Rat Health Care & Information
Rat Health Checks
You should give your rats a daily 'at a glance' health check and a thorough health check at least once a week and also before taking the rat to a show. When you buy new rats, you should also give them a thorough check as well.
The key things to check 'at a glance' on at least a daily basis with your rat:
Nose - check for redness, listen for noisy breathing.
Eyes - check for staining and redness, eyes should be clear and no sign of cloudiness.
Mouth - check teeth not overgrown, check for any sores around the mouth area that could be caused by overgrown teeth.
Chin and face - free from scabs, protein related scabs tend to accumulate under the chin area and around the face.
Ears - clean and free from scabs, scabs in the ear area may be sarcoptic mites.
Chest - hold rats belly against your ear to listen for unusual noises and wheeziness.
General body - free from scabs and wounds, also check regularly on the underside for mammary lumps. Check around rump area for mite scabs and lice. Skin should 'ping' back when gently pinched.
Feet and Legs - trim the toenails regularly, check for bitten toes and lumps on the underside of feet.
Coat - smooth and glossy to touch, apart from rex rats. No bald patches.
Tail - clean and smooth, check for cuts and damage.
This should be done as regularly as possible, but at least once a week and definitely before entering your rats for shows and before buying a rat from a breeder or pet shop: -
First to introduce the main model:
This is Pendragon's Ivor, in the pictures a fit and healthy year old buck.
Nose - The nose and whiskers should be constantly twitching as the rat is breathing. There should be no discharge from the nose and the rat should be inquisitive to smells as can be seen in the main picture above, where he is sniffing out the buck that was sat on the rug before him!
Discharge/mucus from a rats nose or eyes is known as porphyrin and is red in colour, which does make it easy to think that your rat has a nose bleed.
Rats do occasionally sneeze, but regular sneezing may be a symptom of respiratory problems, and there should be no noises from the nasal passages when a rat is breathing; their breathing is pretty silent. Noisy breathing can be a symptom of a respiratory infection and the rat may sound like it is 'talking' to you. Rats breathing may be affected by dust and bedding, but in most cases it is more likely to be a respiratory illness and should be taken to the vet and treated as such. If a rat is displaying any of these symptoms it should not be taken to a show or bought if you are looking to buy the rat and if it is your own rat, you should consider consulting a vet.
Eyes - The eyes should be bright and clear and free from any 'tears', also known as porphyrin. Bright, nice-sized eyes on a rat can often be one if it's most endearing feature. Again the porphyrin from the eyes is red, which does show up considerably more on pale coloured rats and also pink eyed rats. Eyes that are cloudy or dull or appear half opened, may be due to injury or illness and this is usually accompanied with a red discharge (tears) from the eye. Cloudy eyes can sometimes happen after a stroke and a half opened weeping eye could be due to a speck of dust, or could be much more serious. One of the symptoms of SDA is a bad eye infection, which can sometimes lead to the rat losing the eye.
When looking to buy a rat for breeding, ensure that the eyes are not abnormally small and that they are even in size.
Rats eyesight is not very good and pink eyed rats have even worse eye-sight. It is not unusual for pink eyes rats to 'weave' their head from side to side to focus.
Rats can get cataracts in old age, this appears as a white dot behind the pupil. As far as is known this causes no pain to the rat and as rats have bad eyesight anyway and this is likely to occur in older rats, it is probably not something to worry about too much.
Mouth - Check the rats mouth for overgrown teeth regularly. If the teeth of a rat should become maloccluded (out of alignment) they can grow very fast into the rats lips and jaw and cause major discomfort. Because they are out of alignment, they do not naturally wear down while eating.
Malocclusion can be either genetic, or due to an injury or possibly due to a lack of calcium in the diet. Malocclusion is either when the teeth themselves are growing out of the gums out of alignment or may be the jaw itself that is not aligned correctly. If a rat has malocclusion, it will need its teeth trimmed about once every two weeks to be comfortable as rats teeth do grow at an alarming rate. If a rat does have malocclusion it may be kinder to either consider getting the front teeth removed or having the rat put to sleep as constant trimming of the teeth is very stressful for the rat.
The teeth are naturally pale yellow to dark orange in colour, with the top teeth being darker. When you hold the mouth open as I have in the picture you can see that the bottom teeth are slightly splayed, this is normal as these teeth do move independently of each other.
Also check the smell of the rats breath, it should not smell offensive. Bad smelling breath may be indicative of a mouth problem or possibly a dietary or other illness.
Chin and Face - The chin and face should be checked for scabs and sores. Scabs in the chin area and in the whisker pads are quite often protein overdose related so you may need to adjust your rats diet accordingly. It can also be mites, but you are likely to find more scabs on the rump area if this is the case. Check the whiskers; the rat should have plenty of whiskers of a good length, not chewed or missing. Rex rats do have curly whiskers.
Feel along the jaw-line and under the chin for abscesses. Abscesses along the jaw line can be nasty and can quite often start to eat into the facial bones or cause damage to the eye. Lumps under the chin may be abscesses or maybe an infection of the lymph glands in the throat. Lumps in the throat can also be virus related.
