Remember if your rat is sick, see a vet! Most cities have at least one or two vet offices that will see rats (considered "exotics"). This is just a page of health basics. Please see other sources for in depth information on rat health, medication, and diseases.
First Aid Kit
When you get your rat, you may find it helpful to have a first aid kit on hand for any emergency. Rats may get sick or injured from time to time, but if you are prepared, you can treat them before they get out of hand. Some things to include:
_ Antibiotic cream
_ Hydrogen peroxide
_ Saline solution
_ Medical tape
_ Straight pins
_ Cotton swabs
_ Super glue or liquid bandaid
_ Small syringes (without needles)
_ Mite spray (for birds or small mammals)
_ Small mammal multivitamin
_ Heating pad or hot water bottle
_ Paper towels or toilet paper
_ A small (10 gallon) aquarium (used for quarantine and conserving heat)
Rats and other small animals don't have approved vaccines, so the only way to prevent the spread of diseases is by practicing a quarantine of any new animal. Some serious contagious (between rats NOT people) diseases are airborne, so new animals should be quarantined in a different room or preferably a different building than your current animals. Wash thoroughly between handling groups or things in their cages to prevent the spread of disease. Remember that rats may carry a disease without showing symptoms. "Looking" healthy or being from a reputable breeder is not enough. Quarantine should last two or three weeks at the least. If the rat shows any symptoms, quarantine until a few weeks after the symptoms are gone. Some rat diseases can spread among other rodents, so any time you have a new rodent pet, keep him separate for a period of time. A summary of a proper quarantine (all these things are essential):
1. Should last a minimum of two to three weeks for a (seemingly) healthy animal--even if from a breeder.
2. If animal has any symptoms, quarantine a month after symptoms are gone.
3. Quarantined animals need a separate air supply: In another building (BEST option) or closed off room without a central air system.
4. Wash and disinfect your hands after handling any quarantined animal or anything in or near their cage.
5. If a proper quarantine cannot be done, do what you can to separate new or sick ones and quarantine your whole house to rodents for 6 weeks at least. (Meaning: Give none to other people, bring no more in, do not breed any, do not allow any to visit.)
6. Quarantine should be practiced for ~ any new animal, ~ any sick animals, ~ possibly animals that went to the vet (especially if there were other rodents at the vet's office), ~ any animals going to or returning from a show, expo, or other outing, and ~ any animals that may somehow have come into contact with other (potentially sick) animals.
Note: "Animal" applies to any rat, mouse, guinea pig, hamster or other rodent. There is potential of transmitting some diseases across species.
Stress is a major factor in small animal health, far more than it may be for a cat or dog. A wild rodent can die from nothing more than the stress of captivity. Our pet rats handle captivity and stress better than their wild cousins, but it is still a major threat to health. The medical reason for this is that stress weakens the immune system so resources can be devoted to "protecting" the rat from change. Ecologically, this allows a rat to react quickly from threat of a predator or other threatening situation and keeps populations in check by "weeding out" the less hardy animals. Stress is caused by any major changes or severe conditions. This is not to say that you can never change anything! Just be aware that something small to you may be something major to your rats and make provisions for them and watch their health when a change is made.
One of the things you will notice right away is that many rats sneeze for about a week when they arrive in their new home. The sneezing is usually myco (see below) being expressed because of their new environment. This sneezing is usually trivial, but rats with secondary infections or extremely prone to myco can develop pneumonia and die within the first couple weeks of their homecoming. (Buy your rats from reputable breeders to significantly reduce the risk of this.)
Things that stress a rat are major changes in food or housing, possibly changes in litter brand. New cagemates or losing a cagemate. (Rats often become depressed and withdrawn when one of their cagemates die.) New pets in the family, especially in their room. (Just the smell of cats and dogs can cause rats to panic.) Trips to the vet are very stressing. Trips to a show or expo are also very stressing because they are surrounded by so many other animals and people and unfamiliar smells and sounds. If you leave for an extended period of time, your rat can get stressed and depressed even if he has a pet sitter that will hold him. Being pregnant is VERY stressful, second only to nursing/rearing a litter. If they have any sort of infection, pregnant/nursing rats are at high risk for pneumonia.
Some rats are affected more by stress than others. Rats can be "emotional" or very composed. Some rats deal with stress in other ways. Chewing bars or plucking their own fur can provide an outlet for stress and frustration. Other rats sleep a lot more when stressed. If you suspect your rat is stressed or depressed, pay more attention to her. Hold her and talk to her. Give her familiar toys and treats. If she has any symptoms of disease, get her to a vet to be treated immediately.
Things to Know
Myco: All rats (except some strains of lab rat) carry the bacteria Mycoplasma pulmonis. It cannot be cured but many rats never have symptoms. This is the disease that "flares up" when rats are stressed or weather changes and can cause some rats to sneeze or wheeze. It may even progress to pneumonia if a rat's immune system is weakened by stress or another disease. Some people have had success in lessening the effects of rats with chronic symptoms by using small animal vitamins or supplements. In general, myco flare ups can be treated and managed with a broad spectrum antibiotic and possibly other remedies your vet can recommend.
Other Respiratory Infections: Infections can be of a viral or bacterial nature. Viral infections, among them SDA and Sendai, run their courses in time. They cannot be cured with medicine, but the symptoms can be relieved and treated, and an antibiotic can help control secondary infections like myco (which often flares up when other diseases are present). Bacterial infections, such as strains of strep throat, can be treated with an antibiotic. Most infections run their course and give rats an immunity for some time after they get well, so reinfections within a group are unlikely. Many diseases are highly contagious (rat to rat or some rat to mouse), so an outbreak can be almost epidemic if an infected rat is in a pet store, laboratory, or show. Only through honesty, coordination, and strict quarantine procedures can the spread of these diseases be prevented.
