A friend wrote to me a few days ago asking for advice. She owns several female rats, and no males. Inexplicably, one of her females is pregnant. The only possible exposure to a male occurred when the doe was left unattended in an office for a matter of only a few minutes. Even then, no other domestic rats were present, meaning that the incredibly improbable has likely occurred: Either a coworker had smuggled a male rat into the same office on the same day, or, in the time it took to go to the restroom, a wild rat appeared, impregnated the domestic doe, and disappeared, leaving no trace of his presence.
As this example illustrates, even the most conscientious rat owner may experience accidental pregnancy, unless all females in the home are spayed. Hope that it never happens to you, but in case it does, have a contingency plan ready.
I consider an emergency spay to be the best option in most accidental pregnancies. This surgery is performed in the same way as any spay surgery, but happens to also remove the developing litter as well as the uterus. The “emergency” refers to the urgency of scheduling surgery when a pregnancy is suspected, as rat gestation is only 21-23 days. A procedure that aborts potentially viable babies isn’t fun for anyone, but, in my book, it ranks above allowing an accidental litter to be born.
Even the most carefully bred rats can produce babies with birth defects and serious health issues. In haphazard, accidental breedings, the likelihood of such complications is even greater. Giving birth to a litter can also endanger the mother. Dystocia and post-partum pyometra are both not uncommon, particularly in very young or old pregnant rats. If your rat is healthy enough for surgery, I recommend spaying as soon as you suspect she might be pregnant. If she’s not healthy enough you’re sure she’d survive surgery, she may not survive giving birth, either.
If You Keep the Litter
If I can’t convince you that an emergency spay is the best option, or if it simply isn’t an option for you, you’ll need to prepare a maternity cage, feed your pregnant rat well, and hope for the best. Most rats deliver their litters successfully without human intervention. However, be prepared to head straight to the emergency vet if you see excessive bleeding, prolonged labor that produces no babies, a baby stuck in the birth canal, or any other complication. Do not, however, hurry to the vet just because your rat has been in labor for an hour or two and isn’t yet nursing the babies. She will likely not nurse any pups until the full litter has been born.
When babies arrive, you have a choice between keeping them all and finding an excellent home for each one. If you can’t keep them (and keep them all separate from the opposite sex!), reach out to the local rat community, including breeders and rescues, for help with homing them. Use an adoption application and contract. If possible, have an experienced breeder or rescuer review all applications before you accept or reject them. Choosing good adopters is a sixth sense of sorts, and takes time to develop.
I wish the best of luck to anyone dealing with an accidental litter, particularly in the current economy. Few people are adopting new pets at this time. Whatever your decision is, keep the best interests of your rat in mind, and be aware that you are directly responsible for her well-being and that of any babies produced.