Raising a litter of rats can be very time consuming, but is well worth it in the end. I do not suggest breeding rats unless you have homes for them already lined up, because I hate to see pet rats sold for snake food when they make such wonderful pets, and this is what will happen if you give them to a pet store who sells rats as "feeders". So this guide is for those of you who have come across an accidental litter. Whether you bought an already pregnant female or your male snuck in with the girls in the middle of the night, the outcome will be the same--ratlets. First of all, baby rats are called kittens. I don't like this name, because, of course, it makes me think of cats, who eat my rats. I refer to the babies as ratlets. For more information on breeding rats yourself, click here, for the breeding page.
The Pregnant and Nursing Mother
First of all, there comes the time when you identify your girl as being pregnant. In my experience, however, I didn't know my rat, Whiskers, was pregnant until she delivered. You see, I was 7 at the time. There are several signs that may lead you to the conclusion that your rat is pregnant. Two weeks into the pregnancy, the females waist will start to expand, and towards the end you may see the ratlets moving around inside of her. Expectant mothers tend to make larger nests a few days before the birth. The gestation period, or days while the rat is pregnant, is anywhere from 21 to 23 days, but I have heard of it being 24 days, also. During this time, you should provide the female with extra food and some extra bedding. If you've got a male that lives with the female, you should remove him before the birth. According to Debbie Ducummon, he would never hurt his babies. However, the female could become pregnant again within 24 hours of the birth. Never put to mothers and their babies together, as they tend to steal each other's ratlets, and don't put a new rat in with the mother and her babies, because she will attack them.I have heard of rats that change personalities when pregnant or nursing, and become more aggressive and don't like to play. The rat should return to normal after her job as "mommy" is over. It is not uncommon for a nursing mom to have soft stools, so don't be alarmed.
Usually, the birth takes about an hour or two, and litter sizes can range from 6-12 babies, but I've heard of as many as 17. The first sign of the birth is a bloody discharge from the vagina. Soon the contractions will make the soon-to-be-mom stretch out while her sides suck in. When the ratlets start to arrive, the mother will sit up and deliver with her hands and teeth. Then she will clean off the birth sac and lick all the newborns. Each baby is delivered in it's own placenta, which the mother will eat, along with each umbilical cord. While the mother is doing this, the healthy baby will squeak and squirm around, which tells the mother not to eat it. If the baby is weak or dead, the mother may eat it, too. This is rare, but I must let you know: some mothers, if they are stressed or have a poor diet, will eat their healthy babies. If the mother does not deliver within three or four hours there is a problem, and she should be taken to the vet immediately. This is rare.
Right After the Birth
After the mother is done delivering, she will settle down and you can look at the babies. However, you must wait until the mother is off the nest, and then remove her from the cage. If she seems nervous, squeaks, or rushes to defend her babies, you should wait a couple of days before handling the babies. It is not a problem if you get your scent on the ratlets; this doesn't cause the mother to reject them. You should inspect the babies every day, if possible, to identify any problems and remove any ratlets that may have died.
Development and Weaning
Baby rats grow very fast. You should handle the babies every day, because not only will this allow you to truly see what the miracle of life is all about, but it will also socialize the ratlets so that they grow up to be especially nice pets. The eyes open at 2 weeks of age. At this point, you should play with them as much as possible. The more you handle them, the more friendly and used to humans they will be. Also at two weeks, the ratlets will begin to eat solid food. You don't need to provide any special food for them. The mother will either carry the normal food to the nest or the babies will walk there. It is really awesome to see the babies grow and to watch the mother teach them all sorts of different things, like how to use a water bottle. They're so cute!
When I bought my first rat, Whiskers, she was already pregnant and I didn't know it (this is why it's important to buy rats from pet stores where the males and females are separate). She gave birth a couple of weeks after I got her. I was sitting on the couch when Whiskers started licking me and running around excitably. I thought, "Jeez, Whisk, what's with you?", and I put her back in the cage. I went about my business, and a few hours later I went to take her out, and to my surprise, there were a whole bunch of wiggling pink things in her bed. I was only seven, so I freaked out and ran outside, where my parents were and told them. It turned out that there were six little ratlets, which is a rather small litter. Looking back, I wonder if some of them had died and Whiskers ate them (I hope not, that's kind of sad). We called the vet to see what we should do, and we were told not to touch Whiskers right away, which was the right thing to do, had she been one of those protective mothers. As the next few weeks went on, I worked at finding homes for the babies with my friends. I only found homes for 2 of them. One of the babies died-his name was Spot. The three remaining babies went to Lo Sierra Pet Shop in my town. While I still had the babies, I played with them all the time; Whiskers was a good mother and was willing to share her children with me. It was amazing to see the hair grow on them--each one was a little surprise. I had no idea what they would look like, because I didn't know what the father looked like. They were black and cream hooded, and as I recall, there were three males and three females. It was a wonderful experience, and I would love to do it again, now that I know more about rats and am more than twice as old as I was then, but there are already a ton of rats in the world, and I don't want any of them to be snake-food. Anyway, I really enjoyed my experience, and you're in a similar situation, I hope you have a fun and successful experience, too. Good luck, and happy parenting!