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Marti

rats!

What I’m breeding now

I have some lovely rats to breed later this year. Kiwi Kronk, a Russian Blue buck, will be the father of two litters!

Here is Kronk as a baby next to his pal, Oscar (the rex on the left)!

Oscar (l) and Kronk (r)

Kiwi Kronk x Kiwi Saphira (Saffy!). Kronk is a bold, beautiful boy and Saffy is a gorgeous girl (who just won Reserve Best In Show at a National Fancy Rat Society Show here in Britain). I’m expecting a lot of Russian blue from one of those litters, possibly some Russian buff. Both varieties will be available. Some chance for dumbos but mostly top-eared.

Kronk may also be mated to Kiwi Kiko, a Russian Blue agouti girl. I’ll have quite a mixed bag from this with everything from Russian blue, Russian blue agouti to Russian topaz in there. Again, some chance for dumbos but mostly top-eared. I may only mate him to Saffy, though.

My little experiment with  Meraki Oscar (Lavender agouti rex buck with an adorable temperament!) will be interesting. I’m think he will go with Kiwi Elsa, another Russian blue agouti and my most mellow doe. This will litter may be just about any colour. I’m expecting rex and standard fur in it.

I’ll be posting all their baby pictures on this site as well as on my facebook page, Blue Apple Rattery, so that prospective new owners can watch as their babies grow up.

If you are interested in adopting some babies, please read my page all about adopting ratsfrom Blue Apple Rattery.  I do have an application form. Just ask for it! 

I handle all all my rats daily and handle the babies every day. My rats spend a lot of time playing out of the cage and expect the sam in their new homes!

Because I am a member of the National Fancy Rat Society here in Britain I am regularly in contact with people who breed rats. If I don’t have baby rats available, I am sure someone I know may soon. However, breeders like those at the NFRS often have waiting lists, so unless you are very lucky you may have to wait a month or two (or three). In my opinion, it’s worth the wait! And if you need a rat fix, you can always visit a rat show!

Kiwi Saphira in the middle between Kiwi Elsa and Kiwi Kiko, 9 weeks old!
rats!

Bringing Down the Cost Of Vet Bills

 

 

I know they are cute and I know they are fun, but rats are also quite expensive. It’s not the initial cost. Most people don’t worry about paying £15 for a rat. It’s not even the cages, though a cage big enough for a trio of rats will run you anything from £60 on up to the hundreds, depending on how big a cage you want. The problem certainly isn’t the food as even the best quality and most expensive food you can buy (for example the Isa-mix with Egg biscuit) will retail at £3.86/kilogram (at www.ratrations.co.uk if you are interested).

 

The problem is the vet bills. I estimate that every rat I own will cost me about £150 in vet bills during the course of their lives. Now, this doesn’t always happen. I have a few 24-month old does that have never seen a vet (yet). On the other hand, both my 20-month girls already needed spaying (about £90 each) and will certainly have at least one visit to the vet during the remainder of their lives, if only for that sad, last time when they are put to sleep.

 

So, why is it that rats cost so much? There are many diseases a rat can get but the one I’ll talk about here are upper respiratory infections. During one of my saving missions with a very “respy” doe of many years ago my vet sighed and told me that he’d done post mortems on pet rats and the state of their lungs made him wonder how they could ever breathe in the first place.

 

So, I put this in a blog just to warn prospective pet owners: pet rats are not that cheap! While it is true they will never need thousands of pounds worth of surgery as a dog with a cruciate ligament problem might, they may very well cost you more than you thought they would. As rats only live a couple of years you may keep bringing in new rats and so you always have more “end of life” scenarios in the horizon.

 

So, what about these upper respiratory infections? Is there any way to manage them less expensively? Yes. Here are a few guidelines for you:

 

1. Avoid illnesses if possible. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t. If you want to avoid heart disease try to feed a well-balanced diet and weigh out, then scatter the feed, across the cage so that rats have to spend more time foraging for it. This allows them the natural behaviour of foraging, helps keep them from getting bored, and keeps them trim. I like the “Isamix” varieties at www.ratrations.co.uk. If you want to us a block feed, try Science Diet, but do definitely remember to give your rats fresh fruit and vegetables (broccoli and salad are often good choices!). Also, keep your rats out of a draft and at a temperature between 18-25 degrees whenever possible. Do not put them the cage by a window as you may not feel the draft yourself but they can! Also, keep your rats on dust-free and/or kiln-dried substrate. Aubiose, Bedmax, Finacard, just to name a few. This will help reduce the most common respiratory illness of rats: upper respiratory infections. Finally, stay away from your own rats for at least 2 hours after being in close proximity of rats that may be ill (for example, in pet shops, where many rats being sold are not particularly well).

2. Treat early. Treat your rat with obvious signs of a budding respiratory infection before it reaches critical stage. This will be cheaper for you and much better for the rat. If your rat is sneezing more than it should, making a “clicking” noise and showing red discharge around its eyes (this is porphyrin, secreted from the Harderian gland, and is a kind of mucous), it is already stressed out by illness. A trip to the vet for antibiotics is in order. You may not see all these signs, by the way. Some rats don’t get “porphy” with illness. But you will hear noises. And if you hear a kind of wet “gurgly” sound your rat is quite ill. Swift measures may save him his life and you a bundle by avoiding out-of-hours fees for your sick friend.

