It feels like spring today. The weather is warm and humid, with a slight warm breeze. I even passed some may blossom on my walk to work. The cherry trees are showing buds, but the pink or green buds (whichever they are) don’t stand out to my colour-blind eyes. The white may flowers stand out, even though only one of the bushes in the hawthorn hedge had bloomed.
I think this year’s obsession is going to be the rat agility. Last year it was books, but the urge to make more has faded even though I still have more ideas. Now I’m lying awake at night plotting new obstacles to make, rather than plotting new books.
I have a co-conspirator in the rat club, someone who is handy at woodwork so can make agility obstacles for any of our members who want to try it. It’s all a learning process right now, we don’t even have an agreed set of rules yet. What I don’t want is to be the person judging the competition at the shows. I don’t mind leading the training discussion on the club forum, or showing people what I’m learning, but I want to be separate from the judging so I can compete on a level standing.
My local rat club, the Midlands Rat Club, has had a rat agility course since I first started going to shows in 2001. It’s always been a fun event at the shows, with no-one really training their rats but the rats being willing enough and bright enough to be persuaded around the course on the day. The committee, of which I’m part, have now decided that it would be good to promote the agility event as something that can be trained for in advance, with the thought that it would improve the bond between rat and human and provide an opportunity for enrichment for the rat. Having shown some enthusiasm for the idea I’m now trying to lead the way in learning to train our rats, even though I have no experience at all of training animals. We’re running an online workshop on the club forum, with quite a few people interested in learning to train their rats and make their own practice equipment.
I’ve watched some of the many videos on the topic on Youtube and read a good few pages on training both dogs and small pets, and I’ve decided to try clicker training my rats. I have something of an advantage as I currently have 34 rats, so I can select the ones that appear most interested.
It’s two days since I began trying to train the rats. Some of the advice is to get them used to associating a click with a treat by clicking and then treating. That was mayhem because as soon as they realised I had treats they all started mobbing me for them. There just isn’t time to try out 34 rats separately in an evening, so I decided to try teaching them their first obstacle at the same time. The hoop seemed most sensible, as that is usually the final obstacle.
On Tuesday night little Crystal Tips, who is seven weeks old, very quickly got the idea that click was followed by treat, but didn’t quite get the idea that she needed to jump through the hoop to get the click. Arwen, a seven month old in a different cage group, soon learnt that she needed to jump through the hoop to get the food but didn’t quite get the point of the click.
As of last night, both Crystal Tips and Arwen have now totally got the hang of getting a click as they jump through the hoop and then waiting for a treat. The puffed grains from Rat Rations make a nice reward because there’s very little substance to them but the rats like them. Asha is also learning the jump quickly too, but she was mated up six days ago so I won’t want her jumping around too much soon. She’ll have to wait before we take her too far.
I’m trying to use clicker training, but I’ve never trained an animal before so I need to learn the ropes too. The idea is that the rat gets a click at exactly the moment they do what you want them to, so they know what you are trying to teach them and they know they are about to get a reward. I’m clicking my tongue for now, but I might get a clicker later. It will be interesting to see how different people’s ways of training compare. I suspect the rats will learn however we do it.
It’s quite confusing at the moment because I’m trying to do it while the whole cage group is out, so I’ve got several rats at a time milling about and getting in one another’s way. After Saturday when I introduce the baby boys to their daddy and uncles I will only have five groups to get out every evening rather than six, so I’m planning to use that extra half hour to do one-on-one training with the rats that seem to catch on quickly.
Once I can do one-on-one I will add in the balance beam, I think, and try to teach them to go along the beam and then through the hoop.
One of the worst parts of keeping rats as pets is their short lifespan. Although I’ve been breeding for over six years with the aim of extending their lives, I’ve only managed to add about one month to their average age.
I’ve lost three rats this week.
On Monday sisters Ruby Slippers and River Mist left me at the age of 31 months. They had been in a group of sisters who always seemed to have one member too ill to be introduced to another cage group, so they remained separate and I let the group slowly leave, one by one, until just the two girls remained. Misty had a very large mammary lump, but was frail even when it began to grow six months ago, so I left it with the thought that I would have her put to sleep when it grew too large for her to manage. Ruby had been slowly losing weight over recent months, and had stopped eating altogether over the weekend. I knew it was time to let them both go, so I walked up to the vets with them in their carry pouch, peeping out and watching me snuggled side by side inside my coat. It’s so hard to see such trust in their eyes when I know they won’t be coming home, but I have no doubt that it was the right time. I walked on to work in the rain afterwards, knowing that I had done the right thing but hating myself nonetheless.
