One thing owners of pet rodents should remember is that no matter how cute your little pet may look and act, they are all animals and most of their actions and interactions are based on in-built instinct, not conscious thought. As a person it may seem wrong to you for an animal to eat its own or another animal’s young, but to the animal it is just an instinctive response to some environmental or social situation.
Infanticide is usually caused by one or more of a few situations. The most common situation that leads to infanticide is the mother rodent killing a baby or babies that are deformed or wounded. The instinct at work here is that continuing to feed a baby that isn’t likely to survive takes sustenance away from the mother and the healthy littermates. The common cause of the killing of entire litters of baby rodents is when the litter is disturbed in the first few weeks of their lives, especially if the babies are handled or moved. Even if the parents don’t eat the babies they may abandon them, as the disturbance affects the parents just as if a predator has found the nest. When this happens, instinct causes the parent’s instinct of self-preservation to outweigh the instinctive care of the infants.
If you are breeding rodents, you must be careful to protect the breeding cage from disturbances of any kind. These include moving the cage, loud noises, food or water shortages, changes in the animal members of the colony, or disturbance of the nest, even for cleaning. The worst offense of all is if the new babies are handled by humans. The temptation is strong to check on the well-being of the babies. But restrain yourself until the young ones are at least three weeks old if you want to avoid the risk of infanticide. The reason that moving the cage is a problem is that changes in the lighting could trigger seasonal instincts in the rodents and cause the adults to begin to prepare for winter by sacrificing the “late litter.” Food or water shortages can trigger the same instincts, as can dramatic temperature changes.
The secondary cause of infanticide is from animals in the cage other than the mother. Males will sometimes kill the litter if there is a conflict between the breeding males in the cage, and occasionally an unrelated female will eat the young simply for food. Adult rodents of either gender are less likely to kill the young if they are related and have been raised together. Some species of rodents are much more colonial than other species, so it is recommended that you thoroughly research your particular rodent species and its optimum needs before you set up to breed them.
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