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Why not use Pet Shops?

Many people ask me as a breeder why they shouldn't get their rats from a pet shop. Usually these are the owners who do not want to wait for their rats, aren't willing to go on a waiting list, and who don't understand why they should wait when they could go down to their local large chain pet store and pick up a pair of rats that day. This is where the benefits of pet shop rats stop.
It's very difficult for someone to explain in words why pet shops are not places to buy animals - often people think that it's exaggerated, that the truth is stretched to benefit rescues and breeders, but it's not. As an attempt to show people the truth behind pet shop animals, I've put together the following, with a lot of help from some very insightful photos, which say far more than I ever could.
Credit goes to Carla with many thanks for letting me borrow the photos.
Please feel free to link to this page if you wish to help spread the word about rodent farm breeding and 'back yard breeders', but please only link directly and do not copy the content of this site to another without our permission, nor hotlink to any of our images. Please be aware that although others may link to this page we do not endorse their breeding ethics or pet care ethics in any way - if you are looking to home rats from ANY source, please ensure you ask as many questions as you need to ensure that the breeder is an ethically sound one, and always ensure that you visit the breeder to see their rats and the conditions in which they are kept before agreeing to home their rats.

The Story of a Pet Shop Rat

99% of rats in pet shops are born in what is called a Rodent Farm. This is very much like a Puppy Farm, which the majority of the world now know the evils of.
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Rats, mice, hamsters and all other small animals are bred, born and raised en mass, usually in small plastic crates with wire lids, akin to a storage box, in shelving units called breeding racks. The crates are generally empty apart from a shallow layer of litter, which is usually sawdust or wood shavings due to their cheapness and availability. There may be a small amount of nesting material such as shredded paper. There are no luxuries such as toys or beds, there simply isn't the room for them.
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Generally there will usually be several adults to a box, or a mother and at least one litter, though depending on the purpose of the breeding farm, a mother may be in a box with two or three litters of varying ages.
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Most animals in a rodent farm will be fed a basic diet of lab blocks and water. Generally they are not fed supplements or extras, regardless of age.
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Handling in a rodent farm is minimal - generally the animals will be handled once a week when they are removed from the crates during cleaning for a general check over. Other than this handling they do not usually receive any regular socialisation.
The majority of the babies and adults in the farm will end their life being euthanised and frozen for reptile food. Rats with unusual markings or colourings may be kept and put back into the breeding process. The remainder of the babies born in the farm will be shipped to pet shops, who pay rodent farms on a per animal basis.
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Very little attention is given to the health or genetic make-up of the animals. The emphasis of rodent farms is on creating as many animals as possible to satisfy the demand from the reptile and pet shop industries. Whether the babies being bred live to 3 months or 3 years is neither here nor there to rodent farms, most of their rats will be 'lucky' to live to 6 weeks as it is, the majority will be euthanised and frozen before they reach that age. No health records are kept, and no attempt is made to improve the health or longevity of the rats - the simple aim of the rodent farm is profit. The rodent farm is a business not a hobby, the animals are stock, not pets. 
At 6 weeks old (if they are lucky) babies that are destined for pet shops are transported in their crates to the pet shops who have bought them. They are often transported in mixed sex batches, despite the fact that babies can become sexually active at 5 weeks of age.
The sad thing is that everything said so far is very much legal.
At the Pet Shop
Once at a pet shop, if the rats are lucky they are sexed by a competent member of staff. Often staff are not trained properly and animals are mis-sexed, meaning males and females are left together, and the females become pregnant. These females are often sold before their pregnancy becomes obvious and new owners are left to struggle with raising a litter. Often a pet shop will encourage these owners to give the babies back to them to sell on - free profit.
Once sexed, the rats are generally placed on the shop floor in a sales tank, or if they are lucky, a small cage. If they are lucky, they may be provided with some cage accessories -  a bed, a tunnel, or a toy. If they are lucky, the pet shop may use paper litter on the floor of the cage or tank, but many pet shops still choose to use sawdust or woodshavings. They are usually fed on a commercial dry mix such as rat nuggets or Reggie Rat, and water. Depending on the staff in the shop, they may be lucky and get supplements such as some fresh vegetables, but this is usually infrequent, if at all.  If in a sales tank, they are usually under halogen lighting to ensure that customers of the shop can clearly see them. This lighting makes the tanks hot and humid.
Shops are not required by any type of law to sell animals in pairs - this is down to staff knowledge again. Well trained staff will have been told that rats should not live alone, but many staff members will sell a lone rat because it is a sale, and may earn them a bonus. The majority of customers coming into the store to buy an animal will also buy it a cage, food, bedding and toys - this is where the pet shop makes most of their profit.
The rats will now live on the shop floor until they are sold. If they are lucky, they will be sold to someone who will look after them properly. If they are unlucky, they may be sold alone, or to someone who will put them in a cage meant for a hamster, feed them the wrong food and neglect them. If they are really unlucky, they might even be sold to someone who will feed them to their reptiles, possibly even alive.
Some rats will not sell, some rats will stay in the pet shop so long that they grow, and are no longer 'cute' - new rats will come in and customers will choose them over the older rats because they are younger and smaller and 'cute'. These older rats face a difficult future. If they are lucky, someone may take pity on them, or they may be in a pet store which operates a rehoming policy and the pet shop may offer them to a good home for a small donation or free. If they are unlucky, they are returned to the rodent farm.
If they are returned to the rodent farm, they are promptly euthanised and passed into the reptile food chain.
So what?
So why does this matter? Surely buying a rat from a pet shop is saving it, right?
Because of the breeding and raising methods of rodent farms, pet shop rats are generally weaker, less healthy overall and are less socialised than rats raised by rescues or breeders. They generally take longer to settle, can be skittish or nervous of handling for a long time, if not their entire lives, and can even be aggressive or cage territorial - generally though, pet shop rats are just plain scared. They tend to live shorter lives, and suffer from more long term health issues, specifically respiratory problems.
However, that's really the small picture when it comes to pet shop rats. The bigger picture is this:
Every rat you buy from a pet shop allows the pet shop to buy not one, but several rats to take its place. Every rat you buy from a pet shop resigns several more rats to be bred, born, raised and sold in the same way.
The only way to get rodent farms to change their methods is to remove the demand for their animals - if pet shops stopped buying rats from them, at the very least the number of poorly bred animals in the world would fall, and ideally, rodent farms would close, allowing reputable breeders to populate the rat world with healthy, socialised babies.
Choosing the right breeder/rescue:
So you have decided to avoid pet shops altogether (well done!) and opt to get your new rats from a breeder or a rescue. Your next task is to ensure that the breeder/rescue that you choose is an ethical, reputable one. The best way to tell is to ask many questions, and visit the breeder before taking any rats from them. Good breeders and rescues expect to be asked many questions about their general animal husbandry and, if a breeder, their breeding ethics. If a breeder refuses to answer any questions you may have, gives vague, non committal answers or seems suspicious, or if anything they say does not agree with your personal ethics, then do not buy animals from them unless you are prepared to take a risk that they are not an ethical breeder/rescue.
Most good breeders are very willing with information about how they look after their animals, and will often, like us, have a page on their ethics and their husbandry. If a breeder you are looking to home rats from does not have this information available, then just ask - a good breeder will give you full and frank answers without needing to be pressured.
There are many questions to ask a breeder when you are enquiring about kittens, but as a guide, the following are a good place to start from:
  • How many animals do you have?
  • Do all animals get handled regularly?
  • Are all animals provided with time out of their cage regularly?
  • What kind of housing do you provide your animals with?
  • What variety of litter and bedding do you use?
  • How often are they cleaned out? What is your husbandry routine?
  • Are they kept in a suitable environment? (e.g. within the home, within a heated outbuilding).
  • What diet do you feed them? (Dry and Fresh)
  • How healthy in general are the rats you breed?
  • Are there any problems in your lines that might affect rats we have from you?
  • What is the general temperament of the rats you breed? How many have you had to have neutered due to poor temperament?
  • Will you provide ongoing support if I need it? What will happen if I can no longer keep a rat bought from you - will you take the rat back?
  • When you breed a litter, where are the babies housed?
  • How often are the babies handled and from what age?
  • What diet do you provide to babies and lactating mothers?
  • Do you cull babies in litters?
  • Do you cull adults or elderly rats?
  • Do you seek veterinary treatment for your animals? Can you recommend a vet for us (if living in the local area)?
  • Would you be happy for us to visit you to meet you and your rats before the babies are ready to leave?

