Rat Health Care & Information
Quarantining New Rats
This page is intended as a guide for UK rat owners on quarantine and has been updated in December 2006 after a number of cases of post rat show infections.
According to the English dictionary, the term ‘quarantine’ means ‘a period of time during which a person or animal that might have a disease is kept away from other people or animals so that the disease cannot spread.’
Quarantine periods are defined to help prevent the spread of contagious diseases and infections. When done correctly this can spare animals from contact with animals that may have, or be carrying, a disease or infection. To be effectively done with our rats, quarantining must be done in the separate airspace of a separate building for a minimum of 2 weeks.
What Quarantining Means
Quarantine means keeping some rats in a different airspace to your other rats. It is not always good enough to use a separate quarantine cage. You want to minimise germ travel as much as possible, and lots of things can be transmitted through the air and also on clothes, hair and skin. Use a separate building (someone else’s house or maybe an outbuilding or garage that does not share the same heating system) as a quarantine room. A separate room in the same house is not considered separate airspace. Your new rats will benefit from the individual attention, and you'll lessen the risk of germs spreading. Feed them separately, and make sure you bath or shower and also change your clothes between handling your separate groups of rats.
To an extent, the length of time you quarantine will depend on the source of the rat(s) and whether there are any known diseases, viruses or infections circulating and their known incubation periods. If you live in the USA, where in certain states there is a major risk of Sendai and SDA (Sialodacryoadenitis) from bringing new rats into your rattery, you would need to take far more precautions on bringing any rats into your rattery as these viruses are extremely destructive and when combined with a secondary infection can wipe out large numbers in a rattery. The Rat and Mouse Club of America (RMCA) no longer sanctions shows because of the risks of transmitting SDA and Sendai at shows because not everyone can be trusted to quarantine properly before and after shows. In the US there are specific rules about quarantining for at least 2 weeks before a show and also 2 weeks after, which means a complete shutdown of a rattery for breeding and contact. If any illness is seen, then quarantine periods are extended.
While we do have these viruses in the UK, historically they do not seem to have been as destructive to our ratteries but in recent times, there have been a number of serious infections following rat shows and several have tested positive as being SDA. This means more than ever that we should never become complacent about whether we quarantine our rats or not and we should seriously consider revising our own procedures on this and look more towards the procedures the Americans have using for quarantining rats for many years.
Quarantine and New Rats
Whether you collect your new rat(s) from a breeder, pet shop or rescue centre, you should completely quarantine your new rats from your existing rats for at least 2 weeks before introduction to existing rats. During this time, monitor your new rat(s) for any sign of illness, and if there are any, then you should quarantine for at least a further 2 weeks AFTER any signs of the illness have gone. Basically you should start the quarantine period again from the end of illness of the last rat ill. If any rat is pregnant or nursing the quarantine period must be extended to start the two week quarantine period after weaning the kittens.
When you introduce these new rats to your own, you should monitor all your rats closely for a further 2 weeks to keep a close eye on them for signs of illness should either the new rats or your own rats be carrying something that they are immune to but the other group of rats are not.
Quarantine and Rat Shows
If you show your own rats and/or bring new rats home from a show, your show rats and/or new rat(s) will have been exposed to all the other rats at the show and could easily have picked up an illness or infection from the other rats there. If they have they should show signs or symptoms of that illness within a 2 week period, and with there having been a number of outbreaks of infection in the past year or so, it is becoming important to quarantine these rats from the rest of your rats for 2 weeks. By doing this you are not just protecting your rats, you are protecting any new and probably stressed rats from exposure to your rats and possibly catching anything from them.
Do not take any rats to shows if you have had unexplained deaths and/or illnesses within the last 2 weeks before a show. If your rats get sick even the day of the show, do not take them; the show secretary will honestly not mind if you withdraw your entries and your fellow exhibitors will respect you far more for leaving your sick rats at home rather than irresponsibly spreading something nasty at a show!
If you decide to go to a show ratless because you have sick rats at home, ensure you have taken all precautions possible and bathed/showered and put on clean clothes as last thing before leaving your home – i.e. don’t handle your own rats and risk taking infection on your skin, hair or clothes. If you decide to go ratless and wish to protect your own from anything you may have brought home from the show, ditto above, ensure you bath/shower and change clothes.
Quarantine and ‘Shoulder Rats’ at Shows
In recent years more and more pet owners have chosen to take their rats to shows but not actually enter them in any classes. Many reasons are given for this and much of it is just social networking and ‘showing off’ their ‘babies’ to others. Some of the other excuses given really are not acceptable – reasons like my rat is scabby, sneezy, too old, nervous, unwell and hence not suitable for entering in the show… These rats must be left at home! While it is the choice of the individual whether to actually enter the show, if a rat is not healthy enough to be entered, it is not healthy enough to be at the show.
Potentially shoulder rats are at a greater risk than rats entered in the actual show itself, mainly because they are often handled by a number of people and spend time coming into direct contact with a number of other rats and the whole experience can be quite stressful for them hence helping to reduce their immune systems and making them even more susceptible to illness or infection. Often these are rats at their first show and unlike ‘show rats’ they won’t have had the same chance to build up immunity from exposure at previous shows, particularly if they were not originally purchased from a breeder that shows either. The rats entered in the show are generally only handled by the judge and maybe a trainee or steward during the entire show and while shows can be stressful, sleeping in their show tanks is probably a lot less stressful than being handled by many people.
On return from the show, you should take the same precautions as above for rat shows.
Quarantine and ‘Rat Trains’
‘Rat Trains’ have become an increasingly popular phenomenon of the last few years and these can be a major cause of transfer of infection.
The first question for some will be – What is a ‘Rat Train’?
