Note: the first section of this article is about identifying reputable breeders, scroll down to go straight to what to expect when getting rats from a reputable breeder.
Every breeder is different, and these are just my experiences and the experiences of some other breeders I have spoken to. I do not claim to be able to speak for all breeders or even the majority, so please be aware this is just my opinion. Having said that, I hope this can be of use to any potential owners out there who are planning on getting rats and wants some advice and knowledge of what the process may be like.
The purpose of this is to give an idea of the “etiquette” around the process of getting new rats from a breeder (me specifically!); the dos and don’ts, so to speak, and also how to identify reputable breeders from those that are not so reputable.
An important note to start with is that most owners and breeders agree that it is important to support reputable breeders rather than pet shops. If you are planning to buy from a pet shop then I would suggst you have a read of this first.
Hopefully you have decided that you want to get rats from a breeder (or rescue) rather than supporting pet shops, the next step is to look at which breeder you want to go with and to avoid ‘back yard breeders’, often referred to as BYBs. Again, I will not go into full detail here, but below is a list of what I consider some of the common characteristic of BYBs. Please do not think this list is comprehensive or that if the breeder meets one of these points, that they are definitely a BYB. There may also be BYBs that do not meet many of the points on this list. Use this just as a guide- if someone starts checking off many points on this list, it may raise red flags and you should think about doing some more research into this breeder before applying to get rats from them.
Disclaimer: This is just my opinion based on what I have seen in my time in the rat fancy and through dicussions with other breeders. This is not a definitive list that all will agree with.
Common characteristics of back yard breeders (BYBs):
Homing Practices and Communication:
- Kittens are homed before 6-7 weeks old
- Asks no questions about you, your setup, how you intend to introduce rats, what you plan to feed, use as substrate etc (a good breeder wants to ensure that you meet their criteria for a good home)
- Offers more than 3 rats at once (without discussing with you the option of a rolling group) or lets you leave with more rats that you came for/previously agreed
- Tells you their rats have ‘no health issues’ and no problems with temperament.
- Charges more for different/rare varieties/ears/markings/fur types (all rats cost the same to raise)
- Lets you reserve individual rats very early
- Has lots of rats and lets you choose which ones you want on the day (reputable breeders may be able to let you choose between different available rats but usually not from the entire litter).
- Almost always has kittens available to buy
- Kittens are wheezy, small and fragile-looking or have a lot of porphyrin around their noses/mouths/eyes (red mucus).
- Sells lone kittens without same age company
- Breeds “as a hobby/because they love rats, not for profit”. No reputable breeder I am aware of breeds for profit, it is actually BYBs who, by having many litters and homing the rats out early, make a lot more money than good breeders. Reputable breeders breed to forward the fancy or a particular line
- Homes out different sex kittens
- Advertises rats for sale on gumtree, Preloved or other selling sites. This doesn’t inherently make them a BYB if they do, its just that most reputable breeders so not do this. Most reputable breeders will use their facebook page or website to advertise if they have rats available
- Cannot tell you the history of their rats or where they got their foundation rats from (these should be from a well-established breeder, not from a pet shop, rescue, or just a really special rat).
- Breeds lots of different varieties (colours/markings etc) (Be aware that a reputable breeder with different breeding lines is not the same as a BYB that breeds for many different markings, colours, fur types etc in the same litter).
- Does not use or understand inbreeding/linebreeding (knowledgable breeders use inbreeding on their lines to the benefit and this is a normal and good practice for breeding healthy rats)
- Does not use correct variety names: e.g. will refer to Russian blue rats as ‘grey’ or ‘brown and white’. roan as ‘husky’ or to top eared rats as ‘fancy’ rats.
- Also breeds rats to be sold as snake food.
- Breeds hairless rats, tailless rats, black eyed white rats, or rats with lots of white markings around their ears (banned varieties for showing because the health issues associated with the variety)
- Breeds ‘only for pets, not for showing’ (reputable breeders breed rats that are good as pets AND showing; temperament is part of the judgement of a good show rat. The rat fancy is unlike some other fancies that breed for exaggerated features that causes health issues. The show standards used in rat shows rewards strong, healthy rats with ‘rat-like’ qualities)
- Will not discuss their ethics or breeding decisions
- Gets defensive when questioned about practices.
Care and Husbandry:
- Feeds rat nuggets/guinea pig food etc (note: many breeders use rabbit food as part of a good mix) or a heavily imbalanced mix
- Overcrowded cages, small cages, little enrichment, heavily soiled cages, rats kept alone
- Claims ‘rats can eat anything’ and is happy for you to feed rat nuggets
- Does not allow you to meet the parents or see where the rats are housed (be aware that many good breeders will not let you go into their rat room when they have pregnant does so this does not necessarily mean that they are a BYB, but you should be able to see pictures or visit when there are no pregnant does)
Involvement in the rat fancy
- Does not attend rat shows/does not want to be a registered breeder (obviously some people cannot make shows, so this is not necessarily the sign of a bad breeder, but in combination with other things may indicate a BYB).
