Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Red Flags"

Although I wrote this article awhile ago, I believe it is good to re-post it now and again to serve as a refresher and reminder. This version is slightly updated from my previous version.

Red Flags:
1)      Breeder has “too many” animals.
This is a tricky criteria to assess. What is “too many” for one person may be “just right” for another. A breeder has, that breeder should always be able to care and socialize all of those animals, including litters, regardless how many animals they have. When talking to the breeder, try to get a sense of what the normal routine is. A breeder should have plenty of time to feed, clean cages, and socialize animals without feeling stressed. If you visit the rattery, you might notice a distinctive “animal smell”, but you should not be overwhelmed by the scent of ammonia, nor should your eyes water or your nose sting.

2)      Breeder always has litters available or breeds multiple litters at a time.
Breeders producing for quality over quantity should not have litters at all times of the year. Raising a litter takes a lot of hard work and time. New litters can potentially take time away from the other rats a breeder is caring for. Having multiple litters takes that much more out of a breeder, and at some point the breeder may no longer be able to provide adequate socializing to all babies in the litter as well as their other rats. Having breaks in between litters gives a breeder time to concentrate on their own personal pets, as well as evaluate their rats and plan out future litters. Limiting the number of litters produced also makes it easier for the breeder to keep track of those babies, and thus have better, more complete records of their bloodlines. These records are very important for breeding quality over quantity. Finally, limiting the number of litters produced also limits competition with rescues. Rescues tend to have very limited resources and are limited in the number of animals they can save. Every rat adopted from a breeder could instead have been a rat adopted from a rescue. While there is a need for responsible, ethical breeders who produce healthier, longer-lived rats, these breeders should not be competing with rescues. If a breeder has babies available at all times and people choose those babies over the juvenile or adult rats that have been sitting in a rescue for months, that breeder is competing with the rescue.

3)      Breeder fosters out half their litters in order to breed more.
Good breeders should be raising their own litters. It allows them to control the care and socializing those babies received. While a foster home might do a great job of caring for and socializing a litter, the breeder cannot know the whole history of that litter. In order to really track their bloodlines, a breeder needs to know the history of their babies, including from birth until placement in pet homes and thereafter. The exception to this fostering rule is when an established breeder is helping a new breeder start out. That established breeder may give the new breeder a litter to raise to provide that new breeder with valuable experience. That litter may even be given to the new breeder to start their own lines with. However this is generally an exception, and not something that should be happening all the time.

4)      Breeder produces litters he/she has no intention of keeping babies from or “just to have a litter”.
Good breeders should be breeding quality over quantity. Producing litters just to have litters, with no intention of keeping babies from that litter, is producing quantity, not quality. Every litter a breeder produces should be an improvement on the parents. Since that litter is an improvement on the parents, the breeder needs to keep babies from that litter in order to further improve on the next generation. In addition, by keeping babies from every litter a breeder is better able to track their bloodlines through first-hand observation. In rare circumstances a litter may not be quite was the breeder expected, or unexpected defects or health concerns may crop up. In this situation a breeder may not keep babies from the litter, but this should be a rare exception.

5)      Breeder breeds for adopters, to meet a demand, or make a profit.
Good breeders should breed for quality over quantity. Allowing adopters to pick the parents of litters is breeding for quantity over quality. Adopters do not know the animals as intimately as the breeder, and cannot possibly be able to pick out the best pair to produce a good litter. A breeder should also focus on a variety or two they enjoy, instead of breeding what is popular. Breeding popular varieties, and changing varieties as one falls out of fashion and another comes into the spotlight, is a sure sign of breeding for demand and possibly even profit.

6)      Breeder breeds immature animals often.
All animals that produce litters should be mature and physically able to handle a litter. With rats, this usually happens pretty early in life, but this is not always ideal. The longer a breeder waits to breed their animals, the more information they can gain about the health of their lines. An animal who is healthy at 4 months of age, may not be healthy at 6 months of age. Likewise an animal who is health at 6 months of age, may not be healthy at 8 months of age. While there are no rules set in stone about when a breeder “should” breed their rats, it is generally accepted that females should be bred no earlier than 6 months of age and males no earlier than 8 months of age though preferably closer to or older than 12 months of age.

7)      Breeder weans babies at less than four weeks of age.
Baby rats should not be weaned prior to 5 weeks of age. Although babies may begin to nibble solid foods at 3 weeks of age, they are still nursing and their digestive system not fully equipped to handle solid foods until 5 weeks of age. Some breeders will wean babies early to sell them faster or because they are afraid the babies may start to breed with each other. While there have been reports of babies becoming pregnant at 7 or 8 weeks of age, this is a very rare exception and usually the result of an older male being placed with baby girls. Baby boy rats very rarely have the desire to breed until well after 8 weeks of age.

