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Pet Rats - Information to Train and Care for your lovely rats!

Rats Health

Rats are hardy animals and rarely get sick. However, if not taken care of properly they can become ill. Most ailments are preventable simply from taking proper care of the animal.

General Signs of Illness

Your rat is: hunched up, lethargic, listless, huddling in a corner, coat staring (fluffed up and messy), runny nose, constipation, uninterested in food or attention. Eyes may be half closed or watery, and breathing may appear laboured. If your rat shows these symptoms, or others that worry you, consult a vet. In most cases, there are medications available at pet stores which can be used to aid in treating the animal. In other cases a trip to a veterinarian may be required.


Cuddling pet rat

Exercise is important for rats and their overall health, especially when their tank/cage is not exactly big. Let them run about your home, but make sure you rat-proof it first (See more info on Rat Proofing Your Home).

It’s a good idea to be with your rats when you let them out of their home:

  • to make sure they don’t chew cords and cables
  • so you don’t lose them
  • to make more of a bond between you and them

Twenty minutes of attention will be just enough, but ideally an hour would be great. A lot of people recommend an hour. Play games with them, sit them on your lap when your doing your homework, let them sit on your shoulders when your walking around the house, let them climb around in the sleeves of your jumpers. There are lots of ways to play and give attention to your rats.


Rats are mostly prone to tumors and respiratory infections. Make sure their tank/cage is clean, and suitable bedding is used (See Bedding and Litter for Pet Rats). Spot clean their tank/cage every day or every other day (just remove droppings and change the bedding). Completely clean the tank/cage at least once a week.

Here are a list and description of symptoms of common rat ailments, diseases and illnesses with suggested treatment methods:


The tendency to become overweight (often grossly overweight) is an often problem of pet rats. Overindulgent pet owners and diets rich in seeds and nuts are most often responsible for this condition.

Owners of pet rats must resist the temptation to feed "junk food," such as french fries, doughnuts, cookies and candy. Commercial diets specifically designed for rats are always preferred and can be supplemented with whole-wheat bread, dry cereal, pasta, fruits, vegetables and non-fat yogurt

Diarrhoea / Constipation

If your rat has watery droppings and appears to have diarrhoea, then the cause is most likely from having too many fresh greens. The simple remedy to this is to remove them completely from their diet for a few days until your rat appears to be getting better. Then slowly re-introduce greens by giving your rat just a small amount every few days.

If it appears that your rat is constipated, then it is most likely either not getting enough greens or water, so check both of those.

Red Discharge Around the Eyes and/or Nose

Not an ailment in itself, but a symptom of distress. Rats' mucus is stained red with a pigment called porphyrin (indeed, the mucus is commonly referred to as porphyrin). This discharge may be present if your rat is ill or simply stressed (as, for example, from moving house). Observe the animal carefully, and if it appears unwell or if the discharge continues for more than a few days, consult a vet.


Often seen in rats with pink or red eyes. The rat will usually stand still and weave its head from side to side for a while. This is perfectly normal; all rats are short-sighted (although they can sense movement from some distance, they can only focus for a few feet), but any animal with pink or red eyes has worse eyesight than those with dark eyes. Moving the head from side to side helps the rat to judge distances and the depth of objects by making them appear to move.

This should not be considered a fault or problem - rats sense smells, sounds and movement (by feeling vibrations on the floor) much more acutely than humans, and can cope perfectly well with limited eyesight.

Note that there is a different, unrelated condition called head tilt or wry-neck, where the rat holds its head on one side permanently. This can be caused by an inner-ear infection, or a brain tumour; it needs urgent veterinary attention.

Sneezing/Wheezing/Noisy Breathing

Often the sign of a respiratory infection. Virtually all pet rats are infected with an organism called mycoplasma which inhabits their respiratory system.

Many rats carry mycoplasma without appearing to suffer any illness, while others are not able to carry the infection unharmed. These rats will usually start to sneeze as young adults; they then develop some damage to the respiratory tract (lungs, windpipe, etc.) which makes it easier for bacteria to enter and cause an infection.

