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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!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Turkey Day for the Rats, Too!

Bela enjoys some Thanksgiving turkey
Do you share your Thanksgiving feast with your rats? We do.

Granted, it wouldn't be a healthy diet on a regular basis (for them or for us!), but once a year, sharing the goodness won't hurt and it will be greatly appreciated.

This year, our rats got some turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, all dribbled with gravy, some corn, and a tiny bit of cranberry sauce from the can. It was all very appreciated and their dish was licked clean by morning.

Did you know that you can also give your rats poultry bones? It is something I don't do often - having a difficult time getting past my experience with dogs and knowing that poultry bones are dangerous for them. However, rats do not crunch bones the way dogs do. They gnaw and grind. Thus, they don't have the same concerns about the bones splintering as they eat them.

We saved a few turkey bones in the fridge for the rats. That will be a treat for later. Don't want to make them sick with too much of a good thing!

We hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving holiday - both humans and ratties - with plenty of good food to eat.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Rats and Strep Throat

I have been ill with strep throat for the past several days and am much better now that I am on antibiotics - except that the antibiotics are making me a little nauseated.

I found that while I have been ill, I have been very leery of handling our rats. I outsourced their play time to my boys and I just handled the preparation and serving of breakfast with minimal contact. But in reality, I do not need to be concerned.

I have a book called "Rats: Practical, Accurate Advice From the Expert" by Debbie Ducommun. This was a book I bought when I didn't know much about them and I wanted an introduction to the subject. There is an error in this book, however, that I have seen repeated elsewhere. It explains that a strep infection in rats is usually fatal within 3 days if not treated and says, "A strep infection can be transmitted from people to rats, so anyone with strep throat should stay away from rats."

In fact, while Streptococcus pneumonia can be passed between people and rats, this is not the organism that causes strep throat. Strep throat is caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, and this organism does not affect rats. So my rats are perfectly safe from my nasty bacterial infection - which is more than I can say for the rest of my family.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Rat Cage Accessories: Super Pet Natural Tree Trunk Hide

There are a lot of commercially made hides available for pet rats, but the Super Pet Natural Tree Trunk Hide, available from PetSmart and Amazon, is my favorite. It is made from a combination of resin and wood. Mine has never been chewed and doesn't emit a scent, like many wood huts do. It is easily cleaned with soap and water or by wiping down with a vinegar water mix. It is durable and very roomy. The rats love to hide inside it and to sit on top of it, or to use it as a stepping stone to reach the next level without a ramp.

Tree Trunk in a Fall-Themed Cage
It has a nice natural look to it that goes well with forest/nature themes, as well as Halloween and Fall themes, and is available in at least two different colors. It comes in large or small, with the large being the appropriate size for rats. The only drawback is that the large size is quite large and may not fit well in all cages. It fits nicely in Critter Nation cages. I don't use it in the Martin's cage as it is hard to find a good place with enough space that doesn't conflict with a ramp or a litter box - it is just a little too uncomfortably large. It also may not fit through all cage doors - in smaller cages, you may need to position it with the cage removed from the base first.

However, if your cage has the space, this is a nice looking hide that the rats will love and that will last for quite a long time.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rats In The News: Elementary School Uses Rats to Teach Nutrition

Article: Rats Provide Info About Healthy Eating - From the Goshen News

I like to see rats used in a positive way in schools. I wish the schools in my area were this progressive and enlightened. Of course, I'm not crazy about the idea of rats drinking milk or sugar water, but as far as experimentation with lab rats go - that is probably not too bad a gig. Having edited a veterinary medical research journal, I know what fate lies in store for most lab rats. I am also not happy they didn't keep the rats together when they found homes for them with the students. Still, there is a lot to like about projects like these - as long as the rats are cared for with knowledge and compassion - and hopefully, the students will grow up knowing what great pets rats can be.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Fall Decorating Ideas

Critter Nation Decorated for Fall
For the first time, we have put together a fall theme for the cage. I love the colors of the trees in fall and this year has been an especially colorful one in our area. I decided to focus on this for our theme.