3. Get on good terms with your vet. My vet knows me and my rats really well. I’ve been charged about half what I’d likely be charged for one of my dogs simply because my vet knows how responsible I am with my rats and that they matter to me. He once removed a mammary tumour for just over £50. Why? Because he knows that many rat owners can’t or won’t pay twice that (or more!) for a rat’s mammary tumour removal and with the surgery rats can and do recover very well. He cares about the rats and he supports owners who go that extra mile. Find a vet like that (I know, they are like gold dust!). You can also bargain with the vet. Literally, ask if they can do the surgery for less money — why not? If the practice allows flexibility, you might get lucky!

4. Learn about rat illnesses before they occur. While it is great to read all about rat toys and cage set ups, it is equally important to read about rat illness. There is a booklet called Common Diseases of the Fancy Rat written by Ann Storey, president of the National Fancy Rat Society in the UK, that you get when you join the club. It is definitely worth having! Order it from nfrs.org. And read the websites. Here are a few all from rat expert, Jemma Fettes, whose website is very instructive and what I consider required reading for any rat owner:   Respiratory Illness, Heart Disease , Hind Leg Degeneration, Non-cancerous tumours, Abcesses, Cancerous tumours , Parasites.

Another great source for all health issues regarding rats is www.ratguide.com

5. Accept that despite everything you do, your rats will eventually get ill! Hey, it’s not your fault. It’s rats! Do you think I’ve never had a sneezing rat or a rat with a zymbals glad tumour? Of course, I have. Sometimes a sneeze is only a sneeze, but sometimes it’s a trip to the vet. As for costs associated with breeding…well, let’s just say my emergency fund for rat veterinary bills gets larger when I expect a litter.

 

My advice to any animal owner is to keep an emergency fund for veterinary costs. My dogs are insured but for my rats I keep a pot of “rat money” that I only use for vet bills. By treating early and avoiding those emergency out-of-hours fees, plus keeping aside “rat money” you’ll save yourself a lot of stress, too!

 

Finally, don’t go to crazy lengths to save very old rats. I’ve done it and I haven’t always been successful anyway (though sometimes, yes!). However, your rat is very old and is no longer eating and drinking and getting the quality of life he deserves, it is far kinder to ask the vet to humanely put the rat to sleep. I have a way of making that (slightly) less stressful for the rat. When mine are very ill I keep them in a “hospital cage”, which is only one level (the exact cage is a Savic Ruffy but an “Alaska” or similar would be equally good and cost you less). I provide thick sleeping “cubes” that tend to hold the warmth better than large, thinner hammocks. When it is time to say goodbye, I take the whole cube with the rat inside and put it in a carrier. I then transport to the vet and ask the vet to lower the rat in its cube into the tank when they put it down. That way the rat is in its secure home and less stressed by the experience.

 

It’s the best I’ve come up with so far, though I’ve had different situations that have meant rats have died while sleeping on my chest or, on occasion, passed peacefully in a huddle with their cagemates.

rats!

How To Introduce New Rats

For years I dreaded introducing rats to one another. Or rather, I didn’t mind too much introducing does to each other — they were far more peaceable (usually), but I was scared to death of introducing male rats.

I had good reason. Adult male rats do not take well to strangers. A perfectly peaceable buck will turn into a a puffed up, adrenaline-fed hellraiser the moment he sees an intruder and new rats can inflict serious injury to one another, even death.

Much depends on who you are introducing to whom. Let’s start with the easiest: babies. You can introduce babies from different litters at any time up until ten or twelve weeks without any trouble. Breeders typically mix eight week old rats from one litter with a similar age from another litter without any need for special introductions. The same may be true with 10-14 weeks rats. However at some point introducing will cause some friction.

By the time they are juveniles, you should be a little more respectful of the need for measured introductions. Young rats may best be introduced on neutral ground — a sofa or dry bathtub on which a towel bas been laid will do. Such a space is nobody’s territory and therefore the rats may simply get used to each other without feeling any need to defend. (However, I have to admit I’ve been less inclined to use first stage and go straight to the “carrier method” which I’ll detail below)

The famous “rat lady”, Debbie Ducommun writes that “with time and patience almost any rat will accept a newcomer” with only the occasion rat requiring spaying or neutering in order to become more accepting. The reason for the neutering is to bring the level of hormones down. Apparently, territorial aggression is often transformed with a sudden knock to the gonads. While the world of rats owes a lot to Debbie Ducommun, a renowned expert, I am not as big a fan of her introduction methods which tend to to be gradual, with introductions in neutral territory being followed by introductions in a relatively large cage. Ms. Decommun recommends “cleaning out the larger cage completely and rearrange the furnishings so it appears to be a new cage. Trim the back toenails of the rats to minimize scratching in a scuffle. Put vanilla extract or perfume on all the rats to make them smell the same. Then put the rats in this cage.”

Not that she is wrong, as such. I think with does and rats of a few months old you can follow her methods and have success. And she is right about a great deal, including that the best time to start introductions is when the rats are sleepy (so the middle of the day). I also agree with her that if fighting is taking place over a period of weeks you may have to give up with two rats ever being friends. However, my preferred method of introductions is one called the “Carrier Method”. I didn’t make it up — I’m not sure who did — but it hasn’t failed me with any of the doe-to-doe introductions I’ve tried, nor with introducing adult bucks to baby bucks (10 weeks old). I haven’t tied adult buck to adult buck, except on reintroductions, which is a slightly different situation.

