Getting Your Rats
So. you've decided rats are for you, and I can't blame you.
I'm sure you're excited to rush out there and meet your new best friends, but I'd like you to take a moment before rushing out to a pet shop and falling in love with a set of beady black, ruby or pink eyes.
I'm not going to slap your wrist if you buy your rats from a pet shop, hey, we've all done it. I'll be honest, I'd be lying if I said it would never happen again. but at least, for me, the pet shop is no longer where I take myself when my mischief needs a new member or two.
there ARE other options, and better options to buying rats from a pet shop.
so lets look at the options in turn, and the pros and cons.
A Reputable Breeder.
probably the hardest option to find, and defining "reputable" can be tricky. ascertaining whether a breeder you have found is "reputable" can also be tricky. ask around, get opinions, if you find someone you like the sound of, have a dig to find out what their reputation is, not just what it says on their shiny website.
the easiest way to find breeders is to start with the NFRS list, or the equivalent in your country.
most countries have their own Fancy Rat Society that should easily be found online. these websites usually contain a list of breeders registered with them, and contact details.
now this doesn't necessarily mean that the breeder is great, or that if the breeder is not listed that they should be avoided. it's just a good place to start.
contact the breeders near you, even if they aren't listed for varieties you have your heart set on. many registered breeders will know other breeders, perhaps breeding from their own stock, or just that they move in the same social circles as. perhaps they are mentoring someone newer to breeding. even if they don't have a litter ready, or space on their waiting lists, they can still help bring you closer to your rats.
another option is also to use social networking sites to find a regional rat group in your area. people in the group will probably know other people in the group and have had rats from them, and also know people not in the group, who they may be able to pass your details on to.
Rats from a reputable breeder will have been regularly handled since birth. breeder babies are usually extremely laid back about handling, and due to having a very low stress environment will often grow up to take a lot of things in their stride.
what I have overwhelmingly noticed from babies from breeders is that they consider you a friend from the very start. because they have never had cause to be anxious about human handling. I also find they deal with potentially stressful situations very easily.
good breeders will keep detailed records of the rats they have, and the rats they have bred. so it's important to stay in touch. they will also have records going back several generations, including siblings, parents, grandparents etc. they will keep track of illness in their rats, and pair potential parents to improve their health and temperament.
if you experience a breeder rat having a predisposition to certain kinds of illness, or dying young, it's good manners to relay this information back to the breeder so that they are aware of this, and can pick up on an issue in their lines, if it happens with several related rats.
as a result, breeder rats should be more robust health wise, and while they may cost more to purchase, and to travel to collect them, you will probably save that money in vet bills over their lifetime.
a good breeder will be there for ongoing advice through the lifespan of your ratties. if something happens that means you are no longer able to keep your pets, a reputable breeder should always accept them back.
there will most likely be a waiting list before rats are availiable. Each litter bred should be being bred to improve on the current generation, rather than to meet demand.
another excellent option when seeking your new friends is to find rescue rats in need of a home. while rescues for dogs and cats are higher profile, they also exist for small pets. sometimes this is under the same roof as the cats and dogs, but less well publicised.
peoples first reaction is often that a rescue pet will be old, have health issues or past traumas.
however with rats, this is often far from the truth. yes, some rats in rescue will have found their way there through having health or behavioural issues that the owner was not willing to take responsibility for. but this is a minority. A good rescue wil not be seeking to house these rats to anyone not experienced enough to deal with their issues.
many rats in rescue are surrendered rats, often around four to six month old, where the owners have simply lost interest. another, sadly common situation is that there will be a multitude of rats from a hoarding situation?
you have your heart set on babies? well rescues are bursting at the seam with babies. often those hoarder cases have been kept in mixed groups, and rats arrive at the rescue already pregnant. those babies need homes. or another frequent situation is that someone buys a mis-sexed rat at a pet shop, a common error, and finds one day that their male rat is a female, and has a lot of smaller rats depending on her. and that's more responsibility than they thought they were taking on, and "Kevin" and her babies get a one way trip to the shelter.
now these babies should be very well handled, after all, what animal lover can resist playing with a bundle of cute little eepers, so with luck they should be similar to handle to the babies from a breeder, so long as staff at the rescue can make the time for their socialising.
on the downside, their genes are unknown, but will not be likely to be any worse than those from a pet shop.
and you do have the satisfaction of knowing that you gave those rats a second chance. and not just those rats. their being homed will free up space at the rescue for more rats to find loving forever homes.
This is the least favourable, but most common option.
it's instant. it's accessable, it's an easy quick fix.
I'd like you to consider for a moment, that it wasn't so very long ago now that you used to see cats and dogs in pet shops. these days, most people consider that wrong. so let us be the beginning of the tide that says it is wrong for rats to be sold in this manner too.
as I said before, I will not slap your wrist if you go down this route. I would just like for you to understand WHY the other options are so much better. not just for you, not just for your rats, but for all rats, everywhere. if you know and understand WHY it's the least acceptable option, then you can be forgiven if you have a lapse.
the problems with the pet shop itself.
