Buying a rat

So, you've decided to get some rats of your own. Congratulations! They are one of the best pets you can have. They're intelligent, clean, affectionate, gentle and form strong bonds with their owners.
Rats must live in pairs or groups, never on their own. See this page for more info on the importance of companionship.

But where is the best place to obtain your new rats? There are three main options open to you:

The pet shop
Probably the first place a new rat owner will think to go to buy their rats. But it isn't the best option. In fact, a pet shop can be one of the worst place you can get rats from.
At best, pet shops will breed their own rats for sale either on the premises or at home.
At worst, they will obtain them from a wholesale rodent breeder; the rat equivilant of a puppy farm. These places are commonly called 'rodent farms', or 'rodent mills'. Please see here for more information about these mills.
In either situation, though, the rats would have been bred with little concern for their long term health. Rodent mills don't care about breeding healthy, long-lived rats, and people breeding them themselves at the back of the pet shop rarely breed with health and temperament as priority either.
Temperament and resistance to disease are partially inherited, healthy rats tend to produce more healthy rats, and aggressive rats tend to pass that down to at least some of their offspring.
If you breed two sickly, bad tempered rats together, its almost a certainty that some of the offspring will end up sickly and bad tempered too.
Since many pet shops view the animals they sell as little more than a money making commodity, or a draw to bring people into the shop, they often care little about how healthy or friendly the animals they sell are, as long as they sell them.

Just as it used to be acceptable to buy puppies from a pet shop but is now hugely frowned upon, the same should be true of rats. Many now believe that pet shops should not be allowed to sell animals at all, but only animal feed and accessories.
Rats are highly intelligent, sociable animals and they need attention and interaction each day if they aren't to become bored. This is even more important for young rats who are in the learning stage, and benefit hugely from lots of interaction if they are to become the outgoing, friendly rats that people want.
Many pet shops will not have the time, or desire, to handle all their baby rats every day, so the result is often rats who are skittish and nervous of human contact since the first time they are taken home by their new owner is likely to be the first time they've ever been properly handled.

Though a skittish rat is not a lost cause and they can be tamed with relative ease if you have a little knowledge and patience, it's not the ideal situation and is definately not something that a first time rat owner should have to deal with.
I have had many rats come into the sanctuary as nippy, and virtually impossible to handle, with a first time owner who cannot understand why her rats aren't cuddly and outgoing, like the ones you see on the internet. The bottom line is that if you want a confident, outgoing, well handled, cuddly rat, the last place you should get one from is a pet shop. This doesn't mean nice rats don't come out of pet shops ever; they do. But if you are a first time owner, why take the risk on an animal which may end up having medical or behavioural problems beyond your ability to correct?

All in all, pet shops should be avoided, not just for your own benefit, but for the benefit of rats as a species.
If you care about rats, do not line the pockets of people who see them as nothing more than 'stock' to be sold off the shelf like objects.
If you would not buy a puppy from a petshop or a puppy farm, then do not buy a rat from a pet shop either, as you are supporting the exact same kind of industry and careless breeding.

Many of us grew up visiting pet shops, and buying our first childhood pets from them. Sometimes, people have a rose-tinted view of the industry because of these fond early memories. But I would urge people to look critically at the issue, and consider why, if they would not buy a puppy or kitten from such a source, they would still buy a rat.Surely they deserve the same respect and protection.

Undoubtably, a good breeder is the best place to buy your rat from if you want to better ensure a happy, healthy, well socialised pet.
Notice that I stress a good breeder, since not all are responsible or reputable. Anyone can put a male and a female rat together, end up with a litter, and call themselves a breeder. Being a reputable breeder takes much more than that.
Rat breeders breed purely for a love of the animal and a desire to improve the overall health and temperament of the species so we might have healthier, longer lived, happier rats in the future. They make little if any money and usually don't even cover their costs.
A good rat breeder will breed only from rats that they know are of sound temperament and health.
They will have pedigrees going back many generations for their rats, they'll usually know who the grand parents were, who the great grandparents were and so on, and will not breed from any that have had serious medical issues or temperament problems. Good breeders will only breed from the healthiest and friendliest rats, better ensuring the babies end up healthy and friendly too.

A good breeder will only breed a few litters a year and will handle the kittens from a very early age, often from day one if the doe will allow.
Other benefits to buying from a breeder are that he or she will be able to advise you about your new pet, something pet shops are often unable to do correctly.
Some breeders, though not all, will make you sign a contract before buying one of their rats which will set down a few simple rules you will be asked to stick to. These include simple, obvious things such as agreeing to take the rat to the vet when its ill and to always provide it with suitable living accommodation, companionship, food and water.
Usually, the contract will require that should you ever have to re-home the rat, it is returned to the breeder rather than taken to a rescue or given away. Unless you have specifically requested a rat for breeding, they will usually make you agree that the animal is not to be bred from.
Not all breeders use written contracts, however. They may just go through these things verbally with you.

