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.

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.

What varieties are good for beginners?

I come at this from the point of view of someone who wants to breed rats that are good pet animals but also good show animals. Some varieties are easier than others and there are different reasons for it.

Some varieties have health issues, which may or may not make them less suitable for owning and selling as pets. For example – British blues based varieties are prone to having poor immune systems, topaz/buff are more likely to have bleeding/clotting disorders, chinchilla based rats if not carefully bred can produce kittens with megacolon. Most of these can be minimised through careful breeding, but it’s another selection pressure, and the more plates that need kept spinning then the more likely one of them will fall down (or that they’ll all stay up there, but wobbly and ready to collapse with little prior warning).

Most marked varieties are not particularly difficult to breed, but difficult to produce an excellent example for show (I would consider a show rat to be one that wins stars and will be a contender for the supreme challenge in a show, not one that just wins a class rosette and nothing else), and lots of the rats you keep for breeding will not be show suitable. If you’re only intent on breeding a very small number of litters then having a variety that may only give you a quality show rat every couple of years isn’t very encouraging. Some marked are easier than others – Essex tend to produce well marked animals fairly easily, and roans (although they don’t show well for long) often are nicely marked and will win as young rats at least.

Most of the AOV varieties are easy enough to breed good examples of. Things like silver fawn, agouti, cinnamon – agouti based rats tend to have a good long show life, there’s a lot of them about to find crosses of, and so they tend to do well in shows. There is a lot of competition in those classes, so you need a decent one to win, but finding the right starter rats to get to that point isn’t ever going to be difficult either.

Every variety has their own challenges – different shades to get right, nuances of how that particular colour or marking works, what you need to breed to. Realistically, it’s not rocket science, and although some are more difficult than others, the most important part is that you are breeding something you love. It’s much easier to put your heart into it if it’s something you want to do to start with, and much easier to get past the inevitable obstacles if you have more motivation to climb over them.