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I am not a vet and have no veterinary training. The below is only intended as a guide of the most common problems that can occur with rats and in my experience of keeping rats, what I would do to treat these problems. Books like the NFRS Handbook on Common Diseases of the Fancy Rat and Debbie Ducommun's Rat Health Care and the Medical section on Virginia's Rat Links page provide far more information on rat care. The RMCA drug chart is a very useful resource for information on drugs for rats and in recent times the Ratguide website has grown into an excellent resource.

Even the best cared for rats can get sick, whilst the Internet and books can provide you with some information, if you have any concerns about the health of your rat, seek the advice of a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible. No matter how 'expert' someone is, there is no way they can give an accurate diagnosis via e-mail or without seeing the rat. When rats get sick, they can go downhill very fast, so a quick response to any illness is very important - the up side of that is they tend to respond very quickly to drugs.

Emergency First Aid

Respiratory Problems

Skin Problems

Lumps and Bumps

Balance/Head Tilt Problems

Urinary/Uterine Bleeding


Emergency First Aid

If your rat goes down with something and you can't get to a vet quickly, there are a few things you can do to help with things like rehydration, reducing shock, stopping bleeding, etc.

The key things are to keep the rat warm by using either heat pads under the bedding area or infra-red lamps suspended above the cage are ideal. Emergency hot-water bottles can be made by filling latex gloves or similar with hot water and covering with a towel in the nest area. Keep out of direct light, rats generally don't like bright lights, but sick rats like it even less so keep lights dimmed around the sick rat. Also keeping the rat somewhere quiet, away from loud noises, other animals, children, etc. is important.  

Dehydrated rat - you find your rat is dehydrated - pinch skin and release and the skin doesn't 'ping' straight back is the symptom of this. You can help to rehydrate the rat by syringe feeding the rat with warm soy milk or Lactol or warm water with a little sugar and salt in. Products like Polyaid make excellent liquid for assisting in rehydration and giving the rat the nutrition they need while they are not eating properly. Rats with respiratory problems can get dehydrated, so it is important to get the rat to a vet as soon as possible. Your vet will probably inject sub-Q fluids under the skin and may well give you some syringes to take home to inject yourself or some rehydration powders. If the rat needs continued rehydration and feeding with a syringe, Hills A&D (available from your vets) is of ideal consistency for syringe feeding.

Overheated rat - Because rats are so small and not well adapted to heat, they can succumb to heat stroke very quickly. If your rat is overcome by high temperatures, get him or her cooled off as fast as possible. Salivating and breathing hard are signs of being overheated. Wet them down with water or smooth them with a cool damp cloth,  then try to get them to drink water, preferably water with salt and sugar added to help with rehydration as above. Flush their mouths with water even if they don't drink. Rats cannot pant like a dog; they regulate their temperature through their tails. They can withstand colder temperatures much better than hotter ones. Rehydration powders, electrolyte or sports type drink may be helpful. Try to get your rat to drink a small amount of that. Don't over do it because these are high in sugars, which could cause diarrhoea. If the rat doesn't recover fairly soon after cooling them down, get them to a vet because heat stroke can be deadly.

Shock - keep the rat warm and quiet, feed warm soy milk, Lactol or warm sugary/honey water by syringe. You ideally need to get the rat to a vet as soon as possible. Shock can be caused by many things including most of the other ailments listed here.

Bleeding - One of the most common bleeds is a broken or ripped out toenail. Toenails bleed profusely and styptic powder (for dogs toenail clipping) is easily obtainable from your vet or pet shop. In the absence of styptic powder you can use corn flour and alike. Basically dip the offending toe in the powder, confine the rat to a small carrier bedded on kitchen towels and keep the rat quiet, warm and hydrated. Ensure the bleeding has stopped before you consider putting the rat back in with his/her companions. Keep the wound clean with salty water and animal antiseptic cream. It may be worth a course of antibiotics as well just to ensure that no infection sets in, although sites that have bled profusely are generally less likely to get infected than sites where there is only a slightly leak of blood.

