This article is from the Spring 1998 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Nichole Royer
It all started with a phone call. I was sitting around the house on a Saturday afternoon, feeling miserable with a cold, when the phone rang. Naturally, I just had to answer it. On the other end of the line was a friend of mine, and fellow fancier, Michelle Collie. She had just come home from one of her local pet shops, and she was very excited. In this pet shop was a rat, a wonderful, perfect hooded so she said. Since I am extremely fond of really good Hoodeds and she didn’t have room for a male, she thought I might be interested.
Now I know Michelle, and I know that she knows a good rat when she sees one, but a fantastic hooded? I have to admit (sorry Michelle) that my first thought was, “Yeah, right.” However, since I didn’t feel like cleaning cages like I was supposed to, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go have a look.
Off to Michelle’s house I went. From there we headed out to the pet shop in her local mall. Past the dogs, cats, and a collection of sickly looking herps we found the rat cages. Michelle pointed to the one on the end and I peered inside.
My jaw dropped! In the cage were the usual collection of pet shop rats. A couple Beige ones, some Agoutis, a scrungy looking Cinnamon, and a Lilac Hooded. Wow, what a Hooded!
OK, so he wasn’t perfect. One side of his hood was a little jagged. His spine stripe had a small irregularity on one side. He rolled over on his back and I discovered his chest marking had a little “dink” in it, and he had two groin spots. Over all though I can honestly say that I had never even seen a picture of a Hooded that good.
Naturally, I asked to have him taken out. The very first thing I noticed was how light he felt. Not nearly heavy enough for his size. I also noticed him breathing heavily, and when I held him up to my ear there was no question. Rattle, rattle, rattle he went.
Long ago I vowed never to bring home a sick rat, particularly from a pet shop. This is a classic way to bring a huge number of horrible diseases (SDA, etc.) into my rattery. My critters mean a lot to me, and the thought of losing many of them to a terrible epidemic ranks among my worst nightmares. I had a very hard decision to make. Naturally, I couldn’t resist. With much trepidation, and many misgivings, I dug out the change in the bottom of my purse and paid out a whole whopping 99 cents for the little guy.
Home we went, with a stop at Karen Robbins house to borrow a lab cage for a temporary (I hoped) hospital room. This was one of the stupidest things I have ever done, and I was taking a real chance on it working out OK. Bringing home a pet shop rat which appears healthy is bad enough, this was really idiotic.
Much to my mother’s displeasure, the little rat took up residence in the office. I honestly did not think he was going to make it. By the time I got him home he looked pathetic, so I set him up in the lab cage, with a water bottle full of a heavy dose of Tylan (one-quarter tsp. Tylan in 4 oz of water—this is not recommended!) and lots of Tang. Then I headed for a very hot shower with disinfectant soap, and a change of clothes.
For the next two weeks, much to my surprise, the little guy held his own. Except for changing the water/Tylan/Tang solution every day, and cleaning the cage when needed, I left him totally alone. I was scared to death that I would spread whatever he had to my other rats, so though I felt bad, I developed a hands off approach.
After about two weeks, I noticed a difference. The little rat perked up and started to take an interest in his surroundings. On the rare occasions I handled him, I noticed a marked decrease in the rattling. Fortunately, the rattling was never in his chest, just his head (sinuses). After four weeks on the Tylan, the rattling had completely disappeared, so I kept him on it for another two weeks, then crossed my fingers and took it away. The rattling did not come back.
I couldn’t believe it. The chances of getting a fantastic hooded are one in a thousand. The chances of getting a rat this sick well again must be one in ten thousand. After 6 weeks of no handling, this little rat also had a friendly, calm, gentle, curious temperament. All put together, he’s one in a million, so that’s his name (Max to his friends).
Hooded rats have always intrigued me. If you go into a pet store, chances are you will see cages full of them, yet good ones are very rare.
They are one of the oldest of the “fancy” varieties, certainly predating the earliest rat enthusiasts. In the period between 1840 and 1860, both Jimmy Shaw and Jack Black are reported to have had pied/colored and white rats. These most likely were early Hoodeds. In the very first show ever held for rats (Aylesbury Town Show, October 24, 1901) best in show was a “black and white even marked” (certainly the beginning of our hooded variety) owned by Mary Douglas.
Through the years the hooded has had many names. In the beginning it was known as “Even Marked.” In 1915 this was changed to “Japanese,” and in 1957 to “Japanese Hooded,” a name which still crops up from time to time today. The N.F.R.S. Standards called them “English Hooded” in 1976, and by 1977 they were simply refereed to as “Hooded.” AFRMA has always recognized this variety as “Hooded.”
