Should I Breed Rats?
I get this question quite a bit from people who believe that, for one reason or another, they should breed their rats. People are usually surprised when my answer is a resounding NO.
There are many, many rats in the world, and 99% of them are suitable to be great, loving and wonderful pets. But very few of them are suitable for serious breeding, and very few people understand that.
Ask Yourself These Questions:
Can I afford a rattery?
Though you may think a rattery is a simple affair, the truth is that a good rattery is outrageously expensive and you will never, ever recoup the costs of your rattery by selling babies. The only way to make money by breeding and selling animals is to provide them with substandard housing, bedding, food and veterinary care. As an example, let me explain how much my own rattery costs:
Total One-Time Caging Cost: $1159.00 + shipping
Not all cages will be in use at all times, but they rotate in and out depending on my populations.
Food (When Feeding Suebee Mix)
Total Monthly Food Bill: $116.85
This is when feeding Suebee's Rat mix. When we are feeding Harlan Lab Blocks, food costs drop to $10 per bag, 2-3 bags per month. However, that is dependant on having a source from which to order, since Harlan is not available from retail.
Total Monthly Bedding Bill (assuming 1 litter): $65.95
Again, it is cheaper to use Harlan's Sani-Chips bedding, but it is dependant on ordering enough supplies when there is an order going in. For the average rattery without access to Harlan, this is the ballpark.
I have an excellent vet, and these are what I pay for these procedures:
Average Monthly Vet Bill: $150.00
Avg new rats bought per year: 4
Sale of Rats
As you can see, it is both challenging and very expensive to maintain these animals to a high standard of care!! Plus, prices are always going up. If you're not able or willing to shoulder this cost, you should not be breeding!
Why do I want to breed my rats?
If the answer is because you want more rats of your own, because you have a friend who wants a rat,because you want to see the miracle of life, or for money, those aren't good enough reasons. There are many reputable breeders out there from whom you can obtain those animals. In addition, a reputable and ethical rattery will never make money, only lose it, because the cost of caring properly for your rats far outstrips what you can charge for your ratlings.
If you are breeding an animal, it should be because you love the animal and want to improve the species. You should first study the animal, learn all you can about their special needs, their illnesses, genetic diseases, what is hereditary and what is not, and their special husbandry needs. Then you need to seriously sit down and decide if you can afford to run a rattery (a pet rat isn't cheap - a whole colony can get ridiculous!) and if you have the time and energy to spare to really dedicate your efforts.
Do I know the ancestry and genetic background of my rats?
Are the rats you want to breed together related? Do they have siblings who have died from megacolon, cancer, severe mycoplasma infections or other inheritable diseases?
If you don't know the background of your breeding stock, then don't breed them without a very strong knowledge of genetics, a lot of time and dedication! Period! Pet store rats can be wonderful pets, and many are even healthy animals who live long, full lives. However, most pet store animals come from wholesalers whose only purpose is to breed as many rats as possible in a short time - for reptile food, pets and research, all in the same building. These animals are usually not treated with a standard of care that will ensure long, healthy lives, and they are often carelessly bred. And since they are sold so young and with no regard to family, you will never know if a rat they are related to exhibits signs of a serious genetic problem that your rat is silently carrying... a disease that will exhibit in the kittens you breed.
The only time it is acceptable to breed a petstore rat is if you have a good grasp of genetics, if the rat has exhibited some outstanding trait you can't find anywhere else, and you are planning on keeping most or all of its litter in order to study the line into adulthood and beyond, harshly evaluating temperament, health and behavior.
Do I understand the genetics of rats?
Do you know what colors and markings your own rats have, and what colors and markings they will produce? Do you know if there are any lethal genes associated with those colors and markings? Are those particular colors and markings popular enough in your area so that you will be able to place the babies in good homes?
While color and marking usually come at a distant third in the goals of reputable hobby breeders (after health, temperament and longevity) they can make a huge difference in your breeding scheme. Some types of rats - such as hairless, odd-eye, tailless and blazed - can carry serious deformations in their lineage. The only way to know whether or not your own rats carry those deformities is to obtain your rats from a trusted, quality breeder who knows what is in their own lines. Careless breeders beget careless breeders - if careful records are not kept, you end up with dead kittens, young rats dying of bloat, rats with no glands and rats with open spinal cords.
