rat on cage floor looking at camera
Keep your adorable rat healthy by knowing the signs of illness and when to see a veterinarian. sipa/Pixabay

You’re human, so you have lots of experience with what makes people go to the doctor. Some of the top reasons include back pain, skin problems, anxiety, and headaches. If someone you love isn’t feeling well, they can tell you what’s going on. Pet rats are more of a mystery. Not only are they a different species, they can’t tell you that their tummy hurts, they can’t breathe right, or they feel dizzy. That’s why knowing some of the common rat ailments is a big help.

Knowing what to expect and signs of trouble are part of taking the best care of your rat buddy. Another is being prepared to help. This means knowing a rat-savvy veterinarian to take your rat to when ill, knowing an emergency veterinarian who treats rats should an emergency arise, and keeping the phone number of an animal poison control hotline handy should you need it.

Signs Of Trouble

Although rats can’t talk to you about feeling ill, their behavior and appearance give clues. Lethargy, failure to eat, red staining around the eyes and nose, sneezing, wheezing, hunched posture, change in behavior, drinking a lot more or a lot less, unkempt fur, unusual discharge from the body, weight loss, strange vocalizations, a strange walk (lame, staggered), a constantly tilted head — all of these are signs of possible rat illness or injury.

Basically, be aware of anything abnormal. If it’s normal for your rat to be energetic and bounce around but suddenly he or she just walks, or if your rat is usually very calm and laid-back but suddenly he or she seems anxious and tense, these are signs to discuss with a rat-savvy veterinarian.

Veterinarian Concerns

VCA Animal Hospitals, a chain of veterinary hospitals in the United States and Canada, lists the following rodent health problems on its website: Respiratory diseases, anorexia, lethargy, overgrown teeth, and tumors.

The Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, a veterinary practice in Skokie, Illinois, discusses some rat health problems on its website: respiratory infections, mites, mammary tumors, dental problems, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, and pododermatitis.

In the United Kingdom, the Pet Health Info website, which is managed by the National Office of Animal Health that represents the UK animal medicines industry, offers the following list of rat ailments: fur and ear mites, pneumonia, and worms.

Vetzone, a pet insurance website out of Australia, includes an article by a veterinarian discussing diseases of guinea pigs, mice, and rats: respiratory infections, anorexia and lethargy, overgrown teeth, tumors.

10 Common Rat Health Problems In Brief

Following is an overview of some of the common rat health problems. For full details on any that concern you, consult your rat-savvy veterinarian.

You give your rat the best chance to avoid many of these troubles by:

  • Feeding a healthy diet, and never overfeeding
  • Keeping the environment clean, irritant-free, and at a comfortable humidity (not too dry, not too humid)
  • Being alert when your rat is out of the cage so he or she stays safe
  • Arranging the interior of the cage to minimize risk of injury, and placing the cage in a safe location
  • Treating for mites, lice, or other parasites when your veterinarian advises
  • Quarantining any new rats from your current rats for three weeks to observe for illness or parasites
  • Rat-proofing to minimize the risk of injury
  • Doing careful introductions between rats to avoid fights and bite wounds
  • Providing mental enrichment as well as physical

Some conditions can’t be avoided; old age is one of these. Work with your rat-savvy veterinarian to make your senior rat as comfortable as possible should any ailments develop.

1. Respiratory Ailments

Expect a few sneezes from your rat friend, but regular or excessive sneezing and wheezing is not normal for pet rats. Neither is discharge from the eyes or nose. These are only a few signs of respiratory trouble.

If your rat is wheezing, has a tilted head, staggers, or sneezing is severe, or if you’re certain that husbandry isn’t a concern, it’s time to consult your rat-savvy veterinarian right away. Your rat might be struggling with a respiratory infection or pneumonia, and those require prompt veterinary care.

If your rat seems otherwise OK but is suffering increased sneezing, consider whether husbandry might be at fault. Increase your cage-cleaning routine and review the bedding choice, use of cleaners, and cage location. A cage that isn’t cleaned enough causes dangerous ammonia buildup that makes rats sick. Dusty bedding or bedding with added scent or that emits phenols (cedar or some softwood bedding) can irritate or sicken your pet. Some rats are sensitive to residue left behind by cleaning products. If you have doubts about what you’re using, switch products or rinse extra thoroughly.

If a cage is kept near a source of odor, that could also be a problem. Air fresheners, perfumes, cigarette or cigar smoke, soaps, and anything with scent could be a culprit. In any of these situations, mild sneezing can escalate to something worse if nothing changes.