Some people may be wondering why I went so crazy for this rat. After all, Hooded rats are very common. Unfortunately, show quality Hoodeds are not. In fact I would consider them one of the rarest.
Let me explain. The distinctive Hooded pattern is caused by the distribution of pigment cells in the rat embryo being impeded. The nerve cell tissue along the spinal column is the origin of these cells, thus when the color is restricted, the head, shoulders and spine are the areas left pigmented.
The AFRMA standard is very specific as to what Hooded rats should look like. It says that “Hooded rats may be shown in any recognized color. The sides, legs and feet should be a pure, clean white, free from spots or brindling. The hood should cover the head, neck and shoulders without a break, showing no white on the throat or chin, and should run in an even line around the body. The spine marking should extend in an unbroken line from the hood to the tail, be of moderate width, and be free of ragged edges or brindling. The tail should be colored at the base, then white to the end. Faults - White on the throat or chin, ragged edges to the hood or spine markings, spine marking too wide or too narrow, break in the spine marking; any color spots in white area; spotted tail.” Needless to say, this description leaves very little room for interpretation, and is in fact one of the most explicit standards we have. On top of the description being very precise, the rat also has to be a good example of a recognized color, and has to have good type. This combination can be almost an impossibility.
After most AFRMA events, those of us who stay till the bitter end cleaning up go out to Sizzler for dinner. Shortly after Max recovered, I found myself eating a steak and describing Max to the rest of the group. One person in particular seemed to be very interested. Come to find out, Nancy Ferris was as fond of Hooded rats as I am.
Naturally the conversation eventually turned to breeding Max. This was not a topic I had given much thought to. Traditional and long proven practice says that in order to breed Hoodeds’ you must breed in very large numbers. I have heard it quoted that one in 25 Hooded babies is worth keeping for breeding, and if you are lucky one in a hundred is good enough to show. According to John Wells, in his article on Hooded in the N.F.R.S. Handbook, “The secret (to breeding Hooded) is selection and inbreeding. By breeding large numbers you are able to select only the very best.”
In addition, I have been told, and have read that the show quality Hoodeds are not the ones to use for breeding. Instead it was recommended to breed together rats with continuous but wide spine stripes to those with narrow broken stripes. This of course means breeding huge numbers of rats, requires lots of space, and an outlet for lots of babies. Having none of these I had not even really considered breeding Max.
As I doted, over dinner, on my lovely little Hooded boy, Nancy got more and more excited. Finally she got me to shut up, and said, “You know, there is a really nice female hooded in my local pet shop right now. I have been looking at her for some time, but just couldn’t come up with a good reason to bring her home.” That certainly made me pause for thought, and when I talked with Nancy the next week the topic was again raised. Was it worth a try? The only way to find out was to go ahead. This was not a project I would have ever tried on my own, but with Nancy involved I thought “why not?” I figured at worst we would each end up with a bunch of baby Hoodeds.
Nancy went down to her pet shop and brought home the Hooded. She was black, and her spine “almost” broke at her tail base, but she had better type than Max, and wasn’t bad at all. In our case, type was a very important factor. Max wasn’t horrible, but he wasn’t great either. Nancy’s female was nice, so their babies would be an improvement. Within the week she had picked up the name Torch (officially “I’ve Been Torched”).
The genetics behind Hooded rats is relatively simple. Two Hooded rats bred together will produce a whole litter of Hooded babies. A Hooded bred to a Self will make mismarked Irish/Berkshire babies. Thus from breeding Torch to Max we could expect all Black Hooded babies.
When she was old enough, Torch got a week long trip to my house to meet Max. I won’t say it was love at first sight, but Max did his job. Three weeks later marked the arrival of 13 little pink squeaky babies. Unfortunately this left us with a dilemma. After being bred, Torch promptly developed wry neck. She was never sick, she just developed a list overnight. Though she was medicated, the tilt remained, and we were concerned that she would get worse (possibly begin rolling) with the stress of raising the litter.
When Torch started showing definite signs of distress over raising so many babies, we knew some action was required on our part. Having no other females with litters, this left us with the difficult decision—to cull or not. Valuing Torch as a dear pet, and fearing for the fate of the babies if she got so bad that we felt it necessary to put her down, we made the decision that for us was the responsible one.