Other wounds like puncture wounds, tear wounds, etc., treat as per humans first aid basically. Apply a pad to the area while still bleeding and then keep clean. If the tear is big, it may need stitching, although I have seen gashes up to about an inch long reseal themselves overnight, but if you are unsure then seek a vet's advice. Another common cause of open wounds is the rat removing stitches after an operation. These ideally need re-stitching as soon as possible if the stitches are removed before the wound has sealed. It's probably better to keep the rat away from his/her companions until the wound has started to show signs of healing. Rats heal very quick, so this may only be for 24-48 hours, but this really depends on the rat. Younger rats wounds can heal almost overnight while older rats can take several days before the wound really starts to heal.

Sick rats often have blood red coloured discharge from nose and/or eyes - this is not blood, but is Porphyrin and the rat will probably appreciate you cleaning this off for them with a damp tissue when they are under the weather. Sometimes rats can get a little porphyrin around the eyes or nose soon after waking up, so it is worth giving them a little bit of time to see if they clean themselves up. Also rexes can show signs of irritation from stray hairs tickling the eyes or nose which will show as porphyrin, so you may need to trim their whiskers/eyelashes.

Fits/Seizures - Fits and seizures can be caused by many things. Sometimes when a rat is in it's final stages of respiratory distress it can have a seizure, but they can also have epilepsy and other cause of fits due to illness. Most fits only last for a a short time, maybe 20-60 seconds. Unless the rat is in serious danger of damaging themselves during the seizure, it's better to leave them until they have stopped. If you need to pick the rat up to remove to a safer area, ensure you do so firmly holding the rat securely as they may well bite, due to disorientation, fear, stress and not really being very aware of what is going on. Keep the rat in a dark, quiet place and get to a vet as soon as possible.

Choking rat - The symptoms of a rat choking are drooling and pulling the head back in gagging motion, flattening the ears. In most cases the blockage does not stop the rat from breathing and the best thing you can do is stay calm to try to help the rat to remove the blockage. Normally the blockage will work its way out given time and veterinary assistance is rarely necessary. If choking persists for more than about 6 hours then you must take your rat to a vet. The object lodged in the throat may be too big to pass down, or the cause may be a tumour or some other problem, rather than something the rat has tried to eat. Sometimes respiratory illness can cause gagging and choking symptoms.

If the rat cannot breathe, then it is imperative you assist quickly. You can try the Heimlich manoeuvre pressing sharply up and in underneath the ribcage in an attempt to dislodge whatever is stuck in the rats throat. Another method is described in Deb Ducommun's Rat Health Care book as "the fling".

"Hold your rat firmly around the neck with one hand, and by the base of the tail with the other to hold her securely. Make sure there are no objects within an arm's length. Lift the rat overhead and bring her down in a rapid arc, so that at the end of the path she's tail up and head down. This can be repeated 3-4 times, then give the rat a rest, check her breathing, and see if anything is visible in the mouth. This is extremely effective in dislodging objects in the throat. However, don't use this procedure if your rat can breathe, or you might make it worse."

Diarrhoea - Avoid fruit and vegetables and ensure that the rat does not get dehydrated. One of the best treatments I have found which was prescribed by my vet is Protexin combined with Kaogel. Sometimes rats can get diarrhoea when on antibiotics, and it is safe to give them a probiotic prescribed by your vet to help combat this. Probiotic yoghurts are also good to give rats as well as long as the rat is not on a medication where dairy is not recommended.


Respiratory Problems

All rats (apart from laboratory rats born by caesarean) carry mycoplasma pulmonis (myco). Whether this flares up into a respiratory problem or not depends on many things. Stress, change of environment, weak immune system, other illnesses and many other reasons can cause myco to flare up.

Symptoms:
Constant sneezing
Clicking noise from chest
Rattling noise from chest (this can be mistaken for the rat 'talking' to you)
Weight loss
Porphyrin staining around the eyes and nose (blood coloured mucus)
Coat looking 'staring' - lack of shine and standing on end

If you rat is displaying any or a combination of these symptoms, it should be taken to the vet as soon as possible. Respiratory illnesses can deteriorate the rat very quickly if not caught early enough. Your vet will probably prescribe a course of Baytril for 10-14 days initially. The usual dosage for Baytril is approx 0.25ml per lb bodyweight twice daily, meaning does normally get 0.2-0.25ml twice a day and bucks get 0.25-0.3ml twice a day. Baytril should never be given in the water as you cannot tell whether they are drinking enough of the dose to be beneficial. It can either be syringed directly into the mouth or hidden in a favourite food. Your vet may also prescribe Doxycycline as a combination with Baytril and may give your rat a steroid injection and/or decongestant injection dependent on the seriousness of the illness. (There are other antibiotics available for use with rats, but the above are the most common given) Normally there is no need to separate the sick rat from his/her companions unless being with the others is making the sick rat more stressed. Something your rat may benefit from as well is being steamed. The rat can be held above steaming boiling water, to which a small amount of Olbas oil can be added to help with clearing the airway.

