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 🙂

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.

Handling and temperament

If we have two genetically identical rats, but I handle mine gently, playfully, and regularly, and yours are handled infrequently, and when they are they’re handled purposefully to do temperament testing such as scruffing, or exposure to loud noises etc, the rats remain genetically the same, but the expressions of those genes will differ. Saying one is showing “true genetic temperament” and one is “trust trained” or “a ticking time bomb” is totally misunderstanding that both ways of raising a rat involve the environment that they’re being raised in working with the genetics to result in the end product.

The worst part of breeding

The process of rehoming rat kittens, from the beginning interaction with potential new owners, vetting them, allocating rats, arranging visits – it’s the worst. I find it really difficult, overly time consuming, and it is without a doubt my least favourite part of rat breeding. At the moment I have shut my facebook page down because the huge amount of unanswered messages on it, which I know will never get responses [update – it’s back!]. It is overwhelming for someone who is not good at communication.

The disconnect to a large degree is that really, even though at the end of it you’re wanting to buy something from me, I don’t consider you my customer and I’m not running a business. I have no desire to court your business, I have no need to impress you, and I don’t do what I do to create a product for sale. It just so happens that I sometimes have more rats than I need, and you have fewer than you want, so it is mutually agreeable for me to let you buy those rats.

I am lucky in that I could home out every kitten I want to ten times over without a problem. Especially more over recent years, I try to only home rats to people I feel will “get” me, and not be offended or upset if I am shite at regular communication, or set out to character assassinate me online should their rats get ill at any point. But I still feel worried and nervous about selling rats to people because you never know how it will work out.

Realistically, what I need is a rattery secretary. Someone to act as the “public face” of my rattery, who enjoys speaking to people, writing lovely emails, vetting new owners, organising waiting lists, allocating kittens to people, dealing with follow-up enquiries, all that sort of stuff, so I can get on with the thing I do best, which is sitting in my shed on my own cleaning hutches, playing with my rats, and raising litters of baby rats.

Creating new lines vs. improving and maintaining

Maintaining and improving quality in an established and existing line is just as hard – if not harder – than increasing quality on a line from very poor origins. It takes very little real work to take a line from poor quality to acceptable quality (to a large degree, just feeding, raising, and housing them in better conditions for a few generations will make them much better, nevermind any selection you do). But moving a rat from being acceptable quality to very good quality is harder, and actually maintaining a top quality line is very difficult.

Rat breeding is about spinning lots of plates in the air at once, not about checking things off a list. You can’t breed to get one aspect right, tick it off as “done”, then move on to something else. You need to constantly be spinning each plate enough to ensure that it’s not going to fall down, carefully watching to ensure none of the other plates are wobbling too much.

Describe your perfect line of rats…

In a perfect line, each rat would live to 2.5-3 years of age, with a zero rate of lumps, respiratory illness, ear infections, and other illness. They would die very suddenly with no long gradual decline at the end of life. They would have a bold and confident temperament, actively seeking out human company and entirely relaxed when handled by strangers, but also happy generally with the company of rats and not too “needy” with people – and each one would have that sparkling “x factor” that a rat needs to have to really show itself off on the show bench or become a favourite in the cage.
 
They would be slightly above average size, with racy, well muscled, long bodies that flow nicely into a long and proportionately thick tail. They would have large well shaped ears set neatly on the head, bold eyes, and a long, wide head with lots of character that is pleasant to look at both straight on and in profile. Their fur would be short, thick, and without moult marks, perfectly meeting the standard for their variety (whatever their variety happens to be).
 
They would be easy breeders, happily giving birth to a litter of around eight to ten kittens that slowly grow to maturity without any need for extra protein meals or particular supplementation. Each of the kittens would of course grow up to be just as perfect as each other.
 
It would make rat shows very difficult though, as if each rat was as excellent quality wise as the other, it would be impossible to decide first place. But until that point, we should never be resting on our laurels as breeders and always aim to be improving, because whatever we have isn’t perfection.

