Choosing a Breeder

Occasionally I am contacted by someone looking for a rat, who then decides that my prices are ‘too high’. This is usually followed up with “But I can get them for $xx at Pet Shop/Craigslist/etc.” While this isn’t a super common response, I thought I’d address a few differences in where you get your pet rats from, what to look for in a breeder, and why good breeders charge more.

Why does it matter where I get my rat? Where you buy your rat is more than just a cost-saving decision. Different sources have different variables to consider, short and long-term. While you may be able to walk in and choose a rat from a feeder bin or a pet store, you will likely have a short (or long) wait from a breeder. But there’s often more to it than that.

Feeder Bins: Anyone with a snake knows that your local reptile store usually has rats in stock for pretty low prices. But do they make good pets? It depends! Rats are social by nature, and it isn’t uncommon to get a rat from a feeder bin that enjoys being held and interacted with. The downside is that there is no way to know this rat’s background. Feeder Breeders don’t typically breed for health or temperament, or even color. They put rats together strictly to reproduce, to meet the needs of reptile owners looking for feeders. These rats are sold to be eaten anywhere from a few days to up to 6 months old, depending on the size of the animal they are feeding. Since many health and temperament issues (Hormonal aggression, tumors, etc.) may not pop up this early, it isn’t usually a concern. But rats can live for 2-3 years as pets, and having your beloved companion develop some serious health or temperament issues can be heartbreaking. I consider it “rat roulette”, since there is no way to know what you will get.

Pet Shops: While rats are not as common in pet shops, you do occasionally find them. They are typically priced just a bit higher than the ones in the feeder bin. These rats aren’t necessarily any less of a gamble, however. I personally have heard first-hand from a few pet shop employees that the “pet” rats are the EXACT SAME as the “feeder” rats; they just pick out the cutest and friendliest of the bunch to sell as pets. Granted-not every store does it this way. Some pet shops get their pet rats directly from breeders, though that is still not a guarantee of anything. The breeder they are getting them from may be a feeder breeder selling their cutest babies to the stores, or be an otherwise irresponsible breeder. While I can’t say it never happens, I personally have not met any responsible breeders that offload litters to pet shops; it takes away their ability to screen adopters, and renders them unable to track their babies as they grow. While some pet shops may have a 24hr return policy, or maybe even a 7 day health guarantee, this does nothing if the rat becomes aggressive several months later, or you have other issues you need guidance with.

Irresponsible Breeders: More often than not, you can pop onto sites like Craigslist and find “baby rats for sale – great pets!” ads at very low prices. Very occasionally these may actually be people breeding responsibly, but it’s pretty rare. Usually it’s the people who purchased rats from a feeder bin or pet shop, and decided “Hey breeding sounds like a quick way to make a buck! It’ll be fun!” Or people who didn’t realize that it only takes literal seconds for rats to mate, and now –oops- they have babies! As with the other two options, you will have little to no background info on these rats. These ads can usually be spotted by several different red flags, such as “Handled daily since birth so they’re friendly!” “4 weeks and ready to go!” or “Rare breed of fancy rat!” (I’ll explain why these are red flags in a bit.) They are priced low, usually just over feeder prices, and on an ad-based ‘first come, first served’ basis. Like pet shops, there is usually little to no contact after you pick up, so if you have any future questions or issues, you’re on your own.

Responsible Breeders: Responsible breeders sell directly to the adopter, and they screen their adopters. It isn’t like a store purchase, where people can walk up and buy a rat; it’s a process. Responsible breeders want to make sure their rats are going to good, knowledgeable homes. These breeders are focusing on health and temperament, and keep good records of their breeding. They purposefully pair up specific males/females with certain goals in mind, and keep careful watch on both their breeders and their offspring. Unlike pet shops, good breeders are available for any questions you may have both during and after the adoption process. Most will gladly accept back any of their rats if you are no longer to care for them, and offer some type of temperament guarantee. Responsible breeders often work with multiple varieties, though they don’t always have everything available. They typically breed on a limited basis; some only have 2-3 litters a year, while others may have many more depending on the size of the rattery and how many different varieties they breed. You may have to wait for a future breeding, or even be put on a wait list if demand is high for a certain variety; but ultimately you will get the rats you want, from a source that comes with some piece of mind.

So what should you look for when buying a rat? Here are some aspects to look at when choosing a breeder; what you should look for, and what to avoid.

Open/closed rattery? An “open rattery” means visitors are welcome, usually by appointment only. A “closed rattery” means visitors are not permitted. It used to be considered a red flag if you couldn’t go meet the breeder and their rats in person, but that simply isn’t the case anymore. There are several contagious diseases that rats are prone to, so having strangers walking in and out of the rattery and handling various rats isn’t safe for the breeder’s mischief. (Fun fact: a group of rats is often called a “mischief”!) One sick rat can wipe out an entire rattery, and some of these illnesses can be carried on clothing, or in our own respiratory systems from home or a pet shop to the breeder’s home. Not to mention the personal safety risks of inviting strangers into your home in the first place. Most breeders breed out of their homes, and just don’t feel comfortable with this, for good reason.

Who are the parents? Ask to see the pictures or videos of the parents of the baby you are considering. Do they look healthy and clean? Are both parents able to be handled? Where did they get the parents? Maternal aggression and hormonal aggression are genetic- if one or both of the parents are aggressive, there is a good chance the babies could become that way as well.

