three rats showing tails
Rat tails can be things of beauty. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

It’s too bad that rats don’t make New Year’s resolutions like humans do. If they did, I would highly encourage them to consider one about keeping up appearances; specifically, when it comes to their long, beautiful tails!

Rats are fastidious groomers by nature, but how often have you actually witnessed one going over their tail in detail? I’m guessing not often. I honestly have no idea why seemingly all rats neglect these appendages — especially considering the frequency in which they may drag them through puddles of urine. Yet, if I were to run my fingers through my rats’ fur, I wouldn’t be surprised to find them immediately grooming the area that I’ve just “soiled” with my touch.

The lack of attention they pay to their backends, however, can sometimes leave their once soft, pink tails discolored, or even coated in a dark yellow grime.

Know When To Micromanage Your Rat’s Cleaning Habits

dirty rat tail
How often a rat’s tail needs cleaning depends on the individual rat. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

Not all rats will get a gross, gunky tail. Females tend to be less likely to have these issues, although it is not unheard of. Female rats often require little to no help with keeping their tails clean over their lifetime. Most males, on the other hand, are apt to need their human’s intervention a few times per year, possibly more, depending on the individual.

Elderly rats of both sexes generally require a bit more assistance with their personal hygiene, particularly if their gait has changed and they are now shuffling closer to the cage floor.

It’s not the end of the world if a tail isn’t pristinely pink, it’s simply more hygienic if they aren’t crusted in bodily waste. And who wants to get smacked in the face with a dirty tail when your furry friend is climbing around on your shoulders?

Just A Dab Will Do For Quick Cleanups

Because a full bath is rarely required for rats, focus on the tail alone when it’s dirty. Wet paper towels or unscented baby wipes work well for a quick cleanup when things are only mildly grubby. Personally, I keep a pack of baby wipes right next to my rats’ cage, as they are handy for numerous reasons. I frequently alternate between wipes and paper towels, depending on how much moisture is needed to get the job done.

If you choose to add a touch of mild soap to the paper towels, be certain that the tail is completely rinsed off afterward. Leave no soap residue behind!

The easiest way to wipe the tail includes three steps:
1. Hold your rat securely against your body with one hand.
2. Use your other hand to wrap the towel or wipe around the tail.
3. Swipe downward. Be sure that you rub with the grain of their short hairs, and not against them. This means wiping away from their body rather than toward it. You may hear some squeaks of protest during this process, but I guarantee that your rats will appreciate things even less if you go in the wrong direction!

Rub-A-Dub-Dub For A Deep-Cleaned Tail

clean rat tails making heart shape
Ah! The beauty of clean rat tails. Brandi Saxton of It’s A Rat’s World

If the tail is extremely dirty and crusted in grime, or if it is looking drier and scalier than usual, then a deep clean might be necessary. Unfortunately, this usually requires some soaking to help loosen the gunk, which most rats are none-too-pleased about.

To achieve a deep cleaning, use these steps. Keep in mind that you must absolutely never leave your rat unattended during this bathing:
1. Fill the bathroom sink with warm, sudsy water (use a bit of no-tears baby shampoo).
2. Make sure that the water is at a comfortable temperature.
3. Either set your rat on the counter facing away from the sink, or use a large, shallow bowl instead and then let the rat’s tail hang down into it while you do whatever you can to distract them.
4. Keep your rat still as best you can, so that your friend doesn’t go running off or fall into the basin. I try to give my rats a body massage while very calmly assuring them that everything is OK and the cleaning will end soon. Sometimes, if I hear them make little whimpers, I sing goofy songs about how un-fun tail baths are; this is a distraction for both of us.
5. If possible, let the tail soak for at least a minute or more. Longer is better, but often quite challenging.
6. Using your hand or a very soft-bristled toothbrush topped with baby shampoo, very gently scrub the tail. As previously mentioned, make sure you are only scrubbing in a downward motion, with the grain of the hair; not against it. If your rat will absolutely not sit still, you can do this part with the rat sitting on a towel in your lap.
7. Submerge the tail in the water once again, and repeat as needed. You will definitely need to be patient with your willful (or fearful) rat, because they will not understand why they have to endure this process.
8. After making sure their tail is completely rinsed off, use a dry paper towel or cloth and gently swipe it several times in a downward motion. This helps remove any remaining gunk, while also drying the tail.

A deep cleaning of the tail isn’t a particularly enjoyable thing for either the owner or the rat, so don’t worry if you can’t get the tail perfectly clean. The point is to get as much of the build-up off as you can.

Go Beyond Cleaning Your Rat’s Tail

If your rat’s tail was really dry before you started, you can rub a little olive or coconut oil on it after it’s clean. This helps moisturize it like a lotion. In fact, this is a great way to keep hairless rats’ skin moisturized, too! You can use the oil regularly if dryness continues and/or you live in a notably dry climate. I advise applying it to a clean tail, first. Rats are individuals, so always check with your veterinarian before making an ongoing change to your rats’ care.

The best way to avoid the need for a deep clean with rats who have a more problematic dirty tail is to perform regular wipe-downs with baby wipes. A quick cleaning once per week should help prevent the worst of it. Plus, if you include the oil afterward, it might even encourage them to clean their own tail more often; most rats love the taste of it!

Once everything is done, offer your rattie friend some good ear scritches and a treat as an apology for all of the “torture” you put them through. Because rats won’t be making resolutions of their own any time soon, owners must pick up the slack and keep our rat kids looking the best they can all year long.

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