I picked out three cotton prints that featured leaves of various colors. However, when put together, the color of brown stood out too much. So I decided to go with bright fleece colors: tomato orange, pumpkin orange, warm yellow, and a lemon/lime green (these pictures are a little overexposed from the flash and so the green looks washed out into a dull yellow, but in real life, the green really pops). I packed away the browns, rusts, and golds that also would have gone nicely with the theme.
I reused one of the Halloween pumpkins, turning it around so the circular back door opening was featured instead of the jack-o'-lantern face, then made a new set of fall hammocks as shown below:
Fall Hammock Set
These are mainly my standard hammocks - modifying a few to better fit the fall theme. I modified the web-shaped hammock pattern, using a maple-leaf shape instead. I made the top layer orange and the bottom layer rust, but any fall colors would have worked. The design came out well and in the future I may use more of these hammocks to help simulate the appearance of falling leaves.
Cube with Acorn-Shaped Opening.
Above Is the Falling Leaf Hammock.
The cubes were made with acorn-shaped openings and I added a peek-a-boo hammock with a maple-leaf shaped opening. It came out really nice, but was tedious to sew.
Nothing is so comfy as a sack of fall fleece leaves!
Finally, I embroidered a leaf pattern onto a solid orange cotton fabric and made a snuggle sack out of it, representing a sack of leaves. But what sack of leaves would be complete without a set of colorful leaves to fill it with? So I took the same maple-leaf cookie cutter I used to trace the opening in the peek-a-boo hammock and I traced leaf patterns on scrap fleece pieces, cut them out, and packed them into the snuggle sack. I scattered a few of the extras around the cage and clipped a few to the cage bars to give the appearance of leaves falling everywhere.

An accessory that goes extremely well with this theme is the Super Pet Natural Tree Trunk Hideout. This is my favorite of all the commercially made huts that sit on the ground, and it goes fantastically well with this theme (but may be too large for some cages). It also looks good with a spooky Halloween theme or any kind of nature/woodsy theme.

I also reused one of the ceramic pumpkin food dishes for this design. I got them a few years back in the Target dollar section.

So far, I only have the Critter Nation done. Loki's hammocks for the Martin's R-695 are not yet finished, but should be by the end of the week.

One thing I wanted to add is a few walnuts or similar nuts in the shell to scatter in the cage. Nuts on a regular basis are too fatty for the rat diet, but an occasional nut every now and then won't hurt, and the shell can keep them busy and entertained. I haven't seen any yet at my grocery store, so we had to do without.

Check out the photos below for a closer shot of each level of the CN.
Top Half of the Critter Nation
Bottom Half of the Critter Nation

Monday, November 4, 2013

Loki's Meds Get Increased

Poor Loki.

He just can't catch a break.

He had a lower respiratory infection a few weeks ago and wasn't eating well. We put him on Doxy. He got better for a few days and then worse again.

We put him on Doxy + Baytril. He got better for a week and a half, then he got worse. This time, his lungs were clear, but his lower respiratory infection had migrated into an upper respiratory infection (in his nose/sinuses instead of his lung). He sounded terrible.

We added Theophylline and steam showers to help clear out those sinuses. He didn't show much improvement.

On Friday, we upped him to the max Baytril dosage. On Saturday, he was much better. Sunday morning, he sounded terrible again. Sunday evening, he was better. This morning, sneezy again. It has been a real roller coaster with him.

The good news is that the upper respiratory infection isn't as debilitating as the lower respiratory infection. He is eating fine and behaving normally, he just sounds terrible. And he is having some good spells where his breathing is clear, so maybe the increased dosage is just taking its time. I have hope, but I worry about what will happen if this doesn't clear it up. I fear trying other antibiotics. Loki hasn't responded well to Clavamox in the past (it caused bad diarrhea and made him extremely irritable and unhappy). I just have to keep my fingers crossed that he will get over this.

