Choosing a beeder
So, you want to get some rats, perhaps your first rats, perhaps more rats to join those you already own. You've considered pet shops and rescues, but you've decided on going directly to a breeder. Your reasons for making that choice will strongly influence what you are looking for in your search for a breeder.
The most common reasons for buying rats directly from a breeder are that you are looking for better health and temperament, rats that are tame and sociable from day one, and perhaps a specific colour.
Health and temperament
Let's get one thing straight. No breeder can guarantee good health or a sweet nature and no reputable breeder claims that his or her rats are perfect. By keeping a close track of each generation and only breeding from the best rats each time faults will gradually be minimised, but cannot be totally eliminated.
If health is your number one priority look for a breeder who has been working with one line for many generations. This probably means there will be only 2 or 3 colours in this line, and few or no different markings. New colours and imported lines may not have enough known history to have an established health record. You will want to find a breeder that tracks the rats they breed throughout their lives, whether they keep them, sell them to other breeders, or sell them to pet homes. If a breeder has been doing this for several generations they should have a fairly good picture of problems that occur in the line, and be able to explain to you the choices they have made to reduce these problems in future generations.
Much the same reasoning applies to temperament as to health. The breeder should track all the rats they breed, throughout their lives, in order to be certain they are of reliable temperament. This particularly applies to males, who can go through a hormonally driven personality change at about 6-12 months, and should generally therefore not be bred from until after this age.
Retiring rats, rehoming and culling
Ask what happens to the rats once they are retired from breeding or showing. Does the breeder keep them? Or perhaps rehome them to pet homes where they will have more time devoted to them? If the rats are rehomed it is obviously essential that the breeder continues to monitor their health and temperament. Some breeders cull their breeding stock once they are past breeding age (the rats are put to sleep).
The term culling is also applied to baby rats where it is used to mean reducing the litter size, usually to about 4-6 babies, to enable the mother rat to cope more easily. Recent advances in the understanding of the nutritional requirements of nursing mothers mean that this is not necessary for the health of the babies or the mother. Most breeders who cull are happy to admit that they do so and if you do not believe in culling they will refer you elsewhere for your rats. If your priorities are health and temperament rather than show type and prize-winning colour you should avoid breeders that cull.
Meet the parents
Ideally arrange to meet the parents of your potential rat kittens, or if that is not possible then some other close relatives. Temperament type tends to be very much inherited and the parents should give you an idea whether you could expect laprats or livewires. Visiting the home of the breeder is a good idea for many other reasons - you will get to see for yourself the conditions the breeding rats are kept in, have a chat to the breeder, handle their rats and decide whether you are happy with what you see. It is also an excellent opportunity to see the cages, bedding and diet that your kittens will be used to. Keep in mind the fact that you will be in contact with the person for at least the next two years - you have to like them!
Once you have seen the rattery you should have a good idea how much handling the rats have and do not be afraid to ask how much socialisation the growing kittens will get on a daily basis. Take into account how many litters there are at any one time and how many rat-caretakers there are in the home - for example, some breeders may have older children who are very involved in caring for the rats; kittens from such households are often more "bombproof" than those that grow up in a quieter environment. If you have children, dogs or cats yourself it is a distinct advantage to get your kittens from a home where they will have already been used to these species! Breeders that keep their rats in a specific rat shed or garage may choose to raise their kittens indoors, to ensure they grow up friendly and sociable.
Does the breeder have a waiting list? Many breeders do, and it is worth considering the reasons for this. Reputable breeders do not advertise in free ads, local papers, or free websites, but rely on word of mouth, referrals and clubs. A responsible breeder will not breed more rats than they can home, or that they are willing to keep themselves. Conversely, they do not breed simply to satisfy demand - each litter will be planned with particular aims in mind. Each doe will not usually have more than one litter - if she was mated to the most suitable buck in the first instance she will have already produced the best possible rat kittens she is capable of producing.
Ethics and follow up
An ethical breeder puts the best interests of the individual rats first, above any consideration of profit, new trendy colours, or personal showing ambitions. An ethical breeder does not produce a litter because they want to experience the miracle of birth, because their rat would make a wonderful mother or because their rat has a wonderful temperament and they want lovely babies just like her. Ethical breeders tend to have waiting lists.
How far does the breeder take their responsibility to the rats that they have bred? Will they be at the end of the phone if you have any problems with your rats? Do they offer to ratsit for owners when they go on holiday? Are they prepared to take rats back if for any reason the owner cannot keep them? Part of being an ethical breeder is making sure that the rats have a good home and that it stays that way. Many breeders now use a questionnaire to get to know a bit about potential owners before they will sell them kittens. Do you have time to care for rats properly? Can you afford feeding/vet costs? What food/bedding/cages do you use? Where will the rats live? Why do you want these rats?
Some breeders also use a contract that sets out what they expect from people who take on their kittens, and in return specifies the breeder's obligations to the new owner. You should expect to be given a family tree or pedigree for your rats, a sample of the food and supplements they have been eating and the breeders full contact details. The National Fancy Rat Society recommends that rat kittens may be sold from 6 weeks old.
You might also like to take into account any involvement the breeder has in rescue. There are many unwanted rats in the country, and some breeders do a lot of good for rats as a whole by taking in rescues, or by providing transport across the country to enable them to reach new homes. I believe this shows they care about the good of rats as a whole.
Balanced against all of this is your own desire for baby rats NOW, and probably a strong preference in colour. If you want a specific colour you may need to be prepared to wait. Alternatively if you are prepared to compromise you could consider giving a rescue rat a home - I have personally seen dumbos, blues and Siamese all turn up in rescue centres. A breeder should not charge more for kittens of specific colours or varieties as all kittens require the same care and attention regardless of variety. To a responsible breeder it is important that every kitten goes to a home where it will be wanted, and therefore all kittens will cost the same.
A good breeder will be happy to put you in touch with someone who has had rats from him or her before. If you are still not happy, walk away, there are plenty more rats out there. Never buy rats from any establishment simply because you feel sorry for them and want to get them out of bad conditions - a profit on the balance sheet simply supports the business.
Author: Alison Mercer
Articles about sourcing your new pets.
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