Random ramblings …

This is mainly a compilation of posts I’ve made on various forums and facebook groups, and articles I’ve written for rat club magazines. Comments, discussion, and conversation are welcomed 🙂

Choosing your keepers in isolation

How do you know, if you have no feedback from other breeders and judges at shows, if you’re choosing the right keepers in your litters? Well – you don’t. Even during shows you don’t, the judges rarely agree with your own prefences! You can only go with your gut, but there are things you can do to help you learn. Look at your rats and look at photos of rats online, see what you like, see what you don’t. You can’t spend too much time looking at rats for comparison points of view.

Remember that the standard mainly describes a very pleasant rat to look at, so if you have eyes and like looking at rats, most people can pick out a rat that is significantly nicer than another with no training. In fact, I don’t think you can train this – you either have an eye for a good rat or not. Judge’s training doesn’t teach you how to recognise good type, it teaches you how to put what you know about rats into words. The actual learning about type is something that you should do before you do judge’s training.

Pick your kittens up with your eyes closed, and see how they feel in your hands. This teaches you about body tone, muscle tone, overall type. Can you feel how some feel more solid, some have more length? Feel around their shoulder with your thumb and forefinger – feel how some have more shoulder than others. Feel the smoothness and length of their fur, run your hand down their back and feel the curve down the spine into the tail. Hold the tail in your hands and brush down it. Repeat this with each rat, feel the differences and work out what you like, and what you don’t. Now compare each aspect to the standard (if you have not memorised the standard you can open your eyes for that bit). None of your rats will meet the standard exactly but can you decide which ones are best in your view? Even if you can’t explain why in words (that’s what judge’s training teaches you), I bet you have an idea what you like by now from a standards point of view.

The one caveat I’d make to this is one mistake that novices (and – well, some people who should know better) often make with regards to heads. The standard calls for a long head, but firm fleshed and clean. This is difficult, and many people end up with long narrow heads (which aren’t attractive), or end up breeding for short heads (which look wider, and are easier to breed). Short heads are hard to breed out so be careful you select against them. Read your standard (then read it again then look at a rat then read it again).

Colour and markings are harder to do in isolation but doable. For colours, sometimes there are several shades and you need to pick what you prefer for breeding, so you may want to refer to the standard here. Can you visualise what the standard is asking for? Can you see how yours differ, or what you’d like to improve? What makes you like that colour or marking? No two judges will ever agree on what is perfect so you as a breeder are in charge of presenting what you think is closest to perfect possible, and persuading the judge that your particular shade of (whatever) should win because it’s just so good.

By the time you’ve had two or three litters in a line, you will have the confidence to pick your own kittens. Opinions from other breeder are great and I always chat rats with other local breeders, and sometimes ask what they think of my keepers, but asking for their opinions on what to keep will just result in you knowing what they value most in a rat, when the aim is to find out what you value most and make your own mark and recognisable line of rats.

When to breed, and selecting for later fertility

There is no correct age at which to breed a rat, and there are many equally valid preferences.

It was a commonly accepted truth that, at around six months, does would have their hips fuse and be more likely to die in labour. While this has some truth in guinea pigs, it’s absolutely false in rats, and so does not form a risk factor. Even so, breeding rats at 4-5 months old has advantages – the does are almost without exception fit, in their prime, and raise kittens beautifully. They recover very quickly from raising a litter. It allows you to get through generations at speed, which can be incredibly useful for test-matings, for realising the potential of outcross programs, or to reach a goal. Even breeder who often wait til later occasionally breed a younger promising doe simply out of the excitement of seeing what she will produce! It can become overwhelming though, with two and nearly three generations of rats in a year – while the rats recover quickly, it can take more of a toll on the breeder!

Most breeders breed does around 6-8 months. At this age they’re very definitely adults, they’re mature and almost invariably fertile. Often they’ll have had a chance to go to a few shows and prove their worth, but they’re still young enough that litters are an easy prospect and the does tend to do well. It’s a bit more of a relaxed pace for the breeder too, and a bit of a compromise position between the two extremes.

