Most baby rats – wild and domestic – will be cared for by their mum, which is the best thing for them. However, sometimes as a rat owner you may find or be asked to care for abandoned babies. What’s the best thing to do if it happens to you?
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Check they really are abandoned
Wild rat mums leave their nests daily to feed and drink, so if you find a nest containing babies the best thing to do is to leave it alone and keep an eye on it from a discreet distance or check back in a few hours. Mum maybe waiting nearby for you to go away. If a nest is disturbed, she’ll still probably come back once the coast is clear to move her babies somewhere safer. As with all wildlife, its best to leave babies alone unless you are certain they are in immediate danger or mum can’t come back.
Sometimes you’ll know mum is dead, or the nest has been disturbed in a way that place’s the babies at immediate risk. Or maybe a well-meaning person has already taken them into captivity and is asking for your help. In that case, what’s best?
A surrogate mum is better than no mum
Domestic rat breeders foster their orphaned litters onto other lactating does if possible. That’s because hand-raising rats has a low chance of success, and the babies have a better chance of survival with an unrelated mum, even allowing for the risk of her killing them. This is doubly or triply the case if the babies are pinkies – i.e. less than a week old and without fur.
However, finding someone with a lactating doe willing to foster wild rat kittens is difficult, so although it is worth trying, there is a fair chance the rescuer will end up hand-feeding.
How to hand-feed baby rats
First up, ask yourself honestly if you are the right person to do this. It’s a big commitment. With rats say a week old, you are looking at around 2 weeks of hand-feeding every 3-4 hours, including night feeds. Some people just skip the night feeds, but it puts the babies at risk of dehydration and a much higher chance of death.
Is there a more experienced carer nearby who you can ask for help? Everyone starts somewhere but caring for baby wildlife is generally better left to trained carers. However, as many wildlife rescues won’t take rats, rat owners can end up plugging the gap.
- A milk substitute. I use Divetelact, which is a standard milk substitute for baby animals sold by my vet and used by the local wildlife shelter. I know some other rat carers swear by soy-based human infant formula. Either way, cows milk, or cows milk-based formulas aren’t suitable. If you are caring for very young pinkies, you may also need a colostrum supplement – given the urgency with which this would be needed, you might need to beg and borrow from a local wildlife shelter.
- A way to feed it. Rats are too tiny to use a teat bottle. We use a wide bore iv line (with needle removed) attached to the end of a 1 ml syringe, both supplied by my vet.
- Somewhere safe to live. Baby rats can’t climb until after their eyes open, but they do wriggle about. I use a small plastic animal carrier.
- A heat source. It’s essential that baby rats are kept warm, but also essential that they can’t get overheated or burned. I use a snugglesafe microwaveable heat pad wrapped in fleece and placed in the bottom of the carrier.
- Bedding. I use a mixture of fleece offcuts and torn up kitchen towel. I cover the nest with another piece of fleece to keep the heat in. It’s essential not to use anything the babies can get tangled in.
- Cotton buds or cotton wool for toileting.
The three things baby rats need
The three things baby rats need are milk, warmth and toileting, so let’s look at these in turn.
Advice varies on how often and how much to feed baby rats. I’ve found:
- every 3 hours to be about right for pinkies and
- every 4 hours for kittens nearer weaning.
We make up the milk substitute with boiling water in a sterilised egg cup, according to instructions on the brand. Technically it can be kept a while in the fridge, but I prefer to make fresh for each feed as it is such a tiny amount.
The milk obviously mustn’t be fed hot – it would scald the babies’ gullets. I feed it when I can put a drop on the inside skin of my elbow without feeling it as hot.
There are two risks with hand-feeding baby rats:
- letting the milk flow too quickly so they aspirate it into their lungs or noses (incredibly common and one of the leading causes of death in babies),
- and getting air in the feed so they end up with air bloating in their tummies (also frequently fatal).
To control the flow rate, I use a 1 ml syringe and apply little if any pressure to the plunger. It’s very hit and miss and basically you get good at it with experience as you adjust to each rat’s feeding style.
Avoiding air in the milk is easy enough by making sure there are no bubbles in the syringe or tube. Stopping the babies from gulping air as they try and latch onto the milk is harder and comes down to having a practiced technique so they latch on quickly.
How much to feed depends on the size and age of the rat.
- In tiny pinkies, it can be as little as 0.1 ml at a time.
- Larger rats will feed more vigorously and may take up to a ml in a single feed.
I prefer to feed less milk more often in younger babies, as it gives their digestions a chance to cope. A big rich milky feed on an empty tummy in a newly rescued pinkie could overwhelm the digestion and kill them. Some people recommend feeding a small amount of sugar water in the first feed before changing to milk. It has to be judged on a case by case basis.
Fortunately, pinkies can show us whether they are well fed, because their skin is so thin, you can see the milk as a band in their tummy. If they have a nice milk band after feeding, then they’ve had enough.
Dehydration can be a big problem in orphaned babies, especially if they have been unfed for a while, or with a carer who didn’t do night feeds. If I suspect dehydration I take babies straight to the vet for assessment for subcutaneous fluids. Dehydration can be spotted by gently pinching the skin on the back of the neck. If it tents up and doesn’t spring back into place then the rat is dehydrated.
Pinkie rats can’t regulate their own body temperatures, so a warm nest is essential and cold is a major cause of death.
That said, you don’t want to get the nest so hot it causes heat stress (also a major cause of death). I microwave a snugglesafe until it feels hot to my hand, wrap it in one or two layers of fleece and pop it in the base of my carrier. I then use other layers of fleece above and below the babies to regulate the temperature. I aim for a nest that feels warm and cosy to my hand, and I also look at the reaction of the babies. If they are warm to the touch and healthily pink, the nest is about right, whereas any baby that feels cool to the touch needs to be warmer.
I keep the rats living on the snugglesafe in the carrier (reheating it every couple of hours) until they have open eyes and are moving about. Then I move them to a narrow-barred cage (ones designed for mice are ideal) but put a fleece-wrapped snugglesafe with nesting material in a cardboard box so they still have somewhere warm to retreat to.
If a snugglesafe isn’t available, I have used a sock filled with oat groats or wheat and microwaved as a heat source.
Baby rats can’t poo and pee for themselves, so it is absolutely essential that their carers help them, otherwise they’ll die. I toilet shortly after feeding. I use a cotton bud dipped in warm (not hot) water, and gently stroke across the genitals and anus. It’s not always possible to see the wee, but it’s obvious when they’ve had a successful poo. It is important to stimulate toileting at every feed until you’ve witnessed each rat toilet independently (usually around 2 weeks, but they’ll show you!)
As you can see, hand-raising baby rats isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’ve raised two litters. The most recent were 4 tiny pinkies who were found in a DIY shop. They were only a day or two old, and quite frankly had no chance. We were able to feed them and keep them warm successfully, but because they were so young when they lost their mum, they hadn’t had much colostrum from her, which means they had no chance to get their immune system going. They all died by a week old.
My first litter was a happier experience. The babies were about 11 days old when they came to me, and had been in care since around a week old. That gave them a good head start as it meant they had had a week’s colostrum and milk from their mum, and their immune systems were working well. We still lost one on the first night, as the previous carer hadn’t provided heat or night feeds, and one of the boys was too weak to swallow safely. However, we pulled the other three through (with a little help from my vets who gave subcutaneous fluids to the weakest girl for several days running), and they lived with us for the rest of their lives, which turned out to be over 4 years.