white rat in blanket
Prey animals like rats hide any pain or illness as long as they can. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Wouldn’t you love it if your rats could tell you when they are sick or in pain? Not only are their lips sealed, but, as prey animals, they are also notoriously good at hiding these things. It’s not uncommon for a rat to be dealing with a major illness by the time an owner notices something’s wrong. For a chance at early intervention, it’s important for you to understand the signals your rats are providing.

Here’s a short list of some of the things to watch for that could signal pain or illness in pet rats.

Column 1Column 2
change to appearanceuncharacteristic aggression
change in appetite and/or water intakechange in gait
lethargyfavoring a limb
biting themselfconfusion or neurological changes
labored breathingtrouble holding food
reddish-brown staining (porphyrin) around nose and mouthhead tilt
scabsloss of balance
lumps or bumpsdrooling

Always consult your veterinarian if you suspect your rat might be ill or in pain. Many of these symptoms can be present in a variety of illnesses and require a veterinarian’s diagnosis to determine exactly what is wrong.

Following are details on some of the signals rats might give to indicate pain or illness, with generalized information on what might be causing them. Rats are individuals, so always consult with your veterinarian if you notice something “off” about your furry buddy.

Audible Signs

rat with porphyrin stains around eyes and nose
This rat was battling an illness, but also had excessive porphyrin staining around the nose and eyes. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Rats aren’t as vocal as other animals. Many of the sounds they do make express some sort of displeasure. While vocalizations don’t automatically mean there’s something wrong, it’s helpful to observe these cues.

It could indicate pain if your rat suddenly screeches, squeaks, whimpers, or makes any other sound that wasn’t made before when touched or picked up. If this happens, gently feel your rat over thoroughly to identify the source of the pain. Pay close attention to the abdomen, legs, feet, and tail. Discomfort in the stomach might be an indication of a tumor, a bladder infection, urinary stones, constipation, or other maladies. Ailments like arthritis, a sprain, or problems in the spine can cause sensitivity in their legs, feet, or tail. If you suspect your rat may have fallen, check the mouth for chipped teeth.

Sneezing doesn’t necessarily mean your rat is ill, but pay attention if it’s a regular occurrence. Don’t overlook chirping sounds that mimic hiccups either, especially if accompanied by porphryin (a reddish stain sometimes present around the eyes and nose). These can all be symptoms of a respiratory infection.

If excessive sneezing suddenly occurs, try ruling out environmental causes, such as a strong odor or cleaning product used near the cage. The type of bedding in their habitat might be a factor, too. Pine and cedar should never be used, as many people believe these are toxic to small animals. But some rats can be sensitive to other types of bedding. Once you rule out an environmental factor, it’s time to talk to your vet.

If your rat is wheezing, gasping, sounds congested, or has labored breathing, do NOT hesitate — get your rat into the vet immediately! Antibiotics can be very helpful if a respiratory infection is caught quickly.

Behavior And Appearance Signs

You can learn the most about your rats through their behavior, appearance, and body language. Something as simple as squinted eyes can be a possible indication of pain. So, it’s important to continually observe abrupt or even subtle changes happening with your rat.

Changes related to food and water:

incisors of a pet rat
Misaligned teeth can prevent a rat from eating and cause numerous other health problems. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Rats LOVE food! If your rat seems less interested in food than normal or is refusing to eat, something is going on. This is never a symptom to ignore and could be caused by a number of different things. First check for mouth problems including misaligned or broken teeth, which can cause the lower incisors to grow incorrectly and into the roof of their mouths.

These problems require immediate attention!

Check the color of the teeth while you’re at it. A healthy rat should have yellow-orange teeth that get darker as they age, but white ones can be a sign of disease.

rat holding a pea
Healthy rats should be able to put weight on their hind legs while holding food in both their front paws. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Holding food with only one hand, or not being able to hold it at all, can indicate a few different conditions. Rats with onset hind leg paralysis (HLP) often struggle to sit back while they eat, and tend to keep one hand on the ground for balance while the other holds the food. If neither hand is able to hold objects, this could be from the progression of HLP and/or symptoms of a pituitary tumor (PT).

Some rats with a pituitary tumor seem to forget how to feed themselves despite being hungry. They just stare at their meal or stand over it before walking away. If you notice this happening, get your rat to the vet for a diagnosis and treatment options. Plus, start feeding your rat by hand.

Increased water intake, along with increased urination, can be a symptom of a bladder infection or different kidney issues. Take note of any other symptoms you’re witnessing and discuss them with your vet.

Changes in motor skills and balance:

hind legs of a sleeping rat
A rat suddenly sleeping with hind legs out like this might be showing first signs of hind leg paralysis. Pay attention to the rat’s gait, balance, and other movements, then consult your vet. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Stumbling, weakened legs, shuffling, and any other changes in how your rat moves are all things to watch out for. These symptoms can be the beginning (or progressing) signs of HLP or a PT, or even renal disease. Poor balance, circling, and a head tilt are other symptoms of a PT, but can also be signs of an inner ear infection. None of these should be ignored, and all require guidance and medication from a vet.

Favoring a limb:

If you find your rat holding a foot close to their body and not putting weight on it, check for a torn nail or swelling. Swelling could be the result of a sprain. Consult your veterinarian for treatment of a sprain. If you suspect an injury, try to sleuth out what caused the injury and then make any needed adjustments to the cage or play areas.

If the swelling persists or the foot is discolored or ulcerated, then see your vet as soon as possible. Causes could include a fracture, bumblefoot, or an underlining disease like congestive heart failure.

Drooling and gagging:

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between choking and the gasping associated with respiratory illness, but choking looks more like gagging. Rats are physically incapable of vomiting, so any gagging action is likely from food (or some other object) stuck in the rat’s throat. They will also pull their ears back flat against their head as they work to dislodge the item, and they may even start drooling. Try your best to stay calm, and contact your veterinarians for guidance.

A common choking hazard for rats is gooey foods like peanut butter, so avoid giving these to your rat.


If your normally happy rat is suddenly fighting with friends or biting you, this could indicate pain or illness. An exception to this is young, male rats. Some young, male rats become increasingly aggressive when they hit social puberty/maturity, which is typically between 6 to 9 months old. If they have recently started picking fights at this age, and a vet rules out illness, then discuss the benefits of a neuter or separate the aggressor from their cagemates. On the other hand, an older rat that starts nipping or has a short fuse most likely doesn’t feel well.

Know Your Rat

rat being examined at vet
Your rat-savvy veterinarian is your best ally in keeping your rats healthy. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Signs of illness or pain don’t happen randomly. They are all clues to your rat’s overall health. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to interpret them. Many go unnoticed or misinterpreted, even by longtime owners. The more time you spend getting to know your pets’ individual personalities, the better you will be at noticing changes.

And please never underestimate what your inner voice tells you. If you suspect something is wrong or just “off” with your rat, then get them to the vet for a checkup!

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