Vet Care, and Rat Illnesses
I’m going to start this page with the very clear statement that I am not a veterinarian, not a medical expert of any kind, rat or human, and what I am telling you is anecdotal, and mostly just my own experience. Please don’t make any decision with regard to your or your ratty’s health based on anything I say. Maybe use what I say as a launching board to research more reputable sources.
So, I’ll also say off the bat, I’m not one to go to extraordinary veterinary measures to rescue an animal. It’s not that I don’t love our animals, I do, it’s more that I realize that our resources are limited, and if I were to consider possible long-term veterinary costs for owning an animal, I’d probably never get an animal, and rats we give a home to would just become snake fodder. They wouldn’t have been any better off. But if we give them a home, for however long their natural lifespan is, with good food, and a great cage, and toys, and affection and play time, at least when they do die, they’ve had a far better life than they would have if we hadn’t taken them in for fear of possible vet bills.
We did get one rat’s eye removed, but it was sort of a fluke thing. We took the rat, Templeton, to the vet because his eye was covered with a filmy white something, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t an infection that would spread to all of our rats. The vet, somewhat of an incompetent, ended up (I kid you not) dislodging Templeton’s eyeball ... yes, it was hanging outside of his eye socket, attached by a little cord of something ... maybe the optic nerve? And it was bleeding. A lot. This ... vet .... sent us home, me driving, my then-7-year-old son holding a cloth against Templeton’s eye to: a) attempt to stop the bleeding; and b) keep the eye in the socket. Well, after we got home and I held the eye-tourniquet against Templeton’s eye for a few hours and he was bleeding more than I thought a rat could, I called the vet and told him what was happening. (We lived in a pretty rural area then; this was seriously the only vet within 30 miles). The vet said to bring Templeton back, at which point he did an emergency eye-ectomy (eye-removal), just to be able to cauterize the socket and stop the bleeding, and we ended up with a one-eyed rat. The vet, never admitting his own incompetence overtly, did only charge us $30 for the visit and the surgery, so I think he knew he’d f-ed up.
So, if you’re gonna take your rats to a vet, make sure your vet knows what the heck he’s doing, ok?
I’ve read a lot about general rat health, and it seems that, not surprisingly, tumors are the main reason for early rat death, and females are more likely to succumb to tumors than males. Of our first 5 rats, all males, one died of a jaw tumor, but he was pretty old, over 3 years, when he died. Three died unexpectedly overnight, having reached at least 2 but not yet 3; one died in a weird bloody mess that to this day is completely inexplicable to me. There was blood on several layers of the cage, in sort of a murder-scene kind of distribution, and this rat was dead, but he had no visible wounds. It was .... well ... disturbing and weird. But, there you go.
Rats tend to live 2-3 years, I have heard, and our rats have borne that out. However, some can get tumors and die much younger, and some apparently live to be 4 or 5. Healthy food is good, of course, as is giving your rats lots of bedding and hidey-holes, so they can keep themselves warm and free of draughts. We bathe our rats on occasion, when they get kinda stinky, but I don’t think it’s for their sake, really ... just for ours. But I am sure that keeping their cage clean does help their health, how could it not? But don’t use pine bedding, it has compounds that are bad for rat respiratory tracts.
Companionship is HUGE for a rat’s mental health, please never have a lone rat, they need a (same sex) buddy. Let your rats run around, on the couch or in a home-made playpen, to explore and get some exercise. Treat them as well as you possibly can, as they are in your care and depend on you.
If you notice a red substance around the rat nostrils and eyes, don’t freak out right away. It might be porphyrin, which has something to do with red blood cells, but isn’t blood, and sometimes appears on rats the same way we’d get a runny nose or watery eyes. All our rats have had this to some degree or other at various times, and it’s never (that I’ve noticed) been correlated with reduced health in any other way. But, as with everything I say, if you’re concerned about your rat, find a vet, please don’t take my word for anything.
Rat teeth keep growing their whole lives, so give them things to gnaw on, to help wear the teeth down. Hard foods do this, as do blocks of wood (parrot chew toys can be great), and bones (though some people say meat isn’t good for rats, that it makes them more aggressive; while I haven’t noticed this myself, I do tend to give my rats very little in the way of meat by-products). Oh, rat teeth are also naturally yellow ... they’re actually supposed to look that way.
