The problem with pet shops
As with many rat owners, I am opposed to rats being sold in, or purchased from, pet shops.
Iím often asked why this is, by people online and by those who phone for my rescue services. This page will explain why.
The main aim of a pet shop is to make money. They are a business, first and foremost.
As such, the animals they have are often not looked after to the standards they should be, the time is not taken to ensure they go to good homes, and the staff are often woefully uneducated about that animal's specific requirements.
The animals themselves usually come from breeding mills who churn out many animals a year without thought to health, longevity, or the welfare of the animals they're breeding.
Buying a rat from a pet shop is the equivalent of buying a puppy from a puppy farm, with the difference being that the pet shop acts as the middle-man, getting the animals from the mill to you.
And pet shops do a very good job of hiding the existence of rodent mills completely, to the degree most of the public have no idea they even exist.
For photographs of a rodent mill, please click here. Please be aware that these pictures may be upsetting to some people, but it is the reality of rodent mills. This is where your pet shop bought rat will probably have started his or her life.
Living conditions: As a pet shop is not intending to house their animals long term, and because large, interesting cages cost money and take up space, rats in pet shops are often kept in enclosures which are too small, on substrate that is inappropriate, and fed on a diet that does not meet their needs.
In a pet shop, all rats regardless of age are fed the same diet, usually a low quality one. But young rats require a slightly different diet to adult rats, specifically one higher in animal protein to support their very fast growth rate. Babies who miss out on this extra protein can end up scrawny and undersized, sometimes even malnourished. Its not that they aren't being fed, its that they're not being fed appropriately for their age, and this can have a life long impact on the rat.
There are legal requirements about the amount of space an animal must have in a pet shop. But unfortunately, these standards are the absolute bare minimum, and not at all anything to aspire to.
This means a pet shop can house several rats in a tiny glass aquarium quite legally.
Rats in pet shops are more often than not housed in glass tanks, which are no longer considered suitable housing for rats. But they are neater and stop litter being thrown around the shop floor, as well as avoiding anyone getting bitten by sticking their fingers in, and giving customers a clearer view of the animals.
Most baby rats in pet shops are housed in overcrowded conditions, and tanks provide very poor ventilation, so some pet shop rats have the beginnings of upper respiratory problems before they even go to their new home.
These animals are also subject to continual intrusion from the visiting customers and, in some cases, are not even provided with a place to hide up when they want privacy. For a prey animal, it is going to cause stress to have a constant stream of strangers going past, or children screaming and tapping on glass.
Stress, particularly in young animals, which most pet shop stock tends to be, can lower the immune system and leave the rats vulnerable to illness.
In pet shops that do provide the rats with a hiding place, its no surprise that the rats choose to be in them for the majority of the day. But animals that hide up all day aren't going to encourage buyers, hence few pet shops provide the rats with a hide-out.
Poor breeding: Because of the need to produce many rats quickly, the conditions animals are kept in at rodent mills is horrendous. Below is the typical rodent mill cage:
These cages are the same as the ones often used to house rodents in laboratories. In fact, in some of these pictures, the rats in labs seem to have better accommodation.
Below, you will see another genuine rodent mill set up:
Female rats are forced to be continuously pregnant.
As they are usually housed with the males constantly, they can have a 3 week old litter, a new born litter and be pregnant again, all at the same time. The babies she will produce will be undersized, in poor health and usually unhandleable as the first time they ever get picked up properly is when they get to their new homes.
Many more babies die before they ever reach the pet shop.
The mother rats die young after a pathetic life where they are no more than breeding machines. They are given no toys, no stimulation, no space to do much else but lay there and produce babies. The rats are fed on sub-par foods, which is even more of a concern when you take into account how much extra nourishment a pregnant/nursing female needs, especially when she is being asked to produce so many babies, continuously.
It should be clear that these are atrocious conditions for any animal to have to live in, particularly an animal as intelligent as a rat.
However, ask a pet shop where they obtain their animals and they will not tell you it is a place like this; they will usually say 'a local breeder', and try to convince you only a few litters each year are bred, and the animals are all fantastically cared for.
Ask if you can meet with these breeders, or see their facilities, and you will be denied.
Do not be fooled by this. Any large chain pet shop will source its animals from a mill, no matter what they tell you; they could not support demand otherwise.
The poor living conditions at the rodent mill are one problem, but the poor health of the animals they produce is another.
Unlike a reputable breeder who carefully picks the two healthiest, friendliest rats, from the longest lived genetic lines, with which to breed, the rodent mills simply put a boy and girl together and wait for the babies.
