Mating and signs of pregnancy
Firstly, before mating your rats you should check the agreement which came with your rats. If your rats came from a breeder they are likely to have specified in a contract whether your rat had 'breeding potential' (most rats sold as breeding potential still come with a clause requesting that you contact the breeder before any mating occurs), or whether it was sold as 'pet only'. If your rat was sold as 'pet only' you must respect the breeders decision, in fact you would have signed your contract to this effect. Also be aware that almost every rescue animal that is rehomed usually comes with a similar agreement that they are not to be bred from. However, generally the lack of background knowledge of rescue animals means that they should not be bred from anyway.
Before you mate your rats you should always contact the breeder they came from in order to check that there are no problems in the line (this also may be a clause in your contract from your breeder). If you do discover any problems you should seriously reconsider your plans to breed. Remember that the breeder will have much more experience in this area than you and you should respect any decision they give you. If you discover no problems and are given the go ahead from the breeder of your rats you are ready to go ahead with the mating.
There are two options for the actual mating. You can either allow your buck and doe to live together for a couple of days to a week, or more advisedly, you should put your buck with your doe when she is in heat.
The latter is the best option as a doe who is not in heat and is put in with a strange buck will often become very defensive (and sometimes distressed) resisting his advances. If the doe is very dominant this can also be stressful for the buck, as she may be quite agressive towards him.
Does come into heat every five or six days, physical signs include an arched back and fluttering ears when you touch your doe near her tail and a larger vaginal opening. Her cage mates may also try to mount her.
There are other advantages to only putting your buck and doe together when she is on heat. Firstly it will be easier to calculate when any kittens should be born, and therefore ascertain whether or not she is pregnant. Secondly both buck and doe will establish back with their cage mates much more easily if only separated for a short period than they would if kept apart for a long period of time.
Signs the mating was successful
The easiest and most effective way to ascertain if mating has been successful is observation (i.e. witnessing the event). Additionally a 'waxy plug' in the vagina can be an indicator that mating occurred, however often this cannot be seen but the mating was still successful.
Signs of pregnancy
There a number of signs that your doe is pregnant (although do be aware that most are merely predicative and do not mean that your doe is definitely pregnant).
Weight gain and abdominal swelling
Although most rats do not show obvious weight gain until the last seven days of pregnancy keeping an accurate record of your does weight before and after mating will enable you to accurately assess weight gain. You should also aim to record your does weight every few days throughout the expected pregnancy period. The shape of her body will also differ from that of other does, towards the end of the pregnancy her tummy will take on the look of a tennis ball or orange.
Please note that these signs could also indicate ill health so if it is unlikely that your doe has mated with a buck please take her to a vet immediately.
Lack of further heats
If your doe does not come into heat again when you next expect her to, this is fairly indicative that mating was successful.
The hormones of a pregnant doe will change drastically, and so her temperament might change. She may become skittish and she may rise to the 'alpha' status in her cage. There can also be signs of lethargy 24-48 hours prior to birth.
Hair loss around the nipples
This can occur from around the end of the second week of pregnancy.
Although it may not occur until a couple of days before the birth (or not at all) manic nest building is a good sign that your doe is pregnant, and the birth is close. She may choose to nest in whatever suitable housing you have provided (guinea pig igloos make a good place for your doe to nest) or she may choose to make her own (in her eyes) more suitable nest. It is advisable to provide her with extra bedding so she can make a comfy nest for herself and future kittens.
Author: Melanie Southward
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