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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Update on the Zilla Liners

We started using Zilla Terrarium Liners back in mid-May to see how they would hold up as liners for a rat cage. After using them for about 2 1/2 months, we have drawn a few conclusions.

The Zilla liners are working fine for us in Loki's cage. Loki has never chewed the liners and they have been controlling odor in his cage just fine. The best way to clean them has been to first rinse them out really well until much of the urine has run out. Then, soaking them for a while in cold water is helpful - to help loosen up the food particles that get stuck in the material. Sometimes, a little scrubbing of those areas is needed. I do the soaking in a utility sink, but a bathtub would also work.

The Zilla liners also held up well for Pirate when he was alone in the Critter Nation. Like Loki, Pirate never chewed on the liners, and when he was by himself, the liners could adequately handle odors.

Adding the 3 new girls to Pirate's cage has changed the dynamics quite a bit. First, the girls are more active chewers. While their hammocks have so far remained pretty much intact, they love to chew scrap pieces of fleece, and they really went to town on one of the Zilla liner pieces. Interestingly, it is always the same piece that gets chewed - the bottom level, left side piece. The other pieces remain pretty much intact - or occasionally get a little nibbled on in a corner. This is true for both sets of liners - it is always the same piece that has been chewed. This is what it looks like today:

The liners that cover the bottom level of the DCN. The left side piece
has been chewed, while the right side piece remains intact.
Replacing that piece is not a big deal (and I can even reuse the intact portion to line a shelf in the Martin's cage). However, lately, the Zilla liners have been struggling to control the odors in the cage. This was certainly expected, since a large cage holding four rats will become smelly much faster than the same cage holding one rat, but it seems that the cage becomes very smelly even the day after a thorough cage cleaning.

I have also noticed that when I pull up the liners, there are shiny urine puddle stains on the plastic trays beneath. This implies to me that the liners are not doing a good enough job of absorbing all the urine produced by this many rats. It could be that the liners have just reached the end of their usefulness and need to be replaced (although Loki's liners are still absorbing fine).

For now, I am switching back to fleece and towels in the Critter Nation to see how they compare with the same rats in the same conditions. My Critter Nation liners are made by sewing fleece into a sort of pillow case that fits over the Critter Nation plastic trays. I put a towel on top of the tray and then slipe the liner over tray and towel, then fold the open end under the tray (large binder clips can be used to better secure the opening shut). I believe that the towels will be more absorbant than the Zilla liners, but I also fear that the new rats will chew to get down to the towel - or pull the towel up through the opening in the fleece liner - and will then chew the towels. This is not a big deal, except that I worry that the loose strings that get produced when the towels are chewed will end up a hazard in the cage.

I am interested to see whether the fleece holds up longer than the Zilla liners or whether it is shredded even quicker. The nice thing about the Zilla is that the rats can't burrow underneath, so there is not as much incentive to chew it in order to get underneath it. The fleece is a different story, as Mystery and Weasel used to chew and burrow when they were young.

I am sticking with the Zilla for now in Loki's cage, because for him it seems to be working well and it makes cage cleaning day easier for me. But I think towels and fleece may be better when there are more rats - at least as far as odor control goes.

Related Posts:
Rat Cage Accessories - Zilla Terrarium Liners - Part 1
Rat Cage Accessories - Zilla Terrarium Liners - Part 2

Monday, July 29, 2013

Doxycycline and Respiratory Infections

Pirate has recurring respiratory infections. He has been in good health for several months now, not needing medications since before we left on vacation in the beginning of June. However, more recently, has started sounded congested at times - primarily when just waking up or becoming active again. After that, his breathing clears up and he seems fine.

Because this is a recurring thing with him, he has a standing prescription for Doxycycline, and I have started him back on the antibiotic, with the hopes that it will take care of this recurrence before it gets a foothold. If not, he will be back in to see the vet.

Doxycycline is often prescribed in combination with a stronger antibiotic like Baytril, and many times it is not effective by itself. However, my vet likes to prescribe Doxy first for mild cases, and in Pirate's case, so far, that has been enough. I find that to be a good thing. Baytril is a strong antibiotic and very effective against myco flare-ups. But when a rat has persistent recurrences, over time, Baytril can become less effective, and eventually, respiratory infections in chronic cases become hard to treat. By using a less powerful antibiotic when it is still effective, we don't have to switch to Baytril until it is really needed, and then hopefully, it will continue to be effective longer.

