A lifespan of “two years” comes as a shock to many first-time rat parents. Most people do not realize that due to repetitive, mass-scale breeding for colour and fur pattern – with no regards to health and temperament – the lifespan of our domestic rats today have become woefully short.
However, please do not be discouraged, since rats are generally very healthy with only a few common ailments that are easy to treat and are often preventable. As with any companion animal, you must be prepared for the worst, and that means having a sizable emergency vet fund for each rat. We recommend $200 for each male and $300 for each unspayed female.
**If this is an emergency, skip to HERE.
**If you are considering euthanization, skip to HERE.
Prevention: This is the key! PREVENT these parasites in the first place, and you may never have to deal with an itchy rat. The key is to keep your rats’ home clean and to be very careful with any commercially bought bedding. Mites are often found in bags of Aspen, Boxo, Carefresh or any other “shavings” type bedding. Freeze any sort of commercially bought bedding for at least 48 hours before use. The only exception seems to be Yesterday’s News. Absolutely do not use pine or cedar bedding.
Symptoms: repetitive, desperate scratching, especially behind the ears, on the shoulders and the sides, which results in small scabs and red irritated skin. In the case of lice and fleas, you will actually be able to see tiny black or dark-red “dots” in the fur.
Revolution (for kittens or cats): 2 drops applied topically to the skin of the nape. Must be 60mg/mL concentration. This is a one-time treatment that is safe and easy. However, it is vet prescribed.
Ivermection/Bimectin: 15mg/mL concentration. Can be found in any Equestrian Store or Tackle shop. Feed 1 dose (about the size of an uncooked rice grain) for adult females. Feed 1 cooked rice grain’s worth for adult males. Treat once per week for 3 weeks. Amount must be adjusted for exceptionally large or small rats. Not safe to use in pregnant, sick, or extremely young/old rats. Be careful not to overdose your rat, as Ivermectin could be lethal.
Change all bedding, clean the cage and all cage accessories and play surfaces with a mixture of vinegar and a mild soap. Launder all fabric if possible and throw away anything that cannot be thoroughly cleaned. Mites/lice/fleas are all easily passed from rat-to-rat; however, there is little-to-no chance that they will be passed onto humans or different species pets.
Bumblefoot (Ulcerative Oododermatitis)
Prevention: Make sure your rats’ living surfaces are clean and soft on those small, sensitive rat feet.
Symptoms: Red sores on the bottom of hind feet. Sometimes will appear raw and open or may be a darker red/brown. May open and bleed. Pus may be present. In most cases, will appear as reddened, raised skin on the bottom of the hind feet.
Treatment: In mild cases, by cleaning and covering all hard surfaces, the issue will resolve on its own. In more severe cases where a sore is actually present or bleeding is occurring, the rat’s feet need to be soaked 2-3 times a day in a very warm saline solution, then dried thoroughly. Maintain a clean cage and keep all surfaces covered during and after healing process. Blu Kote is also a very effective treatment if you can acquire it in Canada. In severe cases, an antibiotic can help with clearing up infection.
Prevention: Provide safe chewing options for healthy wearing down of teeth. Regularly check your rat’s mouth. In some cases, this is a genetic condition that can be managed easily at home.
Symptoms: Drooling, difficulty eating, weight loss, odour from mouth or persistent rubbing of the mouth with hands. Ill-aligned or over-grown teeth can be observed.
Treatment: For a one-time occurrence due to trauma or bad chewing habits (ex: bar-chewing), remove hazard and provide chewing alternatives to prevent re-occurrence. Using either cat nail clippers or any similar type of clipper, trim teeth to be even. Be careful to avoid the tongue and lips. A second person may be needed to help, or a fabric restraint can be used to wrap the rat and temporarily restrict movement. Consult an exotics vet to show you how to do this the first time, if needed. In the case of chronic/genetic malocclusion, trim teeth to evenness every two weeks to two months, depending on rate of growth. In the case of severe malocclusion resulting in oral abscess, consult an exotics vet. Tooth may need to be extracted and abscess drained. Antibiotics will be needed. Read more about this here.