I like to post these kinds of updates not because I think the world is waiting to hear how Loki is doing - but because I think it is important to illustrate the kind of day-to-day health problems that will pop up if you own rats.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rats in the News: Pet Rats Star in RatsPacNW Show at the Washington County Fairgrounds

Article: Pet Rats Star in RatsPacNW Show at the Washington County Fairgrounds

If you happen to live in the northwestern states, you might be interested in attending this rat show this weekend. But even if you don't, this is a quality informative article about keeping rats that gets the facts right for a change.

When I see good press for rats, I like to share it. Wish I were closer so I could go.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Liner Instructions for Critter Nations and Martins R695 Cages

Since the rat cage liners backed with U-Haul furniture pads have been a success so far, I put together some instructions with proper cutting dimensions for Critter Nation cages and for Martin's R695 cages. Note that these dimensions may also be appropriate for Ferret Nation cages as long as they use the newer pan style levels and shelves with a small rim instead of the flat style that was used on older models. The Martin's dimensions likely also work for the shelves and levels in the R680, R685, and R699 - (as long as the upper level has the cutout in the same place as the R695). I do not own those cages, so you would have to verify this yourself.

I will eventually do a step-by-step tutorial and add it to the hammock tutorial pdf, but for the most part, these instructions are simple (the same premise as a flat hammock) and the hardest part is figuring out the dimensions - especially for levels that have a cut-out for the ramp.

Critter Nation
A Dual Critter Nation will require one bottom liner, one top liner, and two shelf liners. Each liner will need one piece of fleece and one piece of furniture cloth, cut to the following dimensions:
Martin's R695

A Martin's R695 will also require one bottom liner, one top liner, and two shelf liners. Each liner will need one piece of fleece and one piece of furniture pad, cut to the following dimensions:



The Martin's Bottom Liner is sized a little long so the
cage sits on top and secures the liner to the floor.
The dimensions for the Martin's Bottom Level are a little extra long (about 1.5" on each side), so that the cage will sit on top of the liner with enough overlap to hold it securely in place. The edges will curve up the short sides of the pan. If you would like your liner to be sized exactly to the bottom of the pan, the length should be cut to about 32" instead of 35".


Note that when the liner is not a perfect rectangle, but has a notch cut out, you will need to make sure to cut the fleece piece as shown with the right side up. This should match the layout of the shelf or level. (The furniture pad has no right and wrong side, but if it did, you would cut it as shown with the wrong side up.)

To sew the liner, pin the fleece to the furniture pad, right sides together, wrong side out. If it is a notched liner, the layout will look wrong with respect to the layout of the actual level, but after it is sewn and turned right side out, it will look right again.

Sew along all edges of the liner with a 1/2" seam allowance, leaving an opening large enough to turn the liner right side out. Trim the excess seam allowances, and turn the liner right side out. Push out the corners and flatten to the proper shape.

Slip stitch the opening closed by hand (or machine stitch it closed very near the edge), then top stitch around the entire liner to hold the proper shape.

One Set of Dual Critter Nation Liners

One Set of Martins R-695 Liners

Using Large Binder Clips to
Secure CN Liners
The Critter Nation liners can be set inside the pans. Large binder clips (2 inch clips with 1 inch capacity) can be used to secure the liner in place if necessary.

The Martin's bottom liner sits in the bottom pan. Because it is a little longer than the cage itself, the weight of the cage on top of the liner will hold it securely in place. The Martin's top level liner should stay in place by itself, being held in place by the surrounding cage walls. However, if you would like, a large binder clip can secure the liner in place at the ramp opening. Shelf liners can also be held in place with a large binder clip. Alternatively, you can install grommets in the corners of the top level and shelf liners, place a split ring through each grommet, and a lanyard hook in the split ring. The lanyard hooks can then be clipped to the cage wall to secure the liner in place.

The one thing I might try a little differently with the Critter Nation liners, since the corners of the pans are slightly curved, in the outer four corners, instead of doing an angular corner, sew a slight arc, so the corner point doesn't stick up as much.