This is usually what has happened when a rat starts to wheeze, and if a great deal of damage is caused to the respiratory tract, the rat may develop emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia and lung abscesses. Pneumonia will require an antibiotic therapy, and possibly a visit to a veterinarian.

Although sneezing is not necessarily a sign of serious illness (most rats sneeze at some point in their lives), a rat that sneezes frequently and for an extended period should be observed for any other signs of illness. If your rat's breathing appears laboured, wheezy, or has a rattley sound, consult a vet immediately. When treated early, secondary respiratory infections can often be kept at bay with a strong course of antibiotics.

While sneezing or snuffling may be the result of the irritation of the respiratory tract from dust and phenol oils if the rat is kept on shavings, often a rat with noisy breathing is suffering from a secondary infection in the upper respiratory tract. These infections often sound far more serious that they are, but you should still talk to your vet.

A rat which shows a tendency to succumb to infection should never be bred from, as the tendency towards respiratory illness is partly hereditary. This means it is likely that offspring and resulting generations will have weakened immune systems. It is important to obtain rats from breeders who select for healthy animals; a persistent sneezer, or a rat which wheezes, should not be bred from.

Respiratory Infections can be caused from being in drafts and/or damp bedding. Make sure your affected rat is taken out of drafts, and that the tank/cage is completely clean and dry.


Mites are also a thing to lookout for. Rats usually get them when there cage hasn’t been cleaned properly for a while. I have a mite spray that I ordered online. Once a month I clean the cage, spray it with the mite spray and spray the back of Coffee and Jump with it to de-mite everything.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

Your pet rat is:

  • hunched up, lethargic, coat staring (fluffed up and messy)
  • uninterested in food or attention
  • eyes may be half closed and breathing may appear laboured


If your rat shows these symptoms, or others that worry you, read this: Pet Rats Bugs/Mites/Fleas.

Protein Itch

This condition does not affect all rats.

This condition is caused by a high protein level in the diet. Foods such as nuts are usually the culprit.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

The rat will continuously scratch around the neck and shoulders, and small red scabs will be visible amongst the fur.


Initially the rat should be put on a simple diet of cooked brown rice, fresh vegetable and plain biscuits. When the problem clears, switch back to their normal diet, but remove nuts from their diet. Any food used for such rats should have a protein content of no more than 15%.

To ease the itchy symptoms you could bath the rat in either clear warm water. Until the rat has stopped itching, their toe nails should be regularly trimmed short and filed to minimise damage to the skin while scratching.


If the relative humidity is consistently less than 40% in the rats environment, a young rat may develop this condition. The dry air causes an abnormal response of the temperature regulating vessels in the tail. This condition is also more common in winter when the indoor air is usually very dry.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

Young rats may develop annular or ring like sores around the tail on one or more locations. In severe cases, the end of the tail may come away, leaving a stump. In some cases the sores heal, resulting in a constriction at this site.


Nothing can be done to correct this problem once it has occurred. Preventative measures include, raising the humidity levels of the surrounding environment, a bowl of water can be placed on a radiator to evaporate.


Rats are nocturnal, therefore they have not evolved to endure heat. A rat's cage should be kept indoors where the temperature can be controlled.

For healthy rats, temperatures above 90°F are uncomfortable, above 100°F can cause distress, and above 104°F can be fatal.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

Drooling, lethargy or in severe cases unconsciousness, the tail will feel very warm to the touch.


A rat with heat-stroke requires immediate cooling, by submerging the rat is cool water up to the neck. This will reduce the body temperature. In less severe cases, or if this procedure would cause more stress to your rat, sponging them down with cool water can be just as effective.

Encourage the rat to drink. Prevention is better than treatment, so keep your rat's tank/cage out of direct sunlight, move them to a cooler position in hot weather, or give the rats a jar of ice cubes to lay against.


