Your rats' health: what to look out for

The domestic rat can be susceptible to a number of serious illnesses.

The key to helping your rats remain healthy and happy is a good, varied diet and high standards of hygiene. Make sure you find a vet who has chosen to specialise in small mammals to get the best possible care for your rats.

Your rats’ life expectancy

Rats live on average for between two and three years.

Parasites and fur loss

These can be relatively common in young or elderly rats, especially if they’ve come from poor conditions. It can be tricky to spot mites, however lice can be quite clearly seen if the fur is brushed gently backwards. If your rats have lice you will see very small orange/light brown parasites wriggling on the skin and moving in the hair. Mites are nearly impossible to see so being aware of common symptoms is important:

  • Intensive itching and scratching
  • Small scratch wounds along the shoulders and back
  • Hair loss
  • Crusts forming along the ears, tail or nose

Most mites and lice can be treated with 0.1% ivermectin, which is available from your vet. Make sure you react quickly as parasites can be very distressing for rats.

Breathing problems

Sadly, respiratory infections are very a common illness in rats. These are caused by bacteria in the respiratory tract, which makes the rat unwell. Rats with pre-existing respiratory conditions can also be exasperated by stress as a result of a new rat food, poor ventilation, change in temperatures, bullying by other rats and old age.

Along with medical support from your vet, choosing suitable bedding, cleaning the cage to a high standard, washing the hammocks and bars of the cage, and having a cage that is well-ventilated will all help to help prevent and manage this illness.

Contact your vet if you notice the following symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Rattling sound from the chest, you can often feel this when handling your rat
  • Laboured breathing, giving the chest a concaved appearance
  • Blood-like spotting, brow or red colouring around the inside of the legs, face, eyes and flanks known as porphyrin staining
  • Generally looking fluffed and poorly

Back leg problems

As rats age, they can become prone to back leg weakness. This is often referred to as hind leg degeneration or HLD. It’s particularly common in male rats. You may notice your rat appear wobbly or one or both legs starting to drag when they walk.

Keeping your rats fit when they are young through fun activities that challenge your rats to climb all around their cage and free-range time will help reduce their chances.

If you do notice any changes in movement, speak to your vet and make modifications to your cage. Reducing the height of platforms and hammocks, and remove activities like ladders and ropes that they may fall from.

Lumps, bumps and tumours

Tumours and non-aggressive lumps are very common in rats, especially females. These can develop as young as a year old, so health check your rats regularly – feeling all over the body, in particular under the armpits, groin and neck.

Non-aggressive lumps can be left or removed depending on your vets’ recommendation and your rat’s general condition, but they rarely grow quickly. They are often pea-sized at the beginning but can grow very large with time, which may impact on your rat’s quality of life in the long-term.

Aggressive, often cancerous, lumps can grow extremely quickly, doubling in size in a matter of weeks. Removal is possible, although you should discuss this with an experienced vet and take into account the rats’ general condition and age.

Neutering your rats

Although routinely rats are not neutered, it is possible and can have many benefits. If you do choose to neuter your rats, choose an experienced vet.

After neutering, bed your rats on towels or fleece to avoid loose bedding getting in or affecting the wound healing. Change their bedding daily to limit the amount of urine and bacteria in contact with the wound. Monitor their eating and drinking, and offer them warm comfort food and tasty, healthy snacks for a few days after the operation to get them eating and help them heal.

It is essential to neuter hormonally aggressive rats so they can stay in a bonded pair or group, as they need company. In addition, hormonally aggressive rats can turn their aggression towards humans as well as other rats. Other benefits of neutering include:

  • Prevents unwanted litters
  • Many health benefits to females
  • Reduces chances of hormonally-driven tumours
  • Aids the chances of finding suitable companions for feisty male rats

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