So what do you do with the carrier method? You put the rats to be introduced, whether it is a single individual to a single individual or a group to a group, into the smallest cage or carrier that will fit all of them. When I say “fit”, the rats need to be in as small a space as you can find that allows them to be shoulder to shoulder and still lie down. In the case of 2-3 rats, a small carrier will do. For 5 does, you may need a large carrier. For 10 rats, you’ll need a small hamster cage.

It should look crowded. A little like this:

Once you’ve put them all in, walk around with the carrier.  Rats that are unsure tend not to find, so usually they won’t do much while in “transit”. Keep them moving until they seem more relaxed. If you want to extend this time, put them in a car. The motion of the car is likely to keep them quiet as well.

Later, you can just sit down with the carrier near you. Hear squeaking and fussing? Walk around with the carrier to distract them from this. You may see a rat pinning down another rat, or forcibly grooming another so that the poor victim is squeaking lightly. That is to be expected. But as long as the one being pounced upon submits to the other, they will soon be fine. If a rat is really being aggressive with another, you may need to intervene. Do not do this with your bare hands! Get a water spray or a towel or oven gloves or anything, but do not ever break up a rat fight without protection. It is a sure way to get bitten.

Once it seems they are fine in the carrier you can add a mouse-sized water bottle (I say mouse-sized as it is the only thing that is going to stay in the holes of the carrier, most likely).

Add food scattered on floor. Do not give any treats or anything that too exciting to them that they will fight over.

Some people keep them in a carrier for a few hours or overnight. I’ve had mine in a  carrier for as little as 5 hours to as long as 24 hours. I’ve been known to sleep with a carrier next to my bed.  In fact, I have many carriers in different sizes and I put them into an identical carrier every 12 hours so they are clean. Only once I’ve seen they are bored as hell (approximately 1 day for does, maybe the same for bucks but might be longer) do I move to the next level, a really small hamster cage. From there it might be another day (or two or three) before they get moved to a single story rat cage like a Savic Ruffy. No hammocks. A day later, I try a hammock, then another, then maybe a little house. Once they are in rat piles and look like nothing much is stirring I move to my SRS, but only half of it. I am making it sound like I do this every week. I’ve only done 4, I think. 3 with does, 1 with bucks. You can go much faster if it is a totally nothing event (very compliant does or luck), but some people take a week to get from carrier to normal rat cage with no hammocks.

Rats will play fight and will have occasional grumbles (especially the boys) but it is natural for them to live in groups and they usually get on. If you have a particularly difficult situation, you may need to create alternative groupings or even neuter/spay a rat or rats. However, generally speaking, peace reigns.

Be warned that you may have to “reintroduce” rats on occasion. For example, if you’ve had one out of the group for days or weeks at a time or when the “alpha” rat dies. I recently had a buck out for mating. I shampooed him so that he wouldn’t smell like does but I still had to stick all the boys in an intro cage for a few hours until they were back to normal. It was definitely worth it (less stress for me, if nothing else!) and now they are all happy again…..

…..until I add a few more rats! Which I do on occasion!

rats!

Temperament Testing In Rats

Much is made of early temperament testing in rats. Typically, a breeder will perform a number of tests including a “scruff” test, a human approach test (HAT), and a novel object test (NOT) as well as an open door test (ODT).

 

In the scruff tests, the breeder holds the rat by the scruff of the neck and observes its behaviour. A good score would be given to those rats that go limp and do not struggle. A HAT test is just what it sounds like. A human puts a hand into a cage of rats (usually a tub so they are all on one level) and waits to see which rats approach first. The same would be observed with a novel object. Rats with a “good temperament” will approach the hand or object ahead of the others. One with a very fearful temperament will hang back, unwilling to interact with that hand or object as quickly.

 

There are a number of shortcomings to such tests. First, most breeders interact with their newly born rat kittens from day one, if only to count them, make sure they have “milk bands”, indicating they are feeding well, and remove any dead kittens if there are any in the nest. They continue to interact with them throughout their very young lives simply because they enjoy their new kittens and also to ensure the kittens have exposure to human scent early so that they are not fearful of people.

 

Handling varies with breeders. Some handle their baby rats a great deal and owners can pretty much expect tame babies from the time they collect them, though whether this is due to genetics or environments is difficult to determine.  The point is that the babies will run to the door of the cage because either they have learned that the hand at the door is safe and/or because they’ve been taught that by doing so they received food treats. The object test won’t do much good because the breeder has placed novel objects in the cage for weeks since the rats were mobile in order to provide a more “enriched” environment for the babies as they grow. It is possible the scruff test would still work out, though the breeder has to be careful that they are doing it the same on each rat and doing it correctly (this is harder than you think) in order to get a worthwhile result.

 

Some breeders do not do much handling. This is either because they worry about upsetting the mother rat or because they have so many litters being born that they do not have time. Also, they may feel they’ve already “stabilised” temperament within the line of rats that they breed so that the rats are pretty tame even without handling. For these babies, temperament tests may have a role, though even then we run into difficulties assessing what a “good”temperament is.