Unfortunately, Doxycycline is becoming more and more difficult to find. Pirate was originally prescribed the 5 mg/ml syrup made for children. However, back in late 2012, I was unable to find a pharmacy that could acquire this medication because of "manufacturer backorder." The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists website has listed this shortage since then (most recently updated on July 10th, 2013), and the FDA had declared a shortage in January 2013, which has continued to be verified in June and July from the various manufacturers.

There are conflicting stories about why this is - some companies state a materials shortage and others claim supply and demand, but the most likely truth that no one will admit is that Doxycycline is a cheap antibiotic (or at least it was before the shortage). Drug companies approved to manufacture it have chosen to spend their resources manufacturing other, more profitable, antibiotics - forcing patients to chose a more expensive option when a more affordable one would have done just fine.

Those who are still manufacturing Doxycycline are likely making a fortune right now. Doxycycline is recommended for treatment of Lyme disease, and according to one article in March of 2013, a prescription that in the past would cost as low as $4.60 is now being reported to cost as high as $400.

So far, I have been able to get Pirate's Doxycycline from a veterinary compounding pharmacy and the price was still reasonable (about $44) the last time I refilled it. However, I am always afraid that the next time I need to refill it, it will be unavailable or ridiculously expensive. I do highly recommend having this medication compounded at a veterinary compounding pharmacy, however. They compound it in a flavoring for animals (I always choose beef oil), and my rats just love it. They often will snatch the syringe out of my hand to get the yummy medicine.

I usually give medications directly into the mouth via syringe to ensure they get all of the medication. However, Pirate's prescription has been for quite a high dose at times, and while he likes the medication, he doesn't like having it squirted into his mouth via syringe. Because it takes many squirts to administer the entire dose and he will fight them - sometimes turning his head as I squirt, causing me to spill the meds, I instead offer this medication mixed with a meat-based baby food. He likes both the medication and the baby food, so he eats it all without a fuss.

Doxycycline should not be mixed with dairy products, however, as the calcium in dairy can reduce the absorption of the antibiotic. The general recommendation is not to give foods with calcium within 2 hours (before or after) administering the antibiotic. This means that you should not mix doxycycline with yogurt or it will not be as effective.

Also, while some drugs remain effective long after their expiration date, Doxycycline is not a drug that can be safely taken when expired. The drug degrades with time and becomes nephrotic, meaning that it can cause kidney damage in humans. Thus, don't save your old doxycycline after it has expired - get a new prescription when needed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why Animals Cannot be Properly Bred for Profit

Our last post dealt with an extreme case of animal cruelty at a mill facility that produced rats and reptiles en masse for pet stores. Even though that was most certainly an extreme example of what can go wrong at a mill, that doesn't mean that other mills are doing things right.

The simple fact is that there is no way to breed animals for profit if you are doing things correctly. And it is almost impossible to do things correctly if you are producing animals in large numbers, which is a requirement if you hope to supply animals to big chain pet stores.

