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Monday, December 23, 2013

So You Want to Breed Rats . . . .

So you want to breed rats . . . . This article may give you pause. Or maybe, it may encourage you to actually make a difference in the genetic make-up of the pet rat population.

If you’ve owned rats for a long time, you are familiar with the plethora of serious health problems that plague the domesticated rat population. If you are not so familiar, a quick browse of GooseMoose's the Rat Care Corner will expose you to many of them.

Given the rate and ease at which rats reproduce, there would seem to be no need for more breeders, but that is actually not true. There are lots of accidental litters and tons of backyard breeders, and a few ratteries that try to do things right, but there are very, very few breeders who actually do get it right.

Rats are just too easy to breed – anyone can do it, and often, anyone does. Anyone who thinks they have a sweet, nice-looking rat thinks they are doing everyone a favor by making more. Unfortunately, they don’t take the time, money, and effort to put anything into establishing health in that line – they only care about making more sweet little cuddlies and what problems come later are not their concern. They think that as long as they can find homes for all the babies they produce, everything is good. But finding homes is not the only issue. If your rats are filling homes, the rats in rescues are losing potential homes. And if your rats are carrying health issues in their genetics, they may go on to perpetuation those health issues in their new homes, continuing the trend of producing unhealthy rats in the pet population.

I’ve never bred rats because the hurdles to doing it right just seem insurmountable to me. I’ve gotten all my rats through the adoption section of GooseMoose or from rescue operations. I have bred difficult, exotic finches and have ran the Finch and Softbill Save conservation program organized by the National Finch and Softbill Society for many years, but am stepping down at the end of this year. I worked with birds that are very difficult to breed and keep properly in captivity and despite all the challenges inherent in that – I think it is much easier than working with rats. Those birds can be expensive and difficult to keep in proper conditions, but the few people who work with them successfully are dedicated to breeding for the proper things and keeping bad genetics out of the lines – as these kinds of mistakes can completely ruin a life’s work and make a huge impact on the future of that species in captivity.

Despite being strongly pro-rescue when it comes to rats, anyone interested in taking on the challenge of breeding for health and hardiness in domesticated rats and doing it the right way has my support. As I don’t breed rats, I am not the expert. But I can easily apply some of the things I have learned from running a conservation program to what you would need to do to get started with rats and do it right.

First of all, because of the inherent health problems that plague the pet rat population, one would need to start off by acquiring stock from experienced ratteries that have already begun the process of working out some of these health problems. You wouldn’t want to have to reinvent the wheel and start with complete unknowns unless that is all that is available in the captive gene pool (it is not!). The amount of time it would take to get to the point that others have already gotten to would mean that it would be unlikely you would ever make any contribution to the gene pool short of dedicating your life to it for the long haul. These ratteries should know exactly what problems their lines carry and which problems have been weeded out. They should have pedigrees going back generations with records detailing health problems and causes of death for the animals in their lines.

They should have established lines and not just a hodgepodge of breeding this rat they acquired from here with that rat they acquired from there and mixing in their own young as needed.

A breeder breeding for health and longevity shouldn't give up any of their breeding rats, even after they have reached retirement age. How long the parents ultimately live and what health problems they experience later in life provide critical information about what traits may have been passed on to their young and what traits had been passed on to them from their parents.

Any rattery that has put any kind of investment into their lines is not likely to give up their stock for breeding to just anyone. If you take stock from their lines and breed it to just any rat, you will undo much of the work they have done. If you then sell/give away this offspring with documentation that it came from those established lines, you will ruin their reputation.

This is where mentoring comes in. You are best off finding a mentor among one of those breeders who has established that their lines have been selected for health and improved vitality. It will take a lot of research to find one and it will take a lot of time, research, and commitment to prove that you know what you are doing and that you are worth their time investment. You will probably have to travel distances to find one and meet up and obtain stock.

Once you have a mentor, your mentor can help you with finding other quality breeders for stock and can help convince them that under their guidance, you won’t do damage to their reputations if they let you work with their lines.

Once you have a mentor and have acquired stock with known health histories (note that this does not mean your stock is free of health problems – it just means that you know what problems are likely to pop up in each of the lines and that some problems have likely been weeded out and won’t occur very frequently), you are ready to start working on your lines, you will need to learn a lot about selection – which rats are worth keeping in your program and which should be culled (by culled, I mean sold as pets – preferably neutered/spayed or to homes that keep same sexes and don’t intend to breed). You don’t want to risk your reputation by selling off your lesser stock for breeding by inexperienced breeders who will pair your rats to mill rats.

You will need to do all the things that I mentioned your mentor should be doing. You should keep detailed pedigrees and health records. You will need to not only treat your rats for the health problems that occur, but also have tests done to find out what the exact cause of those health problems are. You can’t just throw an antibiotic at something and if it goes away, be done with it. You want to know what illnesses your rats are especially susceptible to and what genetic problems they may have. These are things you will want to work out of your lines, but you can’t work them out if you don’t know specific causes. This means doing cultures and x-rays and scans, and having necropsies performed when your rats die. Ideally, it also means keeping in touch with people who obtain rats from you and convincing them to keep you up-to-date on their medical histories. If they don’t keep in contact with you, it means contacting them periodically, and collecting this information.