- No involvement in national/local club
- Is not interested in seeking expertise of other, highly experienced members of the rat fancy
- Refuses to recommend other breeders.
- Is widely considered a poor breeder on many UK rat groups and forums online (although don’t believe everything you read!)
- Does anything that you instinctively don’t feel is right- trust your gut
Again, just to clarify, there are many reputable breeders that may do one or two of these things (e.g. not attend shows and will not show you their rat room), this does not make them a BYB. But if someone ticks multiple boxes or does something that you are not comfortable with, then you may want to dig further, seek some reviews of them from other breeders, or consider another breeder.
Things to think about before contacting a breeder
- Read their website and check if they have a facebook page (this is usually easier to update than the website so websites can look out of date even if the breeder is still active)
- Check where they live; people sometimes (more often than you’d expect) contact breeders in the UK from the USA expecting to get rats from them.
- Think about how to get your rats from them- you will be expected to collect them, not have them delivered. It is better to get rats from a breeder you really like and trust who lives further away than getting rats from someone with less than favourable ethics just because they are closer. If they are a 7 hour drive and you have no way to get there and back, then you might need to think about something else; a rat train, meeting at a show, paying for a courier if that breeder is happy to use one (or a different breeder- maybe ask for their recommendations!) As a side note- rats are very good travellers by both car and public transport, so you only need to worry about the long journey for yourself.
- Think about what rats you want. It is absolutely fine to not care and know you’ll just love any rats you get, but often you will have a preference. Don’t expect to be able to choose exactly what you want- you are never going to get a Russian silver satin berkshire rex and a dumbo pink eyed Siamese from the same breeder in the same litter. But if you have a preference- e.g. you prefer blue rats, or dumbos etc, then have a look at who breeds for that. If you really don’t want something then make sure that isn’t what that breeder selects for. If you hate agoutis (brown rats), then you may not want to go with a breeder who breeds for agoutis, or if you dislike pink eyed rats, then make sure you are not going for a marten breeder. The more specific you are, the longer you may have to wait and the further you may need to travel.
- Manage your expectations: many reputable breeders have long waiting lists so expecting to get rats within a few weeks is unlikely (many breeders do not have rats always available- if they do then this could be a sign that they may be a BYB). Expecting to get rats as Christmas presents for family/friends/kids is also something that most breeders will not oblige- many breeders do not breed around this time intentionally to avoid their rats going as presents.
- Think about what you want from your rat- do you want hilarious, active rats that keep you on your toes, or cuddly soppy rats that do nothing but sleep on you. Have a chat to different breeders about what type of temperaments they select for and see if that works for you- ask their opinion too and see if you are suited to one another.
- Think about the sex you want; there are many resources online that discuss the general differences between boys and girls but you may want to ask the breeder what their does (girls) and bucks (boys) are like; different breeders select different qualities. It is fine to not mind or not be sure; you can discuss or visit the breeder (if the breeder has both) or a rat show to hold both and see which you click with. Be aware that if you say you want one sex, then change to the other later on, you may have to wait longer.
- Be aware that reputable breeders are breeding rats to advance the temperament, health, longevity, type and general quality of pet rats overall. Reputable breeders do not breed to supply pet owners- they breed to improve their lines and home out additional rats that they will not be using for breeding. They cannot and will not breed a particular variety or type just for you.
Contacting the Breeder
(from here the information only pertains to reputable breeders, not BYBs)
- To begin with, think about how you want to come across to the breeder. Most breeders put a lot of time, effort and love into breeding rats and want their rats to go to the best homes possible with people who will love them as much as they do. You want your first impression to show that you have put thought and effort into contacting them, not simply typed ‘rattery’ into facebook and sent a copied and pasted message to all breeders that come up.
- Do not ask for lone rats, that immediately says to the breeder that you have not done your research and do not understand even the basics of caring for rats (even if you have rats already, kittens need same age company so cannot be homed alone)
- Do not ask for rats to breed from without first building a stronger relationship with that breeder or a reputation in the fancy first.
- Plan for the future: know how you are going to ensure that no rat is left alone when the others die (most recommend a rolling group where you add kittens every 12-18 months or an agreement that you will return the last rat if you are not going to continue owning rats).
- Some examples of how not to contact breeders (all genuine examples but anonymised):
- “how much 4 ratz”
- “Hi looking for rats”
- “I want some rats for XYZ date please” (you can give a general idea- e.g. next summer or after I’ve moved house in July, but reputable breeders do not and cannot produce rats to order).