Building a rat shed

Over my years of rat keeping, my rats have lived in various places – sharing my bedroom, sharing the public spaces of the house, in a spare room, in an integrated garage, and in a detached garage. The one theme is that they have all been spaces that existed that have been filled with rats. Early this year, I decided that the time was right to build a space that was purely created for the rats. Project Rat Shed had begun!

I generally have a floating population of around 30-40 rats, plus any litters, rescues, or holidaying rats that may be keeping us company at any particular time. My shed needs to comfortably house not only these and their food and accessories, but have plenty of space for all my rat club and rat show related equipment too. Each space I have previously used for my rats had pros and cons, and so I wanted to try and get all the “best bits” from these for my new rat shed.

Deciding on size.

Most hutches and cages I use are around two foot deep, and so I decided that the shed needed to be at least eight foot wide. This gives space to have cages on each of the side walls of the shed and still give at least three foot of width in the centre to work in (I figured an amount would be lost from insulation etc).

Most of my rats are housed in hutches that are two or four foot long. I decided that in order to ensure I had ten foot of space inside, I needed a minimum shed length of twelve foot. This would allow all the majority of my hutches to line up against one wall of the shed.

I have had plenty of rat spaces before that have been perfectly adequate for the rats, but not particularly pleasant to spend time in due to feeling cramped or squashed up. One of my big considerations for the shed was that it should be a pleasant place to spend time in and invite guests into. So with that in mind, and after spending some time with squared paper drawing out potential floorplans for the shed, I eventually decided to increase the shed size from 8 x 12 to 10 x 16 foot.

The extra width gives me space to set up free-ranging tables in the centre of the shed, and have plenty of space for me and any guests plus my children to mill about and use the space without it feeling cramped.

Part of my agreement with my husband was that I could take over part of the garden with my new shed, but he shouldn’t have to see any rat food or “stuff” lying round the house. Since he has spent the last ten years putting up with every room of the house having a box of NERS possessions, a pile or rosettes, or a few spare show tanks lying around, this seemed like a fair compromise. So the extra length of the shed, I planned to partition off to use as a store for food, bedding and other rat-related possessions.

 

Location location location

We are fortunate to have quite a decent sized back garden, with neighbours on one side of us, a footpath directly at the back, and wild protected land on the third side. The downside is that the whole garden is on a slight slope, making locating a shed fairly difficult. Eventually, we decided to put the shed at the back corner of the garden, bordering the footpath and the wild land. The rationale was that it would then be mainly visible from the patio doors, and be as far away from the neighbours as possible. It would also be more conveniently located for connecting power to the shed too. Thankfully this part of the garden is not quite as sloped as the other side.

This location meants that the door looks down onto the house, and the windows look over to the side where the climbing frame and trampoline etc. for the children are, so I can watch them play while I’m inside the shed.

 

All about that base

There are several options for shed bases available.

Plastic: Low cost modular plastic bases are available for pretty much any size shed.
Gravel: An area can be flattened and covered with gravel to form a level surface for the shed.
Paving slabs: Paving slabs can be used to create an area for the shed
Concrete slab: A mould of sorts is formed, filled with concrete, and removed to create a large flat concrete slab.
Wood: Tanalised or pressure treated timber can be screwed together to form a large frame for the shed to sit on.

These materials can also be combined, for a bewildering array of alternatives. A wooden base built into a gravel area, concrete bearers on top of a plastic base, paving slabs arranged at strategic points under a wooden base. Everyone I spoke to had their own recommendation and reasons why any other option just wouldn’t work at all, and it was pretty overwhelming to try and decide what was for the best.

For a number of reasons, we decided to go with a concrete slab base. As our plot was on a slope, this provided the easiest option for building the base up out of the ground to be flat. The depth of the base is nicely insulating, and strong to carry what will be quite a sizable shed. Finally it provides less opportunity for nesting places for wild rats or mice, which to me felt like a big concern with wood.

The base itself was built to be exactly the size of the finished shed (10 x 16′). A base much bigger than the shed could cause water splashing down on the base to pool underneath the shed, potentially causing damp problems under the floor.

