Pets

It's Hard to Make a Dollar Breeding Fancy Rats


The American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association will hold its quarterly show in Riverside, Calif., this weekend, bringing together breeders, rat fanciers, and the general public to ogle the finest rodent flesh in the area. Naturally, there will be a rat race. Also merchants, selling pet food, T-shirts, and maybe even rat hammocks.

For members of this admittedly bizarre subculture, the rat show is both a social event and a chance to sell a wider audience on the idea that rats are cute and cuddly. “You can train them, they’ll come when you call them by their name, and they like to be around people,” says Geri Hauser, who helps organize the show.

There’s real money in rats, but it’s mostly made by volume producers like Charles River Laboratories International, which supplies specimens for clinical trials, and by breeders who sell rats as snake food to pet supply stores. Fancy rat breeders, on the other hand, are participating in a much smaller economy. Many are amateur geneticists who run small-scale operations out of their homes and market by word of mouth. Most spend more time worrying about weeding out respiratory disease and mammary tumors than turning a profit.

“In the fancy rat world, $30 is pretty expensive,” says LeAnna Boardman, a former breeder who sits on the executive board of an organization called RatsPacNW. (That’s “Pac” as in Pacific Ocean, not “political action committee.”) PetSmart advertises male fancy rats for $8.24, marked down from $10.99. The website RodentPro sells frozen rats for snake food at prices ranging from 50 cents to $2.75, depending on the age of the specimen and size of the order.

A $30 rat would probably come with a written pedigree tracing the animal’s lineage, says Boardman. Rats live short lives and breed often. It’s not uncommon to find a highbred rat whose breeder can trace its forebears back 20 generations.

Another thing about fancy rats: They’re not that fancy. Hairless rats are hairless. Dumbo rats have big ears. Fancy rats described as “blue” may appear gray to the untrained eye. This isn’t to diminish the work of breeders, who are focused on bringing healthy, good-natured rats into the world, but to suggest that their most eye-catching specimens don’t grab your attention like Labradoodles or fancy fowl.

To up the ante, some fanciers wrap their rodents in dolls’ clothes. Debbie Ducommun, who runs a website called Rat Fan Club, says she prefers Halloween costumes, dressing her rats like dragons, angels, or Santa Claus. In the 1990s, Ducommun published a newsletter for 600 subscribers, who paid $25 a month for her missives on rat care and breeding. That was an odd enough pursuit to earn an appearance on the Tonight Show, where she wore a fishing vest with rats popping out of her pockets.

When the rat fancy scene moved online, Ducommun got out of newsletters and into merchandise. For $10, she’ll sell you a circular swatch of fabric that you can wear around your neck to give your rats a place to snuggle while offering protection from playful scratches. Rat fancying, Ducommun says, is a tough place to make a living. “People used to buy tons of T-shirts,” she says, but sales tailed off. “Now I’m stuck with all of this inventory.”

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek covering small business and entrepreneurship.

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