American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association

This article is from the Spring 2001 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.

The Millennium Bug

By Nancy Ferris

“My big worry,
however, was my
litter. SDA hits
old rats and
moms with babies
the hardest. I was
in serious danger
of losing the last
of the Max line
and 3 years of
work. By the
weekend, the
litter was

On December 4, 1999, I attended the AFRMA Pet Show/Christmas Party. As usual for our events, it was a long, but fun day. Nichole had her latest litter of Siamese there. A Russian Blue Point caught my eye at our Board meeting a few weeks ago, and I was bringing her home that day. On the sales table Karen had several Dalmatians and Variegateds. I have a softspot for Variegateds, so throughout the day, I was mulling over getting one of them. Several people had been looking through those rats before I finally succumbed and took a closer look. I decided to get both a Dalmatian and a Variegated. I returned home at 7:30 P.M. It was cold that night, and my first priority was to get the three baby rats settled in their new cage. I carried them in the house, not knowing I was carrying in something else.

I checked on my pair of littermate Beige Hooded females that I had bred three weeks before to their brother. One was due that weekend; the other I wasn’t even sure was pregnant. They lived in a Fern cage and I planned on moving the pregnant one into her waiting 15-gallon maternity tank that evening. I was horrified to see blood all over the shelves. Before it could quite sink in that she had not hemorrhaged and died, I heard the unmistakable squeaks of newborn babies. There she was underneath the bottom shelf with her litter of newborns—and two babies on the outside of the wires. I just knew that one of those would be my pick of the litter with the Hooded markings of my dreams. I quickly got mom and babies into her 15-gallon tank, then watched her for a while. She kept kicking out those two babies. They were cold, but seemed strong and active. I thought if I could warm them up, mom would continue to take care of them. I placed the two babies under my shirt and sat at the computer to read my day’s e-mail. After they had warmed up, I placed them back with mom. I was happy to see that she accepted them back in and continued to take care of them. First crisis averted.

A Background Check

Just why was this litter so important? It represents nearly three years of work breeding directly down from Nichole Royer’s 5 times Best in Show Lilac Hooded “Max.” Max’s story has already been written in the AFRMA newsletter [see the Spring 1998 issue, pg. 7, Ed.]. As a brief recount Nichole found Max in a pet store in February 1997. His markings were nearly perfect. He was also very sick. About the same time I had found two nicely marked Black Hooded females in a pet store in my area. I didn’t buy them, but was keeping an eye on them. When I saw Max for the first time and felt he was going to survive, I went down to the pet store to get one of those Black Hoodeds. Unfortunately, the better-marked one was gone, but I did come home with “Torch,” whose stripe continued unbroken down onto her tail, but wasn’t very even. She had a solid chin mark and was typey. Bred to Max, she produced “Venture,” who was then bred back to Max and produced Lilac Hooded “Maxine.” Maxine is pictured along with Max on our web site. Maxine was to be bred back to Max, but unfortunately, he died in April 1998, the day before he probably would have gotten his sixth and record-tying Best In Show [to “Frosty”; see the Holiday 1998 issue, pg. 9, Ed.]. Nichole, in the meantime, had started another branch of the Max line. Max was bred to an Agouti Hooded named “Nut’n Honey” and produced a nicely marked Agouti male named “Nut’n Much.” Maxine was bred to him twice and produced two Beige Hooded and two Agouti Hooded males. What Nichole and I noticed was what seemed to be a predisposition to respiratory problems with the Max/Nut’n cross. We needed an outcross. While health checking at the October 1998 show, I came across just what I was looking for, a Blue Hooded with a dead straight chest mark. Her hood was clean, her stripe pretty even, but narrowed at the hip like an hour glass and continued on to her tail. Sometimes names just escape me, and she was simply dubbed “The Blue.” She was bred to one of the Beige Hooded Max/Nut’n cross who was showing no symptoms of the respiratory problem. This produced three very nice Beige Hooded girls who were shown at the August 1999 show and handily won the Progeny Produce of Dam class, along with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in the Marked Class. Again, names escaped me with this group. They became #1, 2, and 3. Karen and I had a difference of opinion as to which one was the best. My #1 was her 3rd place, and my 3rd pick (who I almost placed as a pet) was her 1st place. I then called them My #1/Karen’s #3 and My #3/Karen’s #1, and #2. Not confusing at all.

