Where I Stand: My Feelings On Controversial Pet Rat Related Subjects

By Kat Lovings

1. The Culling of Pet Rats

I do not support the philosophy of culling pet rats for any reason. There are numerous "reputable" breeders across the country that practice the art of culling as a matter of course. It sickens me to even think about it. Culling is just a fancy word for "selective" KILLING. So there are many reputable breeders who believe killing their pet rats is an ok thing to do.

Killing for any reason is just not right. Every living thing that is born into this world deserves a chance to live their life. Any kind of weapon that can harm a living thing and hunting for sport should be outlawed in my opinion. Killing something in self defense is the only thing I feel we have a right to do. We have a right to defend ourselves from that or those harming us.

Why do these breeders kill/cull their pet rats? Some believe that if the rat isn't pretty enough or have nice enough ears or eyes or coats or colors or markings that they will just remove it from existance rather than take the time and effort to provide for it. They feel any pet rat that is substandard, (translates into not perfect enough) should not be given a chance in life. Kind of follows along the line of what Adolf Hitler felt about the jews. It's a "supremacy" philosophy, that unless something is perfect kill it. It's "lazy" breeding in my opinion.

Some of the nicest ratties I've ever had the pleasure of knowing weren't anything special as far as appearances go, they were considered "mismarked", but they were very intelligent and had personalities that were just precious, super affectionate, monkey-minded, curious and loads of fun, making me laugh and smile with glee. Appearances aren't everything. Quality comes in many forms. How would you like it if you were homely and fat and someone bigger and stronger than you decided you weren't good enough or perfect enough to be allowed to live your life?

Breeders who participate in culling/killing their pet rats will try to justify their actions in many ways. For instance they'll say if a mother rat has a large litter removing some of them makes it easier on them. I've had mother rats artfully master taking care of 16 babies that all thrived. If they don't then it's natural selection not human selection. I don't feel we have the right to play God with the lives of other creatures. If the baby is meant to be here it will make it, if not it won't. It's not for us to decide this. And if the mother rat is struggling with caring for it's babies many times they can be surrogated to other mothers with less babies or can be hand nursed/supplemented with replacement formula and an eye dropper.

Culling/killing to reduce the litter size is just taking the easy way out. It's irresponsible. If a breeder bred this rat for a litter it should be held accountable to raise the litter and care for it, no matter how much inconvenience it is to them personally, or not bother to breed to begin with.

Breeders who say they are culling/killing/euthanizing their rats because of chronic illness etc., such as the rat sneezes a lot, or it has had its share of respiratory illnesses, etc; if the chronic illness can be kept under control through medicines and the pet rat can live a relatively normal existance without pain, it should be allowed the opportunity to do so.

A good analogy would be people who are asthmatic. With proper medicines they can live a quality life, just because they have a chronic illness is no reason to remove them from existance. Just because the medical care is costly or administering the medicines is a hassle is no reason for ending its life earlier than nature planned for it.

The only time I feel a pet rat should be put to sleep earlier than the natural cycle of life and death is; if it's suffering, is in pain, is untreatable, is terminal and is on its death bed anyway. Or, if it's a threat to itself, other rats or humans, because of temperament or aggression problems. I see no purpose of keeping an animal around that is mutilating itself, killing other rats that are passive and sweet or biting and harming it's human caretakers, without just cause.

Under the above circumstances I feel humanely putting the rat down is a kind thing to do. But all avenues to save it or fix the problem should be explored first. I actually know of breeders who have put their pet rats to sleep simply because they were "getting old." Nothing wrong with them at all, just getting old and they didn't want to bother with caring for them anymore. Their justification for this is, they will die eventually anyway, I'll just speed up the process to relieve myself of the burden of feeding and housing them.

Final thoughts: I will not promote or support any breeder I suspect is practicing culling for reduction of litter size or for appearances!