Upper Respiratory and Lower Respiratory Infections
No. 1 killer of domestic rats
All rats are born infected with the Mycoplasma bacterium. It is passed on from mother to offspring through the birthing process. Depending on the site of infection, this can result in Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) or Lower Respiratory Infection. As a rat owner, you need to understand that Mycoplasma (Myco) will not hurt a HEALTHY rat, and in fact, may never rear its ugly head if a rat remains healthy throughout its life. It is only when Myco ‘flares up’ and manifests itself as a respiratory infection that it will hurt, and even kill your rats.
Prevention (of ‘flare up’)
Avoid stress: a rat will almost immediately begin showing symptoms if stressed. This can include exposure to pain, crowded living conditions, unsuitable living companions, and hidden illnesses. On rare occasions, some rats will be especially sensitive to loud noises, the presence of a dog or a cat, or other particular “triggers”.
Avoid PINE or CEDAR or other soft wood bedding. It’s as simple as that. The phenols released by soft wood combined with ammonia present in rats’ urine create a toxic fume that will directly trigger flare ups.
Symptoms: red discharge around the eyes and nose, puffy/fluffy fur, squinted eyes, hunched spine when sitting or standing still, fast/shallow breathing, any kind of snorting, squawking, wheezing, sneezing or whistling sound. Any wheezing or crackling sounds in the chest when you hold your rat’s belly against your ear. Lethargy, loss of appetite and any sudden change in behaviour can all be signs of URI or Lower Respiratory Infection caused by a flare up. If left untreated, the flare up will progress to URI, Lower Respiratory Infection, Pneumonia and Chronic Respiratory Disease.
Treatment: CONSULT YOUR EXOTICS VET.
In milder cases, oral antibiotics are almost always effective. As the condition is allowed to progress, other methods of treatment, such as use of bronchodilators and corticosteroids may need to be considered. Read more about this here.
Inner Ear Infection
Also caused by the Myco bacterium.
Prevention: Keep your rats’ cage clean and avoid any stress triggers. Treat any respiratory infections promptly and thoroughly.
Symptoms: Head tilted to one side, potentially one slightly bulging eye, walking in circles or lack of coordination and balance. Foul or strong smelling fluid from ear in advanced cases.
Treatment: Broad–spectrum antibiotics such as chloramphenicol (Chlorpalm), enrofloxacin (Baytril), doxycyclin, amoxicillin or azithromycin (Zithromax). Consult your exotics vet as these are all prescribed antibiotics. In some cases, the rat will maintain a small head tilt even after ear infection is resolved. This will have almost no affect on their future mobility and balance. Read more about this here.
Vesical Proteinaceous Plugs
Commonly referred to as “penis plugs”. Caused by a build up of various bodily fluids (we won’t specify). Most commonly occurring in old, overweight, or mobility compromised males.
Prevention: Keep your rats’ cage clean, and make it a habit to regularly check your males’ penises for any sign of build-up.
Symptoms: Limping, protest/squeaking when touched or picked up, lethargy and a foul odour may be present. The plug is usually a milky or pale yellow material covering the tip of the penis.
Treatment: You may need someone to help. Firmly apply pressure with your thumbs and forefingers to either side of the penis sheath. Gently massage until the penis is revealed and the plug can be removed. If the plug is solid or firmly attached, use a small amount of olive oil to soften the plug during removal. Be extremely careful not to damage the raw and sensitive flesh. If penis seems exceptionally red or swollen, an infection may be present and antibiotics are recommended to prevent further complications.
(more commonly occuring in females)
Unfortunately, almost 50% of unspayed female rats will develop mammary tumors by two years of age. These are benign, self-enclosed tumors that will not cause pain, but will grow rapidly, impede mobility and immediately begin using up nutrients that would otherwise nurture your rat. Left untreated, mammary tumors will grow to mammoth sizes leading to eventual death.
Prevention: Spay your females if possible. In Ottawa, we have yet to find a reliable vet who is willing to do this. However, other options are available, such as the Suprelorin Implant. Either option will reduce the amount of estrogen in your female which drastically lowers the chances of mammary tumors (down to about 4%, some research shows). Avoid feeding soy on a regular basis.
Symptoms: Fleshy lump, most commonly found under the armpits or near the female genitals. As it becomes engorged, the tumor will drastically distend the skin. May burst on occasion and bleed.