Because of the slope, the shed base is flush with the ground to the back left, and raised nine inches above the ground at the front right corner. In total, after digging the existing soil out and refilling, it took two tonnes of aggregate, and a tonne of sand, plus another tonne of paving slabs to complete. It’s solid enough that it will probably outlast the house, nevermind the shed that goes on it.

Insulation and ventilation

Mostly we think of insulation as a method of keeping something warm. While this is important to a degree in a rat shed, rats will cope with the cold quite happily. The bigger danger – and the bigger need of the insulation – is to keep the rats cool during the Summer, as hot weather can easily kill rats. Ventilation is another fairly major issue. The idea is not just to ventilate for the smell and fresh air, but all those little rats respiring adds lots of moisture to the air, and there must be ventilation or you will end up with damp inside your shed.

The shed style I had chosen is build as standard with a ventilation gap running the full length of the shed on both long edges, wherer the roof meets the walls of the shed. I also chose to have two opening windows. The majority of windowed sheds have static (non-opening) windows, but for an animal shed I felt that any windows needed to give me the opportunity to increase ventilation as necessary.

Options for insulation are varied. From lowest price to highest, the main options are: bubble wrap (foil coated or otherwise), rigid polystyrene sheets, rolls of glass wool loft insulation, or PIR insulation board.

Bubble wrap and loft insulation are easiest to put into oddly spaced gaps, such as those in the ceiling of the shed. Polystyrene is easy to cut to size and still fairly cheap. PIR insulation board provides the best insulation rating when comparing similar depths of insulation.

When insulating, it’s important to maintain an air gap between the outer wall of the shed and the insulation (this stops any condensation wetting your insulation). I also wanted to limit the depth of the insulation to around 40mm, to make it easy to line the inside of the shed after it was insulated. With that in mind, I decided to go for the PIR insulation board.

The insulation board is foil on one side, which I put towards the outside, facing the air gap. Cutting it for the wall spaces, which were pretty much all regularly shaped, was easy enough – the board simply scores with a stanley knife and then will snap easily. Insulating the ceiling, with irregularly shaped ceiling pieces due to the way the roof was built, was a hassle and took a long time. The boards can also make you quite itchy when broken up so care must be taken not to get bits in your eyes.

When insulating both the roof and the walls, I had to be careful to make sure that I maintained the ventilation gap along the full length, as it would have been easy to accidentally cover this and lose the ventilation.

I also went for a stable door, so I can leave the top open for air flow if I want, while still having the bottom locked so that children can’t go in and out without an adult present. Eventually I’ll make screens for both the windows and the stable door so they can be open without letting flies in, but that can be on my list of jobs to do when we head towards next Summer.

Also in the future I would like to add a solar powered extractor fan to the back of the shed, to increase the ventilation – these are fairly easily available and quite cheap to buy.

 

Decoration

Once the insulation was all installed, we covered it in large sheets of plywood, which was screwed on to sheet the inside of the shed and cover all the insulation. I sealed the gaps between the boards with decorator’s caulk, and painted the whole thing magnolia. I live in a new build house which was entirely painted magnolia when I moved in, and the builders had left me a giant tub of magnolia paint – if I had the money, I would have bought something a bit more exciting, but it does the job.

The outside of the shed, we painted with two coats of blue shed paint. This protects it from the rain, and needs repeated every couple of years. The colour is nice and cheery, but muted enough that it doesn’t look like an eyesore (it blends into the sky on days that it’s not overcast).

The floor on the inside of the shed has been covered in non-slip lino. It has been very loosely glued down at the edges, but light enough that it can be easily pulled up to check the condition of the floor at intervals, to ensure that there are no areas with rot or damp.

 

Let there be light

Electricity for the shed is a definite necessity. We decided on two long striplights down the centre of the shed, with a double socket under the windows for plugging in a lamp and a radio. All of the cabling would be put into surface mounted ducting. Surface mounted feels safer than tunnelling the cables into the insulation, and easier to replace or upgrade in the future.