So let's go over some of the things a breeding operation would need to do in order to do things right. First, let's look at the animals' needs:
  1. Animals need to be fed a nutritious diet made up of healthy ingredients - especially pregnant/nursing mothers and growing young. A good diet costs money and often takes time to prepare. An establishment that is trying to make a profit will often cut costs by providing less healthy or incomplete alternatives. A bulk operation is much more likely to substitute a cheap processed food (eg, low-quality dog food made up of dried corn and meat byproducts and artificial preservatives) in place of a more expensive high quality commercial diet or a more labor-intensive fresh food diet.
  2. Animals need a clean and spacious place to live, with room for exercise. They need a stimulating environment with appropriate air-flow, temperature, and humidity. This means large cages/enclosures without overpopulation in a climate controlled building, with staff available to keep enclosures clean and safe.
  3. Mothers need time between litters to recover and regain their health. During this time, they still need to be fed and stimulated and cared for. Thus, they continue to cost money without producing any returns. Large mill-based operations are likely to overbreed their animals so that they continue to earn their keep.
  4. Animals need attention from their handlers. Many species need to be socialized so that they learn to trust people. Adult animals need care, attention, and stimulation from their people. All animals need someone to watch over their well-being and ensure they are not injured, ill, stressed, or otherwise compromised.
  5. Animals need veterinary care. Animals in an overcrowded facility are more likely to get sick or injured. A profit-based operation is likely to see vet care as being more expensive than that animal is worth. Sick and injured animals need medications, which means they also need qualified personnel to measure and administer the medications. Animals that are dying and cannot be treated need humane euthanasia options, but how many profit-based operations will pay for something that is going to happen on its own for free?
  6. New animals and sick animals need to be quarantined to stop the spread of disease. This requires a separate airspace and separate housing arrangement, along with vet care to properly handle illness and pathogens. A mill operation is not likely to devote the money or resources to proper quarantine, thus illness and disease are spread and carried by the animals in their warehouses. It is often less expensive to lose some animals to disease than to properly contain, control, and treat it safely for all animals.
But this is not all. To do things right, breeders cannot just look at the current generation of animals - they need to look at the future. They need to think about how their efforts are going to contribute and hopefully improve the genetics of the general animal population. Think about all of the devastating health problems that rats are susceptible to - many of these problems continue to torment the pet rat population because the majority of rats bred are bred by mills, by accident, or by backyard breeders who do not make any effort to eliminate them. Such breeding efforts/accidents just contribute to the widespread animal overpopulation problem and perpetuate the same problems that torment us today.

Sometimes breeding efforts are focused on working with specific colors/markings/physical features. But those are just superficial concerns that appeal to people but have little bearing on the well-being of the animals themselves. These goals should be secondary to those goals that promote the health and well-being of the animals.

Improving the health and temperament of a species/breed is a very difficult thing to accomplish and takes much time, money, and effort to make any inroads. Mills will always ignore these goals - they have one simple goal - that enough of the animals produced live long enough in good enough condition to be sold or to produce more of themselves. That is it. But the following are some of the things that a good breeder will do so that their efforts actually improve the quality of their lines and to ensure the animals they place find a good home:

  1. Detailed records from all lines must be kept, including pedigrees with information about genetics, longevity, temperament, and health conditions. Not all conditions are genetic, but susceptibility to contagious illness such as myco can be. The overall picture must be understood so that careful selection can be used to reduce such problems in future generations.
  2. Applications should be created by breeders and filled out by customers to ensure the animals are going to a home that is prepared to care for them properly. Care sheets should be prepared and distributed to all customers to make sure they have access to the important information they will need.
  3.  Necropsies should be performed in order to identify problems in the lines - both problems that cause death and those that had not yet progressed to the point of showing external symptoms.
  4. Some animals must be held back and kept by the breeder for the sole purpose of continuing to monitor what conditions pop up in the line. Breeders should stay in touch with customers so that health problems and longevity can continue to be tracked among the animals that are rehomed. It is impossible to know what problems exist in a line if one loses track of all animals once they reach independence and find new homes.
  5. Decisions must be made as to when to stop breeding from a given line because of serious medical problems in that line and when to continue working with the line to work out those problems. Some problems are so bad (eg, megacolon in rats) that they may warrant abandoning a line that has many other positives going for it. Trying to breed such conditions out of a line will continue to produce more rats with the condition and may continue to pass the gene along even if it is not expressed.
  6. Animals that should not be bred because they are known to carry a gene for a serious condition should be spayed or neutered before being sold so that there is no risk of that gene being passed on to future generations (whether on purpose or by accident).
It is easy to think that the only thing you need to breed an animal is a male and a female of that species and any offspring that you get are pure profit, but as you can see, the reality is quite different. It is actually quite costly and time-intensive to breed animals in a humane way - and even more costly and time-intensive to do it in a way that improves the species rather than just contributing to the pet overpopulation problem. When you do it as a business rather than as a hobby for the love of it, you have to add labor costs on top of everything else. Now consider that PetSmart currently sells a "Fancy Rat" (really just your plain old average pet rat) for $10.99. They bought those rats in bulk from a mill at a much lower cost - probably only a few dollars each. Given the high costs of care, even for a very productive species that is easy to breed, where does the profit come from? If there is no profit, there is no business.