- “got any rats for sale?”
- “Hi I am looking for two tame male rats, British blue hooded, no pink eyes, no brown rats. I need them for Christmas”
- Looking for rats ready to go within 2 weeks
Some things to consider when contacting breeders:
- Introduce yourself
- Mention how you found their info (e.g. show, recommendation, NFRS breeders list), why you have chosen them
- Say what you are looking for (how many, bucks/does, general varieties if important to you etc) but make sure you have checked that they breed that first
- Explain why you want rats and if you have any other rats currently
- Ask any questions you may have (including the length of the waiting list, their breeding practices/ethics and any other info you may not be able to get from their website/facebook page).
- Ask if they have an application form to fill in
- Be prepared to wait for your rats- reputable breeders often have longer waiting lists
- (Most breeders accept cake bribes- I have had this verified by three different NFRS breeders.)
This is just an example and is by no means a template or the only way to get onto a breeders list. Most importantly, be honest and open, and ready to learn.
- Do research and show examples of where you’ve got info: Some good sources of info are the NFRS website and forum, Fancy rats forum, some UK facebook groups (e.g. Rat Care UK) and UK breeder websites (e.g. Isamurats.co.uk). Not so good sources: Pets at Home leaflets, American websites, Youtube accounts and Facebook groups (standards of care in America are very different to in the UK).
- Remember that most breeders work full time, have their own busy lives and families, have many rats to care for, have other applications to respond to and have current owners to talk to. No reputable breeder I know of makes money from breeding rats, they all make a loss and do it because they want to advance the line and produce wonderful pets; remember that you are not buying a product from them; they do not owe you rats or need to have a reason to decide to not home to you (though most will tell you why if they do not agree to home to you).
- Fill in the application form with as much detail as possible. This is not a test that decides whether you get rats from them or not- the worst application form can result in yes if you are open, willing to accept advice and ask questions. Be open about that things you don’t know and ask for help and their recommendations. Breeders use their application forms to gauge how much knowledge you currently have so they know how and in what areas to offer advice, so give as much information as you can so they can help the best they can. You will then be added to the waiting list if you are accepted.
- See if you can meet the breeder at a rat show and you may be able to see their rats and get more of a feel for the types of rats you like.
- Be patient: dealing with applications can be exhausting (imagine having to deal with multiple people in your free time every day, repeating yourself over and over). Try not to expect immediate responses to emails or Facebook messages; even if they have read your message, they may not have the time or energy to reply straight away. If you don’t get a reply within 2-3 weeks then send a polite email checking that they have got your message.
I’m on the waiting list! Now what?
- You should have a general idea of how long a wait might be- be patient if your breeder doesn’t know how long the wait may be or the plan changes and you have to wait a bit longer
- Remember that nothing is guaranteed; rats fail to get pregnant, miscarry/reabsorb, babies are stillborn, get health issues and cannot be mated, people’s life circumstances change. If the breeder says they are planning a litter in May, then this is planned, not definite.
- Continue to do your research; talk to the breeder if you are unsure about anything.
- Consider buying your cage and enrichment, planning what substrate and food you plan to use, researching vets etc.
- Try not to pester the breeder too much about the next litter- questions for advice is fine, but avoid repeatedly asking when the next litter will be born and whether you’ll be getting rats from it
- Let the breeder know if you end up getting rats from someone else during this time and no longer want rats from them. Some breeders are happy to keep you on their waiting list until the next time you are ready, so have a chat to the breeder about your plans.
The babies have been born!
- This is super exciting! But remember that this can be an extremely stressful time for the breeder: they run the risk of potentially losing their much loved rat, dealing with stillborn or deceased babies, needing emergency surgery etc. If you think the wait until birth is bad for you, imagine how bad it is for the breeder!
- Wait for the breeder to tell you whether you are getting rats from this litter or the next. There may be other people on the waiting list before you, or there may be someone who desperately needs two babies (e.g. if one rat has just died and they need companions ASAP). Sometimes the breeder will be able to tell you almost straight away if they have kittens for you, other times it will take many weeks to sort out. Remember that the breeder can usually sex from the first day (this doesn’t mean as soon as they are born- the mum needs time to adjust, recover and feed before they can be checked) but may not be able to get photos and will not be able to tell you what varieties, ear types, fur types or markings they have until at least a few days to a few weeks in.
- Remember that things may change- the rats may actually be a different sex to the original count, kittens die, there may be a need for the breeder to keep all of the kittens, or the litter count be very small and there are not enough kittens for everyone who wanted them.