2. Tumors

The most common tumor in rats is a mammary tumor, which both females and males can develop. Mammary tissue includes a large portion of a rat’s body, and tumors can appear anywhere in the area. Other types of tumors are also possible. Many tumors are benign, and removing them can be a cure. Surgical removal prevents tumors from continuing to grow and causing other problems. Large tumors can be life-threatening. Your rat-savvy veterinarian can guide you on the best course of action if your rat pal develops a tumor.

To reduce the chance of tumors, spay female rats when young, prevent overfeeding, and offer plenty of opportunities for your rat to exercise.

3. Skin Problems

Itching, dryness, scaling, swelling, sores, redness, hair loss, and more can afflict the skin. Causes include poor nutrition, parasite infestation, infection, poor husbandry, and injury. Abscesses are lumps under the skin filled with bacteria and/or pus from infection. These require veterinary care, especially those on or near the face.

4. Pododermatitis

This bacterial infection on the skin of the feet causes painful swelling, redness, sores, and/or crusting. It’s also known as bumblefoot. The cause is almost always environmental, usually from walking on wire caging or sometimes irritation from bedding. Solid surfaces also can cause this, so your rat’s habitat needs to have lots of soft surfaces to walk on. Use of bedding in the cage usually helps. A rat who develops bumblefoot needs veterinary care.

5. Eye Problems

Rats are exophthalmic, which means they have bulging eyes. This trait puts them at slightly greater risk to get their eyes injured by poking, whether from a pointy object or a cagemate’s whiskers or nails. They also commonly get the eye infections conjunctivitis or keratisis (inflammation of the tissues around the eye or inflammation of the cornea). Watch out for discharge, swelling, or redness around the eye or cloudiness or discoloration of the eye. Always contact your rat-savvy veterinarian when you notice a problem in or near your rat’s eyes.

6. Digestive Troubles

Rats cannot vomit, so ingesting poison is a major concern. Don’t allow your rat to ingest anything but the healthy food you offer. Keep poison control hotline phone numbers handy. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and Pet Poison Helpline are two to check. Keep in mind that eating a bag of candy or other inappropriate food can be poisonous to a pet rat.

Also of concern is overeating. Obesity is a common condition for pet rats, and it usually affects health adversely. If your rat puts on weight, consult your rat-savvy veterinarian. He or she will determine if there is a medical reason for the weight gain. If obesity is the diagnosis, your veterinarian can guide you on the safest way to help your rat lose weight. Sudden dieting can be dangerous for some individuals.

7. Malocclusion

Malocclusion simply means a bad bite, usually caused by misaligned teeth. A rat’s incisors (two on the top of the mouth and two on the bottom) grow continuously throughout life. Normally, the incisors wear against each other to keep them at the proper length. Sometimes rats need help with keeping their incisors trimmed, whether due to misalignment or other issues. Veterinarians can trim the teeth. Overgrown teeth can prevent a rat from eating or even cause infection, so consult your rat-savvy veterinarian to determine what’s best for your rat if overgrown teeth occur.

8. Heatstroke

This ailment is almost 100 percent preventable. The exception would be if a power failure occurred in your home while you were away on a hot day. Rats are susceptible to heatstroke because they only sweat from their paw pads and don’t pant. They’re just not equipped with much to cool themselves down. A rat might be suffering heatstroke in warm conditions if he or she is lethargic, drooling, holding the mouth open, breathing rapidly, has a warm tail or feet, or is unconscious. Place an overheated rat in cool (not cold!) water up to their neck and immediately take him or her to a rat-savvy veterinarian.

The Merck Veterinary Manual states the ideal conditions for housing rats is 64 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit at 30 to 70 percent humidity. Higher humidity makes actual temperature feel warmer. Plan for keeping your rat in this temperature range. During a heat wave, place a bottle of frozen water in your rat’s cage and swap it out with another when it warms up. This allows your rat to lie next to it for cooling. Bits of rat-safe frozen vegetables or fruit can also help rats stay cool.

9. Trauma

Trauma refers to any physical injury. Being stepped on, caught in a closing door, falling from a height, broken bones, bleeding wounds, and more are all traumas. Consult your rat-savvy veterinarian as soon as possible in such cases.

Many traumas rats suffer are due to accidents or access to dangerous environments. To minimize risk: Provide a safe cage in a safe area of your home, stay alert to your rat’s whereabouts, and rat-proof any areas where you allow your rat.

10. Kidney Disease

One of the effects of old age is reduced kidney function. It happens. As rats become seniors, they might begin drinking and urinating more. This could start around 1.5 to 2 years (their life span is 2.5 to 3.5 years). Old age is inevitable, but talk to your rat-savvy veterinarian to determine if a change of food is needed or anything else can be done to make your rat’s senior years comfortable.

Note: Always contact your rat-savvy veterinarian right away if you suspect your rat is ill. This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to diagnose or give advice about rat health.

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