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Raising Litters

 

    The joy of raising a litter of baby rats is one of the most rewarding and time consuming things I have the great pleasure of doing at this point in my life.  There is nothing like planning a breeding, and then watching those plans materialize into a group of actual, beautiful babies.  While it is a pleasure, this is also a time of great responsibility and effort on my part.  I feel that each litter I raise is very important, special and deserving of my full time attention and energy.  I do not "foster out" litters with others, they are always raised here, with me.  I will always choose quality over quantity in my breeding plans.  I will only breed a litter I feel important to the development of my breeding program.  I will usually only breed one or 2 litters at a time.  This way, I know each litter will get the time and attention devoted to it that it deserves.  I don't want to create more babies then I can reliably track throughout their lives.  Below I have detailed the way that I raise the litters born here at FHR.

    I often make plans for my litters months ahead of time.  This way I can be sure that I will have the time needed to give the litter a proper upbringing.  If I have any doubts about my ability to care for the resulting babies, I will not do a breeding, no matter how important it may be to my breeding program.  I usually use hand breeding with my rats.  I carefully monitor the doe for signs of estrus, and when I catch her in heat I place her with the male in a large roomy cage.  I allow them to mate and then return them to their individual cages.  If I have trouble catching the female in heat, I will allow the male and female to live together.  I also let them co-habitate if the animals I am working with are older.  I weigh the females daily when I am planning to breed her and until she delivers.

    A day or two before the mother rat is due to give birth, I place her alone in a birthing cage.   We use large, custom made plastic storage bins with hardware cloth on replacing most of the lid.  If the mom chews, we will use a small wire cage.   For bedding, I like to use paper towels, Eco bedding (hypoallergenic shredded paper bedding) and some sani chips on one side.  I sometimes  cover half of the tank with a towel on the outside so it is more private and not drafty.  This design also makes it really easy to keep an eye on the mother during the birthing process, without disturbing her.  I spend a lot of time playing with mom so she does not get too bored, but I try to also give her plenty of time to rest and privacy when she seems to want it.

    I tend to the mother and babies as soon as the birth is finished, or within the first several hours of life.  Unless mom appeared to be in distress, I do not really interfere with the birth process in anyway.  I remove the dirtied bedding and replace it with new, count and check on the babies, and give the mom a special treat for a job well done.  I also start the process of bonding with the babies.  Ideally, each baby is held every single day, from the day of their birth.  For the first two weeks the mother feeds the babies exclusively, nursing them quite constantly throughout the day.  During this time, I may supplement the mother a little bit if she has a large litter.  I tend to give organic, whole milk plain yogurt with flax meal, organic eggs, and other treats high in fat, calcium and protein.  However, my does usually do not normally need any supplementing.  Once or twice a day I take all the babies out, hold and check on each one.  I give the mother a short time to free roam once daily as well as lots of love and extra attention. 

    Once the babies turn 2 weeks old, their eyes begin to open and caring for them becomes much more intense for both me and their mother!  Around this age, the babies have a lot of big changes in their lives.  First off, they are moved from a tank to a wire cage.  To start out with, they only have the bottom level of the cage available to them; this is so they can't fall from higher levels.  Secondly, the babies begin to eat solid foods around this time.  I tend to feed them more of the yogurt and eggs their mom was eating, plus oatmeal cooked soft, mashed banana, baby food, and more.  Getting the babies to start eating solids takes a lot of pressure off of the mother, whose body is working very hard to produce enough milk for her growing offspring.  The third big change for the babies is that they begin to come out for individual, extended periods of human interaction.  I start off with about 10 minutes per baby at 2 weeks old and by 3 weeks old they are each being held for a minimum of 20 minutes per day.  I also carry them around as a group in a bonding pouch.  I get a great deal of help with socialization from friends and family members as well, which helps the babies to like all people, and not just me.  The babies are talked to, held, kissed, exposed to other pets, and examined in the way a vet would.  I carry them in my hood, let them ride my shoulder, and introduce them to free ranging time.

    At 5 weeks old the babies are finally ready to be weaned, and the sexes separated.  The male babies are introduced slowly to different older males such as their father or an older brother.  The female babies are introduced to other adult females.  This way the babies learn to be without their mother, but still have an older rat to teach them manners and life lessons.  This period is when baby rats learn bite inhibition.  By 6 weeks old, the babies are ready to be adopted and move in with their new families.  This seems to be the best age for the rat to easily adapt to it's new environment and routine.  I continue to keep in touch with their new owners and provide guidance and support for the rest of each babies life. 



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