Some breeders choose to breed later than this, with 9-14 months being an oft-cited window. This extreme gap between generations allows breeders to gather more long-term data on a line before the next generation arrives, so it can be useful if you have concerns about a line having late-arriving issues that have proven problematic (lifespan problems, tumours, or similar), later breeding can provide a way of more easily monitoring those. As the rats get older there is more chance of infertility, and although most does cope fine with a litter, it probably isn’t ideal for the individual rat (like a 20 year old woman will normally find recovery from and child rearing easier than a 45 year old woman, even if they both are fine!).

If a line is used to being bred very early, then you may find that if you wish to breed later on, they are not fertile, as this is not something that has been selected for.

If the fertility is normally good at six months (does fall pregnant easily, give birth to good sized litters), I’d probably breed one at six months as normal, one at eight months.

If the second doe takes, favour her offspring in the next generation, and breed from those at 6/7 months and 8/9 months, and repeat, gradually pushing the age of breeding until they’re regularly fertile later on.If the second doe doesn’t take, breed from her offspring at 6 and 6/7 months … and repeat as above but maybe with smaller gaps between the early and late doe to ensure that you have more chance of fertility.

My personal preference is to breed does between 6-10 months, ideally at around 8 months. I feel this is a good compromise position between being able to get a good overview of the line and the pressures I am putting on the individual doe.

With regards to increasing fertility, I would also select towards kittens that are slower to mature – smaller, and look “kittenish” longer, and those with a racier and longer body type over the wider and shorter rats (thoroughbreds rather than draught horses) as my gut feel and experience says that they tend to become fertile later and stay fertile longer.

What is maternal aggression?

People will argue fervently about how maternal aggression is understandable to a degree, or entirely unacceptable – but we run into a huge communication issue because there’s no definition of what “maternal aggression” is, and so quite often people are talking at cross purposes.

The last time I got a bite from a doe with babies (not new babies – a couple of weeks old), she raced across the cage and bit me when I was nowhere near her babies – I consider that maternal aggression. She was absolutely fine before her babies, and absolutely fine once removed from them (the temperament of her kittens was, and remained, superb). I think we would all consider that maternal aggression without much debate, and all of us would be happy to consider that undesirable behaviour in a doe.


The edges is where it gets more murky. I’d never even consider putting my hands under a doe with new kittens to yank her kittens out from under her – it just wouldn’t occur to me as a respectful or appropriate way to handle a rat. Is that doe maternally aggressive? She hasn’t shown any aggression (my does generally come off the nest to get their treats, at which point I take the babies out). But if she didn’t immediately come off the nest and instead sat and fussed over her kittens and made it clear through her body language that she wasn’t comfortable leaving her newborns, I wouldn’t be concerned about that – she might just not want to right now, something might have spooked her or made her unhappy, she might just not feel like it. Some people want to be able to rip her off the babies and take them out without any unhappiness from the doe. It seems to be often a cultural thing in that different groups of fanciers consider this to be appropriate/acceptable.

The problem comes when people insist that the second example provides evidence of maternal aggression, that accepting that behaviour shows a breeder to be unethical or somehow subpar, and often insist it proves that the kittens will be bloodthirsty angry aggressive killers – rather than just accepting that different people raise rats in different ways, and all of us are perfectly capable of producing perfectly fine rat kittens. If you tell me that a doe who gives me a warning nip if I reach under her to take out a newborn pinkie is evidence of poor temperament in a line, I’m going to have to ignore what you’re saying because the thousands of kittens I’ve produced from does like this with perfectly sound temperaments proves that your hyperbole is wrong. You’re fine to not want to breed from does like that yourself, of course – but it’s silly to point to the probably hundreds people successfully doing something (for example – 99% of the UK fancy, who would consider someone getting a nip from a new mother as they reached under her to have got what they deserved) and tell them it’s impossible.