I bred The Blue back to her Black Hooded son, “RN Principle Player.” The morning that I should have looked in her cage and found mom and babies, I found that she had hemorrhaged and died. I decided I was through with breeding. I’d had it. Nichole, who is great at keeping me level headed, told me I couldn’t quit now, I had to try breeding one of the Beige Hoodeds to the brother. I had trouble deciding which one, and decided that two of them cross faulted with the brother, my #1 and #2, so bred them both. The January show was getting close, so I checked the calendar to see just when I should do this breeding so I would have kittens for the kitten class. Everything went as planned, except the #2 didn’t get pregnant.

Back To The Present/SDA Hits

So here I was the second week of December eagerly watching for the markings to show. Except for the repeat breeding of Max to Venture trying to repeat Maxine, every litter I’ve had has had something showable, or some kind of improvement. On Day 4 I began to see markings. One in particular caught my eye. His hood was clean all around and his stripe came out of the hood in a “T” and was very even. I couldn’t see what it did over the hips, as at this age tissue is still showing through and is dark. I had to wait another 12 hours or so. I couldn’t tell what color he was, either Blue or Black. At this point, that stripe could flair out wide to his tail base, it could stop where it is, or it could be the most perfect stripe I’ve produced. I held my breath. With this little guy with the even stripe, my gut feeling said I had produced another Max. I couldn’t tell at this point whether he was Black or Blue, but I started calling him “Blue Max.”

Mr. Millennium pinky

Nichole called me later that evening. I told her what I thought was in my maternity tank. She, of course, was very excited. The next day his pigment could be completely seen. He was everything I’d hoped for. The stripe went clear down on to his tail, the same width all the way. His pigment darkened and, apparently he was Black. Also in the litter was another Black Hooded male with some drags on his stripe (his stripe didn’t quite break at the tail), a Blue Hooded female whose stripe was a bit wide at the top and narrowed down to a snippet at the tail base, another Blue Hooded female with a stripe that broke above the tail, and another female I thought was a pink-eyed white. A few days later I could see a hint of hood and stripe but still couldn’t figure out what color she was. Nichole thought she might be a Siamese or Himi Hooded since I did have a couple of Siamese Hoodeds in my very first litter. She turned out to be a Silver Hooded. I borrowed the digital camera from work so I could take pictures and e-mail them to Nichole. I also e-mailed them to Karen to get her opinion. Her reply was one word that said it all, “WOW!!!!!!”

The weekend of December 11 and 12 I spent at Nichole’s house. She was entered in a dog show in the area, and I volunteered to come up for moral support. We spent most of the weekend discussing this litter. She was convinced this little guy had the potential for being a multi Best In Show winner like his great-great-great granddad. On the way home Sunday night I managed to get a nasty headache, so I missed the first harbinger of doom in the form of an e-mail from Nichole titled, “Possible Problem.” In it she told me that the Siamese babies that three people had bought from her had developed respiratory problems. Nichole’s were fine, and so far, mine were okay. SDAV [sialodacryoadenitis virus; see the Nov./Dec. 1993 pg. 2, January-March 1994 pg. 38, January–March 1994 pg. 26, and the April–June 1994 pg. 25 issues for more on SDA, Ed.] was suspected, as two of these people had rats die unexpectedly. This beast had visited me 3 years before and normally, it wouldn’t scare me. The last time I lost two nearly 3-year old rats, but my other rats had very mild symptoms. They just had some sneezing and recovered just fine. I treated with Tylan, mixing it with generous portions of Tang in their water. I quarantined for two months, meaning I didn’t do any breedings, no new rats came in, and no rats left my house.

I did not bring any rats with me to the party, so the only way this could affect me was if my new rats had been infected. I began watching everyone like a hawk. Tuesday, December 14th, my 18-month-old pink-eyed white female died suddenly. That evening my Black Hooded male from the Nut’n line died without warning. He was 9 months old. I didn’t like the looks of this. Now, the young rats I got at the show started to sneeze. We were having Santa Ana winds that week, so I wasn’t sure if they were sneezing because of the weather or if they were showing early symptoms of SDA. Mom rat was starting to look a little thinner than I’d like, and I was getting very worried. I culled the litter down to the best five, hoping to lighten the load on mom and increase the chance of survival of “Mr. Millennium,” as Nichole started to call him. The following morning Billy Bob, a rat I got from our 1998 Pet Expo rescue, died. He did have a tumor on his shoulder that I suspected was malignant, so this wasn’t a surprise. Things went steadily downhill as the week progressed—just about all my rats started showing symptoms of sneezing. My big worry, however, was my litter. SDA hits old rats and moms with babies the hardest. I was in serious danger of losing the last of the Max line and 3 years of work. By the weekend, the litter was involved.

