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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.

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