Breeding: Can YOU Live With It?
By Mary Ann Isaksen
From the January/February 1999 Rat & Mouse Gazette
I believe every hobby breeder has the best of intentions when they first make the decision to breed rats or mice for pet or show. However, somewhere along the line, many of those breeders lose sight of the fact that it was the love of the animals that brought them to the fancy to begin with. These breeders frequently find themselves overwhelmed, having too many animals, and being unable to care for them properly.
All too often, the show bench interferes with a breeder making the right decision for the animals in his care. Just like somebody becoming addicted to gambling, it is possible for a breeder to become obsessed with winning ribbons. The competition is just too great for some people, and they will breed and breed and breed until they can finally beat that person who always takes home the Best In Show ribbon. I have even seen breeders of one species get involved with breeding another so they have more chances at winning ribbons. Yes, winning ribbons is fun, but it should not be the primary motivation for breeding any animal.
We have recently heard several horror stories about deplorable conditions in some breederís ratteries and mouseries. Those stories were the impetus for writing this article. The following are details of some of the conditions we were made aware of - please donít let anything like this happen to the animals in your care.
LOVE AND RESPONSIBILITY
If you arenít breeding because you love the animal, then you should not be breeding at all. Sadly, there are already enough people out there producing reptile food. It is hypocritical to say you love these animals and then turn around and sell your excess as Ďsnake food,í or to cull your litters down because you already Ďhave too many and cannot find homes for all of them.í If you love these animals, you need to take a stand for their well-being and importance as a species, but most of all, as pets. That means you must take responsibility for every animal you bring into this world. With that in mind, letís talk about some of the things you need to consider before you make the decision to start breeding, or to continue, if you are already doing so.
We hear people say how inexpensive rats and mice are to keep as pets. It is simply not true. You may be lucky enough to get a healthy animal who never requires vet care, but chances of that happening are slim. It is difficult enough when you have a few rats or mice who require costly medical care, but what do you do when you have a breeding colony of 20 to 100 or more animals? Can you afford to purchase proper medication for that many animals? If not, and you under medicate, are you creating a terrible antibiotic-resistant strain of some opportunistic bacteria you have in your rattery or mousery and are passing it around to everyone else? Can you afford to have tumors removed on every animal in your care that might get them? Can you pay for an emergency c-section on a rat having birthing problems, or any other surgeries or treatments that might be needed? With that many animals, unless you are rich, your animals are not going to receive the medical care they deserve.
In addition to medical care, the cost of housing and caring for the animals in your charge can be overwhelming. It is your responsibility to house each animal in conditions that are not only good for its physical health, but for its mental health as well. For rats, it is unacceptable to buy cheap aquariums or even expensive lab cages in which to house your animals. They are simply too small to allow room enough for toys and other items to provide mental stimulation. Large aquariums, or preferably, safe large wire cages are required to give rats places to go and things to do to keep their minds occupied. These accommodations are also very expensive, costing anywhere from $50 to $200 each, not to mention the cost of toys to put in them! How many animals can you afford to buy cages and toys for?
You must also consider that healthy food and beddings are not cheap. Rats and mice should be provided a good quality lab block as a base diet, and a good quality grain and seed mix should be given a couple times a week (optional). They should also be given fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Pregnant and nursing females should also be provided with a good quality kitten kibble such as Iams or Nutro, along with much more of the daily foods you are already giving. It is not cheap to feed that many animals, nor is it cheap to provide healthy beddings for that many animals. For the health of the animals, bedding needs to be changed at least once a week, depending on the size of the cage and the number of animals housed in it. A mother rat with babies will likely need her cage cleaned even more often - every couple of days. How many bags of CareFRESH, Sani-chips, Gentle Touch, Cell Sorb, Aspen, or rabbit pellets can you afford to buy each month?
Most people, unless they are rich, are on a budget and only have so much money per month to spend on hobbies, entertainment, and pets. We can all have unexpected expenses come up in any month that uses up some of that money as well - especially people with children. These things need to be considered and planned for. It is not acceptable not to provide care because you cannot afford it, or to put innocent animals in your charge at the bottom of your priority list. If you feel it is acceptable, then you should not have them - it is simply not fair. They did not choose to be in your care. Keep only the number of animals you can properly provide for.
In my experience, it is impossible to give more than 20 or so rats the love and attention they need and deserve. At my highest numbers of over 50 (not counting babies), it progressed to the point that many of my animals were not getting much attention except at cage cleaning time, and I was someone who worked at home and had more free time than the average person! I had become overwhelmed and was heartbroken when I realized that my own animals were being neglected. This realization was part of my decision to stop breeding and concentrate on the rats already in my care, and on rescuing and placing abused and abandoned rats into loving homes.
How much free time do you have? Do you work outside the home, leaving only the evenings and weekends to care for and play with your rats? Calculate how much time you feel you can reasonably spend with your animals. If you have a husband or children the time will be even lower or you will cause resentment within the family. Once you have calculated how much time you can devote to your animals, subtract how much time it will take you to clean their cages, medicate them if necessary, prepare foods for them, or anything else that is necessary. How much time does that leave you each day to play with your rats or mice? Now, divide that amount of time between the number of animals you have. How much actual time will you be able to handle, play with, and love each rat or mouse? Keep only the number of animals you can give enough love and attention to.
You must also consider the time needed to imprint and socialize each baby born in your care. After all, why breed unless you are going to produce friendly pets! It is imperative that you handle the babies as much as possible every day to make them the best pets possible.
For many breeders, breeding is all about improving physical features (color, body type, eye size, ears, head shape, markings, etc...). We all love to see a beautiful show rat, but that should not be the most important factor in breeding. Health and temperament should come first.