 

I have a few friends who breed rats and we all have different ideas about temperament. Some like their rats to be quite naughty and “ratty”, to be active, curious and into everything. Others prefer “lap rats”, those rats who like to sit passively and be stroked like a lap dog. If you were wanting a curious, intrepid rat you might say that the rat that is first to check out new things, always first out of the cage, always the one that climbs fastest and goes furthest from the others has the “best” temperament. However, if you want a lap rat you’d probably look for one that is a little more dopey and slow. I like dopey slow rats, myself, but I have to admit that the personality of my more active rats makes for a great deal of amusement. And who wouldn’t want a rat that jumps from the cage onto your shoulder, practically begging you to take her out and do something fun?

 

What we do know about temperament in rats is that you can’t determine it entirely at the age of 4 weeks or 5 weeks or even 8 weeks. Sure, you can get a sense of the rat. A very outgoing rat may be obvious at that time. Same with a very shy one. However, what science we do have on temperament in developing rats tells us that the brain is still developing throughout a rat’s adolescence. See below, from Applied Animal Behaviour Science:

 

 

A rat that may appear fearful or squeaky at 4 weeks could develop into a very sweet, biddable rat months later if it was handled often. A more confident rat could possibly become more cheeky than you like by the time it has grown up. Can we determine this early on? I’m not sure, though the best source for information may be the breeders, themselves. Breeders who are very interested in temperament (not all are) and who give thought to the development of their rats from birth to death will glean some patterns in what you might look for in a young rat.

 

For example, they may have a line of rats that are real “potatoes” or “lap rats” and they’ll have determined how those babies behave in comparison to their more active lines, who would perform really well in agility competitions but rarely sit on a lap. I’m new to breeding, but I can tell you that rats change over time, too. My does that were incredibly active, scrambly mad girls at 6 months have often become very docile, quiet rats a year later. Sure, they still like to climb and explore, but they often sit on my lap, too.

 

I have three 21-month old does who are very active, never sit on my lap, and are always into mischief. However, they race to get to me, climb onto my shoulders and “groom” my hair, love everyone (rat or human) and never fight. Good temperaments? I think so. They were haphazardly bred by someone who was going to feed them to a snake.

 

There isn’t any real science behind temperament tests for rats, though you get a lot of breeders on youtube behaving as though they have some kind of scientific basis for testing. However, temperament tests may be useful and I continue to keep track of them. As for now, the best source of information is probably the breeders who breed different “lines” and who have done so for many years. That is, if they are particularly interested in temperament.

 

 

 

 

 

 

rats!

Taming Baby Rats

People get rats from lots of different places and they aren’t always the tamest of rats. There is no point telling someone who has just picked up a couple of unhandled babies that they ought to have looked for a breeder who selects for calm temperament and handles their baby rats daily. First, they probably tried that but didn’t want to wait 4-6 months for baby rats from these (frankly rare) breeders who handle daily. Second, it’s too late!

However, the good news is that for most rats, taming is just a matter of time and patience. While it may not seem easy, it is definitely possible to bring a rat around from a skittish scared baby to a great pet. In fact, some of the nicest adult rats I’ve had started out as not very confident babies.

There are different ideas about taming rats. Whatever method you choose, I’d suggest that early on (immediately) stop chasing your rats around a cage. The more you chase, the more they’ll run and you are encouraging them into a habit of running away from you. Also, while you know you aren’t going to hurt them, you are associating your hand with fear and this actually works against you.

If you have fearful babies (or even older rats) you might start with a smaller cage than the big (I hope!) one to which they will eventually graduate. If your babies aren’t too skittish, you could try a Ruffy Savic or a Ferplast Mary , for example. But really, any relatively small cage that is advertised as suitable for two rats (but frankly, is not suitable for two adults, though great for taming babies). Don’t worry that you will never use this cage again after you’ve tamed your rats – you will! Such small cages are great as “hospital” cages for the sick or elderly or for taking a few rats away with you overnight or to a rat show. Yes, I said rat show. The NFRS has many shows throughout the year and you may like to go along and even enter your own rats – they are quite fun events!

One method for taming rats is to gradually and softly get your rats used to you. This is what I do. People have various names for this method, but the idea is that you help the rats to gradually think of you, your smell, you gaze and your hands as the precursors to Good Things To Come! Gradually get closer and closer to them, always stopping before they freak out. Eventually, they will no longer afraid of you being there. However, this  can take anything from 5 minutes to 5 days.

I’ve done this for hours every day with older rats who otherwise may have bitten me and it works very well. I’ve also done it with babies. I can attest that eventially your rats will come to trust you, but you do need to clock up the hours, allowing the rats to gradually build confidence. It takes time. It takes patience. It is by far the most humane way you can get your rats to like you and associate you with all that they love.

However, make sure you start off with serious motivators. While a terrified rat will not eat (usually) you may find that a greedy rat is willing to take a risk to get to something very yummy. It’s hard for a rat to totally ignore the offer of “junk food” by way of digestive biscuits or small bites of cake. Start with a fair chunk so that they can take it and run further into their cage and gradually build up to cake crumbs they have to lick from your palm. Smear your hands with treats like yoghurt or pudding for them to lick off, that sort of thing.