The only way to make it work is to cut back on expenses - which means small inappropriate cages, poor diet, no handling or interaction with the animals, limited vet care, dirty environments, and overbred females. Even the pet store, just turning around the animals and reselling at a much higher cost, cannot make a profit on live animals. Their care and upkeep is usually more than they will ever sell for. The longer a given animal stays at the store, the more it costs the store. So why do they sell them if they can't make a profit? They sell live animals as a loss leader so they can then sell more profitable supplies: cages, food, toys, and accessories.

Unfortunately, pet store animals are readily available and easy. Locating an animal through a rescue or researching a good breeder takes work and time and effort - and sometimes a long drive to another location to pick the animal up and bring it home. Too many people settle for easy and never think about what the costs of that convenience are.

It would be nice if pet stores started to move in the direction many of them have gone with dogs and cats - to make it easier for people to find small/exotic animals from rescues.

Anyway, I apologize for the graphic nature of the video I linked to yesterday. I know it is hard to stomach. And it is not my intent to use this blog as a platform to preach pet politics as I try to keep an open and non-judgmental mindset. But it is just too easy to turn a blind eye to the reality of pet store animals because the truth of the situation is conveniently hidden from our view. I think it is good to try to look behind the scenes every now and then and take that into account before making any pet-related decisions. Having once bred finches for a conservation effort, I know how expensive and labor intensive it is to keep animals, and even moreso to breed them properly and successfully. It is just not possible to do things right and make a profit. The mills supplying pet stores make a profit or they go out of business - so that really should tell you everything you need to know.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Example of Why We Should Avoid Pet Store Animals

Warning: the following video shows some
graphic examples of abuse and neglect.

This story showed up in my newsfeed this morning: The video and the investigation were done by PeTA back in the fall/winter of 2012, and I do not personally support their extreme agenda, which actually calls for an end to all human-animal relationships. However, I do believe it is important for people to understand why we should not buy animals from a pet store.

The large chain pet stores can only do business with operations that can supply animals in large quantities. They are not supplied by local breeders, they are supplied by large scale mills who have contracts with the chain. Even though the case illustrated above is likely an example of the worst of the worst, it is still impossible for any large scale operation that has to deliver animals in bulk (and make a profit doing so) to provide the kind of care and attention those animals need to live a good life.

Even though the animal you see in front of you looks happy and healthy, you have no way of knowing what conditions this animal was produced in. Buying him and bringing him home means another mill-bred animal will be bred to replace him. Spending your money on a pet store animal puts money in the pocket of mill breeders and gives them incentive to keep doing what they are doing.

Buying a pet store animal is not "rescuing" that animal. It is allowing the mill operation to continue operating the way it always has operated and replacing the animal you rescued with yet another. I make it a point never to look at the animals in a pet store. If I don't see them, I don't get attached and I can't feel bad for them.

There are rescues today for everything. Any kind of animal you are interested in can be found through a rescue. Petfinder includes listings for all types of animals. Rather than support a pet store and its associated mill operations, we strongly urge everyone to support a rescue whose volunteers work solely in the best interest of the animals in their care.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Accessorizing Your Cage: Lava Ledges

We are always on the lookout for neat cage accessories to keep our rats stimulated when we are not around. One of my favorites are Lava Ledges from SuperPet, marketed toward Chinchillas, but also excellent for rats.

Lava Ledges are available at most pet stores and also from Amazon. They screw onto any cage wall and can be arranged in a stagger pattern to make an interesting climbing wall that can be changed up as often as you like. They come in a variety of colors to brighten up your cage.

Our rats love to climb on them: The young energetic girls especially, but I have occasionally found bigger and slower Pirate up on a lava ledge placed randomly at the top of the cage and wondered how he made his way up there.

They are supposed to be safe to chew, and it is a good thing, because our rats love to chew on them - to no ill effect so far. The rough surface is also ideal for helping to file down sharp nails. We like to place a lava ledge under each water bottle so that the rats step on them every time they take a drink, helping to wear down the nails.

One flaw is that with time, the screw attached to the pumice loosens and the ledge is no longer held firmly in position, but can rotate loosely around the screw. I usually move the loose ledges under the water bottles, close to the cage bottom, so that the bottom prevents the ledge from turning too much, and so that I don't have to worry about a rat falling off the ledge if it turns.