Dual Critter Nation with Liners
Martin's R-695 with Liners
Related Posts:
Using U-Haul Furniture Pads with Rat Cage Liners - Part 1: Construction
U-Haul Furniture Pads with Rat Cage Liners - Part 2: Early Review

Monday, October 28, 2013

Jo made the 2014 Rats Rule Calendar

Jo's picture from the 4th of July earned a spot in the 2014 Rats Rule Calendar. Her pic was the top vote getter for July/August on the GooseMoose Pet Portal forums. Be sure to check out the other finalists here:

Friday, October 25, 2013

Navigating Fleece

I noticed recently that JoAnn's has a new budget-friendly fleece option available in 8 colors, bringing their fleece offerings up to three. I thought I would take a moment and talk about the differences I have noticed between these fabrics, so that you can make appropriate purchasing decisions.

JoAnn's fleece falls into three categories (not including micro-fleece):
  • Anti-Pill Fleece

    This is the most expensive of the choices, but in general, also the nicest. My JoAnn's usually has more color options available in the anti-pill variety. Anti-pill comes in both solid colors and prints, with prints regularly priced at $12.99 a yard and solids at $9.99 a yard.

    Anti-pill is special because there is a slightly noticeable difference between the right side of the fabric and the wrong side. The right side is generally shinier and a little fuzzier and softer. The right side of the fabric is also supposed to resist pilling (having the fuzz sort of ball up into small clumps) when washed. I believe this to be true, although if you mistakenly sew with the wrong side of the fleece out, you will likely notice significant pilling after several washes.
    The right side of anti-pill fleece is shinier and fuzzier.
    When you pull on the selvage edge, it will curl toward the right side.

    Note that if you find it hard to tell the difference between the right side and the wrong side of the fleece, you can always check by stretching across the selvage edge. The selvage edge will curl toward the right side of the fabric when released. Conversely, if you stretch the cut edge (perpendicular to the selvage edge, it will curl toward the wrong side of the fabric). This holds true for all types of fleece.

    Anti-pill is my favorite of the fleece varieties, but it took me a while before I could tell the difference. However, it is also more costly, so for rat hammocks, if there is a suitable color available in blizzard fleece, I will often opt for the less expensive option - unless there is a really good sale on anti-pill. However, often the specific color I want is only available in anti-pill, so in that case I pay more for the good stuff.
  • Blizzard Fleece
    Blizzard fleece is JoAnn's name for polar fleece. Blizzard fleece is a little less expensive than anti-pill fleece, and also comes in both solids ($8.99 a yard) and prints ($9.99 a yard). My JoAnn's has a decent selection of basic colors, but often the specific shade I need can only be found in anti-pill.

    Blizzard fleece has the potential to pill after several washings. However, I haven't noticed this to really be a problem in any but the most used hammocks and liners. Perhaps this is because most of my hammocks will usually be chewed before they ever reach this stage.

    Blizzard fleece doesn't have the same nice sheen that you get from anti-pill fleece, but you can only really notice this close up. From a distance, I can't tell the two apart. I am sure the rats don't care much about this.

    It can be difficult to tell the right side of the fabric from the wrong side of the fabric, but for the most part, it is not going to matter. If you can't tell and the rats can't tell, it doesn't make much difference. However, if you want to check, you can stretch the selvage edge as described above.
  • Fleece Essentials
    Fleece Essentials is the new offering of budget blizzard fleece, coming it at a regular price of $5.99 a yard. It comes only in eight basic colors and only in solids. The first thing I noticed about this fleece is that it appears to be very thin. It was marketed in my flyer as for "crafters," so I am guessing it may not hold up well after repeated washings - although that still remains to be seen.

    I was not too impressed with the thickness or softness of this fabric, but I decided to pick up a half yard that I found in the remnants bin (the sale price was $2.99 a yard - remnant are half the current price, so $1.50 a yard, resulting in a whopping 75 cents for the half yard of fabric). The remnant available was the orange peel color. It is not as bright and vibrant as the neon orange I have for some of my Halloween hammocks or the warmer toned orange I am using for my fall hammocks. It was a duller and more salmon tinged color. I am trying it out on a shelf liner as that will be the true test of its durability.