You can then graduate to putting the treats on  your arms, etc until the rat feels confident walking onto your body to retrieve them. After initial reluctance, rats almost invariably find the food irresistible and associate you with good things. It is very satisfying to watch the process unfold.  Over time you can hold the rat and allow it to hop back into its cage when it likes. Before you know it, your rat readily walks out of the cage onto you and forgets all about being scared. You won’t even need treats anymore as your rat’s natural curiosity means they come check you out whenever you give them the chance. However, at some point you may want to practice picking up your rat and putting it down over and over and over so that if you have to do there is no question of the rat running away.

The other popular method for taming rats is total immersion – sometimes known  as the confidence method. In this case, you take your rat out and handle it for twenty minutes at a time regardless of how it feels about the situation. This is a great method for babies who aren’t really all that scared in the first place. But it’s easy to overwhelm them so be careful. You have to always be thinking from the rat’s point of view. I know you love your rats — but do they love you? And is there anything in this immersion process that is the least bit fun for them? The answer should be yes.

If your rats are particularly nutty, even the size of a Savic Ruffy or Mary cage being used as a “training cage” is probably too big. They may still be running away from you.  If so, do your best to catch them and put them into an animal carrier for the duration of your taming sessions, which should take place a few times a day. Again, even if you are using the “immersion” process be as respectful as you can of the fear the animal is feeling. You need to be sure you aren’t making things worse.

Inside a carrier, there really isn’t a lot of room to run, so they are well and truly stuck. This has the advantage that you can pick up a rat without cornering it. On the other hand, you’ve kind of already cornered it so it may be scared to death. At least the act of running, itself, has been eliminated which may mean the stress is less for the poor rat. Hard to say. However, you may be cornering it so that all it feels it can do is bite you. The rat will soon learn that biting works really well to get rid of an unwanted hand — and now you are in worse trouble than when you started!

Most babies are not going to bite you during the “total immersion” method (though don’t bet on it). When using this method, take the carrier with the rats inside to a secure room and stick your hand into the carrier for 5-minute stretches until they settle down with the notion of a hand. Beware they may nibble your hand investigating whether it is food (let them).   Nibbles from babies are one thing. Fear bites from adults are quite another. I prefer the softly-softly method for adults when possible for this reason and am more likely to take a few chances with the babies. Having said that, you really don’t want to scare rats during their most sensitive periods (for example from age 6 weeks to about 12 weeks). Make sure the babies are more excited that afraid and that every session with you is as positive and rewarding as possible.

But back to babies. Now that you’ve put your hand in and out many times and the rats are tolerating it, you can do one of several things. You can take out a single rat and try to keep it in your hands, allowing it to run from one hand to the other for a period of time up to about 20 minutes. Or you can purposely move it from one hand to another, which will not be difficult. Once you see a little improvement (this can take up to twenty minutes) swap it for the other rat, and so on.

When picking up your rats, remember to scoop the rat from underneath, and never pick it up by the tail. I know you will hear of people who “tail” rats (pick them up by the base of the tail) but that is not a great way to make friends with a rat. In fact, you could be bitten.

The use of a cloth or light blanket or something the rat can hid under, or even better yet “bonding” pouch which you wear around your neck, can help your rat feel safe. Using a bonding pouch, you can put a couple of babies in at a time. However, if you are using your bare hands (apparently a faster method, though not if you are at risk of the rat jumping) only have a single rat out at a time.

Whichever process you choose, or whichever combination of processes you choose, always remember that the rat is doing his best. You can’t ask a rat to try harder when they are trying their hardest already. The poor rat doesn’t know you want to love him. He thinks you want to kill him. So be patient – most rats do come around!

For more information and an excellent step-by-step description of the “immersion method” have a look at Isamurat.co.uk’s page on the subject.

rats!

How Much Does It Cost To Keep Rats?

People often imagine that rats are inexpensive pets. Who can blame them when there are articles all over the net that make such bogus claims as “All you’ll need to buy is a 20-gallon aquarium or a similarly sized wire cage ($30+), some bedding and toys, and food, which will cost you about $40 per year” ?Not only are these figures inaccurate, but a 20-gallon tank won’t be big enough for a pair of rats, let alone a trio. In fact, you shouldn’t keep them in tanks at all.

The truth is, rats are quite expensive. They are cheap to buy as babies and their food doesn’t even begin to compare to the cost of, say, feeding a dog. The cage or cages you will need are large and expensive, of course, but  you may get lucky and find a good second hand cage on Ebay or a terrific Facebook page for cages called Cage Spotters which lists cages all over Britain the are being sold second-hand.

 

So how come I say they are expensive? Veterinary bills. I cannot tell you how many owners are shocked by the number of veterinary visits required by their pet rats, let alone the surgery costs when required. Most rats will sail through their first year of life without needing veterinary attention, although there are no guarantees. However, at some point between 12-24 months your rat may very well develop a respiratory infection and require antibiotics. None of the antibiotics needed are legally available without a veterinary prescription. Some of them treat one kind of infection and some another. All of them have to be given as quickly as possible after symptoms develop if they are to be effective. A veterinary visit plus the cost of the medicine will range but I’d imagine £50.00 would do the trick at today’s prices.

 

Okay, £50 may not seem expensive. It isn’t, considering that any animal you have may require a veterinary visit. But rats also tend to develop tumours. Many of these tumours are benign (mammary tumours are almost always so) and can be operated on and resolved. However, you must ask your vet early on how much they charge for such procedures as the prices vary enormously! I’d expect to pay between £60-£110 for mammary tumour removal unless the tumour were particularly tricky and then it might be more.