There is no consideration to what they are breeding into the babies, or what health problems the parents might pass on; they won't even have a clue what problems the parents carry, because you don't know that unless you keep careful records going back generations.
Breeding selectively to better health and temperament takes time and care, and it is of no interest to those who run rodent mills; why would it matter to them if the rat dies young of a genetic illness? They've gotten their money either way. Rats from pet shops tend to, on average, die younger and suffer more illness than rats from reputable breeders.
The people they sell to: Another problem with pet shops, as if the rodent mill conditions and rampant bad health and temperament were not enough to turn you off for life, is that they cannot monitor the people they sell their rats to.
A reputable breeder vets all potential homes thoroughly, some ask for vet recommendations, and all reputable breeders will insist the rat is returned to them if it becomes unwanted at any time.
Reputable breeders also tend to have waiting lists for rats, sometimes months long, which gives potential new owners the time to consider whether they really want the rat.
There is no impulse buying from breeders.
Reputable breeders will keep in contact with the rat's new owner for the duration of the rat's life, keeping records of what, if any, problems occur with that rat. They also request to be informed when the rat passes away so they can keep records of lifespans in the rats they're breeding.
Pet shops, in contrast, will sell rats to anyone who has the money, they do not keep in contact with the owners, they do not ask more than a few basic questions at best, and they have no real idea where the rat is going to end up.
Although some large chain pet shops now advocate buying rats in pairs, this is certainly not always enforced, and all it takes is for you to say you already have a rat at home and you can walk out with a lone one easily; no-one is going to check, are they?
Many rats end up doomed to a life in solitary confinement this way.
Although pet shops should not sell animals to anyone under 16 without a parent being present, there are many reported cases where children as young as 13 have been able to walk in and buy a rat, without their parents knowledge. In one of these cases that came to light recently, the children then tried to drown the animal for fun.
Pet shops have no restrictions on whether you can or can't breed their animals once you buy them, and a good deal of people will buy rats from a pet shop with the aim to breed them and try to make money themselves. This obviously just continues the cycle of more poorly bred, unhealthy rats being brought into the world. The pet shop trade is hugely responsible for the rat over-population problem.
Most rescuers will tell you that 95% of their rats originally came from pet shops. Rats from good breeders virtually never end up in rescue due to the breeder's policy of taking back any rats that end up being unwanted.
Dumbos and top-eared There is a strange phenomenon going on with pet shops, which started with my good friends at Pets At Home (they were one of the first large chains to catch on and begin selling dumbos) that dumbo rats and top eared rats are different species.
They are not.
Both are rattus norvegicus, they are both the same animal. The only difference is the position of their ears. Its like comparing a Doberman with cropped ears to one without, and saying this makes them a different species or breed.
And yet pet shops occasionally tell people that dumbo eared rats and top eared rats cannot live together. This is, obviously, rubbish.
This myth sprung up as a result of Pets At Home originally charging almost twice as much for dumbo eared rats as they did for top eared. This was due to the fact that dumbo rats, to most of the general public, were/are still considered a 'novelty' and people will pay more for anything they think is 'different'.
Pets at Home were well aware of this, so they charged twice as much for 'rare dumbos'.
Telling people that dumbos can't live with top eared ensures that someone buys two dumbos, rather than a dumbo and a top ear, and so spends more money. The same applies to hairless rats, which are sometimes sold by backyard breeders at three times the price of a regular rat.
As a note, my local Pets At Home no longer sells dumbos and top ears as different animals, and the price seems to be the same for both, and I've even sometimes seen them mixed in the same tank.
They do, however, still have a large notice board near the rat enclosure that claims dumbos live up to a year longer, which is also not true, and continues to perpetuate the myth that dumbos and top ears are different animals.
Good breeders do not supply pet shops Sometimes people say to me 'but my pet shop gets its rats from a local breeder, not a mill! They told me the breeder is really good!'.
Do not be fooled by this.
NO reputable breeder will ever sell their rats to a pet shop, just as how no reputable dog breeder sells their puppies to the local pet shop.
If a breeder is selling their babies to a pet shop, they are not reputable. There are no two ways about this, no exceptions.
There are many reasons why good breeders do not supply pet shops.
1. Good breeders keep tabs on their rats and where they end up. They keep in touch with the new owners regularly and get updates on how the rats are doing. They also like to know when the rat dies so they can know longevity of their breeding lines. Good breeders put their heart and soul into their breeding lines; they've often spent many years tailoring and perfecting the lines and are, as such, very protective of their animals and where they end up.
They would not supply their rats to a pet shop as they cannot personally vet the homes or see where their rats are going to go, or have a relationship with the new owner.