Last night I went to let a cage group out to play and noticed that one of the 22 month old girls, Upsadaisy, was still in the hammock. It wasn’t until I went to wake her that I realised she was having great problems breathing. She had been acting completely normal and healthy just a day beforehand. I’ve seen the same symptoms before, a great effort to draw in each breath, with very little air being taken in and a clicking sound from the lungs. When we’ve had post mortems done we have found incredibly abscessed lungs with hardly any space left for the air. The suspect is Corynebacterium Kutscheri, a horrible infection that tends to become active when they are stressed, so it was possibly down to me trying unsuccessfully to merge their group with another group a couple of months ago. After discussing it with the vet this morning we concluded that it was better for Daisy to let her go. It was such a wrench, so unexpected, and as I walked home to get ready for work the weather didn’t match my mood this time, being a bright and sunny Winter’s day.
The walk to work is so good for me. It helps me sort my head out, smoothing out the wrinkles in my soul and making me ready to go on. I am so very lucky to work close enough to walk in in the mornings.
We split Xandy’s baby boys from Xandy and her baby daughter Crystal Tips earlier this week. It was so sad to see little Crystal Tips left on her own with mum, but she’s such a confident little rat it didn’t seem to worry her much. Yesterday the rest of Xandy’s group joined them both in the small cage, as they seem to accept little Crystal while they’re in her and Xandy’s cage but don’t like the little one being in their cage. I’m hoping that they will bond with her over the next few days so I can move them all back into the larger cage as a group.
The baby boys are featuring on my webcam at the moment, in a cage that is rarely still. They are not quite as fearless as their sister, and I was worried about one little boy that we nicknamed ‘Captain Squeaky’, because he seemed overly nervous. I think it was just that chance had it that he didn’t get handled quite as much to begin with, so he hung back and set up a positive feedback loop where he continued not to be handled. Now we’ve realised and are making an effort to include him he is just as brave as the other boys, albeit still a little squeaky at times.
We have two weeks left before three of the baby boys leave for their new pet home. It’s going to be very difficult to decide who will go and who will stay.
The litter page is here, but needs more photos adding.
Saturday was the day of the latest Midlands Rat Club show, so we were up at six to get ready and pick up my friend for the drive up to Long Eaton. There was a film crew there making a natural history programme about the pests that live in our houses, using the rat show as a counterpoint to their filming about wild animals. We’re just hoping they are kind to us! http://www.midlandsratclub.org/shows/2015/02sawley/photos.shtml
I took four girls to enter into the show and six boys for the filming. The boys didn’t get to do that much as they were overwhelmed by the noise of the show, although Bailiwick did star in the spot they filmed about the agility course.
Adeline was my little star as she came fourth in the show. I’m really pleased by that as I am planning to breed from her later in the year and it’s good to have confirmation that I’ve chosen a good rat to breed from. The best bit came at the very end, when Claire from Black Lupin Rats did really well taking Best in Show, Reserve Best in Show and Stud Buck, so she’s now half way to gaining her stud name. Go Claire!
The programme will be out sometime in the Spring, so we’re all looking out for it.
I got around to updating my Deviant Art gallery today, which is probably a good thing but I’m supposed to be doing other stuff really. Like getting ready for the show tomorrow. I’m down to four entries now, so not too much stress on the rat side but I need to get set up to do a ratty photo shoot as well. The Sawley hall is a great venue, there’s always a real buzz there. It’s gonna be good! Bounces away…
We’re getting ourselves ready for a Midlands Rat Club show on Saturday. Our entries are in, just six sets of nails to clip and six tails to clean. It feels like forever since the December show. I need to remember to pick up some new hammocks and buy some Science Selective nuggets to add to our rat mix. The day always passes so quickly it’s easy to forget things.
The show’s in Sawley, Long Eaton, near Nottingham, so about an hour and twenty minutes from home including a detour to pick up a friend. I’m hoping it doesn’t snow!