Tips & Tricks: Rotary Cutter Sets for Hammock Making

If you like to make your own hammocks, but can't cut a straight line, a rotary cutter set is the tool you have been looking for. Usually used by quilters to cut straight lines and exact angles, they are also ideal for cutting fabric for hammocks because these designs usually involve straight lines and simple geometric shapes, such as squares, rectangles, and triangles.

Rotary cutter sets are generally expensive, but you can get a good deal if you wait for a sale at Joann's, or buy when not on sale and you have a 50% off coupon.

I prefer the Olfa blades to the Fiskar blades, but you can buy a cheaper Fiskar set and buy Olfa replacement blades to cut with. My set uses an 18" x 24" cutting mat, a 6" x 24" cutting ruler, and a 45 mm rotary cutter.

The rotary cutter works simply by allowing you to layout your fabric on the mat, line up the cutting ruler where you want to cut, then run the rotary cutter along the edge of the ruler. You will get a perfectly straight cut every time. If you use templates, you just mark the corners of your template on the fabric, then line up the ruler from point-to-point and cut. If you don't use templates, both the cutting ruler and the mat are marked with grids that allow you to measure your cuts and line them up parallel, perpendicular, or at specified angles on the fly.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Homemade Rat Treats

I recently tried the Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal Cookies recipe from the RatsRule website. I have a book of recipes for healthy dog treats, but I never make them, because they always call for strange/exotic ingredients. I really like this recipe because the ingredients are simple, and most I had already on hand: peanut butter, banana, rolled oats, whole wheat flour, and a little sugar and cinnamon.

I followed the instructions on the website and ended up with a dough that looks like this:

I then rolled them out and cut them into tiny, bite sized pieces and baked as instructed. The recipe yielded enough treats to fill a baking sheet, and I added a couple rods for the dogs to try.
The whole process took just a few minutes to combine the ingredients and less than 10 minutes to bake. Once cooled, I served to our ratties (and dogs) and the verdict was unanimous: Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal cookies are yummy! Everyone got one and I stored the remainder in a zipper lock storage bag for later.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Introductions Have Gone Well . . . .

After cleaning the cage, I returned later to find Pirate using Bela as a pillow. I guess this is literally a "pillow pet."

And then later, I found him snuggled up with Jo:

So I guess I can say that introductions have gone well and Pirate and the new girls have all formed a well-bonded group. In fact, Pirate has kind of come into a second youth, more energetic and enthusiastic than he had been since he and Loki had to be separated. It appears he is trying to fit in with this active group of excitable young ladies.

But introductions can be stressful, and we had our share of scuffles and ruffled fur and frightened eeps along the way. Fortunately, none of the rats are biters and there was never any blood spilled. I was a little worried because Pirate is so much bigger than the girls and I wasn't sure how receptive he would be to other rats after his problems with Loki, but things turned out well. I was also a little worried the other way around because the girls are so assertive and Pirate is so naturally timid - but he stood his ground - defending his territory and his manhood without getting aggressive or violent.

And since introductions are fresh in my mind, here is a reminder of the steps involved when introducing new rats to the resident rats. You shouldn't just throw everyone together or you could see territorial struggles that quickly escalate and get out of hand. Take your time with each step; they can take several days before getting them right. If things go wrong, go back a step and slow down a little.

  1. Quarantine new rats before introducing them to your existing rats to keep your rats safe from viruses. Since some viruses take 3 weeks for symptoms to show up, quarantine should be 3 weeks minimum. Viruses are also airborne and do not require direct contact, so for quarantine to be effective, it should be done in a completely separate airspace.
  2. Begin introductions by putting the new rats' cage close to the resident rats' cage. Make sure they are far enough apart that no one can get bit through the bars, but close enough that the rats can satisfy their curiosity about each other.
  3. Switch out some hammocks from one cage into the other cage and vice versa so the rats can get used to each others' scents.
  4. Temporarily switch cages - put the new rats in the resident cage while the resident rats are in the new rats' cage (do not put them in either cage together).
  5. When you think they are ready, begin introductions in a neutral territory - someplace where neither group usually plays. Keep a towel and a water spray bottle handy to break-up any fights. Some people recommend putting a drop of vanilla extract at the base of the tails to mask scents (I have never tried this). Some wrestling, pinning, power grooming, and squeaking will be normal. No blood, no foul. Don't interfere unless someone is at risk of being hurt.
  6. When they are getting along well in neutral territory, clean the permanent cage thoroughly and rearrange all the items in the cage to make it as new and neutral as possible. Introduce both groups of rats in the clean cage. Watch carefully for fights.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Making Hammocks for a Dual Critter Nation - How Much Fabric?