2. Temperament/Aggression Verses Natural Behavioral Instincts

Through my years of breeding there has been debate on rat aggression. Especially in male rats. Many breeders consider rat aggression as a temperament problem and will put them to sleep because of it. In many cases I'm discovering what many people mistake for a meanness in the rat is nothing more than a natural instinctive response to various events within it's environment. In other words, natural defense mechanisms, not it purposefully being mean or cruel to other rats or humans.

As of this writing in, (Sept.10) and having raised 1100 pet rats I finally feel I have enough research and results that I need to let the world know some of the things I'm finding out about our pet rats.

Out of all my rattie buddies I've really only had one male that was a true bully. It took me a while to track him down within the colony too. But I finally witnessed first hand him sneaking up behind another rat and purposefully biting it's tail for no reason what-so-ever. I was finding rats with their tails bitten and was trying to figure out how this was happening. This was someone he'd been living with for months. That is an aggression, temperament issue, when something attacks something else for no reason what-so-ever, unprovoked, that is a true temperament problem.

When I first started breeding I had a male rat named Boo-Boo give me a big BooBoo on the top of my hand sending me to emergency room. Most people would have quit breeding right then and there, instead, it was this tramatic event that got me interested in pet rat behavior. I had to understand how a rat that was normally very gentle and passive could bite me like a pit bull, locking it's jaw and not letting go. This has brought me to the point where I am today, becoming one of the top authorities on pet rat behaviors in the country.

Most of the other circumstances in which I've seen a rat nip or bite another rat or a person it's all because of a natural behavior demonstrated over and over again under similar circumstances, (in other words try this and you'll get this result/response repeatly.)

If you start to see a pattern of behavior under certain circumstances that is repeated in numerous rats in that same circumstance this is not a temperament issue, this is a behavioral issue and in the case of humans and our rat buddies is usually a communication problem between what they think they understand and what we think we understand.

One of the majority of things I've heard of over the years is rats nipping or biting their owners when they put their hands in the cage or hammock or try to pick them up to get them out of the cage. Many times this will happen at cleaning time. Many times it will happen with another rat also in the cage.

This nipping and biting when we enter the cage is not a temperament problem but a behavioral problem. I don't feel a rat should be put to sleep over acting like a rat.

We as humans are very defensive of our homes and our possessions. So are our rats! Our pets express both the emotions of possessiveness and of jealousy as they have the mentality of 2-4 year old human children. This "mine, mine" philosophy is very prominent in many pet rats. They don't want to share their stuff, don't want to share their friends, don't want us paying attention to someone other then them, including their brothers or sisters.

Many rats like their homes so much they become what is known as "cage bound." They don't want to leave the warmth, comfort and safety of their cage or hammocks. A good analogy would be, having kids that you can't get to go outside and play. All they want to do is watch TV or play games on the computer. :>)

This is going to be an extensive subject I want to cover and address and I'll have to keep adding to this topic as time permits. But I think it's time that the breeding world (in other words other breeders) were made aware that the temperament/aggression issues they are witnessing are actually natural rat behaviors and we should not hold their reactions against them for being and acting like a rat. We should instead learn what triggers certain responses and behaviors and how to minimize them or at least understand them and not take it personally. And learn how to protect ourselves when there is a communication breakdown between us and our beloved pets. In other words, use some common sense. If your pet rat is nipping or biting when you enter it's cage put on some suede gloves to protect you fingers, don't put them in harms way and then get upset at the rat.

Start asking yourself these questions:

1. Could my fingers have food smells on them?
2. Could my fingers have the smell of predatory animals on them, or my clothes even, (aka was I petting the cat or the dog?)
3. Could the rat be jealous of its cage mate or even protecting its cage mate not wanting to share them with you?
4. Could the rat be so comfortable sleeping or being in it's cage that the thought of leaving just doesn't seem as fun? A little nip or bite is it's way of saying "No I don't want to", or I'm not in the mood right now." This non-verbal response is the only way it knows how to express these emotions since it can't verbally say "no."
5. Has something changed in it's environment? New additions to the cage, new pets in the household, threatening conditions near the animal such as it's by a window, the window is open and a cat has been bothering it? (Actually had a person write me regarding this exact biting problem with their pet!)
6. Could I have startled my pet? Many people don't even talk to their pets before abruptly trying to fish them out of their cage. Voice recognition is very important as they will smell you and hear you way before they see you. Always remember a rats eye sight is not good. It's sense of smell is its number one sense, followed by hearing. It's whole world is colored by the emotional responses it's nose and ears are sending to it regarding it's environment.