    I have heard people talk about the cheap Walmart fleece. I suspect this budget fleece is probably on caliber with that fleece - although my Walmart does not sell fabric, so I have never bought fleece from them

Which Fleece Should I Choose?

I usually put color above everything when I am making a specific set of hammocks and liners. I look for the colors that best blend with the cotton fabric I have chosen. While I prefer the anti-pill fleece to the blizzard, I care more about finding the right color. The rats don't make any distinction between the two types that I can tell and both are nice and thick and soft.

I never buy fleece that isn't on sale. If there is a color that is close enough in the type that is on sale, I will choose that. Or, I will wait until the other type goes on sale. If I have a coupon for a regularly priced fabric, I will use that as well. I go through way too much fleece to pay regular price.

That said, I personally would avoid the new budget fleece. It just doesn't feel as soft or durable to me. The exception would be if you have voracious chewers that destroy your hammocks in no time or you want to make a set of hammocks on the cheap because your budget is very tight. My current rats are not so bad about chewing their hammocks and if the hammocks are going to be around a while, I prefer to use a more durable and nicer fleece. However, if the rats are going to demolish the hammocks in a few days/weeks time, you don't want to be investing in the good stuff just to have to pitch it right away. In that case, it would be much more affordable to go the cheap route (especially when the cheap fleece is on sale) - if they are going to destroy it anyway, no use investing in durability.

For the budget conscious who don't want to sacrifice quality, always check out the remnants bin when there is a really good sale. Blizzard fleece sometimes goes on sale for under $4 a yard, and remnants at that time will be 50% off that price - so under $2 a yard. You won't necessarily be able to pick and choose your colors and you can't choose the size of the cut and sometimes there is nothing there, but standard colors always come in handy - and if you find them in the remnants bin - it is a great time to grab them up. If there are some good deals in the remnants bin, that might be a better option than the budget fleece essentials.

Solids Vs. Prints
I also recommend avoiding the fleece prints except for those most have ones that you just can't resist. Prints are more expensive than solids and their use is not as flexible. Sometimes I think I want to buy up some Christmas patterned fleece and make some nice Christmas liners. However, if I stick to basic red, green, and white solid liners, I can re-use them for other themes (red is also good for Valentine's day and 4th of July and also went well with a Pirate theme I did once). Liners use a lot of fleece and are not as exciting to make, so anytime I can reuse a liner I already have, it is a bonus. Fleece prints also don't always blend well with cotton prints, even when the theme is similar.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

U-Haul Furniture Pads with Rat Cage Liners - Part 2: Early Review

Halloween Cage with Furniture Pad Liners
On Sunday, we started using the new cage liners made with a layer of U-Haul furniture pad and a layer of fleece. Today is day 5, and they are still going strong.

I have to say that I was cautiously optimistic about these new liners. They are inexpensive to make and nice looking. They are softer than the Zilla liners and can be made in any color combination that works with your cage d├ęcor. They are heavy enough to feel durable and absorbant. They require less than half the amount of fleece I would have to purchase to make a pillowcase liner and no towels to go underneath. They are easier to change than pillow case liners.

But the key questions were (1) would they hold up to chewing and (2) would they control odor well enough?

Furniture Pad Liner with the Corner
Pulled Back by the Rats
I am very pleased to report that the preliminary results are looking very positive. On Day 5, I still cannot detect any rat urine odor. None of the liners have been chewed. The worst they have done is to pull on the corners and bend them inward.

I fully expect that they will eventually start chewing on the corners/edges or maybe at the fleece in the center. However, with the pillowcase liners, they had already made huge holes in the corners and sometimes the center after only a day or two in use.  There is no temptation to burrow underneath these liners, so there is much less need to chew a hole and dive in.

I have the two large level liners clamped down with a few large binder clips. But the liners on the shelves just rest there unsecured and the rats have not cared to bother with them. While I don't think that they are indestructible (how many things really are?), I am hopeful that they will be durable enough to last longer than the pillowcase liners with towels and maybe even longer than the Zilla liners. They definitely control odors better than the Zilla liners.