Ears - The ears should be clean and free from scabs. Scabs on the edges of the ears may be sarcoptes mites - see article for pictures of this awful looking condition. Treatment is Ivermectin. Any slight dirt on the ears should be easily removed with a rub of a damp finger, the inner ear should be pink and there should be no discharge or scabs. The most typical symptoms of an ear infection are a loss of balance and it is unusual for any outward symptoms in the ear itself to be indicative of this although the vet may be able to look in the ear and see something.
Chest - The chest should be checked daily for any changes in breathing noise. If you put your rat's chest against your ear on a regular basis, you can often hear much earlier that they are making slightly unusual noises. Noises in the chest are usually indicative of a respiratory problem and you should consult your vet if you are hearing anything noisy from your rats chest.
General Body - Check your rats body condition regularly, by running your hands down the sides and along the top and underbelly. The rat should feel 'fit' and solid - nicely muscled and not bony or fat. A younger rat will hold the muscle better on their spine, while an older rat may feel more bony along the spine, while having a little more flab on the underbelly area. There should be no scabs, wounds or lumps on the rats body and if anything is found it should be treated accordingly.
Scabs on the rump are likely to be mites or lice. Mites are too small for most human eyes to see, but the scabs are indicative, while mites are small red dots in the fur. The treatment for both is Ivermectin, preferably orally as a drop on the ear for 3 doses.
Lumps may be abscesses or tumours. Usually abscesses feel more attached, while lumps feel looser under the skin. Lumps under the armpits and in the groin area are far more common on does and are more often than not mammary tumours. See the ailments page for treatment.
Any wounds should be cleaned and checked for infection as well as trying to find out the source of the injury.
Yellow staining on the belly, may be due to being kept in dirty conditions but can also be due to possibly urinary problems. Check the anal area for dirt or sores that could be related to diarrhoea
Also pinch the skin gently and ensure it pings back, not pinging back indicates the rat is dehydrated and this may be the start of something more serious.
Feet and Legs -
Rats toes are four fingers at the front and 5 toes at the back. Claws (toe-nails) should be nice and short - trimmed regularly to lose the 'white tips' beyond where the dark area behind the toenail is. In the above pictures, you should be able to make out where the dark part ends. Ivor's toe-nails are impeccably trimmed!!
You should regularly check the undersides of the feet for cuts and sores - sores may be a condition known as bumblefoot. Toe injuries are not uncommon and these tend to bleed profusely, so it is worth having some styptic powder handy as a just in case. When rats walk across other rats cages, they can even sometimes end up with toes being bitten off and it it not that uncommon to 'rip off' the odd toenail as well.
Other things to watch around the feet are for the legs being stripped of hair, this is usually self barbering, which is a bad habit a bit like us chewing our finger nails, quite often stress related and almost always something they will always do - usually they will barber bald patches on their cage mates as well. Also look for red staining on the inside of the front legs; this indicates that they may have some sort of respiratory problem and a nasal discharge.
Ivor is a rex. Rexes naturally have curly whiskers, but keep an eye on them to make sure none are so curled they irritate the nose or eyes. Rex rats often have bald patches during the 4-6 week old coat change, this is perfectly normal. Their coat will grow back and until they are getting very old, they shouldn't experience this again. Old rexes often look very thin on top.
Jadi is a normal coated rat - the coat is smooth and glossy and feels soft to touch. Bucks coats are coarser than does, but both should have a coat that covers the whole body with no bald patches.
Bald patches on rats are abnormal, but normally due to injury or barbering - over aggressive grooming by cage mate or by self if it's only front legs and/or belly affected.
Hairless rats have little or no hair and may or may not have whiskers and eye lashes as well. If they do have whiskers they will be curly and need to be checked as per rex whiskers for irritation. Hairless rats often suffer eye problems and also can be easily damaged or bruised from injury with no coat to protect them.
Rats go through many moults in life, but the most dramatic one is the moult between kitten and adult coat, when they lose there soft baby fluff and their sleek adult coat emerges. This is usually between 4-8 weeks. They can look dramatically streaky during this moult time!
The part of the rat that people either love or hate!!
The tail should be approximately the length of the rats body, tapering to a point at the end. It should be free of bites, scratches, lumps, bumps and scabs and should also have no kinks in the length. Kinked tails can be from damage and also from hereditary, so unless you are confident the kink is from damage, then you should seriously consider whether to risk using the rat for breeding purposes. A kinked or short tail shouldn't fault the rat as a pet though.
The tail should be kept as clean as possible, this tells a judge that the rat is well cared for and lives in good conditions as poor conditions can soon turn a tail very stained. Keep an eye out for faeces staining on the underside of the root of the tail as this can indicate a stomach or bowel disorder.
Tailless rats are not generally bred for in the UK. They do occasionally appear and the only real special care they need is with maintaining body temperature as rats use their tails to control body temperature. Also rats use their tails for balance so a bit of extra care on the caging front might be worth considering. Many tailless females (particularly European lines) have deformed spines which means they cannot give birth properly. Tailless rats can still make good pets.
Article written by Estelle
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Images & Text Copyright © 2009 Estelle Sandford, Alpha Centauri
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Last modified: February 04, 2009