Preparing for the birth
The gestation period for rats is almost generally 22-23 days with 23 days being the most common if day one is counted as the morning after the doe and buck were together for the evening/overnight. Gestation can be up to about 6 weeks if there is delayed implantation (where conditions are unsuitable). This is generally seen when a doe who is already raising a litter gets pregnant again shortly after birth. Gestation of less than 22 days is rare.
It is important to make sure your pregnant doe is happily settled (in a suitable environment) with sufficient materials (nesting and food) for her to prepare for birth comfortably. Different people have different views on the best place for a rat to give birth and raise her kittens.
With or without cagemates?
Most people prefer to give a pregnant doe her own space in a separate cage be it alone or with a close cagemate, and it’s best to move her a day or two before the babies arrive (day 20/21) so that the cage is nice and clean for birthing. Her friend can always be removed when she starts birthing if she is not happy with her presence. On occasion a doe will get very hormonal when pregnant and may not tolerate staying in her usual cage environment until the birth is imminent. If you need to separate her early, try to find a friend she can get along with, and do remember to clean the cage out around day 21, as you won't be able to do this for a while after the babies arrive.
A few people prefer to leave the doe with her cage mates in their usual cage but you must make sure that your cage is safe for a mum and kittens i.e. small bar spacing, and minimal cage furniture. In this situation a rat might give birth on a shelf or in a hammock which can lead to problems relating to the safety of the kittens. You should always have a suitable spare cage in case your doe becomes unhappy with her cagemates and you need to move her quickly.
What kind of cage?
One of the most favoured styles of cages for mums and kittens are the plastic tanks with wire mesh lids such as the Ferplast Duna or Rody. These style cages keep draughts away and are easily accessible which makes checking kittens and feeding mum quick and easy with the least disturbance.
Other suitable birthing cages are narrow barred, one-level cages such as the Savic Ruffy, and the ferplast Mary. If it is cold or you simply wish to give the doe more privacy a small towel can be placed over the next end of this type of cage.
Both of these options are best used without extra cage furniture initially, as it is easy for young kits to be carried on the teats and dropped around the cage. If left alone in a hammock (for example) they could easily die.
What kind of a bed?
The doe will need a suitable place to make a nest. Some people think Rody igloos make great nest boxes. They are nice and roomy and split into two making inspection of mum and kittens quick and easy without causing too much fuss.
Others don't use plastic igloos, as they can get quite damp with condensation in certain conditions. An upturned cardboad box is an alternative, or it is absolutely fine not to use a nest box at all so long as the doe has plenty of suitable nesting material. If she wishes to be covered over she will make her own (often spectacular) nest.
One useful pointer is that if your doe usually sleeps in an igloo then she may prefer to have an igloo or something similar to nest in. If you don't generally use igloos then she might prefer to be given nesting materials and allowed to choose for herself how big a nest to construct.
Pregnant does will often try to make a nest out of anything and everything in their cage, so you will need to provide suitable bedding material. Paper bedding, such as strips of kitchen towel makes a very good nesting material.
If you are using Ecopetbed on the floor of the cage the large strips will help to give structure to the nest.
Safe bed is also suitable so long as you separate the strands into single thickness pieces prior to putting it into the cage. There are incidents of kittens and adult rats getting thicker, multi-layers strands wrapped around necks and feet, causing serious damage and swelling.
Other possible bedding materials are strips of fleece material, soft high quality hay and shredded paper.
Don't use materials that can fray into strands of fibre that could get twisted round tiny limbs/tails. Another bedding to avoid is the fluffly 'cotton-wool' like down sometimes sold as hamster bedding.
Food and water
Make sure your doe has a constant supply of food and water which is easily accessible. For more information regarding feeding lactating does and their growing families see here.
Signs that birth is imminent
First signs that birthing is imminent include your doe becoming restless, obvious temperament changes, and a spots of blood from the vagina seen on the bedding. At this stage note the time, and leave your doe in peace to deliver her babies.
From the beginning (first spots of blood) to the end birthing usually only takes a couple of hours. A much longer birth will usually mean that there is a problem so do keep an eye out for signs of distress. Spots of blood appearing but with no sign of babies following also suggests there are problems.
Check your does progress briefly (visually through the cage) a couple of times throughout the birthing period, but only disturb her at this time if you really feel there are problems.
Signs that birth has occurred
There are a number of signs that could indicate that birth has taken place. These include: blood on the bedding, your doe hiding away in her nest, the sound of chirping (like little baby birds).
Checking on mum and the new arrivals
Once all the babies have been born the mother may begin nursing them straight away, or she may hide them away for a short while before going to nurse them a little later. You should briefly check mother and babies within 3 hours of commencement of labour, to be aware of any problems quickly. At this point you should try to get her out of the cage - check her vagina that there is no continue bleeding, and that she looks well. Look briefly at the babies - a white milk band across the stomach of the kittens indicates that they are being fed.Some does take a few hours after birth for their milk to come in fully, but so long as they are nursing the kittens (even if milk bands do not show immediately) the milk should eventually flow. If everything looks to be in order leave the little family to settle together until the next day when you can sex kittens and check them thoroughly.
If you should find any dead babies in the nest it is best to remove them as they will be very cold and this can drain the other babies of heat.
Don't worry if your does seems restless on the first evening after giving birth. This is probably just because she has come into heat, a common occurence immediately after the birth. The babies will be fine and she will soon settle.
Author: Fancy Rats Team
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