at this stage (see our tip for starting to pick up your mice above), while others won’t.
You can try picking up your mice by using two hands to gently scoop them up. This typically isn’t frightening for mice if they’re already used to your touch.
If a mouse is too nervous to be picked up easily, don’t chase them around the enclosure. Instead, let them go into a hide or tunnel, and then lift that item out of the enclosure.
12. Sit in a playpen with them
Once you’ve found a way to pick up and transport your mice that’s comfortable and not frightening, you can try sitting in a playpen with them to have even closer interaction.
Place your mouse or the item they’re in inside the playpen, on the floor. Make sure to place several items out for them to explore, as well as some food. Making the playpen space more cluttered can help nervous mice feel more comfortable.
Try sitting with your mice in the playpen for short periods of time, slowly building up to longer sessions. Your mice will eventually feel comfortable running up to you and climbing onto your feet or legs.
Tip: Use a secure playpen that your mice can’t chew through. We use this one that’s made of metal bars. Mice can climb the bars, so it’s important not to leave them unattended and always pay attention. You can also use a bathtub for this step!
Bonding is About Understanding
Many mice will come around to interacting with a human using the steps above, but some will never feel comfortable being held or even approached. This is natural, and it doesn’t mean that the mouse is unhappy or shouldn’t be kept as a pet.
This type of mouse (a “look-but-don’t-touch” pet mouse) can still be incredibly interesting to watch and rewarding to care for. They can also make valuable additions to mouse groups.
For example, you might have a very confident mouse who feels more comfortable being social with you because of their strong bonds with the other mice, who might be more nervous in nature.
Ultimately, bonding doesn’t look the same for all pet mice, and you’ll build your own routines and ways of communicating with your unique pets.
Burgado J, Harrell CS, Eacret D, Reddy R, Barnum CJ, Tansey MG, Miller AH, Wang H, Neigh GN. “Two weeks of predatory stress induces anxiety-like behavior with co-morbid depressive-like behavior in adult male mice.” Behav Brain Res. 15 December 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5688846/
“Boys or Girls?” Crittery Exotics. https://crittery.co.uk/species-list/fancy-mice/fancy-mice-boys-or-girls