Fancy Mice

On the opposite end of the prestige-cost-difficulty spectrum from Thoroughbreds lies the modest rodents.  There’s no glory to be had in breeding a perfectly shaped rat or mouse–although if you look hard enough someone out there will give you a ribbon in exchange for an entry fee to their rat show.

For those who really want to shape their lines, see the fruits of their progress in months instead of decades, start and end their hobby at will with little moral or ethical conundrums and for a cost that’s a mere fraction of owning a larger animal, rodent breeding is where it’s at.  Mouse stock is cheap to acquire and cheap to dispose of, an entire mouse breeding program can be accomplished in the corner of a shed or a bookshelf, they are easy to feed and maintain and culling usually supersedes expensive vet care options, mice mature quickly, they have short gestation times, and have large litters.  All of the major impediments to starting and keeping a horse or dog breeding program don’t exist in mice.

The lack of pretense in discussing their hobby is as illuminating as it is disturbing in the rodent fancy: there’s little talk of rainbow bridges and happily ever after.  There’s no retirement and vet visits, the name of the game is constant and efficient culling.  Dog breeders who embody the same detached and callous relationship with their stock can attempt to cover it up with overly calculated language and the appearance of an emotional commitment that likely doesn’t really exist.  They don’t even bother in rodents.

Look at the ribbons! Ignore the poop.

It’s not about winning ribbons. Ok, ok, it really is about winning ribbons. 

There are some breeders who love the breed more than the sport, who when given a chance between the two when they are in conflict will side with the animals instead of the institution.  For others, the sport is superior to the animals.  You’ll recognize the later as breed hoppers in conformation, who after failing to make a large enough impression in one breed will suddenly reinvest in another breed that they deem more competitive or attractive to upstarts.

This mouse breeder gives us an insight into this mentality. She abandons the mice she actually cares about in favor of mice she has a better chance at winning with:

 When I first started in the mouse fancy at the beginning of 2009, my chosen variety was dove self. Experienced fanciers told me that I’d never get anywhere with them and that I should choose something else, but I persevered because I found them so beautiful. I was firm believer that you have to love what you’re breeding since you’re looking at 50 mice of the same variety, day in, day out, and in any case winning wasn’t that important to me… Or so I thought!

Eventually I needed another silver buck from Heather, which she kindly gave me, along with another little hint that maybe I should give up on the doves and breed something with which I could win. My doves were regularly winning their class but never got anywhere in the challenges and, although I was not bothered to start with, I was starting to care about winning.

I was starting to feel very frustrated and I’d come to the conclusion that for some reason doves just can’t compare to PEW/silver/champagne. I’d had about eighty litters of dove/silver at this point and in every single litter the silvers had been better mice than the doves in every way.

Whatever the reason for it, whether it was a lack of skill on my part or an impossibility in the variety itself, I could not succeed with dove self. But although I failed I certainly feel that the couple of years I worked with them were not wasted. I learned so much from them and the other fanciers from whom I asked advice. I really think that failing with these mice made me a much better fancier in the long run!

Look, they come in Merle!!

The most important genetics are coat color genetics!

The level of genetic ignorance in the fancy is staggering, and this blog aims to light a candle in that darkness with numerous essays about genetic science.  But one thing I haven’t written much about is mundane color genetics that have no moral implications.  Most breeders in the fancy have only a modicum of interest in genetics and most of what they know stems from an unhealthy obsession with how to make pretty animals in unusual colors, thus the investment in study of coat color genetics.

As many of you know, when the mousework is done for the day I spend my time learning what I can about everything; husbandry, breeding, showing and, my favourite subject, coat colour/pattern genetics.

Like dogs, this quickly turns into the most shallow and frivolous obsessions like making sure Dalmatians have silver dollar sized spots that don’t touch.

I spent many hours searching for information, and eventually came across some photographs of Dutch, broken and even marked mice from 1919. They were very similar, in fact I have seen Dutch mice which looked just like the ‘broken’ of the 1919! They were nothing like the superb brokens we see on the show bench now, with their good type and small, defined spots. These were patchy Dutch, at best; complete with poor size and cobby type.

So anyway, my first litters had arrived and I will never forget the excitement of impatiently waiting for those first markings to come through.

Abyssinian mice have distinctive swirl patterns in their hair known as “rosettes” –sort of like the ribbons you can win for breeding one.

And it doesn’t stop with coat color patterns, we also see the same novelty obsession with unusual hair patterns that we have in dogs.

National Mouse Club Standard: Currently unstandardised by the NMC. This is the provisional standard that I have written and towards which I am currently working: “The Abyssinian mouse must have at least one rosette on either side of the body. They must meet at the spine and form a ridge of hair running from the middle of the back, along the spine and finishing at the tail set. The rosettes must appear symmetrical when viewed from above. More rosettes is an advantage, but overall symmetry and rosette coverage is of greater import than number of rosettes. There must be a defined parting down the centre of the under from throat to vent. The colour may be that of any standard variety with eye colour to match”

Heavy metal band patches on your lab coat makes mouse judging hard core.

Follow the herd mentality

One of the most important things when choosing a variety is whether or not winning is important to you. There are varieties that are not as likely to win as others. Reds, for example, will not have as good a chance at best in show as a silver self because reds are naturally let down by the poor type inherent with the Ay gene. A superb example of a red will get it’s due, but it’s much harder and will take longer. But, there is still much satisfaction to be gained from varieties like reds, especially if you become known within the fancy as having the best mice of that variety. If you want to win, chooose a variety that has a good chance. Any of the pale selfs and satins have much success on the show bench, but black is the only dark self likely to make it to best in show. Chocolate and blue will never look as good as a good show black, and varieties like these are known as ‘bridesmaids’, as in ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’. Black tans are more likely to win than, say, champagne tans, because with a black tan the whole mouse is bred to be as dark and rich as possible, whereas on the cham tan you need to keep the top colour delicate and pale whilst trying to make the tan dark and rich. Breeding marked mice will rarely result in BIS winners – but when you have a ‘flyer’, it will keep on winning for as long as it’s kept in show condition. If you’re in it to win, keep an eye on the top twenty and the show reports, see which varieties are consistantly winning and which fanciers are doing well with them, and go to them for advice and stock.