A while back I heard of a story where a breeder had a female who had lost it's life mate and was left alone. The breeder tried introducing other new rats to this female so it wouldn't be lonely. The female became aggressive toward the new friends the breeder was introducing to her and then in time even bit the breeder when she went to clean it's cage. The breeder was so upset at this change of behavior she had it put to sleep. The sad part was she openly admitted that when the rat was out with her away from other rats and it's cage environment it was the nicest, sweetest rattie you could ever meet.

This story is a perfect example of the error in what is a true temperament problem as compared to a behavioral issue. The fact that the rat acted fine under curtain circumstances and not fine under others, shows it was reacting out of emotions to it's environment or even recent events, not purposefully being mean and cruel.

All of my research shows these same rats that are nipping when in the cage stop this behavior when brought out by themselves for one on one time with their owners. The jealously of siblings sharing the cage is removed, the scent or marking they've left in the cage is removed, and thus the defensive behavior gets removed also.

My research has also shown that rats display the human emotions of happiness, sadness, grief, sorrow, anger and frustration. They express their feelings differently than we do. You can see their emotions by looking in their eyes. They are all expressed there. There are other behaviors they will demonstrate to express themselves. Squeaking is one of them and their tails also express emotions.

The tail straight out behind them means stability or comfort. Curled up around their backs, curiosity, waving it from back and forth nervously, agitation or frustration and I've even seen them swat their tails hard just like a beaver does, meaning they are upset!

We as breeders need to start to learn to understand the unique language of our pet rats. When we do we'll find many of the misunderstandings we have with them can be resolved, and that they aren't being aggressive at all, but just reacting like a rat's nature tells it to.

To recap the difference between a temperament problem or a behavioral issue, let me use this analogy: If someone were in a bad mood day in and day out, month after month, always snapping and angry, throwing things, and yelling, someone might say they have a nasty disposition or a bad temperament. However, if a person gets upset once in a while because of events or circumstances, such as stress at work, a health issue, traumatic event in the family, the kids driving them nuts, too much noise, or pressured for time, as some examples, and over reacts occasionally because of these triggers it's understood they are not in a good mood because of circumstances they are experiencing but that doesn't mean they are nasty, mean or bad people with over all bad temperaments. Doe that help to explain it better? :>)

3. Appropriate Housing for Pet Rats

It is my opinion that almost anything can be used as acceptable housing for pet rats. They are a pet that is termed an "easy keeper." The key to housing a pet rat so that is thrives in life is based on cleanliness and opportunities for exercise.

An aquarium is acceptable for housing a pet rat under the following circumstances: The number of rats being housed and the kind of bedding being used and how often that bedding gets changed.

I feel the smallest size aquarium to be used for one pet rat is the twenty gallon size. The thirty gallon should be used for two to three rats. No more than three rats should be kept in a 30 gallon. If you have more than three rats you need to get a bigger aquarium, 10 gallons per additional rat.

You must not use pine or cedar beddings ever! Adequate ventilation has always been a problem when using aquariums. This is why they are now making "topper" units for them. I always recommend a topper over just a plain aquarium, but if you must use an aquarium, then please change the bedding daily or every other day. Ammonia from pet rats urine should never be allowed to build up in their breathing space or it could create severe health problems.

The aquarium needs to be big enough to put an eleven inch running wheel in it. It's important your pet gets daily exercise. Some of the twenty gallons aren't tall enough for a running wheel. If this is the case then your pet rat needs daily opportunities to be removed out of the aquarium and a running wheel, play area or safe roaming area need to be provided for your pet rats to stretch their legs and climb, such as a couch or the top of a bed.