Strokes are caused by a blood clot in an artery or a brain haemorrhage; more rarely, it can be caused by a tumour.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

During a stroke, the rat may suffer from convulsions and fitting, unconsciousness and irregular breathing; however often the first sign a rat has had a stroke is paralysis, particularly on one side of the body, or a head tilt.


Veterinary treatment should be sought immediately it is suspected a rat has suffered a stroke, as the sooner treatment is started the bettwer the outlook. Steroids are used to reduce inflammation.

One home medication that I have found invaluable in the case of strokes is Bach's Flower Rescue Remedy, obtainable in Boots, Holland & Barratts and other health food stores and pharmacies. Start with four drops immediately; follow by another 2 in an hour and repeat it every hour for the first 12 hours, then 4 times daily for a week or however long it takes to show some improvement. Try also the homeopathic remedy, Conium maculatum; it is available in small pillule form from Boots and Holland & Barrett - the 20C strength is preferable, but get the 6C one if you can't find 20C. He'll need to take 2 pillules daily crushed up in baby food.

The next stage is to keep the rat with you at all times, physically touching and stimulating him. Gently tickle the paralysed side such as on the ear or face to get him to shake his head, 10-15 times 2-3 times a day. Stroke him - LOTS. Gently move his legs and get him to excercise 2-3 times a day. You may need to help him feed and groom himself as well. Talk to him and reassure him; he'll be feeling very confused right now.

Above all, don't panic; yes, he's had a stroke - but he's pulled through, and with some careful nursing he may well recover. How complete a recovery he makes depends on how fast and aggressively you treat the stroke. The more progress he makes in recovering from the paralysis at the start, the better the chances of complete recovery.

Unfortunately, once a rat has suffered one stroke, it is predisposed to more; and few rats ever recover after a second stroke to any degree of quality of life. Should a rat survive a second stroke, it is usually kindest to have it euthanized if it does not slip away in its sleep by itself.


An abscess forms when skin encapsulates an infection or an area of inflammation (e.g. due to an injury). Most abscesses commonly form around a bite wound following a fight between two rats, but it can be just as usual to find no trace of a wound at all.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

Abscesses can grow very quickly, and can feel quite hard and "attatched" to the skin; they can feel extremely firm just before they burst, discharging pus which can smell very distinctive and putrid. There seem to be typically two types of pus that form; sticky, green, yoghurt consistency pus (which apparently smells the worst), or "cream cheese" pus.


The abscess will not heal until it has been opened and drained. You can speed up the process by applying a hot compress twice a day to help bring the infection to the surface until it "pops"; occasionally a particularly stubborn abscess will require lancing by a vet.

Once the abscess has been opened, it must be thoroughly cleaned out by squeezing out all the pus (a rather unpleasant, odiferous job - but very necessary) and wiping out with a cotton swab; particularly large abscess cavities will require flushing out using saline solution and a syringe.

It is very important to make sure all pus is cleaned out, as any left in the wound will simply cause a new abscess to form. This can lead to a walled abscess with several layers of infection, which may need to be surgically removed by the vet.

Once the wound is clean, it needs to be kept clean until the wound has healed; the rat should be placed on antibiotics until the wound has completely healed. Not all antibiotics will necessarily be effective on deep abscesses, and it has been found that chloramphenicol is the only antibiotic that can completely penetrate abscess pus, so it may be worth suggesting this to your vet if other antibiotics such as Baytril do not appear to be working. Particularly deep wounds may need packing with antirobe powder (obtainable from your vet).

Some bucks are prone to sebeceous cysts; these look much like a small abscess, but are filled with sebeceous secretions from oil glands in the skin. Treatment is much the same as for abscesses.


There are two main types of tumour: benign, and malignant. The most common tumour found in rats is the benign mammary tumour, affecting mostly does over the age of 18 months. Whilst it is unusual for bucks to get tumours, it is not entirely misheard of.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

Mammary tumours usually develop around the armpits and around the belly. Whereas abscesses usually feel "attatched" to the skin, with tumours the skin often moves slightly independantly of the lump. However, this is only a general rule, and it is usually best to have all lumps investigated by a vet.