8)      Breeder kills (culls) babies for reasons other than as a last resort for an untreatable or incurable disease or injury.
“Culling” is often used to describe “killing” baby rats to decrease litter size or weed out the “undesired” colors. The true definition of “culling” is to separate out the non-breeding from the breeding. This can be done by killing, or it can be done by pet-placed, spaying/neutering, or simply not breeding. A breeder should never cull their litters by killing. This eliminates valuable information about the bloodline, and is a waste of life. A healthy, well fed mother rat is more than capable of caring for her entire litter under most normal circumstances. A breeder should not produce so many rats they have to limit the number of babies in a litter.

9)      Breeder does not keep track of the health and temperament of their lines.
Good breeders should keep track of all their babies to not only be sure those babies don’t inadvertently end up in a rescue should the adopter be unable to keep them, but also to obtain important health records. These health records are vital for a breeding program, without them a breeder does not know if they are truly improving their rats or not. While it is important for adopters to put in the effort to keep in touch with the breeder, the breeder should be sure to put in effort as well. If an adopter does not send regular updates, the breeder should request updates.

10)  Breeder claims their lines are free of all health problems or defects.
No lines are ever completely free of all health problems or defects. Biological beings are never perfect, and random mutations do occur. The breeder may not recognize hereditary health problems or defects, and this is ok. However, it is misleading for a breeder to say their rats never health problems.

11)  Breeder’s only goals are focused on only one aspect of the animal.
A breeder should focus on a combination of health, temperament, type, and even color, though color should always be last on the list. Many breeders will claim to be breed “pets only” or “not for show” as a way to escape selection for better type (how an animal is built). While it is ok to not breed for show, a breeder should still consider type when picking the parents of their litters. The reason type is important is because some health issues can actually be linked to how an animal is built. While selecting for other traits, a breeder can also select for color, but this should always be the last consideration. If color and markings, or coat type, ear type, and other non-health related physical features, are the only traits a breeder talks about, or are the traits a breeder emphasizes the most, that breeder may possibly be sacrificing health and temperament in favor of looks.

12)  Breeder does not use proper standardized names for the varieties in their rattery.
Good breeders have put in a lot of time researching rats and breeding before even getting started. Part of this includes recognizing the different standardized colors, and even understanding the basic genetics of those colors. Breeders who fail to use the proper standardized names for different varieties have probably not done their research, and may also be ignorant on other, more important, considerations of breeding. Some breeders will also make up names so a common or mismarked variety seems more attractive to potential adopters. This is an advertising scheme, and adopters should not be fooled by it.

13)  Breeder charges more for popular or high demand varieties.
Rats are not worth more because of how they look. In fact, rats of different varieties can be found in the same litters – meaning they have the same potential for health problems! As a result breeders should not be charging more for some varieties over others. Doing so is another advertising scheme, and creates a false value system on different varieties of rats. Some breeders use the popularity of some varieties as a way to make money off those varieties, indicating that breeder may be more concerned about profit than improving their rats.

14)  Breeder breeds wild rats or “hybrids”.
Some breeders make the claim that wild rats are healthier than domesticated rats. This is a false statement based on a gross lack of education and research, as well as ethics. Wild rats are not healthier than domestic rats. In the wild, animals are meant to live just long enough to reproduce. Once the animal has reproduced, their “purpose” in life is finished. Many wild animals in fact do not live as long as domesticated animals, due to illness, injury, starvation, weather, etc. Though wild animals may be more resilient to some diseases, they can in fact be more prone to contracting others. Bringing wild animals into a pet population can introduce diseases that were not previously present in the pet population, thus create a bigger problem. In addition wild animals tend to be very non-social. They are adapted for survival, and that includes being aggressive and untrusting enough to survive. These traits are very strongly tied to genetics, and are not something we want in our pets. It can take many generations, many years, to breed out these undesired temperament traits.

15)  Breeder’s pedigree only offers names and colors of the rat’s ancestors. Breeder cannot share more in-depth knowledge of those rats.
A pedigree is nothing more than a family tree. However, a breed should keep additional records attached to those pedigrees that give more in-depth information than just names, colors, and maybe show records. Health records are very important considerations to make when examining pedigrees. The pedigree given to an adopter may be a simple family tree, but if requested a breeder should be able and willing to provide additional information about the rats in that pedigree.

