Since the advent of this lovely forum, the National Mouse Club and the hobby of breeding mice to exhibition standard have become much more widely known and accessible. The publicity is great, many more people are thinking of or have recently begun breeding and exhibiting fancy mice.
Recently it has occurred to me that a lot of newcomers to the fancy don't really know what breeding and showing entails. Without someone to tell you, how would you know? There's a lot to learn and the hobby is not simply a case of pairing up some good-looking mice and showing the resulting kittens. So, for those seriously interested in breeding mice to show, I've written some things that newcomers might not be aware of below, which I have shamelessly plundered from my own website. Some sections have appeared elsewhere on the forum, but I thought I'd just throw the whole lot together for ease.
Buying your first stock.
When you are starting out, it is best to start with either just one variety or two very compatible ones (like pink eyed white and ivory, dove and silver, or agouti and cinnamon). A small beginner stud with one variety (or two very compatible varieties) would have at least 30 does of varying ages and 3 stud bucks. Running two incompatible varieties turns that into 60 does and 6 bucks.
I can't stress enough how important it is to go to shows and actually see the varieties in the fur before making you final decision and sourcing your first trio. Looking at photographs just doesn't compare. I trawled through thousands of pictures of fancy mice looking for the variety I'd like to breed and thought black eyed creams were the variety for me. I didn't even consider doves, they just didn't look anything special in photographs - just boring grey mice with red eyes. Then the first doves were born here in an argente litter and I fell in love, they look so much prettier in real life and even though I don't have them any more I still think there isn't a variety that even comes close to them in terms of beauty. So, go to shows, talk to breeders, and see as many different varieties as possible before making a decision.
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.
Beware pet breeders selling 'show mice'.
There have been many incidents of late where newcomers to mouse breeding have arranged to buy mice advertised as show mice from a breeder, and getting ripped off. Many pet breeders who have mice from show lines sell them as show mice, and they have never shown mice in their life. I'm sure this is a genuine mistake on their part; show mice are so distinctive with their racy type, long bodies, big ears and exquisite shaped heads, that people think these are defined as 'show mice'. This is not the case.
Show mice are mice that are being shown, regardless of where they came from. If the mice in question are not being shown then they are pet mice, whatever they look like. Some people will make their pet stock more appealing by saying 'bred from show lines'. That means nothing to the exhibitor, it only takes one bad decision, one generation, and the line is ruined. To the novice looking for mice to start off exhibiting mice, this can be very difficult. It can mean novices unwittingly buying inferior stock.
If you are buying stock advertised as 'show quality', don't be afraid to ask the breeder their show results and how recently they've shown. If the reply is something along the lines of "well, I don't really show", walk away and buy some better stock from someone who does.
The best way to purchase show mice is through a good breeder in the National Mouse Club who regularly exhibits and does at least fairly well. Upon joining the NMC newcomers will receive the current yearbook which contains many adverts as well as overall show results and cup winners for the past year. This will hopefully help the novice find a breeder of their chosen variety. If not, try contacting the more successful members of the NMC for references and information of breeders who might carry your variety. If you pay for the NMC Newsletter, show results from every show are available and you can see who is breeding what and the kind of comments the judges make about their mice. So, join up first, talk to breeders, visit shows, and then find your stock
As a newcomer myself in the tail end of 2008, I can honestly say that I've never met such friendly, generous and accomodating people as the NMC exhibitors I've dealt with. They are so generous of their mice, time and advice, that there is really no need to go elsewhere for foundation stock.
On a related note, if you go to see 'show mice' with a view to buying and you realise those mice are not actually up to scratch, don't feel obligated to buy them.
Make contact with experienced and successful members
Members of the mouse fancy will ALWAYS have time for people who are seriously interested in the hobby. Ask their advice and listen. If you are unsure of who to talk to, a judge is a good starting place. Don't be afraid to call them (at an appropriate time of day and not during the World Cup, as I accidently did to Dave Safe once!) - their contact details are available in the yearbook for just that reason, so that members can get in touch with them. If you write to them, make sure you include a stamped, addressed envelope for their reply. Things like thank you cards sent to those who give you stock will be remembered and appreciated. Many members have been mousing for longer than I have been alive, and as such should be dealt with with respect.