The Feeding Begins

On Sunday, December 19, Mom stopped nursing and had quickly gone to skin and bone. I put her on my Tang/Tylan concoction, and ran out to PetsMart to pick up a small can of KMR to start fostering the babies. I had a small syringe that I had used to medicate one of the dogs and had saved it. I started with one of the Blue Hoodeds who seemed to be the thinnest. While I tried to figure out how to best get the formula in the babies, she started lapping a drop off my finger. I continued to dip my finger in the formula and let her lick it off. This worked the best and eliminated my fear of accidentally getting the stuff into their lungs by using the syringe. The 2 Black Hooded males were the strongest and had the biggest appetites. I moved the family into the bathroom in a 10-gallon tank. Here I could put the tank on the tile counter with the heating pad underneath without worry about damaging anything. I put a towel over three-quarters of the tank to keep the heat in. I did my last feeding at midnight. Mom was very weak and not eating. However, she sat on top of the feeder and watched what I was doing. She was skin and bone; her muzzle had that pinched look that I’ve noticed rats get right before they die. I offered her some KMR, which she refused. I told her I was taking care of her babies, and it was okay for her to “go.” She put her paw on my arm as if she understood, and somehow she was going to see me through this. I finished feeding the babies and just sat and watched them. They were all making rattling noises, and I was sure none of them were going to make it much longer. I was sure Mom would be gone in the morning. At 1 A.M. I was still up staring into the tank watching every breath the babies made. There was nothing I could do if they stopped breathing. I felt if I just stood guard, they would continue to live.

The following morning, I was surprised to find mom still alive. I fed everyone, but noticed that the two Blue Hooded females seemed to be weaker. On my lunch break I came home to check on things and feed the babies. One of the Blues had died and the other was so weak she couldn’t even roll over. I euthanized her, fed the remaining three, and returned to work. Mom looked worse and I seriously considered euthanizing her when I got home from work in the afternoon. I cannot stand a prolonged death. I sent Nichole an e-mail progress report. I also said this was the last time I was going to breed, I’m sick of rats, and a few other choice comments about my membership being due for renewal at the end of the month. Nichole called right after I got home from work and we talked for the next 2½ hours. She suggested I try bread soaked in water, a food the old mouse books from England swear by. I took it a step further and soaked a piece of bread in KMR, warmed it in the microwave, and served it to the babies. They liked this and lapped a lot of the KMR out of it. I felt they were getting more into their systems this way. Even mom ate some of it.

Tuesday, the boys were holding their own, but mom looked like a skeleton. The remaining Silver Hooded female hit the worst period. She was sneezing a lot, but had an appetite. I tried feeding them lab blocks soaked in KMR along with the soaked bread. Nichole suggested mixing the powder at the bottom of the lab block bag and trying them on that. I mixed the powder with KMR, warmed it, and served a dollop to them. They loved it. Again, mom even ate it. I started to think that the boys would make it, but I wasn’t too sure about the girl. The biggest Black Hooded male had even started to use the water bottle.

Fat Boy and Mr. Millennium
“Fat Boy” and “Mr. Millennium.”

Fat Boy and Mr. Millennium
The three kids: “Mr. Millennium,” “RN Silver Belle,” and “Fat Boy.”

The Three Kids older
The three kids getting older: “Mr. Millennium,” “Fat Boy,” and “RN Silver Belle.”

The Deathwatch

By Wednesday evening mom started drinking again. I noticed she didn’t look as gaunt as she had. She’d actually started to look better. She started nursing the babies again. They in turn were holding their own—no better, no worse. I started to feel slightly hopeful that they might all pull through this. They were eating pretty well. I’d even mixed a little Tylan in with their “gruel.” Nichole suggested trying them on baby cereal, so I stopped at the grocery store on my lunch hour the next day.

Thursday morning everyone looked better. The female, who started out being the biggest of the litter, was now the smallest. Her one eye had not opened all the way, but she was active and eating well. On my lunch hour I picked up baby cereal—mixed grains and fruits. I also picked up some goat’s milk. I mixed up a batch and served the rats their lunch. Mom was looking a lot better. Her face lost that pinched look. However, when I came home from work in the afternoon, I was shocked at Mr. Millennium. He had taken a major turn for the worst. He was gasping and making horrible wheezing noises. He had come so far; I couldn’t lose him now. I started yet another deathwatch. He was still eating, but not as much as I’d like. I checked on him throughout the evening. He was still gasping, plus one nostril was clogged with fluid. I went to bed around midnight, not sure whether he’d make it through the night or not.