Staff have a basic level of training for all the animals in their stock. they do not specialise. jack of all trades, master of none, they say. yes, a staff member may be personally interested in rats. they may be a fountain of knowledge, and they may give great advice. or they may just have the level of basic training required by that chain to sell that animal.
rats are often incorrectly sexed. this may result in unplanned litters, to people unprepared for their care. the new owner will either struggle on and make the most of the situation. maybe find good homes, maybe just let them go to any old person. or mum and the litter will often end up in rescue. see above.
rats are almost invariably kept in unsuitable conditions. several rats, under lights, in a tank. this isn't because tanks are suitable for rats to live in, it's because it displays them well to potential buyers. there is a pet shop near me that keeps rats in a large metal cage, similar to my Liberta Explorer cage. this is VERY unusual. every other rat selling pet shop I've been in has them in a tank. that's normal. if they're lucky, they'll be on paper pellet substrate, as is certainly the case in the branches of Pets at Home that I've been in. if they're not, they'll be on softwood shavings. in a tank. under lights. it will be hot, humid, and with the overcrowding, their respiratory systems will be under strain. add to that, the stress. the stress from the overcrowding, the stress from the face after face that presses up against the glass to stare at them. the stress from probably not having much of a hiding spot. hiding rats are not adequately "on display" for purchase. these rats are a product. a commodity. they are there to sell.
ANYONE could buy them. they might be lucky. they might end up with you. they might end up with someone that loves rats, and knows a lot about their care. they might end up being bought to live alone. being bought to live in a tank. to never be handled. to die of an easily treated respiratory infection because the person that buys them isn't willing to pay vet bills for a £9 rat. it's cheaper to get a new one. they might be bought by someone that thinks it's acceptable to feed a live mammal to a reptile. regardless of the law where you are, this still goes on.
here in the UK, we might not have "feeder" rats. but we do have people that think it's fun to see an animal in fear for its life, and the £5-10 it costs to buy a live animal over a frozen one is worth it for that warped enjoyment.
okay, so maybe you should rescue them, right?
despite a lot of the back patting that you'll see online, buying a rat from a pet shop is NOT rescue.
yes it makes all the difference in the world to that one rat, but where does your money go?
well the pet shop puts in an order to replace the stock they've sold. that money goes back to a rodent mill.
you say "Puppy Farm" and people will rightly be disgusted at the thought of the mothers bred constantly in pens until they can produce no more puppies. to buy a puppy from a puppy farm is now very much frowned upon.
a rodent mill is just like a puppy farm. except it's probably fair to say, it's even worse. morally it's not unlike buying battery eggs.
picture a warehouse. picture shelving units. picture plastic storage crates on those shelves, maybe a little larger than a sheet of A4 paper.
but wait, someone LIVES in those crates. that little rat you bought home today. the rat you "rescued"
in that crate, their mother lies. she's bored. she doesn't have any toys, and very little to make a nest for herself. she's barely fully grown. she's heavily pregnant, and her physical resources are split between nourishing the babies growing inside her, and those that are suckling from her. she has very little left for herself. she will give birth before the older litter are ready to wean, even though they'll be taken away early to be sold while they are small and at their "cutest" then she'll have two litters on her, and probably be put to a male again almost straight away. rats can conceive almost immediately after birth. gestation time is shorter than the time to rear a litter, even if you separate them too young.
except this last litter isn't a large one. and no wonder, she is trying to support herself, and babies both born and unborn. all this on basic nutrition. her body is too small, as she was still so young when this endless cycle began. not more than a baby herself.
your rats Mum is to be retired. when the last litter are taken away to be sold, your rats Mum is "euthanised" using CO2, a method not chosen for being humane, but for not leaving anything toxic in her body, and frozen for reptile food.
but hey, at least you "rescued" your rats.
the pet shop puts in another order to replace stock. the mill holds back another female to replace their breeding stock. they don't care for her health, her temperament. she'll be bred to any old male produce litters, then be killed and frozen. because that's the way it is. there is no consideration of genes or longevity, or temperament. just male + female = babies = ££££
your money supports this.
and this is why we should all try and avoid buying rats from pet shops. those rats DO deserve a good life, but in the long run, we can do more good by NOT buying rats from pet shops.
think back to when pet shops had cats and dogs. I remember a pet shop that always had kittens. that's in my lifetime. I'm in my early 30s. now we don't see it. it's not done. back then, I bet people thought that by choosing to get their cats and dogs from a breeder or rescue it would make no difference. but it DOES.
please don't make pet shops your first choice. better yet, avoid buying from pet shops that stock live animals. that way you avoid falling in love with some poor critter whose Mum is churning out litter after litter. if she's still alive at all. you avoid your money going to rodent mills. you avoid being part of the machine that churns out little lives like they're meaningless.
and if you have the occasional slip up, I'll forgive you. because I've done it too.
it's important to understand WHY it's a slip up, a lapse, an error of judgement, and NOT a valid consumer choice, and it's DEFINITELY not rescue.
and if you understand that it's wrong, and always seek out other options when you're LOOKING to add to your group, then I'll forgive you the occasioinal rat you couldn't leave behind, if you forgive me the same.
and we all strive to be the beginning of the turning tide.
the following link contains distressing images, of what is actually a very clean and well maintained rodent mill. I've seen worse conditions.
Mamuntisunio, el photonius - Jalium calaniluitus