Temperament, bottle-feeding, and babies

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. 

Breeding: It isn’t all cute babies and sunshine

This may come across a little raw. That’s good. I want it to. I’m in a raw place right now.

I’m tired of seeing people posting pictures of their oopsy-cutsey babies and all the people drooling over them. I’m tired of seeing people get praised for their bad decisions, and I’m even MORE tired of those bad decisions encouraging other people to follow them down that path. 

I get that people see the cute baby pictures that breeders post, or that new adopters post, and they melt. Of course they do! But because baby rats are cute is NOT a good reason to produce them. And a lot of times, that seems to be the sum total of peoples’ thought process regarding breeding: they want cute baby rats.

Cute baby rats are great, but that’s a fraction of the time you spend breeding rats. Rats are cute babies for about 3 months. Then they’re grownups. And grownups require care. And what are you going to DO with all those cute babies who become adults? 

Breedings require planning. Just throwing together any two rats you happen to have on hand is a terrible idea. And sometimes even with extensive pedigrees and lots of planning, stuff goes wrong.

What are you going to do when stuff goes wrong? When you have to watch a doe you loved so much that you HAD to breed her, bleeding and distressed and not producing? How are you going to feel when, instead of cute babies, you end up with a withered piles of dead pinkies, and an ailing or dead mother?

This stuff happens. And the more risk factors you throw in – unknown pedigree, unhealthy parents, risky markings, no veterinary care, crappy nutrition – the more likely it is to happen. 

If you’re a person who actually loves rats, and not someone who sees them as disposable baby machines, then do the world a favor. Don’t breed unless you’re serious about investing in the process, the whole package. The years of learning, the genetic studies, the mentorship, the vet bills, the quality caging, and quality food. 

Rescues are full. They don’t need to clean up your mess when you just HAD to breed your babies and assumed you could find them quality homes “because they’re cute,” and that doesn’t materialize. 

Handbreeding part 2

Well, as promised, we return to our girl tonight.

Around 10:30pm when my weighing alarm went off, Del looked like she was in the first stages of going into heat. She was jumpier than usual, her vaginal opening looked a bit more open and swollen than usual, and her nipples were very pink. I took her daily weight and put her back in her cage.

By 11pm she was in full blown heat. Continue reading

Handbreeding Part 1

I’m going to explain, in stupidly exhaustive detail, what “hand breeding” means, because I’ve seen several people who just don’t understand the method. It IS a lot more time consuming to hand breed than just throwing your rats in a tub together and leaving them there until you’re sure the female’s pregnant, but I’m a firm believer that the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience. The convenience of tub-breeding or “housing,” is that you don’t really have to monitor it. You can assume that, eventually, the female will go into heat, the male will breed her, and eventually there will be babies. Continue reading

The Secret Shame!

Oh wait… no. It’s not a secret.

I started breeding rats in 1994. In that time, lots and lots has changed about the rat-fancy and the world. We know a lot more now than we did then! The internet is actually open and accessible and full of information now, instead of being enclaved and restricted to majordomo lists and BBS message boards. New medical and nutritional information is available. There’s actually pedigreed rats widely available now. More and more ratteries are keeping open health information on their websites and updating NARR.

That means that as those times were changing, I did a lot of things I wouldn’t do now. I’m not ashamed of them. Some of them were just the way we did things back then. Some of them, I didn’t have the information to know better. Some of them illustrated to me why I never want to do it again. That’s what all those years of experience mean.

When I recovered my rattery after my divorce and re-started it with quality pedigreed rats, the fact that I, for many years, bred with petstore rats was never a secret. It’s not a secret now. Look to any rattery that started in 2000 or earlier, and you will find that 99% of them did. Does that mean it’s still okay to do? I don’t support the practice, no. Just because we used to keep slaves and prevent women from voting and rub cocaine on baby’s gums to soothe their teething pains doesn’t mean we should do that now, either.

The information is on my page if you want to look at it. You can see my past litters. You can see my Bridge pages.  You can go back in this blog! You can see the mistakes I’ve made and the places I’ve pushed through and the places I’ve given up. They’re not secrets either.

I’ve mentored TWO ratteries. The FarStar Rattery and So Licky Rattery. Anyone else who says I’m mentoring them isn’t telling the truth. I’ve been more than happy to act as a sounding board for my other breeder friends when they’re contemplating this or that – as they have acted to me – but as for actual mentoring, so far it is just FarStar and So Licky. No one else.

I’ve never culled, I’ve never bred feeders, and I’ve never re-homed retired breeders. I don’t euthanize healthy “hayburners” I’ve decided not to use in my breeding program. I don’t keep my rats outdoors. My rattery isn’t a secret, and my rats are happy and healthy – ask my vet! Her contact information is available on my site!

Do you have a question? Feel free to ask! I’ll be more than glad to answer!

Have a Plan

Okay, so we all know there are a lot of ratteries out there doing their thing, breeding rats, getting results. Some of them are successful, some less so, but one of the things that I find most helpful in establishing actual bloodlines and reaching goals is to have a plan – and stick to it!

Of course, that sounds easy, and if you look at my recent blog history, you can see several detours and sidesteps I’ve had to make in my recent breeding plans. You might say, well, I’m clearly not sticking to MY plans! But the plans should always have room to maneuver for reasons of health, temperament, or the like. But the plans themselves should stay as close to your original as possible.

Why bother to have plans, you might ask? Because plans are the easiest – maybe the only – way to make sure you’re not overbreeding.

There was a period in my breeding program where I had no plan. When I had healthy females that I thought were high quality and who might produce what I wanted, if I noticed they were in heat and I had space for the litter, they got bred. I don’t even know if it was a “breeding program,” at that point, so much as just producing rats. They were good rats, all of them were fine pets and enriched the lives of their adopters, but they didn’t really move my goals forward very much compared to how many of them I was producing.

You should always have a goal in mind as you breed – and since health and temperament are a given, not goals – those will tend to be in color, conformation, and longevity. Sit down with your breeding population and ask yourself who the real stars are. Figure out who they need to be bred to in order to actually move your plans forward. Don’t do breedings because you just feel like you need more baby rats, do them for very specific reasons and with very specific goals in mind.

For every breeding you do that doesn’t move your goals forward, re-evaluate. Figure out what you can do in order to salvage it. Stay as close to your original plans as you can, but don’t be afraid to detour a bit – as long as you know where the detour is going and how to get back to the main road again. And any time you see a breeding in your plans that is “just because” and you can’t really think of a specific reason you want those babies, you just do… reevaluate. Do you really need that breeding?

What Happens If You Get Sick?

This is a topical post for me, because I am currently sick as a dog. And today is my usual cage-cleaning day. I’ve got zero energy, my joints hurt, my head is throbbing, my eyes are dry, and I’ve got a nasty cough. I think if I tried to clean cages today it would not go well.

Luckily for me, I have an awesome husband who’ve very invested in my rats, who I can always count on to help. But not everyone has that. I hear from a lot of rat fanciers about how their husband or parents hate, or barely tolerate, their pets. And I also know that a lot of fanciers are disabled, since these little creatures are great pets for someone who just can’t have a large pet who needs letting out or who might knock things off shelves.

So what happens to your rats if you are too sick to clean their cages, or even feed and water them for a couple of days? What if you go to the hospital and have to be away from home for a period of time? Have you made arrangements for someone to care for your pets in an emergency? Do you have a friend or family member who is willing and able to come and take over your pets’ care for an extended period of time? Continue reading