The period of pregnancy and particularly lactation places particular nutritional demands on the doe's body, resulting in special nutritional requirements. Kittens likewise are growing at a phenomenal rate and to achieve their potential, nutritional needs must be met. This applies to the quality and quantity of the doe's milk as well as the food given to weanlings.
A word about pregnant does
I do not feel that it is necessary to do more than continue a pregnant doe's regular diet (assuming this is good quality), slowly increasing the quantity available and with the addition of a large daily portion of curly kale, spring greens, clover or young dandelion leaves. However, if you generally feed your adult rats a low protein diet (say around 10-12g per 100g) then you will need to increase the protein levels at this time.
Fat females tend to have more birthing problems so efforts should be made to avoid overfeeding. Where the doe is a youngster herself she should still continue on 'normal diet' – which in her case should be diet for growth – such as is outlined in this article. If a young pregnant rat is fed only standard adult ‘rat mix’ she will deplete her own reserves and her growth/immune health will probably be adversely affected.
Principles of feeding lactating does and weanling kittens
Nursing does require a diet that is rich in protein, carbohydrate, minerals (especially calcium, magnesium and phosphorus) and vitamins. It is important that a nursing doe is given the necessary nutrition to enable her to cope with the high demands of her kittens, otherwise she will raid her own skeleton and body tissues in an effort to supply her offspring. Nursing does require between two and four times the normal amount of protein when they are lactating. Digestible protein (as opposed to crude protein) is relatively easy for a rat to absorb. Organic calcium, on the other hand, needs other vitamins and minerals to enable the rat to absorb it - notably magnesium and vitamin D. Another essential mineral for growing bones is phosphorus but, as it occurs naturally in the cereals and grain that they eat as part of their staple diet, we do not need to worry about supplementing it, as a lactating doe would simply increase the amount she would normally eat. A lactating doe may pass up to 200 mg of calcium and 140 mg of phosphorus into the milk in one day. Most people supplement lactating does and kittens with (at least) calcium and vitamin D.
A few years ago I reviewed my own feeding program for lactating does and their litters, and now rely heavily on fresh foods. I provide a high quality grain mix (I use the Rat Rations No 9 mix which is a complete food to support reproduction). Alongside this (and making up about 50% of the overall diet) I feed high quality fresh foods.
Suggested fresh foods
- Curly kale, clover or young dandelion leaves.
- Spring greens
- Chicken (whole wings and drumsticks provide the higher protein flesh and the benefits of mineral rich bones to chew on).
- Egg (scrambled, boiled and chopped).
- Fish – especially oily varieties (cooked and tinned [lowest salt] acceptable). Also shellfish.
- Lactol (bottled or made into porridge or over wholemeal bread).
- Dr Squiggles Insectivorous feast (a high quality high protein egg food).
- Rat Rations mother and baby mash (no 15)
- Naturediet moist puppy food.
- Applaws cat food.
- Banana and avocado pear.
There are a number of supplements that are suitable and useful for growing families. Some of these are:
- Calcivet - saturated liquid calcium/magnesium supplement with vitamin D.
- Seaweed powder - benefits fertility, muscle, bone and tooth formation, coat and skin condition.
- Dried dandelion leaves – another excellent source of calcium and other minerals.
- Daily Essentials or Essentials Plus - general multivitamin/mineral supplements.
- Rat Rations Daily 3 (calcium, vitamin D and copper supplement for use on wet food).
This is a time of rapid (but gradually decreasing) growth, and adequate diet is necessary for a rat to fulfil its physical potential and remain in good health. Growth requires protein for the development of body tissue, calories for energy (from carbohydrate and fat) and vitamins and minerals (notably calcium) for healthy bone and tissue production. Once growth slows right down (usually around 5 to 8 months, stopping altogether at around a year) it is obviously not necessary to give the same quantities of these nutrients, and failure to change feeding patterns can result in obesity and ill health later in life.
This is the period from about 14 to 18 days onwards, when kittens first begin to take food other than their mother's milk. Rat kittens are normally fully weaned between 4 and 6 weeks, but continue to benefit from having some 'weaning diet' for some weeks after this. Weaning foods tend to be soft, moist and initially mimic the milky diet the kittens are used to. (See list above).
From 6 weeks to around 8 weeks – feed about 50% dry mix and 50% fresh foods such as suggested in the list above. Daily greens.
From 8 to 12 weeks – gradually decrease the amount of fresh food given and the amount of protein, not only feeding a smaller amount, but also maybe alternate days, then twice a week. Daily greens are still beneficial.
From 10 to 12 weeks onwards – feed your standard adult diet, which for most people will be mainly dry mix with around 10-20% vegetables. If you are going to feed fresh 'meals', such as adult mash, fresh carbs/protein or Naturediet lite then these should now replace a portion or all of the dry mix for that day otherwise your rats will probably become overweight.
A word on quantities
It cannot be over emphasised how much food a young, growing family may need. Kittens will remain undernourished even if they are given an excellent diet, unless they are given enough of it. The problem is that overfeeding also causes issues including increasing the predisposition to obesity in adult life. You will need to skillfully adjust the amount of food offered to suit the needs of the doe and the size of the litter. The hardest litters to raise well from a nutritional point of view are those where the doe is only a few weeks old herself (usually rescues or girls purchased pregnant from a pet shop). Here food should probably be freely available at all times. Breeders are better able to know their lines and judge the needs of individual does and litters depending on condition, weight and the number of kittens raised. You are aiming for substantial, dense kittens that feel robust rather than frail and have cylindrical tails. However, weanling kittens shouldn't look fat and it is normal for them to have growth spurts when their tails have a squarish edge.
Author: Alison Campbell