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.

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.

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.