Good breeders are personally involved with every single rat they breed. This is simply not possible when you're passing your babies off to a shop to be sold to anyone who walks in.
2. Good breeders are well aware of the huge impact that pet shops have on rescues, and the way the animals are sold like products off a shelf. No good, reputable breeder would support the very idea of buying a life from a shop as if it were a tin of beans. They have far more respect for rats than that.
3. In the same way top class dog breeders would not supply their puppies to a pet shop, top rat breeders don't either. The only 'breeders' who sell rats to pet shops are disreputable 'back yard breeders' who don't care much for their animals.
I have recieved several emails since writing this page, sometimes angry ones, from people claiming their local pet shop doesn't sell mill-bred rats, so it is ok to buy from them because 'they're different to other pet shops'.
I am well aware some very small pet shops may breed the rats themselves on the premises: I have worked at one. Of course a smaller pet shop doesn't need to buy in from mills, because they sell a fraction of the number of rats each year that a chain like, for example, Pets At Home sell. They can usually meet demand well enough by just breeding a couple of litters a year themselves.
However, breeding rats properly is expensive, and it takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of devotion; are your small local pet shop sourcing their foundation stock from known healthy lines? Are they selecting only the healthiest and best natured rats to be bred? Are they keeping records on every rat they sell, from every litter they breed, so they know if any health issues are present in their stock? Are they breeding to better the health, temperament and longevity of the rat species, or are they just breeding to have animals to sell? These are all things you need to consider. While a small pet shop breeding a couple of litters a year to sell is preferable to pet shops who use rodent mills, it still does not mean it is a good practise to support.
For me, the only two truely ethical ways to obtain rats are by rescuing, or from a reputable breeder. When you rescue, your donation goes toward helping more needy animals. When you buy from a breeder, your money goes toward allowing that breeder to continue working on improving the health and welfare of rats. When you buy from a pet shop, your money goes into the pocket of the rodent mill owner.
Conclusion: As you can see, pet shops are not about rat welfare as priority, they're about making profit. If they can cut corners, most will.
If they can squeeze a little extra cash out of an animal by selling it as something 'special', they will.
By buying rats from pet shops, you are supporting and condoning the conditions the rats in the mills live in.
For each rat the shop sells, it frees up the space for one more baby from the mill to come in and take its place. With so many rats sitting in shelters, being abandoned, desperately needing homes, we simply cannot support an industry that is simply adding to over-population on a huge scale, as well as producing thousands of rats that will go on to lead short or sickly lives, and break the hearts of many people.
The vast majority of rats you will find in rescue shelters are originally from pet shops. Due to the fact that just anyone can go in and buy one, on a whim, without fear of anyone 'checking up on them', it is easy for people to get hold of a rat, get bored, and dump it shortly after.
Almost all my rescue rats were originally from pet shops, and most of them were from Pets At Home specifically.
And for those I do not know the background of, its most likely they too were pet shop rats.
There have only been two occasions in which rats from good breeders have ended up with me as rescues; and in both cases, neither breeder was aware, and the previous owner had not told them. As soon as they were informed, they offered to have their rats back.
Would a pet shop happily take back your rats a year later when your kids have gotten bored? Of course not, because the re-sell profit on adult rats is nil and they cost money rather than make it.
What we can do?: So how can you make a stand against this horrible trade? Easy.
Do not give pet shops your money.
This applies not only to buying animals, but if possible avoid buying anything at a store that sells animals. Where possible, get your accessories from pet shops which don't sell animals, or from online stores.
Even if you're not buying a rat from a shop, you are still supporting them if you go in and buy £20 worth of toys and food. Of course it will not always be possible to avoid large pet chains in the real world, but it is a good thing to aim for.
Just as it used to be commonplace to see puppies and kittens in pet shops, but is now a real rarity, so too will it become for rats and other animals if people make it known that they do not want these animals sold like objects.
If you buy a rat from a pet shop because you feel sorry for it, you are ultimately just funding the continuation of this poor treatment, hard as it is to accept. The best way to get the pet shops to sit up and realise there is no point in selling animals is to stop paying them for animals.
Things are slowly changing, with some stores stopping selling certain species due to lack of demand, and if enough people stop buying rats, rats will not be sold.
Yes, it is difficult to walk away from the rats in the shop, and even the best of us have slipped up now and then and bought a rat from a pet shop when we knew better; I have once or twice. It can be hard for a rat lover to turn a blind eye to a rat in need. But for each one you buy, another will be demanded from the rat mill to take it's place.
The important thing is to be aware of where pet shop rats come from, and aim to boycott this whenever we possibly can.