Subscribe to the NMC News
The NMC News is the monthly magazine of the National Mouse Club and it is well worth subscribing to. It contains show results, which are vital to everyone who exhibits mice in the National Mouse Club to get feedback on their own mice and the mice of their competitors, and the show schedules, which you need to actually enter a show. In addition it contains lots of interesting articles and details of current events.
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.
The mouse fancy as whole is only interested in the mouse as an exhibition animal, not as a pet.
The objectives of the NMC (which you can read in full in the Rules and Standards) are designed towards promoting the mouse as an excellent exhibit, and to encourage breeders to breed towards the standards of excellence. This means that pet mice are immediately out of the running within the club.
Exhibition mice are not pets, they are stock. When you visit a breeder's stud for the first time, you will not find mice in big cages with toys and wheels and what-have-you because when you have a stud big enough to breed mice for exhibition, you just don't have time to keep all those things clean. Mice are much, much better off in spartan, clean surroundings than in cages full of dirty toys that you just don't have time to wash.
Mice don't need these things anyway, they are perfectly happy with other mice to interact with, litters to nurse, and a big handful of hay. Regardless of their livestock status, be assured that exhibition mice receive the best of care, simply because unhappy or unwell mice won't keep the condition needed to win shows or breed winners.
Mousing, done properly, is not a cheap hobby
It is expensive to breed and show mice and there's no way you can do it properly and make a profit, or even break even. The initial set-ups are expensive enough, with all of your equipment and cages/tubs/boxes, but there is also a great deal of travelling involved. Most mouse shows are on average 150 miles from my house. So each show is on average a 300 mile round trip, done seventeen times this showing year, which means I've spent about £850 on fuel alone in the last 12 months. Show entries for this year total at about £80. On top of that I've bought 12 Maxeys and a carrier for them (£162 plus postage). That all means that in the last 12 months I've spent over £1000 on showing alone! Since December 2008 I've spent about £250 in total on my secondhand lab cages and waterbottles. Then there are the monthly costs of food, bedding and sundries such as mite spray, worming syrup, etc. I have a relatively small stud and my mice will eat through about 30kg of grain/seed mix in a month.
Mousing takes up a lot of time
In order to bred a large amount of mice, daily dedication is needed. Mousing is a heavily time consuming hobby. I probably spend a total of 15 to 20 hours a week with the mice, excluding time taking them to shows. I check them in the morning before I go to work and spend a good hour in there every night before I go to bed; feeding, watering, handling and checking health. On clean out days (twice a week) I spend a good three or four hours with the mice. Holidays in general become very difficult and holidays in summer almost impossible. In the autumn, winter and spring you can safely leave your mice over a long weekend (provided they have plenty of food and moisture) but in the summer it is dangerous to leave mice if there's even a small possibility of mice overheating.
I am fortunate in that I have a very understanding and tolerant spouse
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.
Mouse Breeding/Showing glossary:
GENERAL MOUSE TERMS:
Buck: male rodent
Doe: female rodent
Sire: a father animal
Dam: a mother animal
Kitten: baby rodent or rabbit. Also refers to the young of cats, badgers, stoats, and many other animals.
Pinkie: naked kitten aged from newborn to about 5 days
Fuzzy: furred kitten aged 6 days to 2 weeks
Hopper: kitten aged 2 to 3 weeks
Weaner: kitten aged 3 to 4 weeks
In Kindle: pregnant
Kindling or 'to kindle': giving birth
Stud: a collection of animals for the purpose of breeding
Mousery: a collection of mice, kept for any purpose
Strain: An inbred line of mice which produces mice extremely similar to their ancestors. Most show lines of mice can be described as 'strains'.