 

Does are more prone to mammary tumours but bucks can get them because even though they don’t have nipples they do have mammary tissue. Bucks also tend to get abscesses, which may or may not require veterinary attention. They sometimes need neutering (I’ve not had that problem as my bucks are big softies, but not everyone is so lucky!), and the does sometimes need spaying due to pyometra or other complications of the reproductive system (this will cost between £80-£110 at my vet).

 

None of these number seem high until you consider that the animal lives an average of 2-2.5 years. In fact, the average age of death of a male rat in the UK is  Once your rats have reached the end of their lives you will say goodbye to them, which means you may need another appointment with the vet for a “pts” (put to sleep). You then buy a couple of more rats and the cycle continues!

 

I estimate that every rat you have will cost you about between £100-£150 in vet bills. If you have two rats you are looking at quite a sum over the course of their short lives. How short you might ask? Well, a pet survey in the UK found that most rats live on average for 1.8 years. Most of my rats live between 21 and 27 months. That’s it. I know people say they have rats that live four or five years but I’ve not found that to be the case. So, having spent all this money on spaying or tumours or whatever, you aren’t going to have years of a healthy pet. They will die and then,  if you are like me and you are hooked on rats, you’ll only go and buy another trio!

 

So, while it is true that rats are far less expensive than dogs, they aren’t cheap! Well-meaning owners are conned into believing pet rats will be an inexpensive option only to be shocked when they can’t afford vital veterinary care that their rat requires.

 

What about insurance? A great idea exceptional that not all insurers will cover rats. the one I know of is Exotic Direct. They would be delighted to insure your rats but they charge £15 per rat per month. You’d do better putting the money aside, I imagine. If you do find cheaper pet insurance for your rats, can you let me know? I’d love to tell others!

 

There are rats that will cost you very little and die peacefully in their sleep without having ever shown a sign of illness, but they are rare. Arm yourself with the cash necessary to look after your rats without worry and enjoy them without the stress of worrying how to pay the bill if they need the vet. And if you do run into financial difficulty, look up the PDSA before you have a veterinary emergency. The PDSA recognises that people keep rats in pairs at minimum and will cover some of the costs of veterinary treatment if you qualify.

 

I really feel for you  if you can’t afford a pet. The longing to connect with animals is very great. Rat owners like me are always looking for those who love rats to help them out when they are away on holiday or work. You might be able to help out a breeder. Join the NFRS and go to rat shows, meet breeders and soon you’ll be in demand to help out and you’ll get LOTS of time with rats and baby rats as well as a little money to store away for your own.

rats!

How to Breed for Good Temperament

All breeders try to breed for a “good temperament” but not all breeders agree on what a good temperament is! Some breed for rats that are active and always on the move. Others may wish for “lap rats” that tend to be more mellow and cuddly. All breeders agree they want their rats to be happy, relaxed animals. They want rats that enjoy interacting with humans and other rats without any concerns about injury.

Genetics influence temperament in all sorts of ways. I recall reading something from  long-time breeder, Jemma Fettes, of Isamu Stud, a very well known rat stud in the show world. She talked about how an orphan rat was put into a group of babies and grew up among them with (presumably) the same maternal care as the biological offspring to the mother. Even though he was raised exactly as the others, his temperament was far different. He wasn’t a “bad” rat, but a very active, cheeky rat, and far more trouble than his adopted brothers and sisters! Jemma was convinced the difference in his temperament was due to his genetics, not his environment.

When it comes to rat temperament, epigenetics come into  play.  That is, not everything about the DNA of a rat result in a particular temperament.  “Mother rats spend a lot of time licking, grooming, and nursing their pups. Others seem to ignore their pups. Highly nurtured rat pups tend to grow up to be calm adults, while rat pups who receive little nurturing tend to grow up to be anxious…Through her licking behavior, a mother rat can write information onto her pups’ DNA in a way that completely bypasses eggs and sperm. In a sense, her nurturing behavior tells her pups something about the world they will grow up in. Mom’s behavior actually programs the pups’ DNA in a way that will make them more likely to succeed.” (Genetics Science Learning Centre).

In fact, researchers at McGill University have determined that maternal care in the form of licking and grooming “changes hundreds of genes” in the babies at once.  In their laboratories, rats that were “poorly licked” were anxious and harder to handle. Those who were licked a lot were easy to handle. The tendency toward high levels of maternal care may be genetically linked, of course, but the point is that stress responses can be changed in a single generation. This has important ramifications for breeders. While they are unlikely to lose “type” or “colour” quickly, they can lose temperament simply because a doe isn’t attending to her offspring properly.

Having rats with low levels of anxiety is important. Anxious rats are more likely to bite. They are also more likely to become ill, lead shorter lives, and suffer from problems with mites. It’s important to breed relaxed rats and I know all breeders are trying to do so but understanding the mechanism for good temperament is trickier than it looks. And while breeders can do their best to socialise baby rats, handling them and creating a good environment for them with plenty of “enrichment” (toys and climbing and foraging opportunities), it looks like the basics of temperament depend largely on the mum!

rats!

