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What do pet judges look for in a rat?

(First published in Rattitude Issue 45, 2008.)

Traditionally, pet judging has been largely left up to the individual, with no training, little guidance and – as a result – great variance in the result. Many judges simply look for the cutest rat (in their opinion).

When I first judged pets, back in 2001, I was given some short guidelines telling me to look for tractability, good temperament and good health. After that it was pretty much up to me to interpret how to judge and the rat that was awarded best pet on the day was by and large the one that I enjoyed the company of the most. I remember taking into account that one rat was sneezing – but fitness, fatness, condition, preparation and the like were certainly not considered.

When the NERS brought in the Pet Champion award I began to think that we needed to make some effort to ensure that all of our pet judges were judging to the same standard – even though preferred temperament would always be subjective. We went about re-writing the guidelines for pet judging, making them far more comprehensive and helpful. Around the same time, Olivia came up with a points system she had seen used elsewhere in judging animals, and encouraged us to think about using it in the pet classes at NERS. I first attempted judging using the points system in the summer of 2007 (having previously judged pets quite a number of times). I found it an extremely helpful tool in maintaining fair and unbiased considerations about each rat in turn, while still giving the flexibility to skew choices towards preferred temperament.

After the recent pet judging seminar at the Preston cup show, I have been asked to try to put some of the points down in writing. It is rather difficult to do this with meaning, as sometimes it is almost essential to have a rattie to feel/observe, to demonstrate specifics of condition and behaviour. But I will do my best.

I will use the points system to demonstrate the agreed guidelines for judging pets at the NERS. But it should be said that the points system is a framework and not an inflexible straightjacket. It is important to remain in touch with your gut instincts when judging pet classes – as they will often, if not always be right. The points system simply means that every rat is being judged by the same criteria… so that (for example) if one rat is penalised for being poorly prepared – all rats are penalised to the same degree.

Rats are judged on a number of criteria, with a skew towards raw temperament. The total number of points available is 30 and these are distributed as follows:

  • Tractability 5 (max points available)
  • Condition 5
  • Health 5
  • Preparation 5
  • Temperament 10

Tractability
Before a rat is handled in the pet classes a respectful judge will endeavour to engage it whilst it is still in the show tank. Unlike cuddly toys that don't mind being mauled without warning, rats are independent, intelligent creatures in their own right. Some (like pink eyed rats) are very poorly sighted, and all tend to interpret their world primarily through smell, hearing and touch. A pet judge should always make their presence known to the rat before picking it up.

As prey animals, hands coming from above – especially strange hands that smell of a confusion of other rats, soap, food etc – can cause a startled response if the rat is unprepared. Even pet rats have been known to bite judges – but it is worth remembering that when a friendly pet rat bites a human it is almost always a 'mistake' and almost always down to the human's lack of understanding.

Tractability is basically a rat's willingness to engage with you as a human. A totally tractable rat (providing that you have approached it with respect) should be willing to be lifted gently from the show tank without showing reluctance or fear. Apparent intractability can have many causes. I remember awarding Best Pet to a PEW dumbo once, who was initially rather tense as I lifted him out of the tank – but immediately relaxed once he realised I was friend not foe. He had everything else going for him. In reality his pink eyes and (possible) reduced sense of smell probably just meant that in the circumstances he was having trouble interpreting his environment. There was actually nothing intractable about this rat, but I have seen judges refuse to get a rat out because the rat stiffened when they tried to pick it up. Rats are rats – they behave as rats, not as cuddly toys. A pet judge needs to get inside the head of the rat that they are judging. Does on heat, cold rats, rats who are unhappy at being left in a tank alone (often very people friendly/dependent rats) and confused rats can all look (spiky fur) or behave as though they are reluctant to be picked up. In reality, no one in their right mind puts an aggressive rat into the pet classes, and with understanding I believe all pet exhibits can be handled. If you really feel you cannot get a rat out of the tank then that rat should be removed from the bench immediately so that the show sec can take it back to its owner...a pet rat who is so 'upset' that it can't be handled, needs to be with its human.

Tractability points may be lost for having to 'chase' the rat around the show tank to pick it up, and the rat being very fearful, tense or reluctant about handling. Some guidelines suggest squeakiness should be penalised, but in my experience some rats are just vocal, so you would have to look at the whole demeanour of the rat to make a judgement. Once a judge has withdrawn points from one rat who displays an undesirable characteristic, all rats who display that characteristic should be equally penalised.

Condition
Condition is a much misunderstood term. "Excellent condition" describes an animal in the peak of fitness, with great tone, vitality, health, awareness, 'full of beans', bright eyed, clean, fit and healthy. A rat is the peak of condition will be a good weight for its size (not under or over nourished). It will also display great coat condition; short and shiny. Many people seem to look for the glossy coat and bright eyes, but do not take into consideration muscle tone, weight, vitality and attitude.

In order to assess condition correctly you need to have experience of handling and comparing many different rats. You really do need to see what great condition and fitness look and feel like. A good place to do this is at a show. If you are interested just ask the show secretary. A fit rat feels firm to the touch and should not have loose skin or rolls of wobbly fat. Coats should be soft, shiny and sleek, with buck coats being slightly coarser, but not dry and brittle – or greasy. Rex coats may thin with age, and won't be shiny, but should still retain condition. Condition can be reduced during a show day. Someone once said to me that this should be viewed as a marathon for the rat and requires similar nutritional preparation. A high carbohydrate supper on the evening before the show, and perhaps a sloppy porridge breakfast will go a long way to ensuring that your rats can maintain great condition despite travelling/showing. Rats will lose a proportion of their body weight through the process of showing and all of them should start out in a well-nourished, well-hydrated state. Any rat that is underweight or struggling to keep up nutritionally with a growth spurt should be left at home.

