Deciding to breed
One of the most common reasons people decide to breed their rats is because they have a lovely buck or doe and they would like to have some of this particular rat's kittens. However, breeding healthy, well-tempered pets (which should be the first and foremost aims of any breeder) is not as simple as this. You need to ask yourself a number of questions:
Do you have the right rats to breed from, and do you know as much as you can about them?
There are a lot of things you need to consider when choosing your potential parents. Finding the right rats to breed from can be very difficult. You should not breed from pet shop bought rats due to the lack of knowledge of their background and you should not breed from a rescue rat for the same reasons (and most rescues come with an agreement that they are not to be bred from).
Do you know the ancestry and genetic background of your rats?
You may ask why this is important. A sound knowledge of your rat's ancestry can help you highlight any possible problems in this line of rats such as tumours and mycoplasmosis. If you do not know your rat's ancestry for example because your rat came from a pet shop then you really should not consider breeding your rat. Your doe may be lovely at 8 months of age but how are you to know she will not die young from mammary tumours, in answer you don't so it is not fair to put any kittens at risk of a similar fate. Although knowing the ancestry and genetic background of rats does not necessarily mean you will always have the healthiest and best tempered rats it does increase the likelihood that these are the kittens you will end up with.
Do you have an understanding of genetics, and if not are you prepared to learn?
An understanding of genetics will enable you to ascertain the type of kittens which are likely to be born. You may wonder why this is important but sadly it is true that many people favour particular colours and types of rats. It is not simply a case of mating your Siamese rat with a black rat and expecting a rainbow litter of babies. Some genes are dominant and some are recessive and a knowledge of this can help you calculate likely offspring. If you do not know much about genetics there are a number of places to find out about them such as this forum, books and the internet.
Do you have a breeding aim?
This question covers much of what has already been discussed but it is important that you consider this carefully. Your first and foremost aim should be to breed happy, healthy pets. Breeding for type and colour need also to be considered but should be secondary to the aims of breeding for health and breeding for temperament. Also remember that as already discussed breeding rats is not a way to make money. Before beginning breeding you need to carefully consider your specific aims and plans. For example what kind of rats do you wish to focus your breeding on? How many litters do you hope to have in a year? Where will the kittens be advertised/rehomed? If you are not aiming to improve the rats with each generation, then it is unfair to use up homes that are needed by rats waiting in rescue.
Do you want to be mentored?
If you are new to breeding you may want to consider being mentored by an established breeder or two, especially if some of the issues raised here have made you realise that you do not know as much about breeding as you thought you did. Many people do not have one official mentor but seek advice from many other breeders. The mentoring experience can be invaluable but it can take time. Firstly you will need to locate a breeder or breeders who is willing to mentor you, then you will need to meet with this mentor to discuss the process and physically see things such as a suitable buck for breeding. If your mentor is not local to you, you may need to travel to rat shows or their home to visit them.
Do you have the necessary...?
Breeding your rats can take time. As well as the 'fun' time needed - socialising and playing with the kittens every day as they get older - they'll need cleaning out more frequently and more time will be needed preparing food. You also need to consider the possibility that something may happen to the nursing doe so would you be prepared to hand rear the babies? All this time can mount up so you really need to consider whether you have enough time to spare.
Breeding your rats is not a way to make money, if anything it will cost you money. As well as the obvious costs such as extra food and litter for the kittens there are 'hidden' costs too. For example you may need to buy more cages either to separate the bucks from the does when they reach sexual maturity or because you are unable to find homes for all your kittens and your current cages aren't big enough to fit them all in. You may also need veterinary treatment for mum and/or babies. Depending on your veterinarian even basic treatment for rats can be expensive as they are often classed as 'exotic' pets. You'll probably also find yourself buying new things for the kittens such as toys and hammocks.
A good veterinarian
Do you have a regular vet who, if not already rat competent, is willing to learn? If your rat has a medical emergency during the birthing process you will not have time to ring around different vets and compare prices, locations etc. You need to be able to get help ASAP from a vet you trust.
Do you have the space for extra cages for a nursing mum and then her kittens? This may seem like a silly thing to need to think about but it is not. Your nursing doe will need a warm location where she can care for her young in peace.
Do you have the necessary personal qualities?
Would you begrudge giving the extra care and time your mum and her kittens will need? If so you should not breed. You need a passion for your rats and for helping any kittens grow into well tempered, sociable adults. You cannot neglect to handle them for a week as at such a crucial stage of their development this could affect them for life. You should also be aware that not all rats are of breeding quality so it could take a lot of time, money and love for many rats before you find suitable rats to breed from. Although kittens may be sold to you as 'potential breeding quality' they are just that, of potential breeding quality. Although based on family history, genetics etc. you can predict how a kitten will develop it is not an exact science and you never know how your little kitten will have developed in 6 months time.
You also need to very carefully think about what you will do with these kittens and in particular whether you will be able to part with these kittens. Although you may plan to keep all the kittens, do you have the room for a possible 18 new rats? If not could you give them away? This can be a very difficult thing to do especially if the new owners are not well known to you (as if often the case - you cannot rely on all those friends who say they quite like your rats and would consider having some kittens). Another thing to consider is whether you could cope with the death of your breeding doe and some/all of her kittens. Although problems are rare they can and do happen, so could you cope with such losses?
What are the alternatives to breeding?
Perhaps after reading this article you have some doubts about whether breeding is for you, so what are the alternatives you may wonder.
Well you could get in contact with already established breeders and home a pair (or more) of kittens from them, usually homed between 6 and 8 weeks. For help finding a good breeder try the web directory.
There may be occasions when a rescue centre is in need of foster homes who are willing to raise a rescue litter (rats may arrive at a rescue already pregnant), or a breeder may be prepared to let a litter of babies be raised in another home. In either case, establishing a good prior relationship is important, so perhaps contact your local rescue centre and offer your services as a volunteer, or talk to nearby breeders about your interest.
Author: Melanie Southward
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