Well! It’s been a while since I posted a blog here! But a recent spat of Facebook posts have made me aware of an issue of misunderstanding when it comes to adopters, breeders, and temperament.
Quite often, my adopters will ask me questions like “which babies do you have that are really X?” X being the preferred character trait – usually I see “outgoing,” “cuddly,” “intelligent,” and “playful.”
I usually tell them two things. First off, most baby rats act the same. They’re blank slates. I place my babies at 8 weeks or more, depending on how I feel about the litter. At that point, they really haven’t formed a personality yet. Baby rats are (or should be) all playful, active, outgoing and sometimes cuddly (though not intelligent – babies are dumb, pretty much universally across species. Watching a baby climb to the top of the cage, realize it has no exit strategy, turn head-down and climb for a bit then just fall on their nose tell us that much. It’s not that they’re dumb permanently, they just don’t know anything yet.)
I actually prefer an older rat when it comes to my own favorites. Babies are cute, but they’re flaky and haven’t really developed enough personality to really bond with. I love my adult rats, but I’m happy enough to place babies out for adopters to enjoy and bond with.
How a baby develops is largely up to the adopter. Because the babies from a responsible breeder come from good-tempered parents (who don’t bite, even during nesting, who don’t have hormonal aggression issues, who get along well with other rats, who are outgoing and enjoy spending time with people,) those parents will not only pass down the genetic components of good temper, but they will also teach their babies by example that people are good news. A responsible breeder adds to that genetic component and puts down a great foundation for the adopter by exposing that baby to a lot of stimulation in a controlled environment, by cuddling them every day, by playing with them and feeding them and generally being a good ambassador for humankind.
However, how that baby ends up being an adult? That’s on the adopter. If the adopter takes time to bond with the baby, to get it used to the new environment, to keep it healthy and free of discomfort, to provide mental stimulation so they get lots of experiences and don’t stay stupid, that’s all adult development. And it’s very easy to mold an adult rat with a good foundation of believing people are good. That applies to rescue rats and adopted adult rats who have not been abused, too. If they have a good foundation, the adopter can help them be the perfect pet for that particular adopter.
The second point I make is that the personality can completely change once they get out of the nesting environment. Away from mom and sibling, the baby develops their adult identity. And as a self-aware animal, their personalities are in constant flux. How many of us are the same people emotionally and mentally that we were when we were in grade school? Probably not many of us… and that’s a good thing. “Acting like a child” is an insult for a reason!
I find that I’ll often send a pair of babies home with an adopter, telling them that Twinkletoes is really the outgoing, pushy one of the pair and Violet is shy and needs more time to adjust – only to get an email from the adopter a month later telling me that Violet is the one they’re constantly having to pry out of their hair and chase away from the curtains, while Twinkletoes prefers staying in her cage and sleeping in the hammock.
Recently, I started agility training 3 girl rats from a litter. Steve showed the most promise – she learned the obstacles quickly, was unafraid, and very treat motivated. Her sisters Moon and Philo were much less interested in the equipment, and a little shy about eating outside the cage. Now, at 4 months old, Steve’s way too busy to be bothered with the obstacles, Philo is much more outgoing, and Moon is the champion of the course. All three are siblings from the same litter, I started training them at 7 weeks, and they’ve totally changed roles. I expect them not to be really “set” in their preferences for another 2-3 months.
I’ve also seen people attempt to obtain baby rats from litters in order to “hand rear” and bond with them – or if they can’t get babies young enough to hand raise, they want the youngest babies they can, such as just-weaned 4 week olds. This is a terrible idea on every possible level. I had to hand-rear Steve, Moon and Philo’s litter from 2.5 weeks until they could start weaning at 4 weeks, and it was a very draining experience.
First off, hand rearing baby rats is HARD. You have to feed them every 2 hours, on the dot, every single day and night. You don’t get any sleep. And they are extremely fragile. Moon had a bad reaction to her formula and almost died. They can get bacterial infections from improperly sterilized syringes and nipples. They can aspirate the formula. They can simply fail to thrive. The younger you start, the harder it is on their systems not to get mom.
And you cannot keep them properly clean. The formula gets all over them and it is very sticky. Bathing them after every feeding only partially works, and now they’re losing body heat at a terrible rate because they don’t have the ability to regulate it very well. Chilling them repeatedly is not good for them, even sponge bathing with warm water, since they have to dry, and they have no momma to lick them clean and warm them. Mom also needs to stimulate them to potty every hour, if they’re young enough – and you don’t really have the tongue for it, so you’ll have to settle for warm water and sponges. The babies don’t appreciate this activity, even though they need it.
And as mentioned before – babies have no personality that will be set in stone. You might suppose that Steve, Moon and Philo would be extremely bonded to me, since I hand-reared them and have kept them, including intensive one-on-one time while training them that my other rats don’t get. But honestly, they are no more bonded to me than babies and adults from other litters. There’s no difference that I can discern between the litter I raised and the litter who stayed with their mom until they were 6-7 weeks of age.
Except in one regard. They are less well socialized. Their mom didn’t teach them how to behave, she wasn’t there to keep them in line. I put an older retired breeder doe in with them as an “auntie” but she didn’t really take all that active of a role with them (and she wasn’t really fond of them until they started becoming adults – sounds familiar to me!) Now all the babies from that litter are a little awkward with other rats. The girls are very bossy, the boys are shyer than I expected from that bloodline. All told, hand-rearing them gave them a lot more negatives than positives. In inexperienced hands, without other rats around to at least help with their socialization, they would have been a lot worse off.
So there you are. Babies are great and cute – but they have no real personality yet. You cannot tell on a 3, 5, or even 8 week old rat what their adult persona will be, whether they’ll be super smart, willing, adventurous, bossy or shy. Breeders and their bloodlines give the babies a great foundation in that development, but those babies will shine as adults if you put in the time with them.
And reputable rescues? They put in that time for you, so you can get a great adult rat that they know the personality of much more than I can tell you the specifics of how my babies will turn out. I can tell you that my babies are very, very unlikely to be aggressive if they are not mistreated, I can tell you the personalities of their parents who will be reflected in them, I can tell you that if you put in the effort to pay attention to them and bond with them, they can be your best little friends.
But getting a younger baby isn’t a magic bullet.