Home: Socialisation

Handling the Pups

This seems to be one of the most frequently asked questions about mice by people of varying experience levels. First of all, I would just like everyone to know that I understand how exciting it is to have new litters and how keen you are to handle them and play with the new babies. They do say that patience is a virtue and though some sayings are absolute rubbish, this is one that it pays to listen to. If you rush in too quickly you may cause stress to mum, babies or both. Just remember that she has been through labour and feeding and will be tired – having you poking around will only unsettle her and prevent her feeling safe in her nest.

Three four to five day old siblings

When you handle the babies seems to me to depend most on how well the mother knows and trusts you. If you have only just obtained the mother then you are more likely to have to wait a while before handling, whereas if you have had the mouse since it was very young and it gets on well with you then you may be able to pick the babies up earlier. If you have planned the breeding and got the mouse when it was young (e.g. five to eight weeks) then the mouse should be comfortable with you. This is because:

a) You will have owned the mouse for at least seven weeks by the time it gives birth, since mice shouldn’t be bred under the age of 12 weeks. Therefore you are not a stranger and the mouse will be used to its surroundings and feel safe.
b) You have had time to prepare for the arrival of the pups.
c) You should have been able to socialise the mouse and gain its trust in those seven or more weeks.

You will be able to tell whether a mouse trusts you from its behaviour. Mice do have different personalities; some are shy and some are very dominant, but all will show signs of trust (or simply have an absence of fear signs). A more trusting (and usually bold/keen to explore) mouse will usually approach your hand when in the tank. The mouse may sniff and place front feet on your hand or walk entirely onto your hand and sit there happily. Some mice will take treats from you but don’t worry if they don’t as they are probably simply not food motivated.

Agouti broken baby looks at its surroundings

An example of trust I can give you from my mice is their climbing habits. If I put my hand in my adult does’ tank I will get at least four or five of them immediately racing to climb vertically up my arm. They have amazing strength and often when I am changing the food nightly I am mobbed when replacing the bowl! All mice should show a relaxed (not constant or over vigorous) grooming method when they are handled by someone they trust. For example, my mice will happily sit on my shoulder and have a wash. And of course there is my deceased doe Whiskas who let me put antibiotic cream into her eye when she was suffering from glaucoma. She not only held still while I applied the cream but also let me put it onto the surface of her eye with my finger. I don’t think many humans could do that too easily, do you?

Once you know that your mum mouse trusts you then it will be easier to know when to handle the babies. Some say that they handle on day one but unless this is a very tame doe I would not risk it for the sake of waiting that extra day. Just leave them alone in a quiet area and mum will look after them. I always wait two days before I look at the babies properly and handle them.

When the mum is out of the nest voluntarily, I pick her up and place her in a small carrier tank out of the way, where she can’t see the babies or her nest being ‘interfered’ with. Then I rub my hands thoroughly in the substrate and bedding in the mice’s tank to make myself smell more familiar to the babies and their mum. When my hands are ‘mousey’ I can gently move the top bedding away from the nest and look at the babies. When you pick them up at this stage it is usually best for short periods only to allow you to count them and check the bellies for milk etc. Mice can lose body heat very quickly and you must make sure your pups don’t get too cold when you handle them.

Handling them every day is best and will get them used to walking on the different texture of your hand as compared to the bedding in their tank. When you pick them up be gentle – remember that a small amount of pressure to you is a lot more serious to them. Scooping the babies up may be the best way of doing it. At this stage don’t pass the babies around other people for them to hold in case it upsets the mother. Just keep the handlers to you and possibly one other (constant and regular i.e. the same person at regular intervals) person and everything should be fine.

Three and a half week old siblings

If your doe is more skittish then you will probably have to wait longer for her to settle down. Catching her out of her nest when she will let you remove her from the tank can be a problem with these does so you must be careful. If you force her out of the tank she may feel it is not a safe place and kill her babies when you put her back in. Put your hand in the tank and let her smell you and try to gradually move your other hand up behind or from the other side and scoop her up. Even skittish does are usually ok after they are picked up. It is a natural instinct for small animals to fear being approached from above (this is where predators in the wild would attack from) and so it is best if you can raise them knowing that they will be safe even if they are approached (by your hand) from above.

In the case of more nervous mums you will have to wait three or four days until you first handle the babies, however anxious you may be. Even if there was something wrong with one of the pups there is not likely to be much you could do anyway: their mother is their best hope. You can try to check the pups earlier than you attempt to handle them, but only if you can do so safely. Make sure that if you look you make good use of the opportunity to see that the babies are all alive and healthy. Unfortunately it may be the case that some have been stillborn or died from complications etc, and they may even have been partially eaten by the mother mouse. If this is the case then you must obviously remove any remains to keep the nest as sanitary as possible and prevent decay or disease for the sake of the other mice. You may also be able to spot any deformities etc – unless these are causing the mouse pain or unfair impairment and you decide to have them put to sleep, they will be best off staying with the litter. Handrearing is difficult and the pup will probably stand more chance with its mum and siblings. If the impairment is a serious physical one you may want to supplement the pup’s food once you can handle it with kitten milk replacement formula, just to make sure that it is managing to get fed properly. Mum will not abandon it but the pup’s siblings will be stronger and more agile and may push the pup out at feeding time so it does not receive sufficient nutrition.

What day should I handle on?
Day One: Only handle in rare cases if you have a very tame doe. Not recommended for beginners.
Day Two: If the doe is trusting and completely at home with you it should now be possible to handle the pups for the first time.
Day Three: Wait until now if your doe is a little nervous or shy.
Day Four: Don’t wait too much longer than this unless yours is a special case. Handle on day four if your doe is very skittish and not keen on being picked up.

Top of page

 Where next?
Back to Socialisation
To go to another section click on one of the links below:







General Information


The Mouse in Science




©2003-2009 Cait McKeown HomeEmail