Equally, if you feel that behaviour from a doe is not desirable and want to select away from it, that is an entirely reasonable aim to have, but not all breeders will consider that a priority area for selection or even a necessary area for selection, and all of those viewpoints are equally valid to hold.

Pedigree dogs vs pedigree rats

(in response to a query on why dogs from some show dog breeders are often associated with health issues, while rats from show rat breeders are considered more healthy)

If you look at the issues in dogs, they tend to come from two different main areas:

1. Artificially small genepools. Purebreeding and pedigree rules demand that a breed of dog can’t be outcrossed to another breed, and that new blood can’t be brought in (any “outcrosses” are to other lines, who can be traced back to the same foundation stock). This means that once a genetic problem becomes apparent in a line, it often can’t be removed because there is simply no other animal to breed to that is free of that problem, and also in many breeds they simply are difficult to continue due to inbreeding depression (small litters, poor immune systems, etc). For example, flat coat retrievers are incredibly prone to histiocytic sarcoma, and over 50% of the breed dies of cancer – there is not the new blood available in the breed to “fix” this issue, because they are not allowed to breed to a mongrel or another breed in order to try and improve this due to breed purity rules.

2. Exaggerated conformation. In bulldogs, the flat face and exaggerated skin leads to breathing issues (among other things). This isn’t due to inbreeding as such – in theory, you could cross two entirely unrelated flat faced dogs and produce flat faced puppies – but it’s selection for an extreme phenotype. In calling for a body structure that is inherently unnatural and extreme, an animal that is unhealthy is produced. This is a problem both with the breed standard and with the look that is exhibited by the breeders and rewarded by the judges.

Neither of these issues are something we need to worry about in rats. We don’t have “breeds” as such – all of our different colours, markings, and coat types can be bred to each other. While people do maintain lines where we tend to mate similar types together, if we encounter an issue or notice a shortcoming in some aspect we can – and are encouraged to – cross out to a different line or even an entirely different variety to improve the rats. While the majority of the time breeders do only breed from lines that are “known good”, it is not uncommon for breeders to find a rat of an unknown background that has something to offer to the fancy and incorporate them into a careful breeding program of their own known lines, increasing and improving the available genepool.

Secondly, all rats are bred to the same conformation standard, and this is a very moderate standard. If you read the standard carefully, and go along to shows to see how it is interpreted, you will see that it rewards what is essentially a well sized, healthy, well muscled, fit, healthy rat with overall moderate features, and specifically disallows for shortened faces (which are something that humans seem to naturally be drawn to, despite them being unhealthy for the animal). A conformationally correct rat is a thing of great beauty, a work of art in some ways – but it’s also essentially an animal that is the epitome of health and good conditioning.

The ethics of buying from pet shops

Rats from pet shops often are just as wonderful as rats from breeders. They are beautiful, intelligent, sweet, and unique animals that are worth being cherished and loved. Sure, they may have a greater chance of a poorer lifespan or illness than well bred rats (my experience is that their lifespans don’t tend to be that different but they spend longer suffering from chronic illnesses from a younger age). The reasons people avoid pet shop rats are nothing to do with the rats themselves being less wonderful than breeder rats.

The reasons people object to pet shop rats is entirely to do with how they’re bred. They are, without exception, sold as products – they’re just stock, same as a cage or a bag of food and they deserve more respect than that. The shops are not able to vet new owners in the same way as breeders can, they can’t build a relationship and offer the same sort of impartial advice. There is no way for the new owner to contact the breeder, to pass back health and temperament information, so we know the breeder is not breeding to improve health and temperament (they are breeding for profit, no other reason). The staff are likely to recommend particular products like housing, food, etc based on what they sell – they are a business after all – rather than the more impartial advice that breeders can give.

These reasons and more are why buying rats sold in pet shops are bad, even before we look at the conditions in which the rats are bred for pet shops. Even if they were kept in palaces in the breeding farms, it wouldn’t fix the fundamental issues with having a profit-making enterprise acting as a middleman between buyer and breeder. It can’t be done ethically.

