RSPCA Manchester & Salford Branch's Animal Welfare Assistant Michelle writes about this summer's new arrivals at the branch and what we've learned whilst they've been in our care.
Back in July RSPCA inspectors collected 53 rats that had been set loose, over 2 nights, in a park in West Yorkshire. The rats had clearly been kept together in large groups where they had sustained injuries and infections and inevitably breeding had become out of control.
|Recently rescued rats|
Our branch took in as many rats as we could accommodate (we had to beg borrow and steal extra cages from kindly branch supporters) and found ourselves, amongst many others, with five females, all of whom could be pregnant. As a branch we had only started rehoming rats in February and we had never cared for newborn babies, so a bit of research was in order.
The first thing we learnt was that the gestation period for a rat is 21 – 24 days, so we had to keep all the girls for 3 weeks before we would know for sure that they weren’t pregnant. We had mixed feelings about the potential of baby rats appearing: on one hand baby animals are always a delight and we love to learn about and take care of new species. One the other hand, with so many rats being rescued from the same case and being cared for by RSPCA branches in the area, there was the very real possibility that there would be so many ratties looking for homes that it would be difficult to rehome them all.
On the 30th of July the stork must have been very busy as 2 litters of babies arrived overnight. One mum (Joanna) had given birth to litter of 10, and a second (Dawn) had produced 8 babies. The number of rats in our care had almost trebled in one night!
We set up individual cages to separate the new families (up until this point our 5 girls had lived together quite happily) but as females will aggressively defend their young for several days after birth. Carefully we scooped the mums, the beds they had given birth in, and the babies in into their new, private accommodation. At this stage the babies looked like little more than large, pink sweeties, so they were nick-named the Jellybeans.
|Jellybeans a few days old|
LESSONS 2 & 3
The next two things were learnt was that the babies should be left well alone for the first 5 days of life and that baby rats are called pups. After a week or so it became clear why. The pups had got a bit of colour and were looking a bit like puppies - much cuter than Jellybeans! We started to handle the rats once they were a week old, to get them socialised and used to human company.
|10 day old pups|
A week after the first 2 litters arrived, a third was born. We were quite relieved when Edina rat only had 2 pups!
At around 2 weeks old the 18 baby rats had started to be mobile and were appearing outside their nests. They were growing very quickly!
So quickly, in fact, that we had a bit of an accident at 16 days old when one pup popped their head through a hole in the wooden shelter that was their nest and got firmly stuck. Presumably they’d fitted with no problem a few days before, but with a bit of a growth spurt those ears weren’t going anywhere.
Luckily I was cleaning out the cages when this happened and spotted the trapped rat quickly. After a failed attempt to free the rat myself, and much to mirth of Susie our branch manager, I got him to our vets for an emergency rescue operation involving sawing, oxygen and a team of nurses. They did an amazing job to free the tiny pup and within an hour it was back with its family as if nothing had happened. Phew!
|Not quite weaned|
After learning that rats grow in size very quickly, we also found out that they developed rapidly too. Pups are weaned around 3 weeks and need to be separated into same-sex groups before they are 5 weeks old, as females can get pregnant aged 6 weeks. It is easy to see how breeding can quickly get out of control but it is also easy to see (to put it nicely) which are boy rats and which are girl rats, so sexing them isn’t tricky.
After 20 babies we were very pleased when our remaining two females sailed through the 3 week “pregnancy watch” without any more new arrivals. Now at 6 weeks old the babies (and their mums) are ready to be rehomed and are up for adoption.
Next time our Branch Manager says yes to lots of rats we will know what we are letting ourselves in for! But until we find homes for lots of the ratties it will be a while until we can say 'yes' again.
If you would like to adopt baby rats take a look at our adoption page for further information. We have pairs, trios and quads!