Many people create special play areas to take their pet rats to that have a wheel, toys, tunnels, ropes and other fun things to stimulate their creativity and keep their muscles and coordination strong.

You can get very creative in keeping your pet rats as long as their living environment is kept clean and exercise opportunities are provided. I have a pet rat named Sterling. He lives on a shelf. It's a four level plastic shelving unit. He is on the fourth shelf which is about five feet off the ground. It is just high enough that he does not make any attempt to jump off it.

The shelf is approximately 30"L x 15"W x 18"H

The plastic is easy to wipe clean. He has a hut on the shelf and I put soft fabric scraps inside it to keep him warm. I wipe down the shelf daily to remove his droppings and urine markings. The fabric scraps get changed once a week. There is a food dish on the shelve and a water bottle hanging down in front of the opening I've created at the front.

The housing unit creation is closed in on all four sides using cut pieces of wooden paneling. There is an opening on the front where I can reach in and fill his food dish and I can detached one of the wooden panels for removing his hut and cleaning and changing the bedding. The wooden panels are taped into place on the outside.

I use to have a running wheel in it but some male ratties simply don't like to use them, therefore he gets plenty of opportunities to climb all over our couch and run around in the bathroom or my bedroom. Actually he goes everywhere with me perched on my shoulder. He is my buddy and my loving friend.

We've also created our own housing on wooden shelves and I've heard of people creating their own cage designs also. Like I said, anything is acceptable if it's clean and safe, enough room per rattie and ways for them to get daily exercise.

My personal favorite cages are made by Martins Cages, (www.Martinscages.com), but there are many different manufacturers of acceptable housing for pet rats. I have a Martin's Rudd cage for my girls and I also have the biggest ferret cage they make for my boys. I personally like the ferret cage over the Rudd cage. The two cages I've just mentioned are very costly, that is why I don't discourage people from finding other housing options. My feeling is, start out with what your budget can afford and upgrade to bigger and better options as your finances allow.

I started my rattery using converted bird cages to keep them in because they were a less expensive cage than the ferret or rattie cages. I wasn't sure how long I would keep at breeding and didn't want to invest a lot money right away until I determined my investment wouldn't be wasted.

I was strongly criticized by other breeders for this decision and even dubbed "substandard" in the eyes of more established breeders, even though my ratties lived in a clean environment and had running wheels in each cage and fun toys to play with. It's a very political environment in the breeding world and I went through my share of learning curves and hard knocks to get established.

I thinks it's because I've been on both sides of the fence that I am much more understanding about where people are coming from and what their pet rats need then many others might be. One thing I've learned is, in the breeding world everyone has their own personal spin on things and each breeder feels their way is the best and only way to do things. It's a political world of blacks and whites with no shades of gray. My feeling is there are shades of gray and each technique or pet rat keeping philosophy has some merit to it, so for the most part I try to be open minded regarding how to raise or keep a pet rat; as long as the animal is not being harmed emotionally, physically or psychologically it's all good.

I kind of look at it like this: We would all love to live in luxurious mansions, but sometimes we have to start out in a small home and make gradual upgrades before we can get to the mansion. As long as we keep our homes clean and safe and all our basic living needs are met we can be happy and so can our pet rats.

4. Appropriate Foods for Pet Rats

In my opinion pet rats can eat almost anything. In the wild they will eat almost anything. The list of what not to feed them is much shorter than what you can feed them.

Again here is a topic that has turned very controversial in the breeding world. You have breeders saying one thing and vets saying another and many times no one is listening to what the pet rat wants.

I specialize in pet rat behavior. I've managed to do this because I'm retired and raising my pet rats is my main hobby. I don't have to divide my attentions with a daily job or the responsibilities of raising children. My pet rats are my life, my world. They are so much a part of my daily environment I get to witness things that many other breeders haven't. I've learned to see the world through a rats eyes. I will share some of the things I've learned regarding food choices here.