16)  Breeder provides minimal care or skips on important factors of care.
Though a breeder may be able to cut costs by buying in bulk or used cages, a breeder should not cut costs by lowering the quality of care given to their animals. Breeding animals need to be in top condition, not only for their sake but also for the sake of their offspring. Breeders should not be afraid to spend the money necessary, however little or much that may be, to provide top quality nutrition, housing, and medical care. A breeder who provides sub-standard care in order to cut costs may be breeding for profit or may be too overwhelmed and in over their heads.

17)  Breeder does not have a working relationship with a vet or avoids taking seriously ill or injured animals to the vet.
All animals deserve proper medical care. A good breeder should have at least on experienced, knowledgeable veterinarian to work with in the event an animal requires medical care. This good working relationship with a veterinarian can extend to having necropsies done on deceased animals to provide additional health records for the breeder, besides what is immediately obvious by observation. While minor injuries, such as broken toenails, may be treatable at home, more serious injuries or illness should be treated by a veterinarian. Breeders should not be willing to diagnose and treat an adopter’s rat.

18)  Breeder knowingly sells sick or injured animals.
No good breeder would ever knowingly sell a sick or injured animal. Any breeder who does so shows a gross lack of concern for their animals, as well as the adopter.

19)  Breeder does not observe proper quarantine.
In countries where serious contagious diseases, such as Sendai Virus or Sialodacryoadentits Virus (SDA), are present proper quarantine is necessary to prevent the spread of disease. All animals coming into a rattery should be quarantined at a separate location for a minimum of 3 weeks before being introduced. Failure to do so can spread disease to the rattery and decimate a breeding program. Failure to observe proper quarantine also puts adopters at risk, since they do not know what diseases their new pets may be carrying. Though a breeder cannot control what adopters chose to do, a breeder should always encourage adopters to quarantine any and all new rats, including those adopted from the breeder, before introducing them to resident rats.

20)  Breeder is willing to ship by illegal means.
Most breeders are not willing to ship their animals. The procedure is stressful and dangerous to the animals involved, as well as time consuming and costly for the breeder and adopter. Should a breeder ever decide to ship rats, the only acceptable and legal method is by airline. Any breeder willing to ship rats through UPS, FedEx, USPS, or any other postal mail services is not only putting their rats in more danger, but is also acting illegally.

21)  Breeder sells to pet stores or pet expos, or provides rats as reptile food.
Ethical, responsible pet breeders would never sell to pet stores, pet expos, or provide rats as reptile food. A pet breeder loses valuable information about their bloodlines by selling animals through these means. If a pet breeder does sell animals in this manner, they either don’t care about their animals or are breeding for profit rather than quality.

22)  Breeder will not take back animals they have produced.
Good breeders are responsible for all animals they produce, from birth until death. All good breeders will take back any animal they have produced, if returned by the adopter, for any reason. A breeder who refuses to take back their animals is refusing responsibility, and showing a lack of concern for those animals. These same animals may end up in a pet store, as reptile food, or take up space in a rescue.

23)  Breeder asks for donations to keep their rattery running.
Breeding any animal can be an expensive endeavor, an good breeders recognize this. Cost is something that should be considered before starting a breeding program. It is the breeder’s responsibility alone to pay for the operation of a rattery.

24)  Breeder does not have an involved adoption procedure or detailed adoption agreement.
Good breeders should have involved adoption procedures to help place their animals in the best homes possible. While these procedures may vary from one breeder to another, they generally include an application and interview. Failure to follow an adoption procedure may indicate a lack of concern for their animals. An adoption agreement spells out the expectations a breeder may have for an adopter when an animal is placed in that adopter’s care. While these also vary from one breeder to another, they generally include a standard of care, state whether or not the animal may be bred, and may include information about quarantine procedures.

Additional flags:
The following criteria should be taken into consideration when choosing a breeder, but are not necessarily “red flag” indicators, and may in fact be indicators of a very responsible, ethical breeder.

1) Breeder does not allow visitors into the rattery.
Those ratteries that do not allow visitors are called “closed ratteries”. This does not necessarily mean the breeder is trying to hide anything though. Rats are unfortunately susceptible to some very serious infections which could be transferred on clothing. For this reason, it may be safer to just not allow visitors. In addition many ratteries are operated out of the breeder’s home, and for safety and privacy concerns a breeder may not want strangers coming and going. Instead a   breeder should be willing to provide pictures, and perhaps even video, of the rattery so potential adopters can see what kind of set up the animals have. Some breeders may even be able to set up real-time video web chats. 

2) Breeder charges a fee.
Though no breeder should be trying to make money by breeding their animals, this does not mean a breeder cannot charge a fee. These fees are a way for breeders to recover some of the costs they put into raising the litter, but also a way to help screen potential adopters who may otherwise be just as apt to go to a pet store. Breeders who have their rats spayed or neutered prior to pet placing may ask to be compensated for the cost of the surgery.