And in case you're wondering, you don't need to brush your rats' teeth. I promise.
Rats will hoard their food as a natural behavior. Being smart, they also do it as a learned behavior. Once my son was cleaning our two-level cage, and the two levels block off from each other with a locking ramp. He blocked the layers off, to keep the rats in the cage while the door was open for cleaning, and forgot to unblock it. I noticed this a few days later. The rats weren’t actually in any danger of starving, they had their edible chew Logz with them ... but they did get really paranoid about food after that. Suddenly, their food bowl would be emptied every day, and it’s a pretty big bowl, relative to the size of a rat anyway. Finally we realized they were carrying all the food up three levels, and hiding it in their log. If we damn humans weren’t going to be trustworthy enough to take care of them correctly, they’d make sure we didn’t mess up again. Smart animals. And yes, my son felt terrible. They got better, with time, but they still keep a stash in their log.
Females are more active than males (though our females are slowing down some as they reach 1 ½ years of age). Males from the get-go tend to sleep and laze more, females run and explore and use the wheel more. Like all gender-based generalizations, this one is frequently true, but not always, so you can get an active male or a lazy female, of course.
Spaying & Neutering
Some people spay their female rats to make them less prone to tumors. I think this is maybe not the best idea, since rats can die in (or as a result of) surgery, and tumors certainly aren’t guaranteed. But it’s an option. Some people neuter their males, less of a traumatic surgery, to make them less aggressive, and less stinky. And it gets rid of those ridiculous large testicles. Seriously. And, of course, if you spay and neuter your rats, you can keep a mix of genders, which some people like. I’ve never spayed or neutered a rat, so I have no advice here.
Introducing New Rats
When you introduce new rats to established rats, do it slowly and carefully, especially new males with established males. Preferably introduce them in neutral territory, and then actually let the new rats live in the cage for a bit and then bring the older rats back ... it takes away a bit of that territorial advantage. And watch them closely, males will fight over territory. Females will too ... they do have a hierarchical social order, like dogs (and people), but usually, as with dogs, the fighting sounds worse to us than it actually is. But not always, so keep an eye out.
Even our female rats who are litter-mates occasionally get into spats where the subordinate one, Squeaky, apparently decides she isn’t going to take it any more, and blood is drawn. It’s rare, and passes quickly, but it does happen and we keep a close watch. I imagine this occurs more often the more crowded the cage is.
They hate it. (Ours always have anyway). HATE. IT. But, sometimes they get stinky and need a bath. So, when you feel you should bathe them, do it quickly, make sure the water is warm (not hot), prepare to be scratched, and dry them quickly (giving them a nice swaddled area outside of draughts immediately after). They should be fine.
When you hold and scritch your rats, you will know they are really really happy when two things occur. One is teeth grinding ... you’ll hear this sandpaper sound, and it’s their teeth grinding together in a weird little ecstatic motion. The second is really really weird. So weird. Their eyes will actually project out then back into their heads in a rhythmic way. It’s called Eye Googling, appropriately, and I swear nobody will believe it until they see it. I’ll try to take a video of it and post it here. If there’s not one here, youtube it. It’s so freaky, but it means they’re happy, so whatever. I’ll take it.
Last but not least: your health. Recently in the news was a case of a death from Rat Bite Fever, from a pet rat bought at Petco. Rats, like many other animals (and people), carry some germs that aren’t good for people. Be aware of this before you get a rat, so that if you do still decide to get one, you do so fully cognizant of the issue.
My understanding of Rat Bite Fever is that in the past 100 years, 200 people have been confirmed to have died from it, though unconfirmed deaths almost certainly also occurred.
To me, with the millions of pet rats, rats in labs, and even wild rats that people encounter, that number of deaths seems very small. That said, to the person who loses a loved one to this illness, one is the highest number in the world. As with cats and toxoplasmosis, dogs with attacks, and bites (which can lead to infections of various sorts), etc, pet rats are a risk to people, albeit a small one. Know what you’re getting into when you get any pet, is all I say about the issue. If nothing else, most diseases of this sort are treatable if you know you're infected. It’s easier to be alert to an infection if you’re aware of the disease and the symptoms. That way, if you or a loved one are one of the rare people who contract a pet-borne disease, you will also be one of the ones who receives the proper treatment. Better safe than sorry.