Whether your doe’s pregnancy was intended or the result of an “oops!” there are important pieces of information you need to know to ensure the health of her pregnancy and future kittens. This includes their environmental and nutritional needs and the different processes involved with pregnancy.
Here is our guide for caring for a pregnant rat.
1) Separate the doe you intend to breed
Before you initial the breeding process, you should separate the doe, so she has her own space away from other rats.
If you have a large mischief, that might mean owning at least three cages: one for does, one for bucks, and one for the pregnant doe.
Keep in mind that your pregnant doe will need to use this cage for the first six weeks following the birth, too. This will help keep stress levels low for your soon-to-be mama and keep the kittens safe after birth.
Most importantly, in cases where you have more than one doe, this will ensure that only the intended doe becomes pregnant. You don’t want to end up with multiple pregnancies if you’re only prepared for one!
2) Provide soft bedding and nesting materials
Now that babies are on the way, you will want to make sure you are using a soft bedding material like shredded paper or fabric.
In a pinch you can use aspen shavings, but pine and cedar emit dangerous fragrances and phenols that can irritate a rat’s sensitive respiratory tract. Due to its high absorbency rate, corn cob bedding should be avoided because of the risk of ringtail developing in kittens.
Nesting materials like extra fabric, cardboard, and tissue paper should be readily available so the expectant mother can build a nest prior to the birth of her kittens.
3) Nutrition is key
Following nutrition guidelines is important when caring for a pregnant rat. Along with her regular food, you will to increase the mama-to-be’s protein intake. The nutrients found in fruits and vegetables are more beneficial than ever, too!
Protein is an essential nutrient for a pregnant rat because it aids with the healthy development of her kittens during gestation. Good sources of protein are cooked chicken and fish, scrambled eggs, and high-protein commercial rat food.
Fruits & Vegetables
Most fruits are a good source of vitamins and antioxidants, both of which are beneficial for the health of your rat’s pregnancy. They are also notoriously high in sugar, so you should aim to offer no more than one tablespoon of fruit per day. Popular choices among most rats are bananas, berries, and grapes.
Vegetables can be offered cooked or raw (except for sweet potatoes which need to be fully cooked) and should be a staple in your pregnant rat’s diet along with fruit. Nutritious choices include bok choy, carrots, broccoli, and peas.
Commercial Rat Food
The commercial rat food given to your rat prior to pregnancy should still be offered everyday. If protein is a concern, you can slowly introduce a higher protein option during this time. The benefit of most commercial rat foods is that they are formulated to meet your rat’s nutritional needs, so your pregnant rat will still benefit from eating it!
The Mating Process
Now that we looked at the importance of separating the intended mother, using soft bedding materials, and changes in nutritional requirements, we can focus on the processes involved within your rat’s pregnancy. We’ll start with the mating process:
If your doe doesn’t try to fight her mate, an easy way to initiate the mating process is keeping the breeding pair together for 10 days. During this time, your female rat should go through two separate heat cycles, so the chances of pregnancy are quite high.
Otherwise, you will have to keep the pair separate unless you are certain the doe is in heat. Signs to look for are an arching of the back when touched, vibrating of ears, and running in short but quick bursts.
The doe typically initiates the process by sniffing the male’s genitals, darting around the cage, or arching her back. From here, the male will take over. This process can last anywhere from 2-24 hours with up to 100 single sessions.
Once you are certain that mating has occurred, you need to separate your newly pregnant rat and her partner. This is important for the safety of the future kittens and avoiding an unwanted pregnancy from occurring right after birth.
The gestation period can last anywhere from 21-23 days. During this time, you might notice behavioral changes in your pregnant rat. She might become more aggressive and territorial or more relaxed if she was flighty before the pregnancy. Her appetite will increase as her body adjusts to the demands of pregnancy and might stash food more often than before.
A common behavior observed in pregnant rats is the development of a nest for the birth and first few weeks following the birth. This is considered a maternal behavior and is usually constructed from soft, loose materials found in the female’s cage.
Shortly before birth, you will notice that your doe loses the hair around her nipples. This makes nursing an easier process for her newborn kittens.
The Birthing Process
In most cases, does are naturally equipped to handle the birth process on their own. The entire process should last between 1-2 hours. If your doe hasn’t given birth after the first two hours, it’s recommended that you seek the advice of a veterinarian.
There are four stages involved in the birthing process:
Hormonal: The building of the nest is typically the first sign you’ll notice with an expectant mother. Unfortunately, it isn’t a foolproof indicator that the birth is going to happen soon because it can occur weeks or hours before the arrival of kittens.
Spotting Blood: If you find a light spotting of blood in the cage, there is a good chance your doe will give birth within the 24 hours. Excessive amounts of blood are not normal, and you’ll need to seek veterinary care immediately.
Labor: A clear sign your doe is in labor is the hunching of the back or stretching out during contractions. During this time, she should be left alone but you should monitor for signs of trouble like poor color in the extremities and gasping for air. This process should appear ordinary and stable.
Birth: When birth begins, you can expect each kitten to arrive one after the other. They can arrive in either position: head first or rump first with your female aiding in the delivery by gently using her hands and teeth. By licking each kitten, she clears a path to the airway and helps oxygenate their blood. It’s normal (and beneficial!) for the doe to eat the placenta from each kitten.
It’s important to keep your doe comfortable and avoid interfering unless necessary. For these reasons, you’ll want to have the cage setup for easy viewing and emergency access prior to the start of your doe’s labour.
It’s most common for the birth to take place at night so there is a good chance you’ll miss the process entirely – only to wake up to the sound of unfamiliar squeaks the following morning!
Following the Birth
The first 24 hours following the birth should be reserved for the doe and her new kittens. This means avoid handling the babies unless necessary, like if the new mama didn’t keep them in one spot.
After the initial 24 hours has passed, you can begin interacting with the new kittens, but you should limit your handling of them for the first couple of weeks until they are a bit bigger.
Your doe will be the primary source of nutrients for her kittens until the third week when some solid food can be introduced. Until the kittens are mobile, she’ll stay with her babies in the nest to nurse and provide warmth.
At six weeks, the kittens are ready for their new homes!
Here’s everything you need to know about raising baby rats week by week.
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