- Rat kittens should be homed at the earliest between 6 and 7 weeks old. This is because they need to be around their siblings to develop their social skills, and because they have weakened immune systems before this point. It may be inconvenient for you to pick up at 7 weeks old, but then you should arrange with the breeder to pick up at a later date, not earlier.
- However temping it may be, try not to pester the breeder to know which rats are yours. Remember that the breeder is possibly receiving 10 other excited owners asking the same question and it can get exhausting to respond to everyone, no matter how happy they are that you are excited. Sometimes, depending on the litter and what they are breeding for, breeders may know within a week where the rats will be going, but most of the time it is not decided until they are at least 5 weeks old. This isn’t to make you wait; the breeder needs to see how each rat turns out in terms of their temperament, their type (their eyes, ears, body shape, coat condition etc.) Only once the breeder can get a good idea of these things can they make a decision about which rats will remain with them for future breeding plans (called ‘keepers’) and which are available to be homed to pet owners.
- One of the problems that a lot of breeders face is that owners think they are able to choose the kittens they want to take. For most breeders and most litters, this is not the case. Once the breeder has chosen their keepers from the litter, they will start to think about assignment. On your application form and through your discussions with the breeder you will probably have given an indication of what varieties, coat types and/or markings you would like. Your breeder will refer to this to help make their decision, but there are many other aspects that go into assigning kittens to their new homes. Just a few examples of the factors that contribute to assignment are:
- Whether the home has current rats- they may want to home more assertive kittens so that they have a better chance of integrating well into the new group
- Whether the rats will be handled by children; in this case the breeder will look for outgoing but calm and easily tractable rats
- The varieties of the rats currently owned; if they already have two top eared black rats, then the breeder (unless they have requested more top eared black rats) will do their best to give them different varieties if possible
- The combinations of rats- If the breeder has a litter of Russian blues and black rats, and everyone on the waiting list has requested Russian blues, then they will try to pair up a Russian blue with a black for each home so that everyone has at least one of the rats of their requested type.
- Giving homes distinguishable rats; similar to above, but to help the new owners be able to tell their rats apart.
- Whether the owners want to enter the rats into rat shows- they will then choose rats for that owner that they think will do better in showing.
- Whilst it is fine to start thinking about names once you have been told you are getting rats from a litter, try not to start picking names for individual rats before you are told which will be yours. In a litter where there are many of the same variety that look similar, this may not be an issue, but marked kittens are usually easily identifiable from a young age. Try not to get too attached to specific kittens or name them before they have been assigned to you; this can put the breeder in an uncomfortable situation and can mean you get your hopes up and then have to be let down. It also means that the breeder may think you do not care about the other rats which you may get assigned.
- It’s so exciting when babies arrive- you want to see ALL the photos and know how they are doing every minute of the day. But remember when they are very young, the breeder cannot hold them for more than a few minutes so a quick blurry photo might be all they get to do in amongst checking that they are all alive and eating, weighing them, sexing them, checking on the mum etc.
Getting your babies
This should be an incredibly exciting day. By this point you should have all your questions answered, and be feeling prepared but still understandably a tiny bit worried (especially if this is your first breeder babies that is) that you haven’t remembered everything. Arrange the day and time with your breeder and make sure you are on time (they may have multiple people turning up in the same day so being late can put them back time-wise!). Bring along a travel cage with a moisture source (bottle, cucumber, melon etc.) and your money to pay. It’s fine to ask the breeder how they would like to be paid but check how much the rats cost on your application form before asking. That part, is as awkward as it is, is easiest just to get over with quickly and painlessly then you can get onto loving your new fur babies.
Relationship with the breeder afterwards
One of the best things about getting rats from a breeder is that they will give you support for the lifetime of the rats. This means that you have their support, experience and advice to fall back on when you are concerned, worried or just curious about any aspect of rat care. Any good breeder will always be willing to help you with any queries you have, big or small and no matter how silly or stupid you may feel the question is (I panicked the first time one of my girls went into heat!)
For the first week or so, feel free to send the breeder photos and anecdotes of how your kittens are settling in. You may need help during intros or making sure you are feeding the right amount or type of food, or getting the rats comfortable with you. After the rats are settled in, it is great to provide your breeder with updates, but try not to spam them with photos and stories too often. Asking for advice and chatting is fine, just try to remember that the breeder is dealing with new enquiries, dealing with all the other owners, dealing with their own rats, their own families and everything else in their life so may not have time to respond to all the photos and stories, no matter how cute they are (and they will be!) If they have a facebook group, as many do, then go crazy and spam that instead, then they can view at their leisure and not worry about ignoring you)
These are of course just my opinions and some general advice that I hope will help, but if at any point you are unsure about how your breeder operates or how you should behave, discuss it with the breeder directly and keep communication channels open.