Reputable breeding and the NFRS

The good that you can do as part of being involved in the rat fancy and working with other breeders, sharing knowledge, lines, information, and advice – that is the part of the NFRS that is invaluable for breeders, and is so quickly thrown away with a tired old uninformed line of “snobby show breeders thinking they’re superior, it’s just paying to be on a list so it doesn’t mean anything, everyone else in the entire club is MEAN so i don’t want to get involved as I’m better than that”. It’s not about paying money to be a member of a club – it’s about being part of a group of people who know more than you, and who will work with you to improve rats as a whole. You simply can’t do as much good for rats outside of the community as you can inside of it because you’re not utilising all the resources available to you. You might think you’re well informed, but you’re not, you simply have no understanding of how much you don’t yet know.

For me and many other people, being reputable isn’t just about a breeder managing to breed some lovely rat kittens – that’s quite often the easy bit because rats are just naturally lovely creatures. It’s about working to improve the lives of rats that you breed, that other people breed, those that have nothing to do with your breeding! It’s about being part of a community that advises and helps and with that, improves knowledge and understanding and breeding methods and breeding lines for multiple people – because the end result of that is that the rats benefit, and my personal view is that if I’m not in this to benefit the lives of as many rats as possible, then I shouldn’t be doing it at all. That’s how I think all breeders should feel which is why I am so passionate about people breeding reputably.

But I mean if the aim is to make a bunch of baby rats you can sell on the internet, I guess it’s much less hard work and time commitment, so each to their own.

How odd eye works in rats

This is a gross oversimplification, but – black eyesare black because the rat has lots of melanin (black pigment) in theeyes. If you reduce this black pigment, the eyes become ruby, then red, then dark pink, then finally light pink if there’s no melanin at all.

Markings (white bits) on rats are where there’s no melanin too – there’s no melanin, so there’s no colour, so the fur becomes white. When a white patch is near the eye, there is a chance that the eye will be involved in this and lose some or all of the melanin, and so become paler coloured – and if this only happens on one eye, it will be odd eyed.

Certain genes makes odd eye more likely to happen. The colour gene red eye dilute (that gives buff/topaz) makes it more likely for odd eye to express. The Essex gene – especially when combined with RED – often gives odd eyes. The white spotting gene that gives chinchilla type rats is more likely to produce odd eyes. You can select towards the likelyhood of it happening but as there’s not a single gene that creates it, you can’t make any guarantees as to it happening.

Introducing rats for lazy rat owners

There will come a time in your rat-keeping life when you have two groups of rats that you wish to merge into one group of rats, or new kittens you wish to add to an existing group, or similar scenarios. There are many ways to introduce rats to other rats, and you can take as much time as you wish over it – complex scenarios of swapping cages over, neutral space time, back in their own cages, changing toys about between groups, or tiny carriers, then big carriers, then tiny cages, then medium cages, then big cages. They have their place, and I’m sure many rat owners love spending the time with complicated introductions, but this guide is for the lazy rat owner.

Introducing kittens to adults

To introduce kittens to adults, you will need a few simple items:

First, you will need an amount of common sense and knowledge of your own pets. Your adult group needs to be fairly stable and happy. Adding kittens to a group that is already stressed out (maybe someone needs castrated, or someone is ill and the rest are not happy about it, or the alpha or beta is rubbish at their job and leaving everyone else unhappy) will not make for a good outcome. If that’s your group – sort that out first before trying to add more rats.

Secondly, you need at least two appropriately aged kittens. Kittens for introducing to adults should be between about eight and twelve weeks old. Much younger kittens can be accidentally killed or injured by adults simply by accident, through normal introduction squabbles. Once they’re much older than that, the adults may see them as other adults and not give them the easy ride that babies enjoy.

