Rat Health Problems
The full range of health problems that your rat may encounter during its lifetime clearly can not be addressed in a leaflet of this length, and what follows should by no means be considered a substitute for veterinary care. A good vet who is experienced in dealing with rats is invaluable, and it is a good idea to find one before a potential problem arises. The National Fancy Rat Society also keeps a register of recommended vets all over the UK. Outside the UK, your local rat club may be able to recommend a vet.
Veterinary care for rats need not be expensive – we have been charged between £6-8 per visit at various clinics, and often two rats can be included in the cost of one consultation. Most vets charge the same prices to operate on rats as for cats; this is a generous gesture, as it is harder for them to operate on smaller animals – surgery is more fiddly. In fact, many vets actually make a loss from operations on small pets – but still do them out of interest. A charity such as the PDSA or Blue Cross can provide free or cheap veterinary care if you are on a low income, but many private veterinary clinics will also try to help if you explain your circumstances to them.
For more detailed information on healthcare, and particularly on post-operative care, we recommend the Rat Healthcare booklet by Debbie Ducommun (reviewed under ‘Books’).
If one of your rats appears to be unwell, a vet should be consulted as soon as possible. Although rats are hardy little creatures, they can go into decline very quickly, and by putting off seeing a vet you may be reducing their chances of survival.
Any surgical operation carries a risk that the animal will not survive the anaesthetic, but modern inhalant anaesthetics are far safer than the older-style injectables. Try to find a vet who uses Isoflurane anaesthetic – it is very safe for small mammals, complications are extremely rare, and they recover quickly from it. Vets who have used it rave about it, and the authors would not risk having any other anaesthetic used on their rats.
There is no need to starve rats before an operation, as they cannot vomit. Starving the rat puts it under extra stress, and may delay recovery.
After an operation, rats often try to remove their stitches. You can stop this by applying Johnson’s Anti-Peck (sold to stop caged birds pecking themselves or others) or Bitter Bite (a repellent product similar to bitter apple, but more effective and marketed for dogs and cats) over and around the wound. Elizabethan collars should be avoided – they can be very distressing for rats. Many people recommend using a length of surgical stocking/stockinet to cover the whole of the rat’s body, cutting out holes for legs.
A few common symptoms of rat ailments are:
General Signs of Illness: the animal is hunched up, lethargic, coat staring (fluffed up and messy), uninterested in food or attention. Eyes may be half closed and breathing may appear laboured. If your rat shows these symptoms, or others that worry you, consult a vet.
Red Discharge Around the Eyes and/or Nose: Not an ailment in itself, but a symptom of distress. Rats’ mucus is stained red with a pigment called porphyrin (indeed, the mucus is commonly referred to as porphyrin). This discharge may be present if your rat is ill or simply stressed (as, for example, from moving house). Observe the animal carefully, and if it appears unwell or if the discharge continues for more than a few days, consult a vet.
Head-weaving is often seen in rats with pink or red eyes. The rat will usually stand still and weave its head from side to side for a while. This is perfectly normal; all rats are short-sighted (although they can sense movement from some distance, they can only focus for a few feet), but any animal with pink or red eyes has worse eyesight than those with dark eyes.
Moving the head from side to side helps the rat to judge distances and the depth of objects by making them appear to move. This should not be considered a fault or problem – rats sense smells, sounds and movement (by feeling vibrations on the floor) much more acutely than humans, and can cope perfectly well with limited eyesight. Note that there is a different, unrelated condition called head tilt or wry-neck, where the rat holds its head on one side permanently. This can be caused by a inner-ear infection, or a brain tumour; it needs urgent veterinary attention.
Sneezing/Wheezing/Noisy Breathing: Often the sign of a respiratory infection. Virtually all pet rats are infected with an organism called mycoplasma which inhabits their respiratory system. Many rats carry mycoplasma without appearing to suffer any illness, while others are not able to carry the infection unharmed. These rats will usually start to sneeze as young adults; they then develop some damage to the respiratory tract (lungs, windpipe, etc.) which makes it easier for bacteria to enter and cause an infection. This is usually what has happened when a rat starts to wheeze, and if a great deal of damage is caused to the respiratory tract, the rat may develop emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia and lung abscesses.
Although sneezing is not necessarily a sign of serious illness (most rats sneeze at some point in their lives), a rat that sneezes frequently and for an extended period should be observed for any other signs of illness. If your rat’s breathing appears laboured, wheezy, or has a rattley sound, consult a vet immediately. When treated early, secondary respiratory infections can often be kept at bay with a strong course of antibiotics (see Antibiotic Therapy).