There are many more questions that you could ask a breeder - which questions you ask depend on how much information your breeder gives without asking and how much you want to know.

When visiting a breeder you should ensure that you see not only the babies you are interested in but their other rats also. Visit the area that are kept in if possible (though be aware that rightly so some breeders may ask you to wash your hands or remove any outer clothing between handling different groups of rats, especially if they have rats who have recently been to a show or another place where viruses can be transmitted). The cages should be relatively clean (expect a few poos and food mess but piles of poo, a strong acrid smell, urine soaked bedding are unacceptable) and contain some forms of cage activities such as beds, hammocks, toys and chews as well as food bowl and a water bottle. Food bowls should contain some food, even if only a small amount (bear in mind that people feed their animals at different times of the day - if in doubt, ask). Water bottles should be clean and contain at least some water. The rats should be active and easy to handle in general, although any breeder could have a number of difficult to handle or fearful rats for any number of reasons - ask them to explain the background of any rats that are difficult - they may be abused rescues or a similar background. The breeder should be happy to get out any rat that you request, but please respect their wishes and do not handle pregnant or ill rats as it can cause undue stress. Also it is not recommended to put your fingers through the bars of a cage unless the breeder says it is ok to do so - you never know whether they may have a territorial or grabby rat in that specific cage - always ask beforehand.

Once you are fully happy and comfortable with your choice of breeder, that is the time to take babies home and enjoy them!

Brecklagh Rattery - enquiries@brecklagh.com - 07540 813338