Rattie temperament seems to be primarily determined by inherited factors that are moulded by life’s experiences. Rats from lines bred with a strong emphasis on excellent temperament generally produce kittens with excellent temperaments. However, there are external factors that may influence the development of the character and behaviour of the rat, and these are also under a breeder’s control. If you are raising a rescue litter there is much that you can do to ensure the babies become well adjusted sociable adult rats.
Mum is the best teacher
Do not forget that the kittens will learn a great deal over their first few weeks by observing and imitating their mother’s behaviour. For this reason alone (though also because it greatly increases the pleasure involved in breeding and raising rattie families) it is wise to establish lines with does who are trusting and gentle and don’t show overt aggressive behaviour towards their humans during late pregnancy and early parenthood. When reading articles about rat pregnancy and birth I have come across many suggestions that this sort of behaviour is to be expected at this time. This is simply not true, and I know many breeders who have learned to expect the opposite… a trusting, yielding doe who allows their human access to their babies without objection. Breeding from does who allow you access to the babies from birth has many advantages, such as, less stress for the doe, early handling for the kittens (more on this later), early detection of any problems and closer monitoring of the family.
Maintaining a safe environment
It is important to provide your rattie family an environment that is free from stress, as if the doe becomes anxious and stressed the kittens will be affected by this. Stressed does have been shown to exhibit increased possessiveness over their kittens, and aggression towards intruders. Stressors will be different for different rats and will depend to a large extent on the normal environment the doe is kept in. Noises, smells and humans that your doe is completely familiar with are unlikely to become stressful to her just because she has a litter. Some people feel it is necessary to provide a secluded, hidden area within the cage (such as an igloo) because the doe will want to hide her babies away. This is by no means universal, many relaxed does prefer to nurse their babies without cover, and simply make a small hollow in the bedding, regardless of how much nesting material you provide. However if you have an unknown, anxious or unsettled doe it is sensible to offer her somewhere private to nurse her young. A bottomless card box such as a shoe box with a door cut in it is a good alternative to an igloo which can at times become damp inside, unless ventilation is adequate.
Maintaining a safe environment as the kittens grow does not require providing them with lots of places to hide away. It makes sense to go for the opposite approach. In a world where they have nothing to fear rats do not need to 'dive for cover'. Try to create for them a comfortable and stimulating environment where the beds are hammocks or open hanging baskets, rather than igloos or boxes.
A rat kitten’s interpretation of good parenting is ‘perceived’ to a greater extent hormonally – when a kitten is being nursed and groomed oxytocin is released into it’s bloodstream which in turn causes it to become quiet and settled. The effects of this hormone are so strong that if a kitten is given oxytocin in the absence of its mother it ‘feels’ it is being nurtured and will not call for it’s mother to retrieve it.
Benefits of early handling
Research has shown that early handling by humans encourages a rat mother to lick and groom her kittens and this action alters the brain chemistry of the kitten in a positive way, making the animal less reactive to stressful stimuli. Early handling also familiarises the kitten with the feel and smell of human hands, thus initiating the socialisation process. Rat kittens have been shown to show preferences (by smell) towards those things that offered positive touching/nurturing experiences in their first few days.
Kittens will benefit from human handling daily from birth. Initially this should be for short periods only, as they will lose heat quickly and the doe will usually experience separation anxiety at this stage. It is enough for pinkies to be held gently in warm hands and stroked a little. As their eyes open and they become more active and interactive the periods of socialisation can be extended, and can include various environments and experiences – all of which should be positive. Possibilities include:
- sitting on the bathroom floor (or suitable small, enclosed, safe area) and allowing the kittens to free range, climb over you, leave and return at will.
- Letting babies explore a table top set up with toys and interesting items to explore.
- kneeling in front of the sofa and playing with the babies on the seat. They will enjoy access to your face and hair, gentle hand wrestling, stroking, kisses etc.
- walking around, or sitting at the computer with individual kittens as they get accustomed to shoulder riding.
- making up a baby box/play pen and allowing them supervised and interactive (with you) play in there. I have used various enclosures for this in the past – a high sided paddling pool, a really large cardboard box or even the bath (with a large towel placed on the bottom and plenty of suitable toys).
Kittens are vulnerable to stress when they leave their mother, the majority of their siblings and all that is familiar, that is, when they move to their new homes. The stress of this experience can be greatly reduced by familiarising your kittens with as many experiences as possible whilst they remain within the security of their family. Music, children, vacuum cleaners, other pets, TV, camera flash and general hubbub can all help to bomb proof your babies. None of us can provide the kittens with experience of every situation they will encounter in the wider world, but familiarity with a wide range of potential stressors will help to prepare them for the future.
Through the bars
It is possible to raise babies not to bite fingers that are put through the bars of their cage. Sending babies out into homes with children makes this is a very important aspect of rat-rearing, but it is important for many adults too, as they may wish to greet the ratties in this way as they walk past their cage. It is a simple process – you just keep doing it as the kittens grow up. They do go through a stage from about 4-6 weeks when they will actively grab your fingers with either teeth or hands. Just let them – I have yet to be hurt by a kitten doing this. It's very much like puppies mouthing everything. They eventually learn that you are not edible, and are only there to give them a scritch.
A word on cages
As a general rule avoid putting young kittens into huge cages, as many will become less handleable and more cautious by doing so.
Author: Alison Campbell