While sneezing or snuffling may be the result of the irritation of the respiratory tract from dust and phenol oils if the rat is kept on shavings, often a rat with noisy breathing is suffering from a secondary infection in the upper respiratory tract. These infections often sound far more serious that they are, and we have had some success treating them ourselves without antibiotics, as discussed below under ‘Home Remedies’. These approaches have helped our animals, but we would stress that your pet’s health is your responsibility. If you are in any doubt about which approach to take, you should talk to your vet.
A rat which shows a tendency to succumb to infection should never be bred from, as the tendency towards respiratory illness is partly hereditary. This means it is likely that offspring and resulting generations will have weakened immune systems. It is important to obtain rats from breeders who select for healthy animals; a persistent sneezer, or a rat which wheezes, should not be bred from.
Tumours: Some rats develop tumours as they get older. Female rats are more likely to develop tumours than males, and rats fed on a high-fat diet are also more at risk. The most common form are benign mammary tumours, which start off as a small, pea-like lump and grow steadily. They can occur in the rats’ groin or armpit, along her side or on her back; rats have mammary tissue in unexpected places. They do not usually cause any distress until they either seriously impede the rat’s movement or start to ulcerate and become sore, or outgrow their blood supply and become gangrenous.
If your rat develops a tumour then you can either have it surgically removed, or to have her put to sleep when she becomes unhappy. You do not need to put her to sleep as soon as a tumour appears – she may have many months of happy life ahead of her before it starts to hurt, and as the rat’s owner you will be the best person to decide when she is no longer enjoying life. If you decide to have the tumour removed and it is benign, the operation is relatively simple and need not be stressful for the rat if she is otherwise healthy. Tumour removal usually costs around £30 (1998 prices) and, again, it is helpful to find a vet with experience in this area. However, bear in mind that a rat who is prone to tumours may well develop others after a first tumour is removed. This does not mean that it is not worth having the operation done – the rat could well gain at least an extra 3 or 4 months of life, which is comparable to 6-8 years for a human – but you need to take into account her overall health and your vet’s opinion as to whether the tumour can be operated on. It is easier to remove tumours while they are still small.
Skin Irritation: Usually seen with scabs caused by excessive scratching. Caused either by infestation with parasites such as mites, which may not be visible to the naked eye, or by a dietary problem.
Diet-related skin problems may be caused by an allergy to peanuts or certain other types of protein-rich foods, or an adverse reaction to artificial additives in processed pet food. The usual culprits include peanuts, some brands of dog food, the brightly coloured biscuit often found in rodent mix, and for some animals apparently sunflower seeds.
Before, or as well as, treating for parasites, remove the foods listed above from your rat’s diet, clip the back toenails, and treat existing skin abrasions or scabs with an antiseptic ointment. Not all rats will react the same way to the same foods – it may take time to find which ingredient is responsible. A useful way to eliminate the problem is to put your rats on a home-made fresh diet, containing no chemical additives. After 10 days of an altered diet (either very low protein or preservative – free), all signs of irritation and scratching should have disappeared; if they remain, contact your vet to consider other options.
The most effective treatment for mites (both the common fur mite, and rat mange mite) is Ivermectin, sold in the UK as ‘Ivomec’, and available only from your vet. This liquid can be painted onto the rat’s ears, and absorbed through the skin, or it can be injected. Rats may develop a bad reaction to the injection, so it is better to apply it to the skin – discuss this with your vet, as some prefer to inject, so they can be sure that the rat gets the full dose. Ivomec is given every two weeks until the problem clears – usually two or three doses.
Obesity: Fat Rats. One of the best ways that you can ensure that your rats lead long healthy lives is to make sure that they do not get fat. Fat rats live shorter lives, are prone to tumours, are more susceptible to infection, and less likely to recover from surgery. Does should be sleek and lean, and bucks muscular; neither should feel soft and squashy, nor should they feel bony. Like people, rats often enjoy foods that are bad for them, and like children, rats will often choose fatty or sweet foods over healthy ones. It is up to you to make sure that your rats eat healthily, and you may find it better to save treats for hand-feeding after your rats have eaten their healthy food. A healthy balanced diet, regular exercise (at least an hour outside the cage every day), and large, clean living conditions will insure that your rats’ lives are lived to the fullest.
Bleeding from vulva: Rats do not have menstrual periods. Bleeding from the vulva may occur without problems during labour, or sometimes apparently when a doe is miscarrying her litter (normally the babies are reabsorbed inside her). However, if the doe is not pregnant, then she may be suffering either from an infection of the uterus, or uterine tumours of some form (eg fibroids). Your vet may recommend antibiotics; if the problem does not clear up, spaying would cure it – but remember that this is a major operation, and very stressful for the rat.