3) Breeder uses inbreeding or line-breeding as tools.
Despite popular ideas, inbreeding and line-breeding in and of itself is not bad in rats. Some animal species are very sensitive to inbreeding, but rats are generally very tolerant. Inbreeding, defined as the breeding of close relatives such as parents and offspring or siblings, will not make animals sick or deformed. What it will do is concentrate those genes already in the line, and bring out the traits that may otherwise be hiding in a “carried” state. This allows a breeder to select more strongly for desired traits, while at the same time selecting more strongly against undesired traits. Line-breeding, defined as breeding individuals with a common ancestor, is also a very valuable tool. It will not concentrate genes as strongly as inbreeding, but can still be used to keep certain desired traits and to keep out certain undesired traits.

4) Breeder admits there are health problems in the line.
When a breeder is upfront about the issues they are trying to work out, it shows a breeder is honest. This also allows potential adopters to make a more informed decision. Not all issues are equal, and knowing there are issues being worked out does not mean every animal in that line is going to have that issue. What is important is what the breeder is doing to select against those issues, and how successful those attempts are.

5) Breeder specializes in one or two varieties only.
Although it may be nice being able to pick from many different colors, it is far better for a breeder to specialize in just a couple of varieties. Breeders should be breeding for quality over quantity, and having a wide variety of colors, markings, and fur or body types can make this task harder. Not only would a breeder need to keep and breed more animals to maintain quality, but a breeder can be influenced, even unintentionally or subconsciously, to select the “prettier” animals even though they may not be the best breeding candidates.

6) Breeder also breeds another species.
Some people see this as a red flag, others do not. In some cases it may just come down to personal preference, but before jumping to a conclusion the adopter should take the time to research the breeder and the species the breeder is working with. Sometimes it is possible to breed multiple species successfully and responsibly. For example, rats have a very short generation time, while horses have a much longer generation time. A breeder can possibly successfully breed both pet rats and horses at the same time, depending on the size of each operations and other commitments the breeder holds. In contrast,  mice and rats both tend to have a very short generation time, and breeding both at the same time may become overwhelming and difficult. A breeder may also breed one species, such as rats, as pets, but another species for food production, such as chickens. The selection required for both species would be different, as would be the time and energy required by each species. Where rats need daily socialization in addition to quality care, chickens don’t. So if a breeder otherwise seems to check out well, but breeds two species, do not be afraid to ask more questions and gather more information.

7) Breeder has “quarantine homes” set up.
A responsible breeder always follows proper quarantine. In order to do so that breeder may have one or several “quarantine homes” set up. This means when a breeder has rats that need to go into quarantine, there is a rodent-free home available to care for those rats during that period, thus allowing the breeder to follow proper quarantine procedures.

8) Breeder shows their animals.
Showing is neither good nor bad. A bad breeder is not one who does or doesn’t show, likewise a good breeder is not one who does or doesn’t show. What is more important is why and how a breeder is showing. If the breeder is following proper quarantine before and after the shows, they are minimizing the risks of spreading disease to their animals. If the breeder is regularly attending large shows with multiple other breeders, it can help that breeder determine if they are successfully improving their animals. However,  showing is not a requirement in order to improve.

9) Breeder is a member of one or several clubs.
Like showing, being a member of one or more clubs or organizations is neither good nor bad. Clubs and organizations can help the breeder to connect with other people and breeders. Clubs and organizations can also provide valuable information, which may help the breeder continue to learn more, or may even be contributed by the breeder. However, some clubs and organizations may be a detriment to the breeder, by encouraging unethical practices such as culling in the form of killing.

10) Breeder specializes in unstandardized varieties, but is not making up names for standardized varieties.
Some varieties are not standardized in any clubs, or are in the process of being standardized. It is ok for a breeder to breed these varieties. What might be questionable is if the breeder is making up terms for those varieties. If you see a term you are unfamiliar with, ask the breeder about it, it may be a lesser-known unstandardized varieties. Ask about the genetics of that variety, then put in some extra research to find out if it is not standardized, or if the breeder is just making up a name so it seems more special or attractive.

11) Breed has a website.
As with clubs and showing, having or not having a website is neither good nor bad. A website does not make a breeder, but it can provide additional information about a breeder. However, a website can also be very misleading, with breeders leaving out some details or adding others that may not be true. Not all individuals have professional web designers authoring their websites, and likewise not everyone has the same skills, so some websites may be more attractive than others regardless of their actual content. When evaluating a breeder, a website can be used as a tool to get to know the breeder, but should also not be used as the only criteria. Lack of a website should also not be used to brand a breeder as irresponsible or unethical.