A good breeder will want to remain in contact with you throughout the rest of the rats life, and will want to be alerted if any health problems arise so that they can tailor their breeding lines. For example, if you find your rat develops a health problem at 6 months, and the breeder recieved the same reports from several other people about that litter, they will know there is a problem there somewhere, and be able to work towards getting rid of it.
This is why it is decent to keep your breeder up to date with any issues you might have with your rats, and also inform them when the rats pass away so they can keep records of lifespans.

A breeder is also the only way to go if you're looking for a specific variety of rat. There are certain rat varieties that you are very unlikely to see in a pet shop, so if you're looking for something a bit more unusual, you will need to go via a breeder. There are breeders all over the UK, and they all specialise in specific varieties of rat.
Breeders may also ask you whether you want the rat as a pet or show animal. There is no difference in price or temperament or health; the rats deemed good enough to show will simply conform to the standard for that variety more closely than their litter mates.
However, just because your rat is sold to you as a pet rather than a show animal, it doesn't mean that he cannot be shown. A couple of my rats who were sold to me as pets and not show animals have won classes at rat shows.

There is a common misconception that breeders will charge huge amounts of money for their animals compared to pet shops.
This isn't true, of rats at least.
Most breeders will charge 10 - 15 for a rat kitten. If you're asked to pay a lot more than that, I'd be wary.
Do not be sucked into paying much over 10 - 15 for a rat, particularly if you are being told it is an extremely rare variety. If you're told this, do some research on the variety itself to find out exactly how 'rare' it really is.
Disreputable breeders will sometimes end up with a kitten that doesn't conform to any known rat variety, (or is simply a very poor example of it), and try to sell it at an inflated price to unknowing new rat owners, telling them it's an unusual or rare type.

Rats from breeders tend to live a bit longer on average, and have less health problems, though this is obviously never a guarantee. However, as good breeders make health and temperament their top priority when selecting rats to breed from, your chances of getting a healthy, well socialised animal will be higher than buying animals from a pet shop, where there has been no selection for good health and temperament. And most importantly, by going to a reputable breeder, you'll not be supporting the horrendous cruelty involved with pet shops and rodent mills.

Do not rule out rescuing a rat.
Rats being small and relatively inexpensive pets means that they are often bought for children who end up getting bored with them. The rat then ends up in an animal shelter, or worse, dumped or abandoned outside.
People don't think to look at animal shelters for rats, but you'd be surprised how many end up there, and often spend a long time there waiting for a new home. Many of these rats are perfectly friendly and healthy but just need a new life with someone else, through no fault of their own.
It isn't only adults that end up in rescue either, there are frequently babies and youngsters, too.

If you choose rescues for your first ever rats, make sure the rescue centre matches you up well with the right rats for you. Rats that do not have behavioural or health issues are best for first time owners as they may not feel ready or experienced enough to take on challenging or difficult rats.

And of course, not all rescue rats are going to have issues, many of them will be perfectly friendly little souls who just need a second chance. If you tell the rescuer or shelter that these will be your first rats, they'll be able to match you to some who will fit in with your requirements.

Try phoning your local RSPCA or other animal shelter and asking if they have rats in at the moment, you'd be surprised! With rats becoming increasingly popular, more and more of them are ending up in the hands of owners who cannot cope with them, or didn't realise how much attention they need.
The rescue situation with rats really is as bad as it is with dogs and cats, but while the general public are now aware of the dog and cat over-population problem, they still aren't aware that it applies to rats too.

Rescuing really is a wonderful thing to do, and most long term rat owners will rescue at some point. Many loving, friendly rats end up put to sleep simply because there wasn't a home for them. There is no greater feeling than saving a life!

Regardless as to were you purchase your rats, be it pet shop, breeder or animal shelter, you'll need to make sure they are healthy.
A healthy rat should look bright and alert and be interested in whats going on around him. He should not be sneezing excessively or have red discharge around his nose (though small amounts of this is sometimes due to stress or innappropriate litter/bedding, so don't discount an animal simply due to this alone.)
When you pick the rat up, he should be free from scabs or lumps and bumps.
Listen to his breathing, he should not be wheezing, crackling, hooting or making any obvious respiratory sounds. He should be interested in you and not panic or freak out when you pick him up. A rat who is so nervous that he messes himself on you has obviously not been used to being handled so is best avoided as a first rat as he may take some time to tame.
Avoid rats who seem dull, depressed, who sit hunched up in a corner, or who have 'spiky' or bushed up fur, as these can all be signs of illness. Avoid rats who scream and try to dart away from your hand, or who poo/wee themselves in fear, or who try to bite as this is all indicative of poor socialisation or inherently poor temperament.

Again, this is where good breeders and rescuers are superior to pet shops.
A pet shop doesn't care what condition the animal is in, as long as you give them your money. But a good breeder and rescuer would never sell an unhealthy or poor tempered animal, and will be much better qualified to advise you on which rats are best for your situation.

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