In hot weather it is important to protect rats from heat exhaustion and dehydration. rats regulate their temperature mainly through the tail and foot-pads, so if you provide a bowl of cold water a hot rat can cool herself down by paddling in it. A fan placed near to the cage will provide a cooling breeze. You can also give your rats frozen vegetables (e.g. peas) as ice-lollies, and ice cubes can be added to their water-dish. Make sure that the cage is not in direct sunlight in hot weather.
Antibiotic Therapy: While antibiotics can be a useful tool to fight bacterial infection in rats, they should never be used without the instruction of a vet. Microbiologists and vets who specialise in rat care have noted more frequent and severe outbreaks of bacterial infections among pet rats in recent years. Over-use of antibiotics in animal medicine is thought to have contributed greatly to the cases of antibiotic-resistant bacteria now in evidence. Every time an antibiotic is used there is a risk that it will encourage the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which threatens humans and animals worldwide.
Another disadvantage of using antibiotics is that there is evidence suggesting that, in the long run, they harm the health of the patient. This is partly because antibiotics destroy bacteria that live in the animal’s gut, and which help make some vitamins and minerals which the body needs. It is therefore a good idea to feed some sort of pro-biotic supplement during and after a course of antibiotics. If you do decide to use antibiotics they should be given only when prescribed by a vet who has examined the animal.
A rat which shows a tendency to succumb to infection should never be bred from, as the tendency towards respiratory illness is partly hereditary, and it is likely that offspring and resulting generations will have weakened immune systems. It is important to obtain rats from breeders who select for healthy animals; a persistent sneezer, or a rat which wheezes, should not be bred from.
If antibiotics must be used, it is important that the entire course is used up, otherwise the malignant organism being treated may return in a stronger, antibiotic-resistant form. Experts vary in their opinion of the best way to administer antibiotics; some believe that they should be given for at least a week after all symptoms disappear. Others, worried about the damage that antibiotics can do to the natural bacterial balance in a rat’s body, suggest a cycle of ten days on the medicine followed by a rest period of five days off. This is repeated two or three times, with the rat fed live yoghurt and/or pro-biotic supplements during the five days ‘off’ to replenish gut flora and minimise damage to the immune system. In some cases of respiratory disease, your vet may advise two courses of different antibiotics –one following the other — to combat the primary and secondary infections respectively.
Home remedies that we have used as alternatives to antibiotics:
Echinacea (pronounced ek-in-ay-sher)- a herb that appears to boost immune response in many species including humans and rats. Recent controlled studies at Exeter University found that it appeared to reduce the risk of infections in humans by 10-20% – not a massive amount, but this could make the difference between contracting a serious illness, or fighting it off. A few drops of echinacea tincture (more effective than tablets) can be added to the drinking water of sick rats; a few drops of honey can be added too disguise the taste. As the body quickly develops a tolerance for echinacea, it is not recommended that you use it for more than three weeks at a time. Alternatively, you can give it to the sick animal for one week out of four. Echinacea is available from health food shops, or by mail order in the UK from Neal’s Yard Remedies (tel. 0161 831 7875).
Feed the rat garlic in whatever form you can – raw is best, crushed into soft food, or as capsules.
A pro-biotic supplement can also be used to boost a rat’s immunity when it is run-down, unwell, or stressed (as from travelling), and may help prevent serious illnesses. Rats can be given a pro-biotic supplement throughout their lives without it doing them any harm. Entrodex, manufactured by the Vydex Animal Health (tel. 01222 578578), also contains vitamins and electrolytes: it can be added to the drinking water one or two days a week for healthy animals, or every day for ailing or elderly rats. Live yoghurt (containing beneficial bacterial cultures) is also a useful supplement; however the cultures that it contains are largely destroyed by intestinal juices before they are able to have any noticeable effect. For this reason, specialised pro-biotic products like Entrodex which specifically target the intestine and are able to withstand gastric acidity for long enough to colonise the gut and multiply, are more effective. The manufacturers of Entrodex can supply a free booklet which explains this, and includes results of trials of the product.
Rats should be kept in single-sex groups; if you keep un-neutered males and females together, they could produce a litter of 8-18 babies every 3-4 weeks for at least a year, leaving the mother exhausted and the babies undernourished. Baby rats often become fertile after 5 weeks of age, so males and females must be kept separate after this time. Where a mating is planned, it is easier to reintroduce the male to his male cage-mates if he is only allowed to stay with the female for a short time – he can be left with her for an evening when she is in heat, or perhaps overnight. A pregnant doe can be left with her (female) cagemates until a few days before she is due to give birth.