Thirdly, you need an appropriately sized and furnished cage. Your triple royal suite, filled with tunnels and hidey holes, that is home to three residents and three new babies, isn’t going to be particularly useful here. Get a cage that suits the number of rats you’re introducing (so maybe half an SRS for six rats in total). Furnish it with no items where a rat can be trapped and be unable to run away – so hammocks are fine, ropes are fine, get rid of tunnels or closed off igloos.

Once you have found these ingredients, put ingredients one and two into ingredient three. Watch them. They’ll probably squabble a bit, and then they’ll stop, and then they’ll be pals. Watch them a bit more carefully for a couple of days to check they all seem fine (but remember they’re animals, not stuffed toys, and they may not instantly be best pals). Give them their tunnels back, and give them the rest of their cage back too.

 

Introducing adults to adults

To introduce adults to other adults, you’ll need at least two adult rats who don’t live together yet, an appropriately sized and furnished cage (see above), and a show tank or small carrier. Put the rats in the small tank or carrier. They’ll probably make the sort of noises you associate with rats having to work out who is the boss when they’re among strangers (if they get too noisy, I find tapping the top of the carrier and telling them to sort it out helps). Keep an eye on them, and they’ll probably stop after a while. Leave them in the carrier overnight, and in the morning when they’re all sleeping happily in a big pile, put them in an appropriate cage. After a few days, give them their stuff back.

 

I mean, use your common sense on this one too. If someone starts biting in the carrier and someone is bleeding, take them out. If a rat is obviously unhappy, stop the process. And remember that rats are living animals with their own preferences, their own personalities, their own likes and dislikes. Not all rats will get on, and if you find that introductions between specific rats are stretching on and on, and that they’re not getting on – it may be that they just don’t want to be friends. If you are continuing on with introductions when the rats have told you that they don’t want this, maybe it’s time to take a step back and decide if continuing on with the process is in their best interests.

Interspecies interaction

Showing rats interacting with predator species online is irresponsible and can contribute to animal cruelty.

I appreciate that your cat/dog/ferret/turkey is special and super wonderful, one in a million, so gentle, you have the best bond with them, and they wouldn’t hurt a fly, ever (just the same as everyone else’s pet tbh, if you ask them. But I’m sure yours is definitely the exception). But the danger is that everyone else thinks their predator is just as special, and that putting it with a prey animal will be fine. Which it will be until someone gets injured or killed.

Showing something dangerous as OK encourages other people to do it, and we’re not here to risk other people’s pets.

Handling and temperament again

Why does the view that “handling rats produces ticking time bombs and hides true genetic temperament” gain so much traction on facebook groups?

Temperament is, as thousands of scientific articles will tell you, determined by a combination of underlying genetics, environmental factors, and epigenetics. Not handling rats doesn’t mean you’re getting rid of environmental factors – you’re just giving a different set of environmental factors to people who do handle them.

I would hazard a guess that the majority of people who know that handling rats doesn’t produce “ticking time bombs”, and who manage to breed rats quite happily without constantly having to cull large percentages of our animals for having such poor temperaments that they can’t be trusted to pet homes, have decided that it just isn’t worth getting involved the majority of the time.

You can’t try to give people information based on experience as they continue to tell you how worthless experience is, if that experience hasn’t led to you coming to the same same conclusion as their chosen internet guru for 2017. You get told that your rats are just so different that they just can’t be compared (even if you have loads of experience breeding rats exported from the US). That your rats obviously have terrible temperaments (even if they regularly do well at shows under probably the most comprehensive pet standards for rats in the world). That your rats are ticking time bombs that WILL eventually maul a child (even if it just hasn’t happened over all your experience of rats – which you’re not allowed to mention someone will start telling you how experience is worthless).

The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it – and frankly, having to keep pointing out that actually, we’re doing this, there is more than one way to skin a cat, isn’t doing any good to people who refuse to even listen and instead mainly resort to mockery, so we’re just getting on with it. In five years time when this particular cult has died off, we’ll probably still be mainly getting on with it.