Most rats will end up with respiratory infections caused by mycoplasma pulmonis at some point in their life. Many females will also end up with mammary tumors. Oftentimes, these health problems occur later in life after you have already bred the animal and have passed on its genes. Possibly even after the people who bought its offspring have bred them as well. Once you know that a line is not myco-resistant or tumor resistant, you can stop breeding rats from that line, but can you guarantee that everyone with their offspring will do the same? Simply put, do you want to be responsible for perpetuating animals with medical problems? This often leads to people ending their relationship with rats and mice as pets because they donít feel they can get a healthy animal, and the heartbreak and expense of going through the problems over and over are too much for them. I hear this all too often and it breaks my heart.
PLACING YOUR BABIES
If you are a breeder who loves his animals, placing your babies into loving homes is going to be your goal. You may think that because you spent so much time with them, the result being beautiful, healthy animals with fabulous temperaments, that it is going to be a breeze to accomplish this goal. Think again. Do you live in an area where rats and mice are popular pets? If not, it will be almost impossible for you to find homes for your babies. And even if you live where there is a chapter of a rat or mouse club, there will be many other people breeding, and you will have to compete for the few homes that are available.
What will you do if you cannot place all of them? Will you keep them? If you do and you continue to breed, in no time you will be overwhelmed with more animals than you can properly care for, which will lead to inhumane conditions. Out of desperation will you do something immediately inhumane and release them into the wild to fend for themselves where they may be tormented and killed by a cat, dog, or bird of prey or where they may starve to death? Will you dump them off at a pet shop that will ultimately sell them for reptile food? I certainly hope not. It is imperative that you are humane in every action you take when it comes to these innocent little lives.
To be able to continue breeding and keep your population down, will you consider culling? If you have a litter too big and you fear you may not be able to place them all, will you consider culling? I certainly hope not! Some clubs will try to tell you that culling is necessary, using many irrational arguments to try to justify their behavior. Culling is a betrayal of the animals we say we love. RMCA does not condone this behavior and recommends that you use responsible breeding practices to control your population. We will publish a full article on this subject in a future issue.
Photo by Mary Ann Isaksen
Okay, so you were successful in placing each one of the babies in your litter into what you considered to be a loving home. Thatís fantastic. Now, every cage you own is filled to capacity and somebody who bought a couple of rats from you cannot keep them any longer and wants you to take them back. They tell you that if you canít take them they will release them outside, will take them to the pet shop, or will put them to sleep. It is your duty as a responsible breeder to take them back, but where do you put them? They may even need medical attention and youíre at your limit. How do you pay for it?
How are you going to feel when you hear about, or see some of the animals you handled and loved from birth being kept in deplorable conditions and are not being given the medical treatment they require? What is going to happen to you emotionally when you discover animals that you handled and loved from birth have ended up as snake food? Can you live with the fact that offspring of animals you have produced may be purchased by someone who breeds them for reptile food?
Iíll never be able to forget the wonderful little Platinum boy from one of my litters years ago. I placed him into the home of a fellow AFRMA member - a home I thought was going to give him plenty of love and attention. I really wanted to keep him, but I knew the more I kept, the less attention the others would get, and the girl was so excited about getting him. I gave in and let her take him. The next time I saw her at a show, I asked how he was doing. She told me she had decided not to breed him and had taken him to a pet shop. I was outraged, but there was nothing I could do except be sure to never give her another animal. I hate to think about it, but this kind of thing happens all the time. Can you handle that?
As a responsible breeder it is also your duty to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible about the care, medical conditions and treatments of the animals you breed. It is also your responsibility to answer questions and help educate anyone who buys an animal from you. Do you have the time and inclination to research and learn and to make yourself available when people need you?
The best way to keep up with the latest information is to join one of the rodent clubs (preferably one that respects the animalsí welfare), so you can exchange information with other pet owners.
There is no money to be made breeding rats and mice, unless you are a feeder breeder, which is something no rat or mouse loving person would do. Therefore, if you think youíre going to be able to make enough money to pay for the upkeep of your animals, youíre sadly mistaken. A small fee should be charged for every animal you produce, hopefully to ensure that the person who purchased it will respect it enough to properly care for it, but that will never cover your costs. Count on having to come out of pocket for the majority of your animal expenses.
BREEDING FOR FUN
If youíre breeding a litter Ďjust to seeí what you will get, please donít. There are already enough unwanted rats and mice in the world who are being put to sleep in shelters, sold as reptile food in pet stores, and being abused in unloving homes. Please donít contribute to the problem.
If youíre breeding a litter because it would be educational for your classroom or for your own children to experience, remember, anything can go wrong and it may not be a joyful experience for the kids. In fact, it can be emotionally devastating if things do not go as planned. Chances are extremely slim that your children will actually be able to witness the birth anyway. You must also remember that any animal you breed may die in the birthing process. Can you live with being responsible for your petís death? Can you find homes for all of the babies? What kind of message are you sending to the children if you breed a litter and canít find good homes for all of the babies?
This article was written to make you think, but if after reading this, you still want to breed, I hope you will take care not to get out of control. The only way to be sure of that is to breed only a small number of litters per year. If you specialize in one type of rat or mouse, you can keep your lines going with very few annual litters. I bred an average of one litter per month and managed to have a population of over 50 in no time. Itís far too easy to get out of control. You can be there before you even realize it. My conditions were never horrible, but I was not able to give them the attention they deserved.
Instead of concentrating on trying to win ribbons or creating the most beautiful rat or mouse ever, if youíre going to breed, please concentrate on being responsible and breeding for health and temperament. And for all of us, letís concentrate on having fun, providing excellent care, and enjoying our wonderful pets. After all, isnít that why we got rats and mice to begin with?