This hammock set was created with 2 yards of cotton
print and an equivalent amount of fleece, leaving a
small amount of cotton left over.
It can be tricky trying to decide how much fabric you need to make hammocks for a rat cage. When I make a set for the Dual Critter Nation, I like to have 2 yards of the cotton print and 2 yards of a coordinating fleece. With this, I can make a set that includes a Bunk Bed, Double Bunk, Pocket, Tunnel Pocket, Corner Flat, Cube, and Snuggle Sack, and if I lay everything out efficiently, there is often some fabric left over for one more item. Of course, I mix and match, sometimes replacing a Cube with a Triangular Pyramid, a Pocket with a Peek-a-boo Pocket, a Bunk Bed with a Honeycomb, a Snuggle Sack with a Cuddle Cup, etc. But with 2 yards, I can pretty much get whatever combination of hammocks I need to fill the DCN.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pet Rats Get Some Good Press but with Misinformation

I stumbled across this link/news video recently. At first I was excited to see pet rats getting some positive press, but I was quickly discouraged by a lot of the misinformation that was included in the short segment.

I tried to embed the video with the code they provide, but it did some annoying things, like auto play, then continuing to play other videos when it finished, so I am just going to link to the original story with the video.

Dumbo For a Pet?

Here are a few of the things that irked me:

Dumbo-eared (Mystery and Weasel)
Top-eared (Pirate)

  • The story claimed that dumbo-eared rats are somehow better pets or are raised differently than their top-eared siblings. Dumbo rats, aside from the ears being lower down on their head and maybe slightly larger, are absolutely no different from top-eared rats. They are not bred or raised any differently from top-eared rats and a litter of siblings can include both dumbos and top-ears. This is just a physical trait (equivalent to other traits like color/markings, eye color, and fur type) and is not a different type of rat. Ear type has no effect on personality, disposition, or whether a rat will make a good pet. Both dumbos and top-ears can be feeders and both make equally good pets.

  • The story claimed the average life span of a pet rat is 3-5 years. Most rats live 2-3 years with the best home and veterinary care. It is rare for a rat to live past the 3rd birthday (although possible), and almost unheard of to make it to 4. This story sets unrealistic expectations for pet owners and could potentially make new rat owners feel like they have failed their rats if they do not make it to that 3-year mark, which many do not.

  • I was glad to see that they did support a quality food, although I would hardly call the cage presented a luxury cage. I can't judge its suitability without the cage dimensions, but my reaction was that, assuming its dimensions are appropriate, it is more of just a basic cage than a luxury cage. Calling it a "luxury" cage might lead some new rat owners to believe that something less (smaller, without levels) is perfectly acceptable.

  • Finally, the emphasis on Petsmart leads me to believe that Petsmart is sponsoring the segment. I don't have a problem with chain pet stores when it comes to pet supplies, but I don't like to see the press encouraging the purchase of mill-bred animals from a pet store. It would have been nice to see a local small animal rescue plugged instead - since many aren't aware there are such things. With all the emphasis they placed on how these rats are handled often from birth to make well socialized pets, it is then deceiving to send viewers to a chain pet store, where their rats are unlikely to have been handled in this way at all.

I am happy to see rats getting good press, I just wish people would do their homework first.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Rats and Blueberries - Good for Digestive Health

I always peruse the news for stories about rats. Most of the articles that pop up are either irrelevant (sports teams with Rats in their name, Disney's Lab Rats TV show, etc), or they deal with the rat pest population (and don't portray rats in a positive light) or lab rat studies that have little implication for rats themselves.

Every now and then, however, a study with lab rats has some actual relevance to how we care for our pet rats, and this is one of them. Scientists at the University of Maine have discovered that rats fed lowbush wild blueberries for a period of six weeks had increased beneficial bacteria in the gut flora and lower levels of Enterococcus bacteria:

That's not all: an older study showed that blueberries can increase bone density in rats:

So keep those blueberries coming! I like to offer some blueberries with their breakfast. If the rats are slow to try them, cut them in half exposing the juicy innards and they will eventually get the idea.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Silent Spinner

We've always had a Silent Spinner wheel in our cages, but it hasn't always gotten a lot of use. Mystery and Weasel used it a little when they were babies, but quickly grew bored of it as adults. Gabe, Pirate, and Loki never used it at all. The most use it got with our older boys was as a cool place to sleep in the summer.