The Closet Rat Enthusiast

I’ve been at Oxford University this week teaching on the master’s programme for creative writing. It’s a great gig because I spend all weekend talking about one of my favourite subjects – writing fiction – with a whole bunch of people who feel the same. Yesterday, I had the unusual pleasure of discovering one of the students on the course is a rat lover. We spent lunch sitting across from each other talking about rats, peoples’ perceptions of rats, how certain genetics play out in forming different colours (known as “varieties” in the rat world) and the dubious pleasure of “show rats”.

 

We got some funny looks at the dining table, especially when I pulled out the current issue of Pro-Rat-A, the National Fancy Rat Society’s magazine, to show her.

 

As it happens, this young woman goes to schools to talk about the way we are acculturated to be afraid of rats. She wants to show children that animals like rats – and wasps and snakes and perhaps any number of other dreaded animals – have a place in this world. For her demonstration, she uses a pair of roan does she adopted. They’ve been great ambassadors for rats, total superstars, but one has recently died and she’s down to a lone and elderly doe who has little time left herself.

 

“Would you like some morerats?” I ventured. I was sitting with other tutors and you could just see them thinking, What is all this about rats?All these years we’ve known her and we had no idea Marti was crazy.

 

It’s true that I keep it quiet. I’m a closet rat enthusiast, not because I am ashamed of my affection for pets rats but because I don’t like to hear them bein disparaged by people who feel differently. But the young woman did not disparage them. I watched her face light up at the notion of my hoped-for baby rats, arriving in November.

 

“Oh yes!” she said.

 

I explained I was breeding Missy to Pluto and that the babies were all likely to be black, some with Berkshire markings (splashes of white on their stomachs and legs).

 

“Black is good! I want them to look close to wild rats.”

 

I let her know that wild “brown” rats were agouti but that ship rats were black. If I could source some agouti from another breeder as well it would be great to have a mix of agouti and black.

 

“Take three, a trio of baby rats is a good number. And with does, we’re only talking about relatively small rats.”

 

“How small?”

 

“I used the bread rolls from the basket on the table to demonstrate. “A doe is about two of these rolls. But a buck can be, say, three or more. Of course, it varies. I know breeders whose does are three bread rolls and bucks are four!”

 

Was that maybe too much, the bread roll rats in among the bottles of sparkling water and the discreet menu card and the cloth napkins and all the linen? A little unfair to the other diners who were not quite as enamoured of the fancy rat? No, really, it’s okay. You can level with me.  Better to have taken the rats back into the closet? I mean, they do like closets…

 

 

rats!

Temperament is everything…a video of Missy the lap rat!

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Temperament isn’t the only thing working in favour of Missy (Ouzles Daughter of Kong,1, if you want her formal name!). Her last litter produced a some show rats on their way to becoming champions. But I think you’ll agree it’s her temperament that makes her such a special doe!

 

Temperament is perhaps the most difficult thing to breed for. First, you can’t really tell what you’ve got until a rat is bit older. Does can be very, VERY active in their early months.  Most bucks are sweet until 5-9 months at which time their testosterone comes into play.  That is not to say that bucks are testosterone-driven thugs (okay, some are!) but that you don’t know for sure what you’ve gone for a period of time.

 

That’s why the NFRS recommends waiting until bucks are at least 8-9 months old before breeding them. I wait even longer! My Russian Silver rat, Pluto, is will be thirteen months before he goes in with a doe. I may breed my roan buck, Cornelius, next year because his temperament looks like it may be among the gentlest bucks I’ve ever met. His mother and two brothers are also very, very gentle so he has some likelihood of bringing that to his offspring. But he’s only 6 months old right now, so let’s wait and see, right?

 

While everyone agrees  that temperament is critical, some people like a more active rat while some prefer the “lap rat” personality. But nobody wants a rat that bites people or is a terror to the rats, picking serious fights that cause injury to cagemates. Breeding early can mean you pass on a dodgy temperament to baby rats that are homed out to new owners before you are even aware that the father has an unsuitable temperament.

 

As for does, you have to expect them to be zippy and active, but the question is whether they are being active because they are skittish or because they are excited about being alive (and with you!).

 

Missy uses me as a climbing frame and a shoulder to perch on just like any rat. However, her superpower is being a “lap rat”, too, after she’s had a little time to wander. I’ve had a few does that like to sit like this for long periods having their ears stroked and all my does are very friendly (one leaps from the cage onto my shoulder when I open the door!), but Missy is extra sweet and I hope she passes that onto her young.

 

Are there any guarantees? No. Epigenetics come into  play.  That is, not everything about the genetics of a rat result in a particular temperament.  A 2004 study at MGill University showed that the way in which mother rats take care of their babies affects the temperament of the offspring. “Mother rats spend a lot of time licking, grooming, and nursing their pups. Others seem to ignore their pups. Highly nurtured rat pups tend to grow up to be calm adults, while rat pups who receive little nurturing tend to grow up to be anxious…Through her licking behavior, a mother rat can write information onto her pups’ DNA in a way that completely bypasses eggs and sperm. In a sense, her nurturing behavior tells her pups something about the world they will grow up in. Mom’s behavior actually programs the pups’ DNA in a way that will make them more likely to succeed.” (Genetics Science Learning Centre).

 

rats!

Does or Bucks (girls or boys)?

