In the years I've been breeding, I have been involved in about 7 shipments (both sending and receiving rats), and have never had a single loss. I've put this page together to share some of my experiences, to make life a little easier on anyone planning a shipment.
Shipping Rats - The Basics
Reasons for shipping, and how to find a breeder who is willing to ship
Within the US, there are many rat breeders. But sometimes a breeder may have to ship rats from a different area of the country. This could be due to the lack of good breeders in the area, or the desire to get a certain color or variety that might not be available locally. Not all breeders will ship - there are some risks involved, and there is some stress on the rats. But I've put together this guide to help anyone who is thinking about doing a shipment of rats.
So - how do you find a breeder who will ship rats? Some will post on their websites whether or not they are willing to ship. For others, you will have to ask. Most breeders will not ship to a brand new breeder or one without a website. They want to see that you are established and will care for and breed their rats responsibly. Regardless, when contacting a breeder for the first time about shipping rats, do not expect it to happen overnight. Shipments take months to plan and prepare, and many breeders will want to have a working relationship with you before sending rats off. So be patient and show that you deserve the breeder's rats.
For pet owners, it is often not reasonable to ship rats. Shipping rats costs as much as shipping a cat or small dog, and most pet owners are only looking for a 2-3 rats. So it's just not worth paying $200-300 for just a few rats. The only time a shipment is an option for a pet owner is if they are looking for a large group of rats, or if they have other pet owners to split the cost of a shipment. But in general, breeders may not want to ship to pet owners. It is a lot of work to put a shipment together, and breeders may not want to deal with that unless the rats are going to a breeder who will work with the lines. The other reason is that most breeders want the rats back if the owners can no longer keep them; if an adopter halfway across the country can't keep their rats, there really isn't a way to get the rats back to the breeder. So in general, pet adopters should try to find local breeders. When in doubt, e-mail good breeders throughout the country to se if they know of anyone in your area. The rat breeding world is a fairly small one so they may be able to help.
The First Step
So you've found a breeder willing to ship - what now?
Pictured below: Two 11 week old males and three 6 week old males; I would not put any more than that in a single box and would probably take one out if possible.
When planning a shipment, your first consideration is weather. In NJ, the best time to ship is in September through May. In my opinion (and this may vary by what areas the rats are being shipped to and from), the best times to do the shipments are in spring or fall.
Rats are very sensitive to heat, and although the cargo area is climate controlled, rats can be sitting on the tarmac for a while before going onto the plane and on the way off. Ideally, outdoor temperatures at both ends will be from 40-65 degrees. If you decide to ship in the summer, use extreme caution. The shipment should be done at night or very early morning. I've heard of several shipments of rats done in the summer heat, and all of the rats died. I have also done a shipment in the middle of the summer - but rats were sent and arrived in the middle of the night, and temperatures were in the 70's on both ends. It was inconvienent for everyone involved, but the #1 priority was the safety and welfare of the rats. We all survived a night with little sleep.
Shipments can be done in the winter; but I would avoid extreme cold. It would be best to wait until the forecast calls for 40+ degree weather, but that is not always reliable or possible (I am thinking of early 2011 when I don't think it got above 25 degrees for at least a month). When scheduling the exact date of the shipment, I usually try to wait until 3-4 days before you're ready to do the shipment. This will allow for a fairly accurate weather forecast.
Travel Cages and Cost
Pictured below: Two 8 month old males in the shipping container.
Rodents need a specific type of travel cage; you can order them here. When deciding how many cages to order, Taconic offers a guide to how many rats can fit into a container. One container can hold about 8-10 babies who are 6 weeks old. If you are getting any older rats, or more than 8-10 babies, you will want to order 2 or more containers. The containers themselves weigh about 3.5 pounds. Using Continental guidelines, a shipment under 9 pounds will cost $169. From 9-50 pounds it costs $219. When shipping, I prefer to use multiple boxes if shipping more than 5-6 rats, and at that point you will just have to assume that it'll be over 9 pounds and that you'll be paying $219. My last shipment I used 3 boxes for 10 rats. The total weight of the shipment (including rats, boxes, and food) was 20 pounds. About half of those rats were adults. Although the cages looked a bit empty, I was very happy that we did use 3 boxes. The flight was late and then the rats were held up at the airport for hours. Fewer rats per box meant that they had more fresh air, and the extra space was less stressful for the rats. It doesn't cost any more to use 2-3 boxes (other than that initial 9 pound hump that you will likely break anyway) and it is much safer for the rats.