But boys have never been known to be avid wheel runners. There are, of course, exceptions, but so far, not among our rats.

Now we have girls. Granted, they are still very young, but I put a Silent Spinner into their quarantine cage, and it has gotten more use in the last three weeks than it has ever gotten in the years before. Sometimes, there are even two of them in there racing in frantic tandem to some unattainable destination. The wheel is an excellent outlet for pent up energy - and these girls have plenty of that.

The Silent Spinner (Chinchilla size) is an ideal wheel for rats. It is 12" in diameter (anything smaller is too small), and it is made of solid plastic - safe for feet and tails and easy to clean. I like that part of the wheel is made from colored but transparent plastic, so I can get a good view of the rattie running in the wheel. It comes with a stand, but the stand is removable, and you can easily and securely attach the wheel to the side of a cage. And since rats frequently run at night, it is good that this is a fairly quiet wheel - as far as wheels go. It still makes some noise, but it is not too bad.

It can be difficult to find the large-sized wheel in pet stores, although our Petco has had it in stock on occasion. However, it is more affordable to purchase from Amazon - although you cannot select your color when you purchase online.

The video above demonstrates the Silent Spinner in action as Ruby gets a little exercise. The quarantine cage here is actually a Martin's Play Pen, which is not as structurally secure as a regular cage would be, so there is a little wobble in the cage when they run in the wheel. This is not an issue in a regular Martin's cage or Critter Nation.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fleece: Wicking or Repelling?

Moisture being repelled by new fleece
Fleece is a very popular fabric used in cage liners and hammocks. It is soft, thick, and warm, and does not unravel into strings that can catch on toes. Fleece is a Polyester fabric, which is not absorbant, so it is usually used in combination with a cotton fabric or towel. The idea is that the moisture is wicked away (through the fleece) and is absorbed by a more absorbant material underneath. Your ratties stay dry and comfy on the fleece, protected from the pee trapped below. Skipping the absorbant layer underneath will cause the fleece to get smelly very quickly.

However, have you ever seen the pee bead up on top of the fleece and just sit there? This is obviously not what we want - or our poor rats will drag themselves through their own pee and get all wet, dirty, and stinky. In this case, the pee is not wicked away, it is repelled by the fleece. Why does this happen?

It turns out that new fleece is actually a bit water repellant. Thus, new liners and hammocks are prone to this beading of the pee. To avoid this, the fleece should be washed 3-4 times before use, without adding fabric softener, of course. Washing the fleece breaks down its water repellant properties and allows the pee to wick through the fleece to the absorbant layer beneath. The video below shows water being wicked away by fleece that had been washed several times (the desired result), followed by water being repelled by new fleece only washed once.

Of course, if you forget, it is not a big deal. After a few more uses, the material will eventually acquire the required number of washes and will wick properly with age.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Have a great 4th!

This is Jo - she has got the most photogenic rattie eyes. You'd swear she was
a little angel in every photo, but she sure knows how to get into trouble.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Rats and Children - A Family Commitment

Do rats make good pets for children?

Rats are great for children, but primarily as "family" pets. A family should adopt a rat with the same considerations they would adopt a dog. A child can assume some responsibility, but a responsible adult needs to oversee the care and be committed to ensuring the rats' needs will be met.

As a member of the very popular and informative Goosemoose Pet Forums, my heart breaks whenever a young person posts that their rat is sick and their parents won't take him to the vet and they don't have any money or transportation to do it themselves. They are desperate for a home remedy that doesn't exist and heartbroken that they are on the verge of losing a friend who could be saved, but powerless to do anything about it.

Sometimes these posters are told a harsh reality, that they never should have adopted a rat if they didn't have the means to care for it properly. Salt in the wound. True words, but they are young. They didn't know any better. It is a hard way to learn a lesson and both the child and the rats suffer for it.

This is not necessarily a failure of a child, who doesn't have the world experience to have made better choices. This is parenting fail.