I am so optimistic at this point, that I have started working on liners for fall and Christmas themes as well as liners for Loki's Martins R-695. The Zilla liners have really worked fine for Loki, but I prefer the bright colors of these homemade liners and the softness of the fleece and the machine washability. Also, with Loki potentially having had a urinary tract infection, I want to be able to easily check for blood on the liners, so I will know if his infection has returned. The dark green of the Zilla liners made it hard to detect blood.

The furniture pad is quite large. I used two pads and was able to cut the backing for the following liners: 2 sets of Dual Critter Nation liners plus two extra Critter Nation shelf liners, 2 sets of Martins R-695 cage liners with extra long bottom liners so that the weight of the cage will secure the liner in place plus one extra Martins bottom liner. Note that one of the Martin's shelf liners was made using two fragments of furniture pad pieced together to make one piece. Based on that, the average cost for the furniture pad for one set of liners comes in at about 4 dollars a set (less for Martins cage liners). Add that to the cost of the fleece, assuming 1.5 yards at about $5 a yard on sale, and a set of Dual Critter Nation liners comes to about $11.50 a set plus tax. You can't do better than that (unless you buy your fleece from the remnant bin at JoAnn's while it is on sale and get 1/2 off the sale price!).

Related Posts:
Using U-Haul Furniture Pads with Rat Cage Liners - Part 1: Construction
Liner Instructions for Critter Nations and Martins R695 Cages
Furniture Pad Liners - Update

Monday, October 21, 2013

Halloween Cages

Halloween is almost here and the rat cages are all decked out in spooky style. This week the pattern is full of Jack-o'-lanterns in the cemetery, combined with the new U-Haul furniture pad/fleece liners in shades of orange and black. The new liners are really nice so I am hoping they will do well controlling odor. So far, no chewing, but it is way too early to tell.
This is the alternate design: a Halloween town pattern with some bats, ghosts, pumpkins, and candy corn for variety. This design is a lot more colorful, pulling in the oranges, purples, greens, and a fluorescent yellow. The picture below was taken a few weeks ago when Pirate was still with us. Seeing him here doing well, it is hard to believe he will go downhill so quickly after this.

Loki gets Halloween hammocks as well. I've taken out his Zilla liners and put in fleece ones because I previously noticed a little blood coming from his penis area and I want to be able to easily see if he spots any more blood. I suspect he has a urinary tract infection (UTI) in addition to the respiratory infection we are treating him for. Perhaps the UTI is the immune stressor that triggered the respiratory infection. It is possible the UTI was caused by bacteria from his skin infection getting into the urethra. If so, that infection responded to Baytril and he is currently on Baytril for the respiratory infection, so it is possible both infections can be treated with one drug. Since a couple days after starting the Baytril, I haven't seen any more blood and I am hopeful that it is working. He has a recheck with the vet tomorrow, so we will know more at that time.

Loki is the only rat who really likes the cuddle cups. In this pic, he is in a cuddle cup from an old hammock set because I didn't finish the new cuddle cup by cage cleaning day. When I went to change out the old cuddle cup with the new one, he quickly snatched the old cup and dragged it into his litter box where he thinks I can't find it. So I let him keep it. Now he has two cuddle cups. I wonder how long it will be before one of them is moved into his cube. He seems to think his house should come complete with a sofa. He is a very particular rat and he doesn't like me messing with his stuff.
Tutorials for making the cuddle cup along with all the other hammocks shown in these pics can be found in the Hammock Tutorial section of the Ratropolis website.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Using U-Haul Furniture Pads with Rat Cage Liners - Part 1: Construction

U-Haul Furniture Pad
We previously blogged about our experience using Zilla Reptile Liners for lining a rat cage:

Zilla Terrarium Liners - Part 1
Zilla Terrarium Liners - Part 2 (Martins R695)
Update on the Zilla Liners

While they worked fine in the R695 with just Loki in residence, they didn't work as well in the Dual Critter Nation with the three girls and Pirate. The cage started to smell after only a couple days and while they held up better than fleece, they still suffered some chewing damage. Switching the Critter Nation back to fleece was the best option for us.