Let the true colors show: Often, ads on sites like Craigslist the seller will claim they have handled the babies since birth to ‘make them social’. Many breeders disagree with this practice. It’s been found that even babies from aggressive parents can be ‘made social’ by handling them young and often, but this is not necessarily a good thing. Rats with GENETICALLY good temperament do not need to be handled often to be social, and they tend to handle stress well. Rats with MASKED temperament have only been conditioned to accept handling; long periods of no handling or stressful situations can cause their true underlying temperament to pop out, resulting in loud warning squeaks, panicked escape attempts, or even bites. It is common practice for many breeders to only handle babies for wellness checks and cage cleaning until they reach about 4 weeks (sometimes longer) to allow their true temperaments to develop. (It can be VERY hard not to snuggle these cuties in excess, so sometimes breeders will still sneak in a smooch or two.)

What about 'rare' breeds? Rats don’t have breeds like dogs do. Our domestic rats are sometimes called ‘fancy rats’, in reference to an ‘animal fancy’ (As in fancy meaning simply to like.) Fancy rats are domesticated Norway rats. Selective breeding and spontaneous gene mutation has caused several different “Varieties” of rat, from Dumbo-ears, to eye-catching colors and markings, to curly rex or long Harley coats. Good breeders will refer to these different variations as ‘varieties’ or ‘types’. Breeders talking about ‘rare breeds’ or breeds at all is a red flag that they may not be knowledgeable. Colors have a little more grey area, as some colors can be difficult to identify, though the colors they do offer should at least be ‘real’ colors. The AFRMA website has a complete listing of recognized, unstandardized (not yet recognized) and unrecognized (likely won’t be recognized) colors and coat types. While new colors do show up from time to time, they are typically held back for test breeding and not sold as pets, especially not on CL! There is no such thing as a “giant rat”. Size can be sex linked, where males are typically bigger than females, and it can be genetic so that some lines produce bigger rats than others. But breeders advertising “Giant Fancy Rats” are just using a marketing gimmick. While some people are actively breeding towards larger-sized rats, they aren’t recognized as being any different than normal rats, so beware of breeders selling them as a new or special variety.

Age matters. Most rats will wean between 4-5 weeks, though they really shouldn’t go to new homes this early. Even after weaning, rats need time to ensure they have completely transitioned to solid foods, and to ‘learn how to rat’ from mom or another ‘nanny rat’ as part of their development. They learn how to play politely and groom each other, and general rat ‘manners’ that will help them acclimate to living with new rats later. Beware any breeders readily sending home rats younger than 6 weeks; some breeders won’t let babies leave before 7 or 8 weeks, longer for dwarfs.

Forever alone? It is fairly well known that rats are not just social, but they NEED social interaction. Rats should never be kept solo, except in very rare cases. No amount of human interaction can replace rat-to-rat socialization and grooming rituals, so most good breeders won’t sell single rats unless you can prove you have another same-sex companion rat at home. Even in this case, it’s still recommended to adopt a pair at the same time because being alone for the 30-day quarantine period is especially hard on babies. Imagine being surrounded by all of your siblings, playing all day then suddenly you’re isolated and alone in a new place for an entire month. That’s pretty stressful! Breeders that only sell in same sex pairs or trios are being cognizant of this issue.

Pedigrees aren’t just for show dogs! Responsible breeders should have accurate records of who belongs to whom, typically for multiple generations. This will tell them what recessive genes may be lurking in the line, and generally give them a good idea of what babies will look like when they’re born and their coats come in. Of course, surprises do happen, but it should never be a blind guess. While breeders may not give a copy of a rat’s pedigree to adopters, they should at least be able to show some basic lineage beyond mom and dad. This not only shows that they are keeping good records for genetic purposes, but also that they should be breeding the rats they have. A problem that plagues good breeders is line poaching. No matter how well they try to screen new homes, sometimes an adopter will decide to breed their rats anyway, basically using the bloodline without permission. This is very unethical, and should be avoided. Most breeders have years and many generations invested in their lines, so they are very selective about who they give breeding rights to. Remember this: good breeders are always trying to improve their lines. They do this by holding back any remarkable babies to use as future breeders. The babies sold as pets are not always ‘breeder quality’. They may be beautiful with excellent temperaments, but they are not the breeder’s choice for holding back. Maybe the nose is a bit too long, or the ears don’t set quite right; these are things that will not affect the rat from being an excellent companion, but they should never be bred without permission.

Why are breeders so much more expensive? So now back to the original issue. Why do good breeders charge so much more than say rats out of a feeder bin? To try to be as brief as possible, it’s all the time and effort that goes into it!

If you look at the stereotypical feeder rat rack breeding system, the overhead cost is fairly low. 1 male to a few females; provide clean bedding, fresh food and water, and wait. Every few weeks, babies! Pretty simple, right? But that’s not how good pet breeders do it. On top of food and bedding costs, good breeders provide enrichment and treats, and multiple wire cages or bin cages instead of the more cramped rack systems. They are setting goals to improve their lines, and pre-planning litters to achieve these goals; tracking genetics, researching and knowing when to line breed vs when to out-cross, and knowing what genes affect others, for better or worse. They are constantly working to make each generation better than the one before, and they never stop working to improve. They are photographing cute babies and very pregnant moms, but they are also dealing with the heartbreak of failure-to-thrive babies dying, and sometimes losing their favorite doe. They are talking to potential adopters to both be informative and helpful, while still carefully screening to make sure they send their babies to the best homes. They are maintaining contact with prior adopters to make sure everyone is happy, and sometimes having to hear the bad news that someone has passed, or is having an issue. It can be wonderfully rewarding, but also heartbreaking and stressful. On top of it all, most breeders do this as a hobby, not a business. For many breeders, income from rat sales goes right back into the rats in the form of necessities like food or bedding, or as treats and enrichment toys, allowing the hobby to help fund itself.

So while all rats are deserving of love, and most will make lovely companions, it does matter where you get your rats from. Social, healthy rats live longer, more fulfilled lives than scared, sickly ones; and having the lifelong support of a breeder is invaluable.