Christmas Eve I woke up dreading what I was going to find in the baby tank. I peeked in and I was greeted by three tiny sets of eyes looking back at me. Mr. Millennium was just fine, as if that last crisis hadn’t even happened. He was still making little clicking noises, but otherwise looked fine. We had made it through another crisis.

Things Are Looking Up

Throughout the month of January everyone progressed by leaps and bounds. The one Black Hooded male was twice the size of the other two, but he was the least affected. I had been calling him “Fat Boy” until I could come up with a more appealing name. However, he remained Fat Boy. Nothing else fit. Mr. Millennium gradually caught up in size. He continued to rattle a little, and I began to doubt whether he would ever see the inside of a show box. Nichole kept telling me, “Keep him on Tylan. He will stop rattling.” One day towards the end of the month he did suddenly stop. Like Max, I kept him on Tylan for another week or two. I still had doubts if he would reach his full potential and fulfill our dreams of going Best In Show, let alone even seeing the inside of a show box. Due to constant handling and attention, this little group developed amazing personalities. They know they are special. Mom and I have also developed a special bond. As a team we pulled them through.

May Show Mr. Millennium
“RN As Good As It Gets” or better known as “Mr. Millennium” winning his much anticipated Best in Show award May 13, 2000.

“RN Sharper Image,” or otherwise known as “J.R.”

At the May show, Mr. Millennium did get that Best in Show. He also won Best Marked at the March show. At the June show and Orange County Fair show he was again Best Marked. By October, he really started to mature and look beautiful. Unfortunately, he developed a slight rattle that only pops up when he is stressed. Another “nice” thing about SDA. A lot of times about 7 or 8 months after rats have recovered, the damage to their lungs manifests itself, and they start to rattle. Treatment does nothing. They do this for the rest of their life.

In June I did an unheard of thing for me—three breedings of my “SDA Kids.” I bred the Silver Hooded female, “RN Silver Belle,” back to her father. The resulting litter contained a Lilac Hooded male (“RN Sharper Image” or “J.R.” as he is better known)—a dead ringer for Max. He has a clean hood and a narrow, clean stripe with no drags or brindling. I didn’t think I could do better than Mr. Millennium, but I had. At the same time I also bred Nichole’s Russian Blue Point Siamese “TR Runaround Sue,” back to her father. This litter contained a Black Satin male that caught my eye at just a day old. “RN Simply Slick” has five Best In Shows to date.

Above and Beyond
“RN Above and Beyond,” from Nancy’s latest litter.

Helen Pembrook gave me a Black Hooded female that she acquired from a commercial breeder. She quarantined her for over a month, then gave her to me. Bred to “Fat Boy” she produced a female who, although her markings weren’t great, she had the type and size I was looking for. This past February she was bred back to her grandpa “Player” and produced my best litter yet—one Beige Hooded (“RN Above and Beyond”) and three Black Hoodeds.

Some Final Thoughts

Could I have avoided bringing this “plague” home with me? Probably. My first mistake was not quarantining the babies I brought home from the show. However, both Karen’s and Nichole’s rats are healthy, and I know that neither one of them had anything running through their ratteries. I have brought rats home from these two before knowing this and have skipped the quarantine procedure. Nichole’s other babies that she had at the show remained healthy and symptom free. I can only assume from what had happened that someone at the show had sick rats at home, ignored Karen’s “Do not handle without assistance” sign on her cage, and went ahead and handled her rats without using the bottle of Parvosol that was sitting next to her animals. We run a risk of bringing something home whenever we go to a show. We can minimize that risk by using some basic precautions and common courtesy while at the shows.

Do not go into anyone’s cages without their permission and without the person being there. Spray Parvosol on your hands before and after handling any rats. If I bring rats to sell, I only let the people who look truly interested handle them. They must use Parvosol before they handle my rats. My show animals I let NO ONE handle except of course, the health checker and the judge. They stay in their cage unless they are on the judge’s table. I do not walk around the show with them on my shoulder, exposing them unnecessarily to “bugs” that someone else might have brought in.

If you find yourself in a pet store and feel the need to “rescue” a sick and/or injured rat, remember that what you could also bring home could wipe out your rats as well as wipe out a fellow club member’s entire breeding program. *

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Updated February 12, 2015