Birth is a natural process and rats rarely need assistance through delivery. Normally the entire sequence will occur in 1-2 hours.
Pre-labor and longer birth sessions with obvious signs of abnormalities/distress may require assistance or emergency care from a veterinarian. Complications are more often seen in females pregnant for the first time over the age of 10-12 months, but can happen at any age.
Even a normal birth can be somewhat stressful for the mother. Provide the doe with a warm safe area that is both private and comforting. Be sure it allows some observation and access should there in the event of complications.
Aquariums or large plastic bins often make good birthing chambers and early nurseries. Make sure that there are not bars for the babies to get stuck in or levels in the birthing environment.
A nest of white material is best for observation. The white nesting material makes it easier to monitor for any excessive bleeding.
Often breeders will breed 2 does in tandem to have another lactating female nearby in case there are problems and the mother cannot care for her offspring.
Rats often give birth at night. Generally you will become aware of the litter’s arrival from the squeaks of newborns.
Stages of Birth
Hormonal impulses will prompt a pregnant female to begin building nests days or even weeks before delivery. This varies and occasionally may not occur until the time of birth is quite close. She may even build, tear down and rebuild again and again until the nest suits her. Provide your expectant doe with appropriate nesting material. Paper towels are a good choice. Cloth can end up with holes and strings that can injure or even cause the death of a newborn.
When birth is impending there will be a bloody vaginal discharge. This occurs a day before, or the day of birth. Often, with spotting, a litter can be expected to arrive within a few hours. Excessive bleeding is not normal. If your doe shows heavy bleeding call your veterinarian immediately.
Labor is the process of muscle contractions pushing the fetus through the birth canal. While in labor female rats may hunch over or squeak. The female may stretch out as her sides constrict. She may also try to clean herself as actual birth time approaches. To prevent stress she should not be disturbed. Watch for gasping and check her extremities to make sure they have good color.
Labor usually is moderate and steady. If the labor is severe with no babies born she may have a pup lodged in the birth canal.
Birth begins. One by one the babies will make their way down the birth canal and be pushed out They can be born either head first or rump first. A female rat will help deliver the pup with her hands and teeth, pulling away the placenta and birth sac.
She licks the membrane away to clear an airway. Licking also helps to oxygenate the blood. After cleaning the newborn she will ingest the placenta and the umbilical cord, membranes rich in protein. The movement and the sound of the pup will keep the mother from ingesting it. At times, when a pup has been stillborn, the mother may ingest it after delivery.
This process is repeated over and over until the entire litter has been born.
Poor nutrition, hormonal imbalance, disease, stress, or even fetuses lodged in the birth canal are some of the things that may cause an impending birth or birth process not to progress normally.
Signs of possible complications, prior to birthing (preeclampsia) or at the time of birthing, may include distress such as piloerect fur with hunched posturing and squinting of eyes, rapid panting of breath, jerky or unsteady posture, limpness of body, excess bleeding, pale extremities, hard contractions with no results, or the cessation of contractions despite the appearance of more babies. Darker, thicker blood spotting or brownish blood can also be indicative of trouble. In the case of hemorrhage generally the babies cannot be saved. A preeclamptic condition or blood loss of the female can be life threatening and may require an emergency spay.
One of the more common complications is uterine inertia. Inertia occurs when the uterus fails to contract with normal strength and duration and at normal intervals during labor. Contractions cease or become too weak to push the fetus through the birth canal.
The rats uterus is Y shaped and consists of 2 uterine horns that both empty out into the cervix. At the point where the uterine horns meet it is possible for a pup (or pair of babies) to get stuck. Gently massaging the area can sometimes resolve the problem. If a pup is stuck and cannot be dislodged the babies behind it will die. Although the mother may be able to absorb dead fetuses, there is always a possibility of infection, which can be life threatening to her.
A pup wedged in the birth canal can sometimes be manipulated out using soft forceps and a lubricant such as mineral oil. Often the mother can pull the pup out herself. In such instances you may end up with a pup that has a birth injury (teeth marks, missing tail, bruises, etc.)
Signs of distress may indicate that a trip to the emergency vet is needed Depending on the issue behind the problem, injections of Oxytocin (a medication that induces uterine contractions), calcium and subcutaneous (subq) fluids, or possibly a Caesarian may be necessary.
On occasion during an emergency spay, if the litter is full term, the babies can be harvested alive, cleaned up and given to another dam to be raised. This is not an easy process, but it can be done.
Labor and Birth Case Histories and Photos
Generally female rats will deliver with few complications if proper health, nutrition and common sense provisions for safe nesting and birth are applied.
Be sure you have your precautions in place before the litter is due. Inform your regular veterinarian of the impending birth, research exotic emergency veterinarians in your area, and have phone numbers handy.
Hopefully the arrival of the new litter will be natural and free from any complications.