A rats taste buds are almost as developed as our own, therefore they can taste all the different foods just like we can and they determine certain foods they like better than others. I found this out by accident. When I first started breeding I use to feed my pet rats those lab blocks especially made for them, but then it became hard for me to get these foods and I had to make substitutions. I'm really glad I did because I learned a lot about my pets.

I started adding dog food in with the lab blocks and something interesting happened. I noticed that all the lab blocks were being stashed in the corner and all the dog food was being eaten first. The lab blocks were becoming a last resort item. I wanted to know why, so I tasted a lab block and then tasted the dog food. The lab block though a good nutritional staple was very bland and flavorless. The dog food had a bit of flavor to it. They could taste this. It simply tasted better to them so they choose it over the lab blocks.

The next thing I did was start to offer them some wholesome people foods. Things like cheerios and chex mix, multi grain crackers, nut blends and dried fruits. Pretty soon the lab blocks and the dog food were sitting in the corner of the cage, lol. I use to laugh so hard when I would give them a bowl of goodies that had lab blocks, dog food and all the people foods in it and watch them dig like dogs, throwing out all the lab blocks and dog food to get to all the other treats that had more flavor to them. I soon learned that ratties have a sweet tooth. They eat the dried fruits and yogurt drops first then the cereals and crackers and nuts.

When I first started breeding there was another breeder who only fed her ratties left over people foods. I've heard all about this issue too, the pros and cons, but something interesting was happening with her lines. They were living about six-eight months longer than anyone else's lines. It has always been my belief that the great tastes they got daily from eating the people foods gave them something to look forward to, something interesting, something that made them happy on a daily basis and it increased their basic desire to live for their next home cooked meal!, LOL.

Through a ratties eyes life is all about food. They are so motivated by food. You can teach them all kinds of tricks and get them to do all kinds of things if a favorite food treat is part of the plan. Food is all consuming to them. It never ceases to amaze me about this one simple behaviour. You can give a rattie a food treat and they will run off into the corner with it. All the other cage mates will come and investigate and the war begins. Pulling and tugging, running and stashing, squeaks of displeasure over another cage mate taking their treat from them and the chasing down to retreive it. They are SO POSSESSIVE of their food! Ratties will do amazing acrobats to protect their food from each other. Jumping over each other flying through the air out of reach, carrying off treats bigger than they are. It's hilarious!

In my opinion what needs to happen is, lab block meets taste buds. When a company finally figures out how to make a nutritional lab block that has different yummy flavors to it the ratties will jump with joy and so will their owners! Until then I offer this: Find a good quality dog food that has a lower protein count. High protein foods can cause urinary tract problems. Something between 13-18 percent protein. What you can do is read the nutritional ingredients of the lab blocks and go seeking a dog or cat food with similar numbers and ingredients. Because food companies have figured out dogs and cats like different flavors these foods taste better and are more well received by your pet rat.

Ratties are creatures of habit. You can't just give them something new and have them accept it. I had a fellow breeder tell me her rats loved their lab blocks and I say yes, until they determine other things taste better. You'd like a regular boat ride until you got the chance to go on a Carnival Cruise! LOL. :>)

I had someone who bought a pet rat from me write me shortly afterwards and ask what I fed my ratties because she couldn't get them to touch the lab blocks she'd bought for them. The introduction of foods is a gradual process. They acquire tastes for things. It's just like us always wanting to go to McDonald's and getting a Big Mac over trying Wendy's newest burger creation. We'll stick with the tried and true if we like it and it tastes good. The same with our fur friends.

Ok, so here's the list of what you shouldn't feed your pet rats: Nothing with caffeine in it. No chocolate. No baked beans. No alcohol or soda pops. Nothing spicy with raw hot peppers, garlic or onions. Some cooked onions in a casserole would be alright. No salty meats such as bacon, sausage or ham, a little piece of hot dog once in a while is alright.