You can purchase dividers for the cages, for separating males and females. But both times when I've shipped rats in a single box, the divider came loose at some point and the rats were all together. The rats were young enough that there were no accidental pregnancies, but just be aware that it is possible. This is another reason I prefer to use 2 containers; there is no chance of accidental litters.
I'd suggest ordering the cages at least 2-3 weeks before you plan to ship the rats. I've had the cages come in less than a week's time, but they've also taken 2 weeks to come, so it's best to order the cages early to ensure you have them in time.
Which Airline to Use
I always use Continental. When doing my first shipment I called other airlines...some charged much more than Continental, and I don't think any charged less. I also feel that Continental takes the best care of animals being shipped. Current rats for shipping via Continental can be found here. Rats will be either in the 0-9 pound or 10-50 pound column.
Making Your Reservation
I hate to say it but I always dread making reservations. When I call, I always get someone who doesn't know anything about shipping rats. Most recently, the person I spoke to insisted that only labs could ship rats, not private individuals. I explained that I've done at least 5 shipments and I know it's possible...after some argument the person finally talked to her supervisor who told her it was fine and to just make sure I had the right travel cages. They may also tell you that you'll need health certificates or even proof of rabies shots (which don't even exist for rats) - but you do NOT need these when shipping within the US. So be prepared that it might not go smoothly when making reservations.
When choosing a flight, if possible you always want a nonstop flight. There is too much that can go wrong when making connections. It may require that you or the shipper (or whoever is receiving the rats) travel further to a different airport, but it's worth it. The first priority should always be the rats' safety, not human convenience. If you MUST do a flight with connections, be absolutely sure that the weather will be mild.
When making the reservation, it is usually easiest for the breeder to make the call, especially if they've shipped rats before. The airline will ask for the full name, address, and phone number for both parties. So whoever is making the reservation needs to have that information about the other person. Be sure it is correct - they DO check ID on both ends and I don't think they'll release the rats if the name is incorrect. The airline will also ask for the shipper's e-mail and will send a confirmation once the reservation is made.
The Day of the Shipment
Food and Water
It is not possible to put water bottles in the travel cages, and water bowls will spill instantly. So how do you keep the rats hydrated? In my opinion, the best thing is to put a bunch of grapes in each box. The rats can stay hydrated from eating the grapes since they are high in water. Other fruits and veggies can be used, just make sure they are high in water...melon, lettuce, celery, etc. I like grapes because they have the skin so the liquid won't leak out and the rats seem to like them a lot. They may not be too happy to eat lettuce but they chow down on the grapes.
In the summer, I'll freeze half of the grapes before shipping. The idea was that it would help keep the container cool. I don't know if it helped or not since the shipment was done in the evening when it was cool, but it can't hurt as long as the rats have some that are not frozen to eat while the others thaw.
I will also throw in some lab blocks or other staple food - the amount depends on how many rats are in the box, and how long I expect the rats to be in there. If it'll be less than 12 hours I'll put in about 2 blocks per rat.
I usually use Aspen shavings when shipping; you could just anything lightweight and non-dusty. I do not use Yesterday's News or other pelleted litter; is it very heavy and would add a lot of extra weight. Aspen shavings are very light and fluffy and hardly add any weight onto your shipment.
Dropping the Rats at the Airport
Whoever is dropping the rats off will have to pay for the shipment. This means that the person receiving the shipment will need to pay the breeder before the shipment date; either by check, money order, or through Paypal. Paypal does charge fees so be prepared to send a little extra if using Paypal. This payment may be requested 2-3 weeks before the shipment depending on payment method. Checks take time to clear, and Paypal takes time to transfer funds to a bank account. My own Paypal has a 3 week waiting period before I can use funds; this is new and is a HUGE pain, I hate to have to ask for funds a month in advance, but also need to be sure the funds are there. So...be perpared to send money before the shipment.
Be sure to arrive at the airport in time for the shipment - double check with the cargo desk, but it is usually 90-120 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave.
