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Beyond The Bright Lights – A Guide To What To Look For If You Must Buy Rats From Pet Shops!

Something that has become progressively more noticeable in recent years is a change in how pet shops display their ‘stock’. Below is a guide on the kind of things to look for behind the bright lights and perfectly spotless cages! It’s all about presentation….

You wander into the local garden centre or pet store and they have an animal section, it’s impeccably clean, the rats are in glass tanks which often are high, but have little floor space and they are brightly lit by fluorescent lighting showing off the tanks wonderfully or are in fish tanks with bright lighting above. They are usually on Carefresh or a paper based bedding rather than shavings and they seem to have a few interesting hanging toys and the rats are sat sprawled out on top of a ladder, branch or similar looking exceedingly laid back. Great picture eh!

Sadly this sort of environment in pet sections is becoming more and more common and everything is about presentation rather than the actual care of their animals. Just because they are Carefresh or a paper based litter doesn’t mean they are any better cared for that a pet shop that uses shavings, it may just mean they’ve realised that many rat owners are passionately against shavings so the alternative beddings may be nothing more than ‘presentation’.

These poor animals are being cooked by the bright lights so hence they are lying around looking pretty lifeless in the heat – rats don’t like bright lights at the best of times – and these shops are just becoming even more over the top than ever! You tend to see this wonderful sliding scale where add an extra recessive gene in and you add an extra 50p/£1 to the price! (having seen hairless platinum dumbos in a pet section recently for about double the price of the ‘boring’ hooded top eared normal coat!).

OK so what should you look for if you choose to buy your rats from a pet shop?

Firstly look at the rats conditions – they should be in reasonably sized cages/tanks, with no bright lights, plenty of food and water, not too many rats per cage/tank plus a few toys and somewhere for them to sleep.

Ask where they came from and if you get told breeder from somewhere miles away or ‘breeding centre’, assume chances are it’s a ‘rodent farm’ and don’t forget the ‘less pretty’ siblings will be lying dead in the frozen section as reptile food! While this may not put you off completely, the rats may not be in the best condition or socialised from these sorts of sources. Very few small scale breeders will sell their rats to pet shops to home because this means they have no idea where the animals have gone and also the pet shops pay very little for the rats – around £1-2, which is far less than the kittens will have eaten in the 6 weeks they are with the breeder. A lot of pet shops these days also like to have a sale or return deal on their stock as well so the breeder or rodent farm will take them back when they’ve passed their ‘cute kitten’ sell-by date!

Ask to handle the rats – be wary if the shop staff won’t handle them confidently or if the rats seem completely wild when you handle them. In real terms ‘rodent farm’ rats will often have only been handled at the point they were removed from their siblings at 4-5 weeks old and therefore won’t be at all relaxed being held and may never really settle down as friendly pets. Also check eyes, nose and ears for any discharge. Red discharge is porphyrin, which is a rat’s normal way of saying something is not quite right, maybe stress or illness. Also look for lumps, bumps, scratches and scabs on the rats, as this may be a symptom of infestations of lice or mites or other underlying problems.

Be very wary of small rats with painfully thin matchstick tails, chances are they are underage and have probably been taken away from their mother too soon.

Be wary of any pet shop that allows selling of single rats – rats are social animals and need to be kept in same sex pairs or groups and any pet shop saying to the contrary, obviously knows nothing about rats!

Watch for mixed sex groups in the tanks – by 5-6 weeks old, the bucks’ testicles should be blatantly obvious - see sexing rats page. Any does in such a tank will almost certainly be pregnant by now.

Expect the shop staff to ask you lots of questions, particularly if you don’t intend to buy a cage from that pet shop at the same time – they should ask about your cage, food, insist on you having a same sex pair and basically a good pet shop will not be afraid to say no if they don’t feel someone would make a suitable home for the pets they are selling.

Some large pet stores now have a vet onsite, that doesn’t mean the animals are any better cared for, it just means the shop probably won't break the minimum legal standards in animal care, but that is not enough for most caring pet owners.

Remember, if you decide to buy the rats because you feel sorry for them and feel you are ‘rescuing’ them, the pet shop/garden centre will just go and order more stock as soon as you leave to ‘restack the shelves’ with. There is no such thing as rescuing from pet shops when you are handing over money!

The final thing you have to remember is there are good and bad pet shops in the same way as there are good and bad breeders, ask lots of questions and expect to be asked lots of questions back. If a pet shop is prepared to hand over the pets like a commodity (like sweeties off the shelf) with no concern for their wellbeing, then they are not interested in the care or welfare of the animals they are selling!

If you have no interest in the background of the rat, then why not rescue from a reputable rat rescue centre or the RSPCA. There are often lots of unwanted rats looking for loving homes in rescue centres.

If the above makes you think twice about a pet shop and that you would like to contact a breeder for your next rats, please contact the NFRS for a current breeders and rescue centres listing. Also many breeders travel a long distance for shows, so if there is nothing available locally, ask about transportation via your local breeder or any exhibitors who live near you.

Please ensure also you take a look at my rodent farm article - it is the source of where most pet shop rats come from...

Article written by Estelle & published in Pro-Rat-A 141

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Last modified: February 08, 2017