No room for sentimentality, it’s not about the animals it’s about what they can get you and the ribbons look just as good even after the animal that won them for you is dead.

You cannot successfully breed and exhibit mice without culling.
The optimum amount of kittens a female can rear at a time is four or five. In the wild mice have very, very large litters because only four or five will actually make it to adulthood. In captivity it is possible for all fifteen of a large litter to survive to adulthood, but these adults will be nowhere near the quality of the adults from a litter of four. The litter of four will be bigger, meatier, and healthier because they had all the milk they needed. As if this wasn’t reason enough, show breeders must cull babies because there is simply no room to keep surplus animals. Your space will be needed for your showing and breeding stock. Mice are not particularly popular pets and you will find it very difficult homing most of each litter. Bucks especially need to be culled as babies because they are greedier with milk than does and, when they grow up, they will most likely need to be housed alone because males will usually fight to the death. Your first litter could well produce ten males that will end up needing ten seperate cages. On the other end of the scale, there is no space for retired mice. Female mice can breed up to about a year old, maximum. After that, she will be taking up space in your stud that you need for mice you can use. A male can breed to the end of his days, but if his son is a better mouse than he is, there’s no point keeping him. It sounds very harsh, I know, but that’s just how it is when you are breeding small animals for exhibition. If you are unable to kill mice, show breeding is not for you.

 Inbreeding is the tool of choice. 

Inbreeding is the only way to produce consistant winners.
If you want any kind of consistancy in the quality of the mice you’re producing you NEED to inbreed. INBREEDING IS NOT BAD! Some strains of mice have been bred brother to sister for a very long time with no new blood added and they are normal, healthy, mice with only one head and four legs.

Inbreeding can only use the genes that are already there – if the genes are all good then you can only produce good stock from them. The problem comes in when there are hidden bad genes, when a dodgy gene is being carried down the family unnoticed. For example – you don’t know that the doe you’re mating carries a gene that produces mice with no legs. You mate her to a random unrelated buck, who unknown to you carries a gene to produce an extra pair of eyes. The offspring all turn out as healthy, curious little babies and grow up normal. This is called hybrid vigour, when the offspring of two unrelated parents are apparently healthy because they each only have one copy of the parents’ genes. Then, you breed a brother and a sister from the mating together and lo and behold, your kittens have no legs and four eyes. This is terrible, and the uninformed may well blame this on the fact that these mice were the product of brother/sister mating. What has actually happened is you’ve identified that the gene is there and therefore can avoid using any mice from that strain again.

Now imagine you’re breeding the best mice in the fancy, everything about them is perfect and they win time and again. There is no other stock as good, so there’s no way you’ll outcross to inferior stock for no reason! You keep inbreeding and because these mice are perfect they are hiding no bad genes, and bad genes don’t spontaneously appear. You will end up with generation after generation of perfect mice.

These scenarios are exaggerated obviously, but they illustrate that you have to inbreed if you want to produce good mice consistantly. If you don’t, you have no idea what kinds of horrible things are lurking unseen in the genetic make-up of your mice. At the very least, inbreeding brings these things to the surface and enables you to make a decision on how best to improve your mice. At the very best, inbreeding will cement in the good qualities you want to keep and produce consistant quality mice that will improve as you breed the best mice together through the generations.

The Japanese take it to a whole new level of depravity.

If excessive levels of inbreeding and culling weren’t enough, the Japanese have left their mark on mouse breeding too.

Fancy mice are mainly descended from the common house mouse (Mus musculus). Around 1905 existing fancy mice were crossed with pink eyed Japanese Waltzing mice (Mus musculus wagneir). This work, done by Darbyshire, introduced the pink eyed gene into the fancy, resulting in the creation of several new colour variations.

Here’s a video of what “Waltzing” looks like:


The term Waltzing derives from Japanese waltzing mice, however there are many strains of waltzing mice known today. These mice have a neurological disorder which causes circling behavior. They almost always run in one direction, in a circle pattern, and it can sometimes get rather violent. Sometimes mice also have a head tilt in addition to circling. The circling is so severe that they are unable to walk in a straight line or run on a wheel. This type of waltzing is inherited and can sometimes be seen from the time babies start walking around. It increases in severity as the mice age. These mice generally don’t live very long. The term “Waltzing” is often used in the mouse fancier community as a blanket descriptive term for any circling behavior among mice.

So not only do they actively cultivate physical defects and give them cute names, they also seek out mental defect and propagate it across previously unaffected lines.  But hey, it’s called “waltzing” and it comes with red eyes too, so it’s all good.

There’s so much in common between the dog fancy and the rodent fancy that I could pull quotes like this for hours.  The ostensible difference is that dog breeders keep up the pretense that they are improving the stock for some greater goal than ribbon chasing and that the dogs are somehow being served by this endeavor.  Mice have no similar utility to man outside the lab so the mouse fancy has no such pretense that they are serving any higher goal than ribbon chasing.  They’re also brutally honest about the value of these mice as pets: little to none.  Unburdened by the same societal pressures and scrutiny the Dog Fancy is under, the mouse breeders give us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the breeder who chases ribbons but who existentially spends much more time throwing mice against the wall.

Scottie at The Retriever, Dog, & Wildlife Blog has an excellent post up analyzing this particular id and parallels with dog breeding.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.