While the pillowcase style fleece liners + towel combination handles odor well (we only have to change the liners and towels once a week with the four rats in the DCN), it still has some serious drawbacks:

  1. It is a wasteful when it comes to the fleece. The fleece layer on the bottom of the pan is never used. Plus, the pillowcase design requires the fleece pieces to be longer than the shelf itself, with extra length included for folding under the shelf.
  2. The young girl rats love to chew the fleece and burrow underneath it. I am repairing or replacing liners every week.
  3. The rats, once under the fleece, start chewing on the towels, leaving them in tatters. Replacing towels at this rate, even if they come from the thrift store, is expensive. Leaving them chewed is a hazard because loose threads could eventually get tangled around rattie feet and cause them injury.
Rather than continue to throw money at a solution that isn't working as well as we'd like, we are going to experiment to see if we can find a solution that might work better. Because my husband does not like the mess and dust associated with litter and because I do not like to produce so much waste or spend money on all that litter on a weekly basis, litter alone is not an option. Plus, the girls have just started to figure out the litter training.

We have read about a material that Guinea pig owners have been using for a while now as an absorbant layer in their cage liners. That material is a Furniture Pad sold by U-Haul. It is about 1/8" thick and measures 68" x 85", is made out of recycled denim (although the pad itself does not resemble jeans fabric in any way - it is much thicker and softer), costs about $8, and it is supposed to be very absorbant.

I have reservations about how well this material will work in a rat cage, however. To my knowledge, Guinea pigs are not extensive chewers. This material may not hold up as well with rats. And I don't know how rats compare with Guinea pigs regarding odor and urine production. Rats are notorious markers - I am not sure if the same is true about piggies.

Before using the furniture pads, I washed them in hot water 3 times (the water drained a slight blue color and I was hoping that repeated washes would rinse out any dyes that may run - but no luck). I then dried it in the dryer to preshrink it. For this first set of liners, I started cheap and simple - constructing them from a top layer of fleece to wick away moisture and a bottom layer of furniture pad to absorb it.
Dual Critter Nation Liners Made from Fleece and Furniture Pad

The pad is designed to sit on the tray, similar to the way the Zilla liners do. I can clip them in place with large binder clips, or, if that doesn't work, add grommets and clip the liners to the cage bars so that they cannot be completely tossed aside by the rats.

I cut my fabric to the following dimensions for a Critter Nation:

Dimensions for the Top Level of the Critter Nation

  • Shelf (top and bottom): 16 1/2" x 22 1/2" (15 1/2" x 21 1/2" finished size).
  • Bottom Level: 23" x 34 1/2" rectangle (22" x 33 1/2" finished).
  • Top Level: Same as the bottom level but with a notch cut out in the corner that extends 5 1/2" into the long end and 9 1/2" into the short end.
One furniture pad contains more than enough fabric for a set, with plenty of material left over. For the fleece, about 1 1/2 yards will make one set. Assuming an average price of $5 a yard for fleece when on sale, the total cost for one set of DCN liners would be around $16 - and this includes having a lot of extra furniture pad left over for future projects. That is about the cheapest liner option I know of so far - if they are absorbant enough and hold up as constructed.

It may turn out that we need an extra layer of furniture pad in order to control odors well. It may also turn out that the exposed layer of furniture pad is a temptation to chew and that I need to add a layer of fleece to the bottom to keep the pad from being exposed.

My hope is that the rats will be less likely to chew these liners because they can more easily burrow underneath them without chewing. That may be wishful thinking. We will have to see.

Supposedly, the furniture pad can also be used instead of batting for things like cuddle cups. I haven't tried this, but given its heft and thickness, I can see this working well. Many people do not like to use batting because it is hard to work with and it's fibers can be hazardous to little feet, so keeping excess furniture pad material for these projects may be worthwhile.

I will be installing these new liners with a new set of Halloween hammocks in a few days when I do the big cage clean. I am curious to see how they will hold up.

Related Posts:
U-Haul Furniture Pads with Rat Cage Liners - Part 2: Early Review
Liner Instructions for Critter Nations and Martins R695 Cages