We do not recommend that you leave a male and female together after mating. Although male rats make good fathers, a buck that has lived with a female for any length of time can be difficult to reintroduce to his male companions. Furthermore, does go into heat — the post partum oestrus — within hours of giving birth. If you leave the male rat in with the mother she may get pregnant immediately after giving birth and her health and that of her offspring will be greatly compromised as she tries to suckle one liter while another grows in her belly.
Does should be separated from their cage mates when they look heavily pregnant, or at around 20 days’ gestation if you know the date of mating. They should be given privacy, lots of nesting material, and a secure, dark nestbox such as a cardboard box. Complications are rare when the doe is left to labour alone, but there is hard evidence that animals subjected to close observation and disturbance in labour are more likely to have difficulty. In general, leave well alone; the doe will deliver her babies and tidy them up without any help. If a baby is born dead or deformed, she may eat it – and again, she should be left alone to get on with this. However, if you find that the doe has been straining for more than 3-4 hours without producing a baby, or if she appears distressed, call a vet.
Rats do not generally respond well to hormonal stimulation with oxytocin, according to experts we have asked. If serious difficulties occur in labour, a caesarean operation may be the only solution. It is highly unlikely that any baby rats delivered this way will survive outside a sterile laboratory. The mother will not usually be able to nurse them, but if you try to hand-rear them from birth they will not have received any colostrum and will generally die. It is probably kinder- to you and the baby rats- not to try.
Before breeding from your rats, please consider carefully whether you will be able to find suitable homes for a large litter. Pet shops will not always be able to take unwanted babies off your hands, and if you are at all concerned for the welfare of your baby rats then you should only offer them to a pet shop if it has an excellent reputation, and the staff are knowledgeable. Many pet shops sell rats as food for snakes (called ‘feeders’ or ‘feeder rats’, but they are just ordinary domesticated rats) – but the best will only sell them as pets. You may well have great difficulty finding good homes, and could end up having to keep the whole litter. Before breeding, it may help to consider whether the rats in question have any special characteristic which you want to see passed on. Whatever their looks, they must be healthy and friendly – but unless they are also particularly attractive and extrovert, are other people going to want their babies?
If you do decide to breed, we strongly recommend reading the chapters on breeding and rearing rats in Nick Mays’ ‘The Proper Care of Fancy Rats’, and if possible contacting the breeder of your own rats for advice. It is a basic requirement that both parents are friendly and healthy — there are large hereditary aspects to the temperament and functioning of the immune system, so rats which are aggressive or sickly are likely to produce babies which share these characteristics. The female should be at least 4 months old so that she has had time to mature. If a female has not bred a litter by the age of 8 months then there is a risk that she will have difficulty giving birth, but if she has produced a litter before this age then she may be bred from until she is around a year old, providing that she is healthy and in good condition.
The mother must be left with her kittens until they are fully weaned at 4-5 weeks, but they will not be ready to go to new homes until about a week after weaning (in order for the breeder to make sure that the babies are well handled, healthy, and of good temperament). To preserve the health and condition of the mother she should be allowed a rest of at least a month after weaning one litter of kittens before she is mated to produce another.
Where to Find Out More:
Books about Rats
There are numerous books about rats in print at the moment, but several are desperately inaccurate. Any book on pet care will have both good and bad points; publishers generally do not require authors to have their work reviewed by experts before the book is printed, so it is easy for inaccuracies to creep in, and for controversial opinions to be presented as hard-and-fast facts. This means that it helps to read as much as possible, and to talk to experienced rat owners, to get all views – rather than treating one book as your ultimate guide. A more extensive booklist is available from the NFRS (and on its website), but here are some of the better ones.
The National Fancy Rat Society Handbook – The Exhibition Rat
This comprehensive work on keeping, breeding and showing fancy rats has been rewritten and will be available from the NFRS during 1999 – details will be published in Pro-Rat-a.