Before shipping, you will need to zip tie the cage shut - be absolutely sure it is shut tightly! I also use lots of packing tape around the edges of the box. It is a pain to open them with all that tape - but I'd rather be safe than sorry! So tape the box up tightly.
When I sent my first shipment, I waited until I was at the cargo area to seal up the container. I thought the airline might want to look into the box to check the rats or to ensure I was shipping what I said I was shipping. But it seemed to irritate them that I held them up while I was taping up the boxes. So now, I usually bring the container all sealed up and ready to go. But I do always bring extra tape and zip ties, just in case they ask me to open up the box. So far, they haven't asked, but I'd rather be prepared!
After you drop the rats off, be sure you're given an Airbill number. You will have to give this number to the person receiving the rats - this is what they will give to the airline when picking up the rats.
Picking the Rats Up at the Airport
Whoever is receiving the rats will have to call their Quickpak location to find out where they will need to pick up their rats. During the night, you may have to go to the cargo area which is separate from the main airport. During the day (at Newark at least), the Quickpak desk is right at the main terminal so it's really easy to pick your rats up.
Be sure to bring your drivers license or other ID and the shipper will have sent you the Airbill number. Be sure to bring some scissors because the travel cages will be zip tied and taped shut so they are hard to get into.
Once you get your rats, open the box up as soon as you get a chance to make sure everyone is okay. As a courtesy, call or e-mail the breeder to let them know the rats are okay.
I also suggest bringing some "normal" travel cages with you to the airport. The shipping boxes are hard to open and close and are cramped. Also the bedding will probably be pretty dirty after the rats have been stuck in there for hours. So bring your own travel cages and transfer the rats for the ride home.
Shipping to Canada
I recently shipped some rats to Canada. I called around and e-mailed many places (including the airline and the contacts on the Canadian government's site), and according to the Canadian government's website, rats do not need import papers/health certificates/etc. When I went to ship the rats, the agent at the airport insisted they needed health certificates and an invoice. I'd printed out the paper from the Canadian government's website - which was also e-mailed to me by Continental with my confirmation - and she said they don't go by that. She eventually went to the back and got on the phone and the wait was agonizing, but she finally came back and told me it was fine to ship them with no health certificates, and there was no further trouble on my end after that.
Once the rats arrived in Canada, their new owner had a lot of problems picking them up. At first, they also wanted to see health certificates. Eventually they were able to look it up through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (search for "Domestic Rat").
After that, they did not want to release the rats because the new owner had a rattery and was going to breed the rats - she needed an importation number, a company number and a commercial declaration. Since the flight was very late, the offices to get those numbers were already closed. Since the rats were shipped on a Friday evening, the offices would not be open until the next Monday. The customs people wanted to keep the rats until Monday when the offices would be open so the owner could get the proper papers. Eventually, they released the rats because they realized that they would die if left in the shipping containers all weekend.
So we learned our lesson there...ship the rats early in the day so that the offices will be open. I would also avoid shipping on a Friday, just in case things get held up...you don't want them to keep the rats for the whole weekend. I am not exactly sure what is required to get those papers - and there is most likely an additional fee for them - so it is more complicated than anyone made it out to be when we planned the shipment!
Shipping from Paper Heart Rattery
I have experience shipping, and am willing to occasionally ship rats. But it is something that takes a lot of time to plan and I can really only do 1-2 shipments per year. When planning a shipment, I ask for a $50 fee up front. This will ensure that you're serious about the shipment especially if you'll be getting rats from different litters, and will cover the cost of my gas, supplies, and parking. The deposit is non-refundable - and I will ask for the fee once I've reserved rats for you.
Since I only breed 6-10 litters per year, I may not have a shipment's worth of rats available at one time. So this means I will have to hold rats from earlier litters for weeks or sometimes months. I don't mind doing this, but it is more work for me having those extra rats, and I can only do it for one shipment at a time.
Approximate Shipment Costs
Airline Fee (including 7% tax): $180-233
Shipment Deposit: $50
Shipping Containers: Approx $40 each; average shipment uses 1-2
Rat Adoption Fees: $20 per rat; average shipment is about 6-10 rats Total Cost: $370 to $543
About $50-60 per rat for 6-10 rats.
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