Torch’s four babies (the number she could comfortably handle) grew and prospered. Torch quickly improved and became a wonderful mother. The little hoodlums themselves turned out far better than expected. Though none are as good as Max, all are very nice, and have better type than their dad. This was particularly surprising since it is not the outcome we expected based on all we had read and been told about Hooded rats. Perhaps breeding this variety is not quite as difficult as we were led to believe? We will see. One of the little girls is particularly good, and she will be bred back to dad when she is old enough. Then we can expect more Lilac hoodlums!
I got Max because I thought he was beautiful, and I knew he was rare. At the time his coat was so red that he looked Cocoa. Cocoa is not a standardized color which meant I could not really show him. This did not matter too much. I was just happy to have his company and be able to admire him as a handsome, healthy rat.
This of course changed when he decided to moult his baby coat. Overnight he lost the red tint. Suddenly he became a beautiful shade of light dove gray/brown. Out of the blue I suddenly had a rat who was not only a great hooded, but was also a proper color of Lilac. Since he also loves to travel and is a born show off (he knows he is beautiful) I figured he would probably enjoy being shown.
Max is good, but he does have his faults. Many of them are typical of Hooded rats. While color and markings are important, they are only half of what a rat is judged on. Type is worth 50 points on the judging table, and this is one place Max does not excel. It is very easy to become starstruck by the markings on a good Hooded and not look at type. In Max’s case, he is a little too racy for a male. His head is too long, his ears a little small, and his tail a little short. Not bad really for a pet shop rat, but it will hurt him on the show bench.
Many Hooded rats have problems with the color on their chest and chins. The standard calls for a straight line of color between the two front legs. Many times Hooded rats will have a whole streak of white running up their chest to their chin. Max is better than most, with just a tiny indent of white along the edge of this line.
Max also has another common fault among male Hoodeds, groin spots. These small spots are usually not found on females, but are extremely common on males. Though they are a fault, they are not counted against too heavily.
Max excels when it comes to his hood and spine stripe. As the standard calls for, his hood runs in an even line all around his body. The spine stripe joins it at right angles, and continues in an even width all the way down the back and half way down his tail. Many Hooded rats have spine stripes which merge unevenly with their hood, or that “wobble” down their back or break. Many Hoodeds have extra splashes of color in the white areas on their back. This is a serious fault.
The first time I showed Max, he was about 3 months old. As with all my rats, he required some preparation. About four days before the show he got his first bath. Naturally, the white on Hooded rats can get rather dirty. I use bluing shampoo on my Siamese, so I had it handy for Max. As always, it worked wonders. The bath, combined with a tail scrubbing and a toenail clipping had Max looking his very best.
Max loved his first show, posing and prancing for all to see. He did as well as expected, winning the marked class. Naturally he was still too young to stand a chance against the “big boys and girls,” but he sure enjoyed himself.
Max is of course still with me, for a long time to come I hope. He is one of my very special three “bedroom boys,” and insists that he must have all the attention, all the time. Naturally Chance and Roody disagree, and I see to it that everyone gets their share. He is a character, with a special taste for green flannel sheets (I guess the other colors don’t taste as good?), and a love for the neighborhood kids who occasionally come visit him.
As of the time I originally had written this article (almost a year ago now), Max had won best Marked rat twice. With his poor type I figured he would probably never do better, but it didn’t matter so long as we were having fun. Much to my amazement however, Max changed dramatically as he matured. He is now very large, his tail is long and thick, and his ears are good size. To everybodies’ shock my scrawny, scrubby little rat grew into a beauty with lovely type. Not at all what could be expected of a pet shop rat. Beginning with the 1997 Orange County Fair show, Max has taken Best In Show at every AFRMA show—5 times to date. He will be retiring after the Orange County Fair this year so that others may have the chance at winning.
Naturally more hoodlums have been born. Max’s daughter “Joint Venture” was bred back to him last fall. The result was a small litter including a daughter who Nancy named Maxine (RN Second Edition) who is almost a dead ringer for her dad. Look for her at upcoming AFRMA shows.
These Hooded litters are so much fun since you never know what you will get and all the babies are different. I am so used to breeding Siamese, where all the babies look the same, that this is a nice change. If anyone would be interested in a nice well-socialized pet or potential show Hooded, please let Nancy or I know. We will be starting a waiting list.
Though Max has a history of medical problems, he is surprisingly healthy now. Other than the occasional sneeze, and the fact that he grunts when he gets excited, he has no symptoms of respiratory. I do not know how long he will be with me, and I know he may well have other problems in the future. This seems to be the pattern with rats who get sick when they are young. He is one and a half now, so lets hope any problems are far off in the future.
Would I do it again? Would I bring home another “beautiful” sick rat? I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that this time it worked out, and I got much more than I ever bargained for. Max is my very special boy, my one in a million.