In addition, while all rats are lovely animals, some are more popular than others. While a Pink-Eyed White rat is just as capable of being the perfect pet as the best show-quality Blue Husky Rex Dumbo, people are more willing to buy the latter than the former. If your local population thinks of white rats as "lab rats," blacks and agoutis as "sewer rats," and black hoods as "feeder rats," you aren't going to be able to place those rats in good homes. Without a good handle on the genetics of rats, you could breed a Russian Blue to an American Blue rat... and end up, to your dismay, with a litter of blacks and not a single Blue.
Do I know what megacolon, SDA, mycoplasma pulmosis, lethal genes or Sendai are?
Do you know what a quarantine is, how to do one, and how long one is necessary when you get new animals? Are you able to recognize the warning signs of incipient sickness? Do you have a vet who knows and is willing to treat rats?
If any of those words stumped you, you're not ready to breed. Those are pretty common words that crop up in a breeder's career. Simple pet ownership may put you in touch with some of them - like mycoplasma - but not all of them (unless you are very unlucky!) Doing a search of breeder sites and asking questions of other breeders should alert you to the situations and genetics that put your animals at risk.
In addition, it is not cheap to care for a sick rat. I had a single rat who, in the two and a half years she was with me, needed treatment for nine mammary tumors, and two mycoplasma infections - which cost me $300 over the course of her life. Treating my rattery for the recent outbreak of SDA cost me over $200. Every time a rat gets sick, it's my obligation to care for them... even if the care is to have them humanely euthanized (which is also not a cheap procedure.) If one of your breeding stock dies young, you are obliged to get a necropsy to determine if they died from an inheritable defect. Many vets don't know much about rats, surprisingly. It will be YOUR job to learn as much as you can about rats, then find a vet willing to learn and treat your animals with respect and skill.
Am I prepared and able to keep every single baby my rats produce?
Keep in mind that a rat typically gives birth to between 11 and 18 babies, 12 being an average. Do you know what to do if your female has trouble with delivery? If she dies or fails to produce milk, are you prepared to handrear the babies?
If you cannot place your rats in good homes, it is your moral obligation to care for those rats until the end of their lives. Those rats were only born because of you, so you are responsible for their lives. It is not considered ethical by most rat clubs, organizations and individual breeders to sell your "culls" (imperfect rats you do not want to keep and rats you didn't manage to sell) to pet stores, wildlife sanctuaries, or for feeders. If you are caught doing it, it is likely that many breeders will stop dealing with you altogether and you will get a bad name.
Usually, mother will have no problem with her babies... but if she does, your ignorance could cost her and her babies their lives. Again, since the breeding was done by you, you are responsible for the results.
Do you know how old your rats are?
o you know the optimal breeding age for female rats, and the maximum age that she can be safely bred? Do you know how to recognize the signs of a female rat in heat?
Female rats should ideally be bred for the first time between 6 and 9 months of age; after one year, risks of complications rise. Many breeders to not breed females over one year old, and most will never force a female to bear more than three litters in her lifetime, with a couple of months to recuperate in between. Females should only be bred if they are in top condition, and then to older, top-conditioned male rats. Only rats who are friendly, robust, gentle and sweet (to other rats and to people) should be bred from. Rats who have had health difficulties with mycoplasma, asthma, or cancer; who are closely related to rat who have had health difficulties or genetic defects; or who have exhibited signs of extreme fear, nervousness, dislike of being handled or aggression, should never be bred from.
If any of those questions stumped you or forced you to come up with an unsatisfactory answer, I beg you to reconsider breeding your rats. Rat breeding is a "holistic" venture, combining animal husbandry, artistry, a love of the species and a whole lot of work. In addition, it requires you to spend a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money. It costs your wallet, it costs your heart, and the only return that you will receive is if you have helped to improve the species for future pet-owners. No one should ever breed except for the purposes of improving the species:making their lifespans longer, their lives healthier, their temperaments better and maybe even improving their looks a little. The rat breeder must also be very committed, and willing to keep careful track of all of their animals in terms of genetics, health, longevity, and where the animals go. They must be committed to the health and well-being of their animals - no matter what the cost.
They must also be committed to honesty, no matter what the opposition. There can sometimes be a conspiracy of silence around certain health defects, certain illnesses, and temperaments. If you breed a line that turns out to have a defect, you must let those buyers who obtained that line know! If you failed to quarantine and ended up with SDA or Sendai, you must let any rat people who have had contact with you know, and properly quarantine! A reputation for brutal honesty will get you further, in the long run, than a hidden agenda of lies.
What is SDA?