Waster: a substandard or useless mouse
Culling: to remove an animal from the breeding program by euthanising or selling surplus/substandard stock.
Fancy: An old word for 'hobby'. Fancier = hobbyist. Fancy mouse = hobby mouse.
Casting: Shedding hair (feathers 'moult', hair 'casts')
In Two Coats: show term referring to uneven colour caused by casting
Livery: describes the belly colour on tan and fox and the points on Siamese/Himalayan. Commonly called a marking, but a livery is non-variable colour on colour (ie a tan is always tan on the belly) whereas markings vary.
Shown to the minute: a mouse which is in top condition on the show bench
Steward: The person who helps out the judge by bringing Maxeys to and from the judging table. Stewarding is an excellent learning experience for the new exhibitor as you can see all kinds of mice being judged.
Novice Exhibitor: person who has not yet won a Best in Section award (ie best self, best satin, etc)
Stocksmanship: describes a person's ability to keep their animals healthy and in good condition (ie "good stocksmanship" or "he's a good stocksman".
U/8: Classes on the show schedule for mice under eight weeks old
Best Opposite Age (BOA): the animal that has come first in the opposite age group to the overall winner. For example, if a Dutch U/8 won Best Marked, the Best Opposite Age Marked would be the best of the adult marked mice. If an adult wins Best in Show, then Best Opposite Age would be the best of the U/8 mice.
Any Other Variety (AOV): Any variety which was not specifically in the show schedule. As the show schedule lists selfs, marked, tans and satins specifically, the AOV section includes any mouse which does not fit into the first four sections. In each specific section, AOV includes all varieties which belong in that section that don't have a specified class (ie - in tans, the classes may be for black tan, chocolate tan, champagne/silver tan, and AOV tan. In satins the classes may be for ivory satin, cream satin, pink eyed self satin, and AOV satin.)
The NMC Top Twenty: The winner of the Top Twenty (this showing year the winner was Loganberry Stud - congratulations!) is the person who has accumulated the most points over the showing year. Winning the Top Twenty means that person has consistantly produced outstanding mice. Points break down like this: Best in Show = 4 points, BOA in Show = 3 points, Best in Section = 2 points, BOA in Section = 1 point. You are awarded points for winning each of these and they are added up over the year.
DESCRIPTIVE BREEDING TERMS:
Type: describes the overall shape and conformation of the mouse, NOT the size. A large mouse measuring a foot long including tail could still have very poor type.
Tail Set: describes the way in which the tail joins the body. A good tail set is long and thick, tapering from the rump to the tail. A poor tail set looks like the tail has just been stuck into the body.
Ear Set: describes the way in which the ears sit on the head. When the mouse is viewed from the front the ears should be positioned at '10 to 2'; not so low that they stick out at right angles and not so high that they stick upwards like a rabbit's ears. From above, the ears should stick straight out from the head and shouldn't bend backwards towards the rear.
Vents: The genital region. 'Tan vents' describes the very common fault of tan hairs around the genitals.
Line Under: Describes the common fault of a parting in the hair down the centre of the belly. The belly hair should be thick and smooth with no lines.
Snipey: Describes a muzzle which is narrow and pointed. This is undesirable in an exhibition mouse as the standard calls for the head to be "not too fine or pointed at the nose"
OTHER, RANDOM TERMS:
Crepuscular: an animal that awakes at dusk and dawn and sleeps during the day and night, such as the mouse
Melanin: Pigment in the hair and skin. Pheomelanin produces the red/yellow pigments and eumelanin produces the black pigment. All colours/varieties are made from varying amounts of these two pigments.
Altricial: Term describing animals which are born naked, blind and incapable of walking. (Precocial describes animals which are capable of walking shortly after birth, such as horses)
I really hope this information helps people a little bit on their way to becoming successful exhibition breeders and valuable members of the NMC, the best club in the world
(Edited because I thought of a couple more points to add)