There are other respiratory illnesses but myco is the most common. Your vet may wish to do a swab if the rat is not responding.

Infections Acquired from Rats

The Health Protection Agency has recently updated their website with a detailed page on infections we can get from rats (primarily wild rats, although if your rats are kept in sheds or garages they may pick up infections themselves from wild rats)

There are various myths around as to what rats can and cannot catch from us and vice versa and hopefully the below will give accurate facts on this.

There are two very nasty, but extremely rare infections we can catch from them -

  • Leptospirosis (Weil's disease) which is sometimes carried by wild rats and if your rats ever come into contact with their wild cousins, there is a slim chance they could pick up leptospirosis. Wild rats around country farmlands are the most at risk from carrying the disease as it is also carried by some farmyard effluent from cattle. The illness goes unseen in rats and for us to contract it, there needs to be an open wound and the infection to get into the wound. The symptoms in humans are flu like initially, and if left untreated can kill within a couple of weeks, so if you think there is any chance your rats have been in contact with wild ones, it is worth considering getting them tested or possibly just a blanket course of antibiotics as this will treat the disease in the rats. Lots of information on Weil's disease can be found here.

  • Rat Bite Fever is extremely rare in the UK, but not completely unheard of. There are two forms of the infection - Streptobacillus moniliformis or Spirillum minus. More information on the human side of information can be found here and a google search on Rat Bite Fever will find you endless USA links on the illness. Like Leptospirosis, the rats have the infection unnoticed, so if you have contracted Rat Bite Fever, it would be a good idea to seek the advise of a rodent specialist vet and get the rats treated with antibiotics.

And the one they can catch from us -

  • Streptococcus Pneumoniae can kill rats very quickly if not treated immediately and is a type of Alpha Haemolytic Streptococci. Rats can catch Strep Pneumonia from humans. If you have Streptococcus Pneumonia stay away from your rats and find another person to take care of them. Contact with your rats can cause them severe illness and a high likelihood of death.

The below was written by Ann Storey (NFRS President) and reprinted with permission.

There is a misconception that rats can catch 'strep throats' from their owners. Strep throats in humans is caused mostly by Group A Streptococci or Streptococcus pyogenes. Occasionally Group G and B Strepts can cause them as well but that isn't relevant to this discussion. This organism does not cause respiratory infection in rats.

However, another species of Streptococcus; Strept. pneumoniae can cause respiratory infections (among other things) in humans and rats.

Common symptoms of pneumo infection in rats are staring coat, lethargy and being generally off colour, respiratory signs, porphyrin round the eyes and a VERY snotty nose. The sticky nasal discharge will get all over the inside of the front paws when the rat attempts to wipe it off.

Can be treated with Zithromycin and rats usually get over it.

In humans it can cause a range of symptoms, from a mild cough to meningitis (there is a vaccine now but I don't think it covers all strains.) so if you have a chest infection don't cough on your rats.

I should also point out that rats can catch this from each other, so if your rats do have it they haven't necessarily caught it from you. Some rats are also healthy carriers, as we can be too. It can also occur as a secondary infection, following a bout of sendai for instance.


Skin Problems

Scabs are almost always caused by either mites or lice. Lice are visible to the human eye as small red dots, while mites are not. Both will cause scabs, usually shoulders, chin and neck are the worst hit areas. Many people mistake the scabs for war wounds from fighting so it's well worth treating any scratch marks and scabs as mites initially before resorting to separating what may well be perfectly happy companions.