If the lump is an abscess, the vet will be able to withdraw pus from the wound with a needle. Assuming the lump is a tumour or growth, the decision needs to be made on whether to have it removed surgically or not. If the rat is generally in good health, with no respiratory problems, then the prognosis for surgery is good. Benighn tumours do not usually reoccur after surgical removal; however malignant tumours often do.

When deciding whether or not to operate, consideration should be given to the age of the rat; operating on rats over 2 years old is probably not really fair on the rat. It all comes down to the quality of life enjoyed by the rat; if the rat is old but still getting around fine with a tumour that isn't causing her any discomfort, it is probably kinder to leave the tumour rather than put her through the discomfort and trauma of surgery and risking losing her under anaesthetic.

In the case of malignant tumours, treatment with tamoxifen has been found to be beneficial, and is generally cheaper and far less stressful than surgery. The rat will need to be on the drug for several weeks, and you may not notice any reduction in size of the tumour for 2-3 weeks. Tamoxifen has the side effect of reducing blood clotting, so should be stopped 2 weeks prior to any surgery.

Pituitary Tumours: Some rats develop pituitary tumours, which press upon the brain and eventually cause neurological impairment. Typical syptoms include head-tilt, causing the rat to "circle" to one side, and a gradual paralysis of the forepaws. The rat will show a marked inability to hold food properly with their front paws, often wedging the food against things in order to eat. This gets worse until the rat is unable to eat. Whilst a course of steroids often slows down the advance of a pituitary tumour, ultimately it is kinder to have the animal put to sleep.


Respiratory infections are the most common health problem and the principle cause of death in pet rats; and most infections are due to the bacteria Mycoplasma pulmonis, which is present in the lungs of virtually all pet rats. Some lines of rats (from breeders who have bred resistance into their lines) appear to be far more resistant to the bacterium than others; pet shop rats appear to suffer most from mycoplasma-related infections.

Myco can lie dormant for long periods of time; whether this flares up into a respiratory problem or not depends on many factors: stress, change of environment, a weakened immune system, allergic reaction or other illnesses can cause myco to flare up. Some rats can go their whole lives without once showing symptoms; other rats seem to have respiratory problems regularly from early on in life.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

These can include:

  • Constant sneezing
  • Rattling noise from chest
  • Wheezing and laboured breathing; marked difficulties in breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Porphyrin staining around the eyes and nose (blood coloured mucus)
  • Coat looking 'staring' (bad condition, lack of shine, standing on end)


If you rat is displaying any or a combination of these symptoms, it should be taken to the vet as soon as possible; in the event of an acute secondary bacterial infection the rat can suffer a rapid onset of symptoms; it is very easy for an acute case of myco to go from wheezing and sneezing to death's door in 24 hours or less.

It is more common for a mycoplasma infection to start out slowly with mild symptoms that progress over a period of weeks or months. The infection starts in the upper respiratory tract, then progresses to the lungs. This results in wheezing and sneezing. Eventually scar tissue will form in the lungs, and the heart may also become damaged; often the rat will exhibit weight loss. The rat may show signs of respiratory distress, gasping for breath.

Treatment for myco usual involves the use of antibiotics, most commonly Baytril (enrofloxacin) or a Baytril/Doxycycline combination. For an average 500g rat, the dosage would be 0.2ml Baytril and 1.3ml Doxycycline given twice daily (Baytril only being effective for about 12 hours). When treating respiratory infections, antibiotics should be continued for at least a week after the symptoms dissappear to prevent relapse.

Pine and cedar bedding: It has long been known that the phenols contained in the oil vapours given off by pine and cedar woodshavings (the characteristic "pine" smell) are detrimental to rats' health, causing often acute respiratory distress and lung damage. rats raised on pine or cedar are far more prone to damaging myco flare-ups due to early scarring of lung tissue. This is commonly seen in pet-shop stock.

