Having worked in animal retail myself (unfortunately) I can tell you first person that it is very important to know the signs of a healthy animal whenever you decide to get any pet. In general, pets in pet stores or even the ones up for adoption are usually not kept in the best of conditions. Limited space, impacted cages, lack of attention to both the animals independently and the care of their environments, curious kids tapping on cages to make them move, constant handling by different people… all this and more make for one stressful rat.
As in any other living organism, stress causes sickness. There are many, many diseases and illnesses rats can get. Here are just a few of the most common ones, how to prevent them, and in case of infection- how to treat them.
Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)
Upper respiratory infection is by far the most common rat illness. It is easily treatable- IF you catch it early. It can be fatal otherwise.
The bacteria Mycoplasma causes URI’s. I know- it’s a big word. All rats have this bacteria. It is usually transferred from mother to offspring at birth, but in the rare case that one is not infected; it is highly contagious, so it will usually contract it from a littermate or a breeding mate early in life. This bacterium affects the respiratory tract. It will lay dormant in a healthy, stress-free rat. It is not until the immunity is low and the system is stressed that it causes an infection.
The first sign of a URI is an eye or nose discharge. Stage two is a subtle wheezing or clicking sound to the breath. To the unaccustomed ear, it may sound normal, or you may not notice it. If you aren’t sure then hold you’re ratty up to your ear to listen to the lungs- you should hear nothing (except maybe the squeak of frustration as your pet rat tries valiantly to leap from your hands to play some more!). The last stage is sneezing. The worst thing you can do for your pet rat is to wait until stage two for treatment. By then the bacteria is already affecting the respiratory system and requires more aggressive treatment.
At the FIRST sign of a URI take your pet rat to a vet that is accustomed to treating rats. These are usually called “exotic vets,” or “small and furry” vets. Most vets see only cats and dogs so make sure to call ahead of time. Or better yet, do your research before any sickness, so you are prepared for an emergency.
Treatment will usually involve a round of antibiotics, usually given orally by a small syringe, which can sometimes prove tricky. Most vets will make sure it’s a tasty antibiotic that many pets will take freely. If not try putting it on their favorite treat. If their favorite treat is not so good for them (aka ANY artificial human food) then try wrapping your pet rat in a small towel or blanket, covering all but their head. Place the syringe behind the incisors (the large prominent teeth that are pretty hard to miss) and give a little at a time. This may stress them out to the extent that they snort small amounts of reddish orange liquid from their nose. Fret not- this is called porphyrin and it’s rat snot! It’s what stains their teeth that lovely orange color! A large amount of porphyrin is never a good sign though.
Also concerning the respiratory tract system is pneumonia. Signs and treatment are similar to a URI, although a rat with pneumonia will have a wetter nose and a wetter breathing sound. Listen for liquid in the lungs.
Antibiotics are also required for treatment, and sometimes the use of a nebulizer is necessary. This tends to be more of a chronic, recurring illness. Know and be aware of the signs.
Mites and Fleas
This one is very obvious. If you see little bugs, or excessive itching and scratching causing hair loss or skin irritation your little one probably has fleas or mites.
Get a spray or shampoo from the pet store and FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. As always it’s the safer bet to get it checked out by a vet. A lot of external parasites go hand in hand with internal parasites, so make sure to have a fecal sample checked and cleared for internal parasites- which cause weight loss.
Bumblefoot (Ulcerative Pododermatitis)
Bumblefoot is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. It is characteristic of this infection for a large protruding wound on the pad of the back feet to be present.
To prevent bumblefoot make sure all surfaces are flat. Wire surfaces are irritating and harbor more bacteria, and make sure that your pet rats have a soft area to retreat to when their feetsies get tired!
To treat- clean bumbles two to three times a week. Antibiotics will also help the body fight the infection, or at the very least prevent the spread of the infection. Often this may require constant antibiotics or a removal surgery. Very rarely does it go away with normal treatment?
Growths / Tumors
Tumors are very prevalent in all rats male or female. Unfortunately, the only thing to do when these occur is to take them to the vet to be removed, or taped for cytology.
Prevention is the best medicine! Keep your rats at a stable temperature in a non-drafty area. Make sure their bedding isn’t too dusty. NEVER use pine or cedar. Aspen is the only wooded bedding that is acceptable for any small animal. Even though all are sold at pet stores, it is always best to avoid it. Use a paper-based bedding such as Yesterdays News. Make sure to change the bedding often, especially if it is soaked. Any living thing is put at risk when roaming through its fecal matter! Stress is usually the causing factor, so make sure the area isn’t around screaming children, curious pet cats, aggressive cage mates, etc. Minimize any causes of stress. It’s important to check your rat for clear eyes, noses, palpate the body for signs of lumps and bumps. Listen to their breathing, look for signs of weight loss or gain. It’s important to know what is normal for our pet rats so you can act appropriately when they are ill.