When it comes to deciding whether to get bucks or does there is much to consider. Among rat enthusiasts, the debate on which gender is “better” makes for lively debate. Both bucks and does make great pets. I have to admit to loving both does and bucks equally, though it is a lot easier to keep only one gender because you can get all your rats out at one time daily rather than having two different play times, one for the boys and one for the girls. So, if you want to make your life easier, stick to does or to bucks. If you want both genders, however, I totally understand. In fact, there are some nice cages that will allow you to keep both sexes easily enough as the cage divides into half with an opaque tray between the two.

There are a lot of generalisations about the differences between bucks and does and we may as well start with them. So, true or false?

True of False? Bucks Are Lazy; Does Are Lively

There is some truth in this! A female rat, or doe, is often smaller, sleeker, and more active than her brother. While everything comes down to individual personality, does tend to be far “busier” inside their cages, racing up ladders, crossing ropes, building elaborate nests, etc. By contrast, boys tend to do as little as possible to create a nest, then flop down and sleep the day away. But at night, things are different! Boys will want to come out and play just as much as the girls will! they may not play as fast or for as long, but my boys race over me as I watch a movie, sit on my books and explore my eyeglasses while I’m trying to read, jump from one shelf to another just for fun. Girls are faster (no contest there) and tend not to sit on your lap as much as boys, but all this changes with age.

By 18 months, many of my girls will slow down enough to sit on my lap. The boys at 18 months will probably cuddle longer and be less likely to “race” anywhere!

My girls will frequently climb up my leg to get to me. My boys might come over to my foot, think about climbing, then change their minds.

If you have children who want to play with the rats during the day, girls are probably a better option, though the boys may learn that playtime is during the day and may wake up especially just to have fun.

True of False? Bucks Smell More 

In my experience, this is true. They’re bigger; they eat more; they have more oil in their coats. I don’t mind this about bucks but if you are someone who really hates the smell of rats I’d go for smallish does. Does tend to weigh between 350–500 grams, but can be more! Male rats range from between 450–700 grams. I have heard of a couple that top 850 grams.

Another point: if you are mildly allergic to rats you may get on okay with does but not with bucks.

Caution: bucks mark more, which means they dribble urine sometimes. If this drives you crazy, go for does.

True of False? Bucks Cannot He Introduced to Other Bucks

Not exactly true, no.  An adult buck will usually accept a couple of baby boys, ages 9-14 weeks, without difficulty as long as the introductions are done correctly. But introducing adult bucks to adult bucks is trickier. I’ve known people who have done it without any problems but please remember that rats who are strangers to one another can fight. The injuries can be serious or even fatal.

Those who are successful at introducing adult bucks to adult bucks almost always use the “carrier method”, about which I will write shortly. However, I personally do not like to introduce adult bucks to one another. I’m too concerned about injury.

By contrast, I have successfully introduced adult does to adult does with little to no fuss. I use the carrier method and watch for any signs of trouble. All my intros have been incredibly easy. This may be due to the rats I have, but I think it is true to say that does are generally easier to introduce to one another.

Everything depends upon individual personalities, of course.

True of False? Does Are Indifferent To Their Owners

Completely false! Makes me mad when I hear this! Does adore their owners! They just won’t sit in your lap for very long until they are a bit older. Have a look at Missy in this video and you’ll see that does can be just as much of “lap rats” as boys. However, everything depends on the age of the rats, how much you handle them, how much time they have to explore, and the “line” from which you buy your rats. Some lines produce more active rats than others. I am breeding for calm docile rats that make great pets. I don’t mind if they never win in the variety classes at shows — it doesn’t bother me at all.

I might add that bucks are pretty darn active as youngsters and that while some are licky, lovey “squishes”,  some don’t want to be “lap rats”. Again, it all comes down to the individual.

True of False? Bucks Are More Likely to Be Aggressive

Apparently, this is true though in my own experience, my bucks aren’t territorial or at all aggressive. They don’t bite me and I’m always reaching into their cages and messing about with “their” stuff. Both bucks and does tend to taste your toes — I have no idea why — but they don’t bite them as such. They may decide to give your fingernails a manicure, too. This amuses some, annoys other. Does will sometimes get a bit shark-like just after giving birth (though often not). Bucks begin “play fighting” at about 5 weeks of age and will occasionally get into scraps with each other as adults. Does do the same, but at a lower level.

Do not try to break up a rat fight with your hands as you could get bitten in the process. The problem with rat bits is that they HURT. And bucks are bigger so,if you were to get bitten, it may be more serious.

True of False? Does Live Longer

Statistically, this is true In general, does live a couple months longer than bucks. This may be because bucks tends to gain more weight than does in their later lives. There’s a wonderful website with all sorts of statistics on rats. Among the various graphs and charts is one that shows how rats pretty much continue to gain weight throughout their lives, with the boys being more likely to become obese unless their diets are carefully controlled.

True of False? Does Have Bigger Vet Bills

Probably true, unless you have to neuter your male rat in which case, they will likely cost as much as a doe.  A does may need a spay or to have mamary tumours removed. Some rats never seem to get mammary tumours. Others get enormous ones. Bucks can get them, too, but are less likely to do so. I’ve had two does spayed recently and both bounced back really nicely and are now genderless, happy middle-aged rats who I hope live good long lives!