The treatment for mites or lice is best done with Ivermectin, although over the counter sprays or powders may work and some forms of 'drop on' for small animals which contains Ivermectin are now available over the counter. Ivermectin is generally available from the vets - your vet should put a small drop on the ear for the rat to clean off and absorb. DO NOT allow your vet to inject Ivermectin as it is very easy to overdose via the injected method. If one rat shows symptoms of mites, they all need to be treated. (Ivermectin is also available in horse wormers, but care should be taken to mix thoroughly if you wish to treat using a grain of rice sized dose as Ivermectin overdose can kill by breaking down the nervous system.) The treatment is one dose of Ivermectin per week for 3 doses to ensure all the eggs hatching are caught as well. Ensure also that the rats toenails are trimmed as they can do quite a bit of damage to themselves with long back feet toenails.

Other causes of scabs may be dietary related; this seems to be more common in bucks than does and it seems to be related to the amount of protein the diet but is also usually associated with some sort of underlying stress or illness. The scabs tend to concentrate under the chin and around the face area. The treatment for this is to reduce the protein intake in the rats diet and treat with Ivermectin. Most cases of scabs are mites and the jury is out on whether there is a form of 'protein allergy' where the diet is actually weakening the immune system and causing mites to take hold as Ivermectin does treat it effectively in most cases. Many schools of thought are that mites are present at all times and it's only reduced immune systems that allow them to cause the scabs.

It is normal for non-castrated bucks to have a yellowy orange grease on their backs, commonly nicknamed buck-grease. This is related to testosterone in the system and is not easy to remove by washing. Bucks really seem to vary the levels of buck grease that is normal and diet can help keep the coat glossy and looking less greasy as well.

Hair loss and bald patches can be caused by barbering, where another rat is over grooming to an extent of grooming the hair off. The barberer will quite often barber all the hair off their own front legs as well as patches on other rats. It is not known exactly what causes this, but boredom and stress may be a cause. If the bald patches appear to have a red circle effect to them, it is possible it could be ringworm (treatable with Ivermectin). This needs treating swiftly as it is possible to transmit this to humans.

Lumps and bumps on tails and ears is often sarcoptes mange mites - there is a really good article on ratguide on this. This also needs treating with Ivermectin and the ears can be left permanently damaged if not treated early enough.

Staphylococcus Aureus can be passed either way between rats and humans as a skin infection. Sometimes the skin can look similar to a ringworm fungal infection and typically looks a little like eczema or tiny little blisters on the skin. The best treatment, both on rat and human, is hibiscrub or hibisol to clean the affected area and tea-tree oil with at least 5% tea-tree.


Lumps and Bumps

Lumps are not that uncommon in does, although quite rare in bucks. Normally the lumps are benign mammary lumps, which can either be removed or left. Some lumps may be malignant tumours and unfortunately these spread cancer through the rat's body and organs quite quickly and if removed, almost always reoccur. When a lump does occur, it's probably best to monitor it's growth for a week or so before talking to your vet - the lump may be a mammary lump, tumour or abscess. Assuming the lump is a tumour or growth - tumours usually feel looser and 'detached' under the skin - the decision needs to be made on whether to remove or not. If the rat is under 18 months and in good health (no vet should operate on a rat with respiratory problems), then it is probably worth considering getting the lump removed and possibly tested as to whether benign or malignant. If the lump is benign, there is a reasonable chance it won't grow back, if it is malignant, it almost certainly will. I had one rat with a mammary lump removed at one year old and she lived to well over two with no more lumps since, while I had one doe that had three lumps removed from a year to two years old, and had 4 more grow back after 2 years and was put to sleep from respiratory problems at 2 years 8 months with 4 lumps about golf ball sized that were not really affecting her that much. In Debbie Ducommun's Rat Health Care book, she states that evidence suggests spaying does can prevent mammary tumours or reoccurrence of mammary tumours if spayed when the first lump is removed or as young does. The school seems to be out as to whether this truly makes a difference or not. Operating on rats over 2-2.5 years old is probably not really fair on the rat, the risk of the anaesthetic and trauma from the operation is probably worse than living with the lump. I had one rat who was about 3 1/2 years old when put to sleep with a mammary lump bigger than a tennis ball - they can get about quite well with them and have good quality of life for many months.

