by Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun
The quality of a rat is only as good as the breeder who produced him. The quality of the animals produced by a breeder depends on their philosophy. Why do they breed? Is it only to make money? Or do they also have a love for rats and a desire to produce a better pet? When money is the sole reason for producing animals, it often means the breeder cuts corners on quality. Perhaps they don’t clean as often as they should leading to ammonia build-up and respiratory damage to their rats. Perhaps they use pine shavings, which are toxic but inexpensive, to save money. Perhaps they breed their females again immediately after weaning their babies without allowing them a rest, which can result in offspring which are less than optimum. Perhaps they keep their rats in tiny cages and/or crowded conditions which can result in stress and impaired immune systems as well as rats who are less intelligent and perhaps have dirty bathroom habits. Perhaps they breed sick or genetically inferior rats to maximize production.
A breeder should be happy to let you inspect their facility. If they are concerned about the possibility of you carrying diseases, tell them you will shower immediately before coming and put on freshly laundered clothing. Before walking into the breeding facility you can put clean plastic bags over your shoes and secure them with rubber bands. The fear of disease is a legitimate worry, but this should reduce the risks to acceptable levels.
When at the rattery, examine the breeding cages. Do they allow enough room for the rats to play and exercise? Are there toys in the cage? It has been proven that rats who grow up with toys are actually smarter! How many rats are kept together? Rats are social animals so they should have companionship but they shouldn't be overcrowded. What type of bedding and litter is used? Pine and cedar shavings are toxic. What does the facility smell like? What is the temperature and ventilation like? Is there an ammonia smell? Is there a quarantine area for new rats? Ask for some of the mothers to be taken out of their cages. Are they friendly to people so they won’t teach their offspring to fear humans?
It’s a real plus if the breeder uses litter boxes in the cages. The babies will learn to use them from their mother and then you can use them at home in your cages.
There are also questions you should ask the breeder. What diet do they use? For optimum health, all diets should include some fresh unprocessed foods daily. How much time is spent socializing the babies? How are sick animals treated? What problems with respiratory disease have they experienced with their rats? What type of cleaning program is followed? At what age are the animals sold? Baby rats can be weaned at 4 weeks of age, but many breeders like to wait until they are 6 weeks old to sell them, especially if they will be shipped. This is fine as long as the babies get plenty of socialization every day. Be sure the breeder separates the males and females before 5 weeks of age as this is when they can start breeding.
Even more important than the physical care of the animals, is the breeder’s philosophy. What are the breeder’s goals regarding the improvement of her rats? What are her breeding standards? How does she choose her breeding stock? What does she do with rats who don’t meet the standards? How long has the breeder been breeding rats? Is she a member of any rat clubs in order to stay informed of health problems, etc? Can she give you any statistics on the percentage of her female rats who get mammary tumors? On how long her rats tend to live? Does she keep pedigrees on her rats? Can she refer you to other customers who will vouch for her rats?
If you aren’t able to visit the breeder yourself due to distance, ask for photos of the facility. Perhaps you can even ask another rat owner in the area to visit the facility for you. You will need to ask the breeder about all the things you would normally be able to observe. There are additional questions you should ask if the rats will be shipped. How are they shipped? What type of container is used? How is food and water provided on the trip? Care should be taken that rats not be shipped when the weather is extremely hot.
Some breeders may require just as thorough inspection of you as you demand from them. A breeder who truly cares about their animals is not going to sell to just anyone. Don’t be offended if they ask you questions about how you will be caring for your new rats. In some cases, they are going to want to stay in touch with you so they can monitor the health of their rats to aid their breeding program. Some breeders will want you to return their rats to them in the case that you can no longer care for them.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But it may make the difference between buying rats who are a delight and those who might be plagued with health problems. But don’t forget, you can often find wonderful rats who need homes at your local animal shelter!
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