Parents want their kids to be happy, and kids love animals. It seems so simple to buy them a pet store cage and an inexpensive critter, and let them feed it and clean up after it until it lives out its natural life. Many parents are of my generation, and when we were kids, there were few vets who saw small animals. Pocket pets were cheap and replaceable. They got sick. They died. There was nothing you could do about it - it was just life. They got replaced with another inexpensive animal or their owners moved on to something else. There was little veterinary research being done on proper care and treatment of these animals and their diseases, so veterinarians were of little help in treating them, and so no one brought them in to be treated. There was no money to be made in conducting the research or in training to treat them since there was no demand for veterinary care for these animals. Replacing them was cheaper than treating them - the value of the animal was no more than the price initially paid for it (a silly conclusion when you think about it, since food and housing will instantly eclipse the price of the animal and no one thinks twice about that). It was a vicious circle leading to nowhere, and many parents who grew up during that period do not realize that things have changed.

Today, there are many vets who see exotics and small animals. Some are more experienced than others, but often the less experienced can treat the simple common problems just fine and then refer you to the specialists for the more advanced problems. The value of a small animal is no longer limited to its price tag. It is a life. It is precious and irreplaceable. It loves us and we love it. "It" is no longer an "it," but instead, a "he" or a "she" and more so "family" and especially a "friend."

The parenting fail happens when parents don't do their homework. Once, information about small animals was confined to petstore books that were brief and often wrong. Now, there is an Internet full of information about any kind of animal you might ever want to bring into your home. There are whole communities that have sprung up around these animals, with active forums where we can all learn from each other. Before allowing any child to bring home a pet, an adult needs to spend a little time on the Internet, learning about the needs of the pet, and deciding whether or not he/she can take on those responsibilities. Because if our children do not have the financial means to meet those needs or the transportation to get to a veterinary practice or the maturity to live up to their responsibility, then the parent needs to be willing to provide these things - or they should not consent to bringing home the pet.

So how does this apply specifically to rats?

First, rats are prone to many health problems. They already have a short lifespan, usually 2-3 years, but that can be cut even shorter without proper veterinary care. In our home, our rats need more frequent veterinary care than our dogs or our birds. They are prone to respiratory infections that must be treated with antibiotics that can only be provided via prescription from a vet. With proper treatment, the rats can live long happy lives while managing chronic respiratory problems. Without proper treatment, they will suffer and die prematurely. They are also susceptible to tumors, some of which will require surgical removal. Children are not always aware of the signs of illness and they usually don't have the veterinary access required to treat such problems. An adult needs to oversee the health of the pets.

Second, pet stores and pet supply manufacturers are either very ignorant about the needs of rats or they make decisions based on what will sell and not what the rats need. Specifically, cages and diets marketed for rats are frequently inappropriate for them. Most commercial rat diets are not balanced for rats (with a few exceptions). Most cages labeled for rats are too small and they are often difficult to maintain. But a child, on his or her own, will likely rely on what the pet store employees erroneously tell them is good for a rat - like a small cage and a bag of seed and nut mix. An adult needs to actually research the needs of a rat and decide whether or not they can afford an appropriate cage/diet/environment before adopting a rat. Appropriately sized cages tend to be large - space in the home needs to be afforded to such a cage. A small cage located on a bedroom night table won't cut it.

Third, rats are very social animals. They need time out of their cage every day and social interaction with their humans. This is a great responsibility for children to take on, but children can be very active and might not always be able to commit some time to their pets - school, sports, musical instruments, hobbies, and friends all make demands on our children's time. And children often tire of their responsibilities - what once was novel and fun has over time become dull and boring. Thus, it is good for our pet rats to have an entire family to fall back on. When one person has a full schedule, someone else can step in and make sure our ratties get some love and out time. And if everyone in the family wants to love on the rats - so much the better - you can't give them too much attention.

Finally, since rats need out time, a rat-safe environment needs to be provided for them. Someplace where they can be confined and kept away from the dangers in the house. Someplace where they cannot chew on electrical cords or damage furniture or mark the carpet (unless you plan to clean the carpet often). A child is not the best judge of these things.

And if your child wants a pet that is solely his/hers rather than a family pet, well - if they are ready for that responsibility, give it a go, but be there in the background in case things don't go as planned. As long as you understand these animals are, at heart, your responsibility, there is no reason that your children have to know that.