SDA is a terrible, terrible virus for the pet rat population in the United States. It rips through a rattery, making the animals in it suffer terribly before they die. If they live through the virus, they are often permanently damaged, either with lung scarring, permanently ulcerated eyes, or even missing eyes. The only way to prevent your rats from getting SDA is to quarantine them - stringently! - with NO exceptions.
This sickness is not limited only to those with a lot of rats, or breeders. Anyone who buys a rat could be carrying home SDA. If you have a rat and handle a rat at the pet store, then go right home and handle your rat, you could be giving them the gift of SDA or Sendai, another terrible virus. It is very serious, and very widespread, especially prevalent in the North-East and Mid-West US.
The Blue Velvet Rattery got the SDA Virus in May of 2001. There are several possible sources for this contagion, but the bottom line is that I was not careful enough with my quarantines. I did not quarantine for long enough, and quarantined in another room rather than in a separate location.
On May 19, I put three new rats into my rattery, rats who had been in quarantine for an inadequate amount of time. Two of them were new, but came from a respected breeder. The third was a pet shop rat who had been sick, medicated, and recovered from severe respiratory symptoms. She never showed any of the classic signs of SDA. They had all been quarantined for two weeks with no symptoms. I now know that it takes at least two months after the cession of all symptoms for them to be safe. That same day, I sold a lovely little girl-rat to another breeder, Missy Ruud from Raisin' Rats. Whether the minute exposure to the other rats gave it to this rat, or whether Missy's rats got it from my hands when I visited her rattery, we'll never know.
On May 23, I noticed one of my blue rex males had xtremely swollen glands and bulging eyes. I recognized these classic signs of SDA and had hysterics. I had him killed, necropsied, and blood tested. The necropsy came back as cancer, not SDA, and I relaxed a little, but by the time the blood test came back a week later, I already knew we had it. My newly weaned litters were coming down with conjunctivitus - squinty eyes - which quickly progressed to underchin swellings, ulcerated and swollen eyes, and severe congestion. SDA was in full swing.
We had to obtain masses of Baytril and Doxycycline to treat everyone. Every single rat got a dose of medication (suspended in orange juice, which I later discovered was bad for boy rats and switched to soy milk) by syringe force-fed to them every night for 10 days. I had 36 rats. It took over an hour and a half every night. It was, to say the least, exhausting, not to mention the stress of watching my little friends struggle for breath and go blind from ulcerated eyes.
Luckily, everyone survived except the male I had necropsied. One of my young boys had to have an eye removed due to severe damage from the ulcerations. Some of the rats have scarred lungs. And all of it could have been prevented with proper quarantine.
The best way to quarantine is in a completely separate building, with no air exchange between your rats and the quarantined rats, for one month. During that month, your new rats must NOT exhibit any signs of respiratory illness. Sometimes, sneezing or "chirping" is nothing to worry about, my rats get a little congested when the weather changes severely. However, a sick rat MUST be treated, and the quarantine must continue for at least a month with no symptoms, or TWO MONTHS after all symptoms are cleared from a sick rat. DON'T CHEAT ON THIS!!
Where can you quarantine your rats? Perhaps you have a friend who doesn't mind rats who will watch a couple for a month? A sibling or parent? A heated separate garage or shed which can be maintained? The important thing is that you MUST spend at least TWO HOURS in-between touching or contacting ANY OTHER rat and your rat. The virus can be carried on you, but cannot live outside a host for more than two hours.
It's hard, it's a lot of work... but it's less work that medicating your rats every night and maybe watching them die anyway.
If none of the above questions has dissuaded you, and you are convinced that you can be that kind of committed, knowledgeable breeder - fantastic! I have recommendations for you. Most of them can be found here: The Virtual Mentor but the two most important are:
Make sure that you buy your stock "Foundation" animals from at least two different, reputable breeders so that you have a nice, healthy outcross to start with. Make sure you get the pedigrees in hand the same day you buy the rat (I'm sorry to say it, but never trust someone to mail it to you - they usually don't) and try to get pedigrees that go back three-four generations. Question the breeders about the health of the line, ask to see parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces & nephews - whatever you can. Take a good look at the living conditions in the rattery - you are inheriting any problems that rattery currently has!
If you are impressed with the breeder you buy your stock from, ask them if they would mind mentoring you. If you can't find a local breeder willing to mentor you, ask on the internet. It can save you a TON of mistakes to be able to ask an experienced breeder for advice BEFORE you make that ill-advised breeding!