Judges needs to consider how they are going to allocate their 10 condition points and then stick with this throughout. One suggestion would be to award up to 4 points for coat condition, and up to 6 points for physical condition (fitness, weight, vitality). Other weightings are fine so long as all aspects of condition are considered for each rat and penalties are consistent. So, for example, there needs to be a way for a rat with good coat condition, but who is unfit and fat to score less than a rat with good coat condition, who is unfit and an appropriate weight. This quickly becomes intuitive with experience.

Health
All rats entered into any section of any show should be in the peak of health. Sadly this is not always the case. Some rats simply deteriorate through the stresses of travelling/showing and become sneezy or snuffly as a result. However, I have seen rats shown with infestations, abscesses, tumours, vaginal bleeding and rattly chests. It is sensible to perform a thorough health check on each rat you intend to bring to the show and this can easily be done the day before when you are cutting toenails and cleaning tails. Even so – some rats do slip through the net and others deteriorate at the show so the health points may be lost for obvious ill health, snuffles, porphyrin staining etc.

It should also be noted that perfection is not a requirement in the pet classes. A rat can have one eye, missing toes or an amputated tail and still be an excellent pet rat in peak condition. All wounds should be old and healed. Any ongoing but treated problem that the judge cannot differentiate from a current issue (such as head tilt) excludes a rat from being shown in the pet classes. Indeed, such rats are probably more vulnerable and are best left at home. As are those who have recently finished treatment programmes (even if they appear in good health).

Preparation
There has been a lot of discussion over the years as to whether preparation is important for pet classes or not. General cleanliness is certainly important as any well rat kept in suitable, clean conditions is always going to look clean. Rats groom many times each day and – with the exception of their tails – will keep themselves socially clean and tidy. Cleaning their tails prior to showing is a nice touch and demonstrates handleability and relationship between human and rat. Equally, keeping a rat's nails trimmed makes handling them more comfortable and is respectful of the judge's welfare, whilst again demonstrating the human/rat bond.

When allocating points for preparation I tend to split back and front feet, as many people will cut only the back claws. I would give points out something like this: 2 points for overall cleanliness, one for a clean tail, one and a half for cutting back claws and half for attempting front claws too. So long as you apply the same criteria to all of the rats you may decide to change the weighting for aspects of preparation a little.

Temperament
This is where the element of personal preference comes in. All judges have different ideas of what a perfect pet rat should be. For me it is a forward going, confident rat who chooses to relate to me, not out of need but out of desire. I don't think it matters what your personal preference is so long as you are sure that you are rewarding good temperament and not inadvertently overlooking less sound elements to behaviour.

As an example, when a rat is very insecure and feeling overwhelmed by its circumstances it may become more snugly and reliant on a human for comfort and reassurance. This is often interpreted as good, laid back cuddly temperament, when actually it is due to negative temperament traits. If a rat is very quiet and cuddly a judge should read the other signals the rat is putting out – it may just be looking for comfort. Equally a rat that is quite happy to be picked up but has little real interest in the human might be entertainingly busy but not in the slightest bit interested in building relationship.

Judging for temperament is dependant on the relationship formed between the judge and the rat – and the reasons behind that relationship. Some rats don't like some people. The kind of rats that I prefer (who are willing to engage me without need) would probably not show well under an anxious judge. I suspect most of them are b personalities, potential alphas and they probably pick on nervousness really easily.

Some rats are confident and outgoing, some rats are confident and cuddly, some rats are nervous and their internal need drives them into relationship. Some rats simply tolerate humans and don't want to engage at all except on their terms. There are even some rats who are so closely bonded with their own human that rather than doing really well in pet classes they show badly… probably because the judge doesn't behave at all like the human they are so close to. I suspect some humans just smell 'wrong', or act 'wrong' or give off the wrong pheromones!

When judging a rat's actual interest in me as a human being I tend to look for obvious attempts to engage me, eye contact, responsiveness to my advances. It should be noted that you cannot expect to handle all rats the same. A tender, gentle rat might be completely phased by heavy, hands-on total body stroking and the like (which would suit a confident, in your face rat completely). A busy rat won't want to be pinned into a cuddle, and a nervous rat may become overwhelmed if you stop 'snuggling' it and try to make eye contact. Try to get used to reading the feel and responsiveness of a rat under your hands. A robust character may push back and show obvious pleasure under firm, full body stroking – but will be completely resentful of a strange human trying to tip him onto his back (this has no place in pet judging – you are not there to try to dominate the rats, but to engage them). A timid rat may vibrate… but so might an excited rat – it's up to you to interpret their behaviour accurately, anything less is selling them short. Vibration simply indicates heightened 'emotion' – you need to work out what the emotion is.

When judging pets I try to get along with as many of the rats as I possibly can. I try to see what it was about them that made their owner think that they were a suitable candidate for the pet class… what makes them special? From time to time a rat and I really don't seem able to get along. In which case I accept that I have failed, rather than the rat is 'unfriendly'. Always trying to get inside their heads helps a judge not to give up on any rat too quickly.

The awww factor
There is no allocation of points to a rat for having the awww factor. For me rexy agoutis are just beautiful – and for some it will be cute markings or a particular colour. Try not to let your own personal awww factor get in the way of unbiased judging. No rat should be placed higher simply because they look cute or vulnerable. You can of course reward cuteness with a special award.

Markings and conformation
These things are only judged in variety classes. Pet rats are just that; pet rats. It doesn't matter how they are structured, what variety they are – or how they are marked.

Special awards
These can be given out to up to about half a dozen rats who excel in particular areas. It could be condition, preparation, inquisitiveness, cuddliness, the awww factor or anything else you choose to reward. Just be careful not to reward negative traits - I have even seen the 'squishiest rat' meaning the fattest!

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