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Buying rats from pet shops
by Alison Campbell

It was almost 14 years ago to the day when I encountered my first domesticated rats - a pair of albinos which, after reading the one available book in our library, I had purchased from a local garden centre at my daughter's insistence. This was, for me, in pre-internet days and it would still be two or three years before I bumped into the fact that there were actually rat clubs and people who bred rats privately. Looking back I know that those girls (Nancy and Rosie) were hugely loved and had a fairly busy life (they were very much part of our family), but I am still a little sad to have come into rat keeping via this route.

Over the next three years or so my life was majorly impacted by bringing the internet into our home, and I joined the NFRS, an American internet forum, which was then called Rat Palace, the Northern Rat Club, and finally the UK Fancy Rats forum. I quickly realised that there were better ways to source rats than pet shops (I would never have considered buying a puppy or kitten by this route), as I started to get to know a number of rat breeders.

The ethical dilemmas of sourcing rats were often the topic of conversation on the internet, and for many it seemed the lines between rescuing and purchasing from a variety of sources were blurry; it wasn't uncommon for someone to say they had rescued (bought) a lone rat that they had come across in a pet shop. This made me think further about my own ethics in relation to the source of the rats that I had already shared my life with, and those who I would bring into our family in the future. It seems to me that there are three main types of pet shop in regards to the sale of rats, but really there will be myriads of small differences and these are not black and white issues at all.

  • Pet shops who are supplied by the large rodent farms who also supply the market for feeder rats.
  • Pet shops who source their rats from a local breeder.
  • Pet shops who breed the rats in-house.

Within the last two categories I have heard of the odd shop that keeps good records and maintains contact with new owners.

  • The main issues with purchasing rats from pet shops seem to be threefold:
  • The quality of the life the rat experiences prior to the point of purchase
  • The fact that because of the nature of the pet trade, the vast majority of these rats are "unknown" in terms of background, health and temperament issues, which in turn means that no improvements can be made when breeding, and weak individuals will frequently be produced.

The ethical considerations of selling rats in a shop at all. Some people feel this decreases their worth by making them a "product" and as a result, increases their disposability.

Rodent farms produce vast quantities of rats, many of whom are destined to supply the feeder market for reptiles. Rats are housed in small units, in racks and are kept without stimulation or enrichment. Babies are rarely handled except for transfer from one unit to another, e.g. for transport. Mothers are bred frequently, and usually fed on rodent blocks and I could speculate that depletion of micronutrients over time account (at least in part) for the greater propensity to infection (particularly respiratory issues) that occurs in farmed rats. This will be enhanced by methods of selection, which are likely to be primarily visual - pretty rats sell!

Shops that source their rats from a local breeder may seem a better option, but at least a large establishment will be regulated, well controlled and provide consistent standards of care. Conditions at local breeders will vary vastly, with some providing a sound environment, nutrition and care - and others failing miserably. Some would argue that any breeder who is willing to sell their babies to a shop (and therefore an unknown end point) is not reputable, and certainly within the fancy it is only a tiny proportion who view this practice as acceptable.

Shops who raise babies to sell in-house might arguably take more care in terms of homing and follow up, but in reality this depends entirely on the individual and some shop owners/breeders will be simply trying to maximise profits.

For most informed rat owners the choice for sourcing rats comes down to either a reputable private breeder or a genuine rescue/rehome, though some continue to buy from pet shops, seeing this as a means to 'rescue' the individual rats concerned. The problem for many of us when faced with this approach is that purchasing any rat from a pet shop simply creates space for another - stocking rats will be entirely supply and demand. If rats remain unsold, the shop will be less likely to restock.

There will probably always be exceptions to the norm and there might well be occasions (for instance when a sick rat is struggling without the necessary treatment), where even the most purist among us would accept that "the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many" (for the Trekkies amongst you). However, for the most part I am in the camp that believes that the needs of the many (usually) outweigh the needs of the one. Thankfully in the rat fancy we have excellent alternatives in many ethical breeders and genuine rescues/rehomes and it is possible for me to imagine a time when rats are rarely seen in pet shops. We would of course need a big increase in reputable breeders, as it is pet shops that drive the rescue situation - breeder rats rarely come into rescue because most breeders will take responsibility for rehoming any returnees.

The soldier
by Mary Giles

I am a rat in a pet shop.
I am a soldier, fighting a war, holding the front line.
For as long as I hold my position and occupy this awful tank,
the regime that created me will not get any more orders from this shop.
The less orders they receive,
the fewer litters my mum and others like her will have to bear,
and the fewer rats will be born into this suffering.
Of course I would like a nice home,
but I am prepared to sacrifice my happiness to make a better future for all rats.
Humans have died for their species across the centuries,
I too am a hero.

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