You will want to hold back rats for yourself. Obviously, some for continuing the line and hopefully improving it. But others just to monitor the health problems and longevity. This means keeping lots of rats that will need your time and care and food and large clean cages.
You will have to learn about and understand the risks and benefits of line breeding. While inbreeding is generally considered bad, once the serious issues are worked out of a line, breeding back to that line will keep your line from becoming contaminated with problem genetics. Test breeding from the same line will help you identify the recessive problems that still exist in that line. But too much or improper inbreeding can lead to weakened strains.

You need to do more than just collect this information. You need to learn how to interpret this information and what to do with it. Sometimes, you will have to discontinue lines, because problems crop up in those lines that are too serious to keep working with and keep producing rats with that problem. Megacolon would be an example of a problem so serious that you would want to discontinue any line that started throwing it.

Do all breeders do these things? Sadly, most breeders don’t. And that is why we continue to have so many bad problems popping up in the pet population. You would be hard pressed to find breeders who actually do these things. But this is the kind of breeder that we really need. We need as many of these breeders as we can get and we need everyone else to stop breeding and adopt from the accidental litters and the rats whose owners can no longer take care of them. Those who just want the joys of raising random rattie litters would be better served by volunteering as a foster for a rescue and helping to raise those oops litters that will continue to happen as long as pet stores can’t accurately sex rats and as long as people continue to keep rats of mixed sexes without spaying/neutering.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Rats in the News - The History of the Lab Rat

I happened across this video on YouTube this morning, while searching an unrelated topic. Ever wonder why mice and rats are the most commonly used animals for scientific research? The SciShow offers a very quick summary of the history of using rats in laboratories. They even mention the rat pits that were featured in Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Cages

We had to make all new Christmas hammocks this year because our old sets were shredded and unsalvageable. This year, we went with all flannel prints. We needed three sets of hammocks - one for the CN, one for the Martin's, and one for when another set was in the wash.

I decided on three different prints - one for each set. The first, a basic red, white, and green pattern that was bright and modern. The second, a red and white candy cane design. The third, a more traditional old-fashioned gingerbread design.

I was worried that I wouldn't get them done on time, but yesterday, I finished off the last of the three sets, and today, both cages are decked out in holiday style.

Red, Green, and White Christmas
(this set was the first finished and was up last week):

The Gingerbread Cage

The Candy Cane Cage
(and Loki, looking out the door, wondering when Santa will be here)


The only thing special that I made this year was a new stocking for the ratties. I still have not mastered the art of making stockings, but this will do for this year.

I didn't do any special cage decorating this year - I just didn't have time to come up with ideas. I was too focused on getting the hammocks made. Hopefully, next year, we can think about some original decorating ideas.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Review - The Christmas Rat

The Christmas Rat
by Avi
Grade Level: 3-7
144 pages

I read The Christmas Rat to my boys last Christmas. I read to them every night and much of what I read ends up being less than memorable (for me - not necessarily for them). I try to mix it up with a little bit of the classics to make it more interesting (Old Yeller, Johnny Tremaine, Ender's Game, etc) and some of the new middle grade popular stuff to keep them engaged (Divergent, Michael Vey, Artemis Fowl). But every now and then I throw in an intriguing sounding book with rats in it.

This particular book is difficult to forget. It is really an odd book, and very eerie. It does not follow any common plot formula. I actually found it to be quite disturbing in places. It makes it a hard book to recommend or not recommend - because I myself have conflicted feelings about the book and it can very well produce polar opposite reactions in different people. I happen to like books that are different and memorable even if they are not a completely perfect, polished piece of art, so I have a particular draw to this one. But others may not find it so intriguing.

The main character, Eric, is a boy home for Christmas break. But things don't go according to his plans. His friends are either sick or out of town and his parents leave him alone during the day. He ends up meeting with his apartment building's exterminator, who coerces him to swear an oath to help him hunt down the rat in the building's basement. Eric quickly realizes that what he is doing is wrong and he develops an appreciation for the building's intelligent rat resident. But when he starts to waiver on his oath, the exterminator turns against him.

The exterminator is really one of the most creepy characters in children's fiction. He is portrayed as a violent killer who kills for the love of it. He needs the hunt. The fact that he is also supposed to be a manifestation of the Angel Gabriel is what really stirs things up. It is hard to resolve these two personas and the fact that on the one hand, we absolutely know that the exterminator is the enemy but on the other hand, can an angel really be the enemy in a children's Christmas story? Would an angel turn on a child trying to do what he believes is right? Or is there something more to it?

I think the book worked these issues out in the end - and the rat is definitely portrayed as crafty and as a being worth fighting for. I recommend this book for those who like their plots and conflicts to be a little muddy and not so cut and dry. But it could be disturbing and a little violent for kids who are not used to that sort of thing. My kids like video games and scary movies and so were completely fine with it. I probably was more disturbed than they were - simply because of the use of the Angel Gabriel in the specific role he played.

Friday, December 6, 2013

University Rats!

Rats Weasel Their Way into Hearts of Students (From Scarlet & Black, the Grinnell College Newspaper).

A great positive story about living on campus with pet rats. The piece talks about the misconceptions people have about rats and how they actually make great pets, being both affectionate and smart. Be sure to check it out!

Monday, December 2, 2013

New Christmas Decoration

Our new Christmas Decoration (available from Menards:

The package was labeled "Lighted Mouse" but this is clearly a labeling error. He is much too big to be a mouse. He is most definitely a Christmas Rat!

Finally, a rat that Loki gets along with!