Abscesses usually feel harder and less mobile under the skin than mammary lumps and tumours and feel more 'attached'. If you think your rat has an abscess you can do quite a lot for them yourself, although it is worth getting the rat on a course of antibiotics as well. Quite often in the area of the lump you may find a small wound, although it is not unusual to find nothing. The lump may grow at an alarming speed, usually much faster than a tumour and usually gets very hard just before scabbing over and bursting. You can speed up the bursting by applying a warm saline compress to the area several times a day. When the abscess finally bursts, expect to see sticky, green, yoghurt consistency puss - the smell can be so putrid, it can make you feel sick! Once the abscess is open, clean the wound with salty water and ensure all the puss is out before allowing the wound to heal over, otherwise the abscess will come back again. The rat should be on at least topical antibiotics until the abscess has completely healed and if it is stubborn, may need oral antibiotics as well. If the abscess refuses to burst you may need the vet to lance it, also if the abscess keeps coming back it may be a walled abscess where there are several layers and may need to be surgically removed.

For bucks, it is possible for them to get an abscess on the preputiary gland, which is just in front of the penis. These do seem to be reasonably common and generally do not require additional treatment aside from the regular abscess treatment. It is not known what causes this, but often a buck will get one appear on one side and a second on the other side soon after. These may reoccur later in life as well.

Small dark red lumps on the feet are called bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis). They can be treated with Blu-kote (USA product) or Purple Spray (UK) which is for horses, cattle and sheep and can be obtained from farmers outlets and saddlers shops. Bumblefoot has been suggested to be caused by various things including genetic tendency, overweight, wire shelves and diabetes. I have always kept my rats on uncovered wire shelves and never seen a case of bumblefoot in my rattery and that certainly seems to be one of those internet spread myths that wire flooring causes it.


Balance and Head Tilt Problems

There are three possible causes of head tilt and/or loss of balance in rats but it should be stated clearly that the single most common reason for a head tilt in a young or young adult rat is ear infection: -

Ear infection - unfortunately rats have no way of telling us they have a little bit of ear-ache until it gets to a stage of causing either balance or head tilt problems. By this stage the ear infection is quite advanced and rapid treatment is essential. The rat may appear to be rolling from lack of balance and completely unable to stand, but if it is an ear infection, getting the rat injected with steroid and on a course of antibiotics will improve the condition very rapidly. If the ear infection was quite advanced the rat may be left with a slight head tilt after treatment, but it is not unusual for them to make a complete recovery with no sign they ever had the ear infection.

Stroke - strokes will have the same symptoms as ear infection, but the treatment will not have the same effect as it would for an ear infection. As there is no way to differentiate the symptoms, a steroid injection plus antibiotics is the initial treatment. The steroid injection should help a bit and the rat may well stabilise enough to continue quality life, particularly with repeated steroid treatment. Quite often they will show signs of weakness of a limb or continued slight balance problems, but they may well live on for quite a while after the first stroke. It is unusual for a rat to have a second stroke and be able to maintain quality of life after.

Pituitary Tumour - again the symptoms are the same as for an ear infection, again treat as for an ear infection. The steroid will help stabilise the condition for a short period of time and repeated steroid treatment can help for a short time, but with a pituitary tumour there is one extra symptom to look out for in that the rat has an inability to hold food properly with their front paws - they will wedge the food against things to eat. This gets worse until the rat stops eating completely and the quality of life goes. Unfortunately by the time a pituitary tumour has displayed the symptoms, there is not much time left.


Urinary/Uterine Bleeding

The most common way you will discover that your rat is bleeding from this area is by finding blood in the bedding. The amount of blood can vary from between slightly pinky urine to actually appearing to drip blood. In all cases, your rat needs to be put on antibiotics as soon as possible, but also needs to see a vet as soon as possible. Rats can die within a very short time when bleeding from this area as it is not uncommon for the uterus to already be full of blood if the rat is haemorrhaging internally and the amount you are seeing is just a little of what is actually there. Unless your vet can see or feel anything obvious causing the bleeding, they will normally treat first as an infection and if the bleeding doesn't stop within a day or so, particularly with a doe, normally the vet will want to do an exploratory operation and it may be necessary to spay her. It could be a cyst, tumour or problems with the reproductive organs or just a simple urinary infection. You can get an idea if the bleeding is from the uterus or bladder by putting the doe in an empty carrier with just white kitchen towel in - usually a rat will urinate within about 10 minutes or so. The urine will appear more pinkish if the problem is cystitis, where if it is uterine will appear as separate drops.

Article written by Estelle

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Last modified: February 02, 2009