There are foods you can feed them but in very limited quantities. Low fat cheeses in small pieces. The problem with cheese is it can bind them up and they like it so much they'll eat too much at one sitting which can block their bowels. Really limit the amount of sweets you give your pet rats unless it's sugar free. Sugar in large quantities is not healthy for people or pet rats. They really have a sweet tooth, so restrain from sharing your ice cream and cookies and cakes with them. If you want to dip your finger into the ice cream and let them lick it off once in a while that would be alright. This just teaches them to associate your fingers with something sweet and they learn to lick and kiss you this way.

Never give food to your pet rats directly from your hands or fingers and NEVER EVER through the bars of the cage! This can start a nipping process. Always set the food down in front of them. They will still know it came from you but there won't ever be confusion about whether you finger is a french fry or not.

I read on one of the Yahoo groups that someone wanted to know if ratties could pass gas. I do believe they can. I've smelled bad smells without it resulting in poops, lol. But they can't burp, so foods that cause gas or bloating can be very painful to them.

I read on one of the rat care guides that was written by the daughter of two veterinarians that they shouldn't eat corn. She described the medical reasoning for this, for me it's a matter of common sense. I feel a little bit of cooked corn inside a casserole dish is ok, but not the hard dried corn kernels, because it's just too starchy, too fattening. She says stay away from pet foods that have corn in it or as part of the ingredients. I agree with this but maybe not from the same perspective as she does. The nutritional value doesn't benefit the pet rat enough to out weigh the negative effects of the product.

This same rat guide also states dog foods and cat foods are not good for your pet rat. I disagree with this wholeheartedly. I don't know what research she has used to reach her conclusions but I've been breeding for almost seven years now, raising over 600 pet rats and have never had a problem with the dog foods I've feed my pets over the years. I have recently learned about keeping the protein levels down, so I do that now, but I would think that would be the only down side of dogs foods, finding the low protein ones.

It's not a good idea to feed your pet rats citrus fruits. The acidity in these kinds of fruits is hard on them. The best fruits to feed them and their favorites are: Watermelon, red seedless grapes, blueberries, strawberries and apples. They've done research on blueberries and found if you feed your pet rats blueberries everyday it's actually prolonging their life's! I'm all for that!

My ratties adore bananas, and will get into a life and death dispute over a single piece of banana among many. The squeaks won't stop until every rattie has managed to grab a piece of the banana to nibble on. The only problem with this is, bananas if eaten in large quantities can block up the digestive tract. So just feed them small pieces and not in bulk.

From a medical standpoint there are other foods you shouldn't feed your pet rat, such as avocado. I've never given it much thought as I don't care for many of the things they state aren't good for them. The only dispute I've found over what you can feed your pets or you can't and that is the claim about the dog and cat foods. I would say six years and 600 pet rats later and the fact that the longevity of my lines keeps increasing, that I must be doing something correctly.

I have a tip for everyone. Would you like your pet rats to be licky kissy pets? I've had wonderful success with taking decaffinated coffee and adding sugar free vanilla creamer and dipping my fingers into the sweet and warm mixture and training my pets to lick it right off my fingers. Once trained to lick this off your fingers they soon start licking your fingers just for the sake of licking them an it's very endearing.

My pet rat Sterling, the one that lives on the shelf? He gets his own cup of coffee every day filled in the top of a coke cap. We sit together every morning on the couch and have our coffee together, lol. :>) As long as it's decaffinated and sugar free it's not bad for them and becomes a favorite treat.

Here is another tip for everyone. If you scratch you pets back very gently over time he'll associate you as "grooming" him. This grooming process is a natural thing that pet rats do with each other, so eventually when you groom him he'll start to groom you back in return, licking your hands and fingers all over, in a "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" type of behavior.

Shortly I'll be creating an e-book about pet rat care for a small donation price of $3. Be sure to look for it. It will be crammed full of all kinds of other useful tips and information about pet rat care.

Last Edited On: 09/04/10