A rat train is where one or more persons act as the travelling arrangements to get a rat (or number of rats) from one individual to another (or several others). The meetings to transfer rats on this route may be either from individual’s homes, or via shows or other arranged meeting points.
Historically rat trains have regularly been used via the showing network to transfer show ‘stock’ between breeders and it has made it possible to obtain new breeding rats from breeders a long way from them via other breeders who live in-between. Because this is a breeder to breeder exchange and breeder rats are generally also show rats, these rats tend to have similar immunity and have realistically been at less risk. I remember getting my first ‘breeder rat’ back in 1998 from Ann Storey via Nicky Jones who kindly collected him for me from a London show and I then drove to Nicky’s house in Wiltshire the following day and handed over the statutory agreed travel fiver and took him home.
Things have changed a bit and in recent years these rat trains have become more commonly used by the rescue network and also pet owners cherry picking rats from breeders from the other end of the country. This means many of these rats are from unknown or less known backgrounds than breeder rats generally come from. Many people just seem to not think about the risks they are exposing the ‘travelling’ rats and their own rats to infections by passing these ‘travelling’ rats potentially via several people and via one or more shows. Often when these rats are rescues there is mass posted panic on online forums to distribute these rats to other areas of the country, and that is when heart overtakes head and the risks of infection are dramatically increased as quarantine precautions are thrown to the wind.
It is really important to quarantine these rats from your own and if the rats need to go via a rat show, plan accordingly to put in place quarantine periods before the show and monitor the rats carefully. Quarantine requirements are still 2 weeks to allow for symptoms of illnesses to become evident and there is still a chance that these rats could be carrying something that they have immunity to which other rats may not, so allowing a further two weeks to give contact with your own before visiting a show and allowing these rats to share the car airspace with your own rats would be wise (assuming no-one shows illness in that time). All this can become a can-of-worms but no desperate rescue situation should get in the way of protecting your own rats from illness and if you cannot quarantine properly and feel that rescue actions could expose them to serious infection, maybe sometimes the answer has to be ‘no’...
Quarantine and Other Species
While most viruses and infections are species specific, there are a few that can be transferred between species. The main one that rat owners need to be very aware of is Kennel Cough in dogs. This can cause Bordetella in rats and without very rapid antibiotic treatment and rehydration, this can kill within a 12-24 hour period. Dogs that have recently been vaccinated against Kennel Cough can also be of great risk as the will 'shed' the infection for around 2 weeks after immunisation so it is very important to keep any dogs recently inoculated or that have come into contact with Kennel Cough away from your rats. It is also worth being a little careful when at the vets and the waiting room is full of dogs (particularly if one happens to be coughing!). Normal quarantine periods as above would apply.
Sendai can be passed between species, but is one of the few viruses known to pass. Bacterial infections such as Strept pneumoniae (strep throat), salmonella, pasteurella and ringworm fungi and staph aureus can be transferred between rats and humans and vice versa. E.coli tends to be species specific when causing disease but can be carried symptomless by other species.
As it is not totally conclusive what other viruses/infections may be of risk between species, generally it would be recommended to follow the 2 week quarantine when dealing with any other species coming into contact with your rats.
Quarantine and Imported rats from EU Countries
Rats can be imported under the Balai Directive and PETS Passport from EU countries to the UK. Balai Directive applies when the rats are collected from the breeder and were born and kept in captivity at the breeder’s premises and PETS Passport allows an individual to transport up to 5 rats in and out of the UK and legally there are no requirements for quarantine. For the safety of your own rats and others rats, it is a sensible idea to do some form of voluntary quarantine period.
From the research we have done with breeders in other European countries, we are pretty confident that they don’t have any disease or illnesses in rats that we don’t already have here and vice versa. What we can’t be confident about is whether the strains of these illnesses are the same as our own, for that reason anyone importing rats should quarantine their rats for at least the 2 weeks from any other rat. If the newly imported rats show no signs of any illness in that two week period, then if you feel comfortable that the new rats are fully healthy, you can start introducing your rats to them. This should be done by adding a few of your rats, that are not going to be exposed to other rats, to the new rats environment and watching all rats carefully for any possible problems for another 2 weeks. Progressively add rats to the quarantine rats over the next couple of months if no signs of sickness appear. Obviously if you are showing and breeding rats as well, your show and breeding rats should not come into contact with the imported rats until you are very confident that the imported rats have no problems and your other rats have no problems with being introduced to the possible different strains. Knowingly putting your own rats at risk is one thing but you will not be at all popular if you put other people’s rats at risk by being irresponsible!
The change in law to allow PETS Passport does mean that people can take their rats on holiday to EU countries but it is wise to take as many precautions as possible and get everything in writing from DEFRA and equivalent authorities in your countries of travel before doing anything.
Quarantine and Importing rats from outside of the EU
If you import rats under normal import laws, you may be aware that the laws have changed in recent years and where historically the rats would have to go into 6 months quarantine at a DEFRA (ex-MAFF) approved quarantine facility, in many cases rats can be imported freely with no legal quarantine requirements as more and more countries are being approved.
Quarantine procedures as above for EU countries would be the recommended course of action.
In recent years our borders have become more and more open which will have exposed us to greater risks from abroad and rats have been travelling up and down the UK in far larger numbers both for shows and as part of ‘rat trains’. In addition to this there seems to be greater quantities of rescues being publicly available on forums and risks are being taken. In 2006 alone, it was known that at least 5 shows had outbreaks of infections known to have killed a number of rats both with breeders and in pet homes and in some cases SDA was the proven virus, while in others we still have unknown pathogen that has killed. All that can be said is think carefully about the risks before you expose your rats to anything. Rat shows are great for helping increase immunity and building a stronger immune system, but sometimes things can go wrong.
Article written by Estelle
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Last modified: January 04, 2008