As the shed is around fifteen metres from the house, it was necessary to dig a seventeen metre long trench to hold the armoured cable. This had to be at least 450mm deep, and since the soil in our garden is mainly made of stones and gravel, it was hard and labourious work. Happily for me, my husband mainly did it while I was away at rat shows. The sticking point came when trying to get the cable into the house to spur off the socket – it apparently takes a much more powerful drill than you’d realise, and an even bigger drill bit than you think. The new drill bit to try this again has now arrived, so I’m hopeful that the electricity will be working in the next couple of days.

 

Fill ‘er up

The whole process of setting the shed up once it arrived took around two months of evening and weekend work, and although it’s not totally finished (the final bits of roof boarding need done, and the electricity isn’t quite hooked up), I decided that I need to introduce the rats as soon as possible. Summer was quite quickly starting to turn into Autumn, and I was aware that the rats needed to be out there before the weather turned to Winter, otherwise it could end up being too much of a temperature shock for them.

The rack of lab cages that I use for litters fitted just perfectly between the end of the shed and the first window, leaving lots of space for food storage boxes, some temporary cages, and eventually a workbench space for cage cleaning and suchlike.

My hutches are in stacks of three, on top of IKEA Lack tables. These were a couple of inches too tall for the new shed, so each table had around two inches sawn off the bottom of each leg. I kept the hutches an inch or two off the walls to allow for airflow. The hutches extend eight foot down the main wall, then turn 90 degrees, and continue another four foot across in an L shape. This leaves a large gap behind the hutches for storage.

Behind the hutches I keep all of my assorted bags of food, substrate, NERS equipment, show tanks and hire tanks, and similar ratty posessions. This gives me lots of space but keeps the main shed looking fairly tidy.

The rats seem to be thriving in the shed. After an initial period where they did drop a bit of condition, they seem to have begun to acclimiatise to the different climate in there. I have added a bit of extra linseed and hemp into their diet to give them more protein and oils to make up for the temperature being lower. And I am finding it so much more pleasant to tend to my pets in a bright and airy space overlooking my garden rather than being tucked up in a cramped bit of the garage with no natural light. It was a long and expensive journey but totally worth the years of saving.

Lab blocks vs. mixed food

I use home made mixes and won’t use blocks. Mixes are more expensive, harder to get right, and much more time consuming for me as an owner than blocks would be.

But I also find my rats are happier and in better condition on a mix, I can make minor adjustments as needed, and ultimately it’s more stimulating for the rats.

Language usage about culling

Many breeders say they do not cull, and the meaning of this is always that they do not kill rats that are healthy and can live good lives. So they would never reduce a large litter down, they would never kill a rat that they had finished breeding with that was still healthy and happy, they would seek veterinary treatment for ailments rather than just kill rats that were ill.

When people jump on them saying ‘aaah but that means you allow rats to SUFFER because you won’t cull SICK RATS’ it just becomes nonsensical because they’re not using the language in the same way as the breeder they’re ranting about. No breeder I have interacted with would consider the killing of a rat who is sick or suffering to be culling – it is for the benefit of the rat, not the benefit of the breeder or the ‘greater good’.

I wouldn’t tend to use the term soft cull as I don’t think it’s a particularly useful term – the majority of rats are soft culled as the majority of rats are not bred from. If I am pet homing I tend to just say they have been petted out. Sometimes I keep a rat and just don’t breed from it for whatever reason, but as it’s never been part of my breeding program there is never a point where I need to announce it as not in my breeding program anymore.

So my terminology would be:
Euthanised or PTS – killing a rat for the express benefit of preventing or stopping suffering of that rat.
(hard) culling – killing a rat because the breeder does not wish to own it, for example it’s the 9th in a litter and you only wish to keep 8, or it has white toes, or it doesn’t have your preferred temperament, or it has been used for breeding and now you have no further use for it.
Pet homed / soft culled – a rat that is not being used for breeding. A cage warmer 🙂

Recognising good type

There is no substitute for getting your hands on rats. Ask at shows to handle rats that have done well, or rats that have done poorly, bring your whole litter to shows and ask people for opinions. Also, the more experience breeding you have, the easier it is too as you learn how your line matures.