The Proper Care of Fancy Rats by Nick Mays
An excellent guide to the history of the rat fancy, and a must for anyone considering showing and breeding fancy rats. Contains many colour photographs. Useful, but this book was written some time ago, and so not all varieties of rat are listed. The health section is outdated. 256 pages, hardback, pub. TFH (1993), ISBN 0-86622-340-1, £10.95
Rat Health Care by Debbie Ducommun
Debbie Ducommun is the founder of California’s Rat Fan Club, and this publication contains a wealth of first-hand knowledge of rats and their ailments. Includes guides to possible causes of symptoms, first aid, nursing care, and a health food diet for rats. Some of the content is controversial, eg spaying female rats is recommended to prevent tumours, but other authorities on rat healthcare maintain that spaying is a major, invasive, operation for such a small animal whilst tumour removal is a minor procedure. Discuss with your vet and perhaps an experienced rat breeder before deciding on any course of action recommended by the book if you are uncertain. 32 large pages, softback, pub. The Rat Fan Club (1995), no ISBN. Available in the UK from the NFRS for £4.50 inc. P&P – send a cheque made out to ‘NFRS’ to Veronica Simmons, 5 Dorville Road, London SE12 8ED. Available elsewhere from the Rat Fan Club.
Rats! By Debbie Ducommun (Not yet fully reviewed)
Lots of useful, original thought, and original photos. As with the healthcare book, some very controversial opinions regarding, eg, surgery and ageing, but highly informative & great fun. Pub. Bowtie Press (1988) ISBN 1-889540-05-6 $16.95 (not on general sale in UK yet)
The Rat by Ginger Cardinal, from the series An owner’s guide to a happy, healthy pet
Focuses on the practical aspects – eg suggested ‘house rules’ for children helping to care for rats. There is a guide to American varieties, but some colour names are different to those in the UK (eg their Beige is our Buff). The book also shows Hairless and Tailless rats, which are not shown in the UK as these deformities are linked with health problems. Considerable confusion in the health chapter, eg regarding respiratory illness, and uterine problems – consult a more reliable source in this area. The chapters on ‘Understanding your rat’ and ‘Training tips and tricks’ are good – includes a guide to rat body language and ‘The Meaning of Squeaking’! Pub. Howell Book House (1998) ISBN 0-876054289, £8.99
Rats on the Internet
There is a wealth of rat-related information on the internet. The National Fancy Rat Society can be found at http://www.cableol.net/nfrs and its site is well worth a visit. The Rat and Mouse Club of America has a very well-presented site, with lots of information, at http://www.rmca.org . It has links to dozens of other rat pages, and to rat clubs worldwide. Another way to find WWW pages containing ratty information is to use a search-engine (like Yahoo! or Infoseek) and type in the word “rat” or “rats”.
The Rats Mailing List is an e-mail discussion group that provides a forum for the members of the list to discuss all manner of thing pertaining to rat care and ownership. Although some serious matters about health and husbandry are discussed, the majority of the 30-50 daily postings that you will receive from the list if you subscribe, will be anecdotal stories about ‘cute’ or amusing things that members of the list’s pet rats have done. The Rats List is great for those who enjoy chatting about the joys of rat ownership. To subscribe send an e-mail (with the subject line blank) to email@example.com with the message body containing the word “info” on one line and “end” on the next. You will then be sent a message containing information on how to subscribe and list protocol. Two Usenet newsgroups that have a lot of rat-related postings are rec.pets and alt.pets.rodents.
A caution regarding internet rat-related sources: Although many interesting and informative discussions take place on the internet, bear in mind that you shouldn’t believe everything you read, and that although some of the posters may have a lot of knowledge and experience, many of the ‘experts’ have limited experience. While you may learn a lot from such resources, it is best not to rely on information gained from newsgroups, mailing lists or other internet sources unless you are certain that the author is knowledgeable and trustworthy. If in doubt, contact your vet, the National Fancy Rat Society, or an experienced rat-owner/breeder with your query.
It is hard to find accurate information about rat care and health because rats have only become popular pets in recent years. Joining a club or society is the best way to find out how to care for your rats, and to keep up to date with the latest developments in rat husbandry. Clubs can also help you get the most out of your pet rats by giving advice on socialising them and so on. There are many other excellent rat clubs worldwide, and we do not have space to list them all here. Overseas readers on the internet will find links and information at the RMCA. The authors have been members of the clubs below, and can recommend them to readers in the UK.
The National Fancy Rat Society is a must for rat owners in the UK. It can be a great help to both the pet owner and those who are interested in showing or breeding rats. It runs regular shows throughout the country, has a bi-monthly journal (Pro-Rat-A) which gives down-to-earth, reliable advice on pet care, and experts in the Society are available to help with any queries that you might have. For membership details send an SAE to the Membership Co-ordinator (address below).
The National Fancy Rat Society also runs a kitten register (for finding or selling rat-kittens), which is available to all enquireres, and has a register of recommended rat-friendly vets, which is for members only.
National Fancy Rat Society, PO Box 24207, London SE9 5ZF