Treatment: Surgery. Due to the location and nature of mammary tumors, removal is generally safe and recovery-time is a few days. Unfortunately, unless spayed, tumors tend to reoccur. Special cage accommodations, food accommodations and pain management will be necessary if tumor cannot be removed due to age or other illnesses. Euthanasia may have to be considered in certain circumstances.
Pituitary Tumor (PT)
Another Estrogen-linked tumor, this growth cannot be observed and is not treatable. Fortunately, the condition can be managed and quality of life is often preserved.
Prevention: Spay your females if possible. Although there have yet to be clinical tests, Suprelorin implants are also believed to reduce the chance of developing pituitary tumors.
Symptoms: Any of the following can occur in almost any combination. Symptoms are organized from most common to least commonly seen, but still can be a symptom of PT:
- Gradual loss of coordination
- Gradual weakness, resulting in knuckling and stumbling
- Inability to control forearms (unable to hold food with both front paws)
- Thinning skin and weight loss
- One bulging eye and/or unequal pupil size
- Circling, head tilt, seizures, domed or swollen “forehead”
- Bumping or pressing head against a fixed surface (sign that there is building cranial pressure)
- Sudden aggression
- Excessive drinking leading to frequent, dilute urination, or dehydration, due to not drinking at all
Treatment: While this tumor is inoperable, its growth can be effectively slowed or even stalled with the right medication. For long-term care, Prednisone prescribed with Baytril and Doxycyclin is recommended. CONSULT AN EXOTIC VET SPECIALIST. Provide as much comfort for the rat as possible. Prepare emotionally for the possibility of euthanasia. Read more about these tumors here.
Two drugs, cabergoline and bromocryptine, show remarkable results in rats with pituitary tumors by actually shrinking the size of the tumor, thereby reducing symptoms to almost nil. These drugs may extend your rat’s life for months and are highly recommended. You might need to find a pharmacy that carries them (they are made for people who have PT), and ask your vet to find out the correct dosage for your rat if he or she doesn’t know. Unfortunately, no drug will cure PT.
While Mammary Tumors and Pituitary Tumors most commonly occur in females, it can and sometimes will occur in male rats as well. The key to preventing both is to provide a healthy balanced diet and to spay/implant females as young as possible to reduce the estrogen produced naturally in their bodies.
In emergencies… DEXAMETHASONE
For rats who have advanced inflammation due to respiratory illness, severe inner ear infection, or pituitary tumor, a subcutaneous shot of dexamethasone might save his/her life. From experience, we have seen the remarkable turnaround in rats who had severe or recurring respiratory or inner ear infections. The rats were puffed up, lethargic, would not eat or move. Just hours after the dexamethasone shot, it was as if they made a full recovery! The regular course of antiobiotics for 4 weeks or more must still be prescribed and strictly adhered to in order to clear out the infection, but in the short term, dexamethasone was the best thing to put the rats on the road to recovery.
When to Euthanize… and How?
We believe a rat should only ever be euthanized when they are suffering, either emotionally or physically and when all other treatment options have been explored.
Quality of life is the deciding factor. Can your rat still enjoy life? Does he or she enjoy food? Company? Play? Attention? Or is he or she just uncomfortable and continuing to decline despite medical treatment? As your rat’s caregiver, it is up to you to decide, unselfishly and honestly, whether or not your rat’s enjoyment of life is outweighing his/her suffering or discomfort.
When you have decided that euthanasia is the right thing to do, make absolutely sure that you go to a trusted vet who will give you all the time you need. There is no way to humanely euthanize your rat at home.
Signs that your vet is not the right person to euthanize your rat:
- Refusal to explain the process
- Refusal to allow you to be present during the euthanasia
- Refusal to use inhaled anesthesic
The euthanasia itself should involve 2 steps:
- An inhaled anesthetic used to prepare the rat. Oxygen can also be given in cases of advanced respiratory disease where the rat is panicked and unable to breathe comfortably. The next step should only be taken once your rat is completely relaxed and unresponsive.
- An injection of the euthanasia agent which will stop the beating of the heart. This injection must NOT be given directly into the heart or any body organ, even if the rat is sedated. The risk of your rat feeling this horribly painful procedure is too great a risk. The injection must be into the soft tissue of the abdomen (right side). In this case, overdosing is always preferable to under-dosing.
Look for support to cope with the passing of your beloved rat.
Please contact us at any time for a sympathetic ear.