Pneumonia: This is a very common cause of death in rats. It can be caused by any respiratory infection usually compounded by cold, stress, or other infections. Rats from pet stores are at highest risk because many have low resistance to myco, may have other infections, and often have damaged respiratory systems from being on pine or cedar bedding. Pneumonia strikes fast, and a rat could be in critical shape or dead before you notice anything is really wrong. If caught and treated early with antibiotics, heat, and fluids, pneumonia can be treated (though many continue having some breathing problems after recovering). The early symptoms are lethargy, heavy breathing, and sometimes wheezing. In advanced stages, the rat may stop moving or responding completely, body temperature drops, feet may look blue, ears and nose look pale, and the rat may gasp for air. If pneumonia is advanced, the rat's chances are very slim even if they can receive expensive oxygen therapy at an animal hospital. Rats that recover with antibiotics will regain their spirit and appetite in a couple of days. Most antibiotics are given for a week or two, and you should give all medicine the prescribed amount of time, even if the animal looks healthy. Watch any other rats for symptoms because many causes of pneumonia are contagious. (Pneumonia may or may not include upper respiratory symptoms including poryphin (red) discharge from eyes and nose.)
Sneezing: Rats sneeze for the same reason people do. Dust, odors, cold, illness, and allergies can all trigger sneezing fits. Keeping cages clean, using a dust-free bedding, and running a humidifier in winter months can help keep your rats from sneezing. Remember also that perfumes and air fresheners and definitely cigarette smoke can cause sneezing and congestion too. Stress also triggers sneezing in many rats, especially when a rat is new to your home.
"Red Tears:" If you see red liquid or crust on your rats eyes or nose, chances are it is not blood but poryphin. This is a mucus (like snot) rats produce when stressed or sick. They also can get red tears while they are asleep and wipe it off when they wake up. Poryphin by itself is no cause for alarm, but if it is excessive look for the source of it. Like sneezing, poryphin discharge can be caused by many things, stress, illness, eye irritation, allergies, etc.
Hiccups: Rats can and do get hiccups. They go away on their own or you can startle them away. Hiccups are spasms of the diaphragm and have nothing to do with burping (something rats can't do). Sometimes hiccups are caused by other respiratory problems but usually it is from being excited or eating too fast.
Vomit: Rats cannot regurgitate. If they choke on something, you will need to hold them upside-down and tap on them to help dislodge what they swallowed. If they eat something poisonous, you need to see a vet immediately.
Teeth: Rats' incisors should be yellow to orange in color. Like all rodents' rats' incisors are always growing, and they need to be provided with wood chews, nuts, or bones to help wear them down. (Note: Like puppies, rats may chew things you don't want them to chew if you don't provide them proper toys and/or nuts.)
Human Diseases: So far, only one "disease" is known to be able to transfer between us and our rats. It is the fungus ringworm, which is highly contageous among all mammals and some other animals too.
Parasites: Mites and lice rats get are not transferable to cats, dogs, or other animals. They most commonly are carried to rats by their bedding. Freezing all bedding will kill these and prevent your rat from being infested. The symptoms of these pests are scabs, incessant scratching, and you may see them as dark specks at the base of your rats' hairs (or the eggs as white specks). A mite spray made for small mammals or birds can be used to eliminate the pests on your rats and in their cages and bedding.
Scabs: Scabs that can not be attributed to parasites or rough play are likely a food or bedding allergy. Rats may be allergic to a number of things, but often too much protein in the diet causes these scabs.
Orange Oil/Specks On Skin: Male rats produce an orange oil on their backs that gives them a slight musk. This oil is produced more by adolescents and more dominant rats. You can wash it off every month or so, but not so much as to irritate their skin. There is nothing wrong with it.
Tumors: Lumps on the underside of older rats may be tumors. If caught early, they can be successfully removed by a vet. Remember that not all lumps are tumors. Abcesses are common and need to simply be lanced, drained, and kept clean while they heal. If in doubt, see a vet.
Blindness: Light-eyed rats and others often have poor eyesight or may be blind. Rats can live just fine blind, but keep them in a one-story cage or make other provisions so they don't accidentally hurt themselves.
Seizures: These are not terribly common but can cause sudden death in otherwise healthy, young rats. If your rat lives through a seizure, he may be disoriented or even partially paralyzed but may recover completely. Move him to a one-story cage, so he won't hurt himself if he has another seizure.
Pregnancy: Rat owners are strongly discouraged from breeding; it is stressful and a health risk to rats, decreases their life spans, can go wrong in many ways, and babies can be hard to find good homes for. Unfortunately, even new pet owners who have no intention of going through a rat pregnancy may end up unintentionally buying a pregnant rat. (Pet stores may not separate genders early enough or at all, and rats can get pregnant at six weeks old or potentially even younger!) Gestation is 21 to 24 days and litter sizes usually range from 8 to 12 pups (though litters as small as one or as large as over 20 are possible). Signs of pregnancy are usually apparent after two weeks. Her abdomen will swell and her nipples may protrude. A few hours before she gives birth, most rats begin nesting. Give the mother kitten or puppy food to boost her energy in pregnancy and while nursing. Try not to stress her too much. Do not clean her cage for at least a week after the babies are born (most rats will let you touch and hold their babies within a few days of birth). Usually the mom will do fine with the litter if left alone and not bothered. Babies will open their eyes at 14 days old and start trying solid foods at this time. They will be fully weaned at 4 weeks old, and soon after that males and females should be separated. (If there are any complications in the birth or the development of the pups, contact your vet.)