Ear Infections

Inner ear infections are fairly common in rats; they can be caused by mycoplasma infection or secondary bacterial infection; however they can also be a sign of a stroke or pituitary tumour.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

Ear infections are often characterised by a head-tilt, in which the rat holds its head to one side. Without treatment, the rat will suffer from progressive loss of balance until it is unable to stand upright without rolling over.


Head-tilt caused by bacterial infection needs to be treated early on quite aggressively with antibiotics if the rat is not to retain a permanent head-tilt. Baytril in combination with amoxicillin is usually quite effective. Treatment with a steroid is also necessary to reduce inner-ear inflammation.

The standard treatment for neurological impairment - whether that be bacterial infection, stroke or pituitary tumour - is with both steroids and antibiotics. These will reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of (potentially fatal) secondary infections; however, if - despite treatment - the rat is no longer able to feed itself, it often proves kinder to have it put to sleep. However, as with any health matter, the earlier treatment is started the better the prognosis and outlook.

Skin Problems

The most commonly-found skin problem in rats is the appearance of scabs, typically around the shoulders and back of the head. These are most frequently caused by either mites or lice. Lice are visible to the human eye as small reddish-orange dots. Mites are not visible to the human eye, and need to be confirmed from a skin scraping.


There are a wide variety of over-the-counter sprays or powders which may work; Bob Martins make an excellent Small Animal Spray, as do Johnson's; some vets recommend using frontline or Advantage. However, by far the most effective treatment is Ivermectin, available from your vet.

Treatment is usually either by injection or by putting a small drop on the ear for the rat to clean off and absorb. If one rat shows symptoms of mites, they all need to be treated. Ivermectin is also available as horse wormer paste; the dosage for rats would be one small piece the size of an uncooked grain of rice. However care must be taken to ensure the paste is thoroughly stirred to ensure even distribution of the active ingredient throughout the paste, as overdose can be lethal; it is recommended instead that you take your rats to your vet.

If your rats have been scratching particularly badly and are feeling very itchy and miserable, your vet can administer a mild steroid injection to relieve the skin inflammation intil the Ivermectin can get to work. The Ivermectin treatment must be repeated 3 weeks later, to catch the hatching eggs as well as adults. The cage will also need to be thoroughly cleaned out to minimise the risk of reinfestation.

Some bucks can suffer from a protein allergy; unlike mites, the scabs are usually restricted to under the chin, and respond well to a reduction of protein in the diet. It is a good idea to trip the buck's claws, particularly the longer hind claws; and a mild topical anasthetic cream will help relieve itchiness.

Ringworm: This is characterised by circular hairless patches. Ringworm is not actually a worm but a fungal infection. Treatment is by daily application of an antifungal cream containing 1% Clotrimazole (e.g. Canesten AF). Ringworm is highly infectious; the affected rat(s) should be isolated, and you should either wear gloves or wash your hands thoroughly after handling the affected animal.

Barbering: Mutual grooming of one rat by another is quite common, but some rats are "barberers"; they will excessively groom another rat to the point of causing baldness. A single barberer in a cage can easily be singled out, as it will be the only rat without bald patches on it's own head! Barberers often overgroom their own front legs as well. Stress and boredom may be causes of barbering, but it is not known precisely what the trigger is for this form of obsessive-compulsive behaviour.


Proper name ulcerative pododermatitis; this is a bacterial infection in the bottom of the heel. It is not known precisely what causes bumblefoot; it has often been blamed on wire shelving in cages, but this has not been proven. There are several rattery owners whose cages have wire shelves, and whose rats have never had a single case of bumblefoot between them. It is more likely to occur in older, overweight rats, and it appears to run in families.

Signs and Symptoms of Illness

Bacterial infection in the bottom of the heel that usually appears as a round reddish swelling that eventually forms a yellowish crusty scab (the "bumble").


Treatment consists of treatment with Purple Spray in the UK, or Blue-Kote in the USA; both are wound medications for horses. They work by drying out the sores. Purple Spray can be obtained from armers outlets and saddlers shops or from your vet. last updated 1 Oct, 2017


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