What sort of illnesses do rats get?
Rats have mercifully few problems here in Australia. We do not have some of the nastier bugs that are in such places as the UK and USA. However our rats can still get sick from a few things, and it pays to be able to recognise any problems before they have a chance to do a lot of damage to your rats. Below are a list of problems rats can get, and what to do about them.
Mycoplasma: This is a bacterial infection that all rats carry in the dormant state. They are exposed to it at birth and carry it all their lives. In most cases it will not turn into the full blown infection, but it can and does happen. When Myco rears its ugly head, it will cause your rat’s immune system to lower, letting small things like the common cold turn into a roaring case of pneumonia. You can give your rat a fighting chance of not letting Myco get a hold on it by making sure rats are not kept in crowded and filthy conditions, and their cage has adequate ventilation. If you hear your rat begin to wheeze, rattle, sneeze a lot or gurgle, get it to the vet straight away. Myco can easily kill your rats if you ignore it and let it take hold.
Colds: Just like humans, rats can get colds as well. If their immune system is strong, they will fight it off. You may find that putting some echinacea in their drink bottle will give their immune system a boost. If it looks as though their cold is not getting better after a little while, or is getting worse and worse, take your rat to the vet as it may be something more serious.
Cuts, scrapes, and abrasions: Rats are amazingly quick to heal. If your rat has got a cut or abrasion, just flush it out with clean water and apply a small amount of antiseptic such as MediPulv (a powder antiseptic that you can buy from chemists). You will find that in a couple of days you wont even be able to tell they had a scratch in the first place. Even large cuts may be treated in this way. Proportionately, what humans would need stitches for, rats’ bodies can heal in a matter of days.
Inner ear infections: If you notice your rat with a head tilt, lack of balance and is not as full of the joy of life as usual, it may have an inner ear infection. This will need to be treated by your vet.
Strokes: Rats are rather prone to having strokes. This is where blood supply to part of the brain is suddenly interrupted. Symptoms can include paralysis down one side of the body, weakness and loss of balance and co-ordination. Many rats can go on to live long after having a stroke, usually with some residual effects such as slight paralysis, or lack of balance. If your rat has a stroke, visit your vet and he/she will advise you on what to do.
Tumours: Rats are also extremely prone to developing tumours. These are solid lumps under the skin that can grow very fast. Some are benign and some are malignant, and you will need to visit your vet to find out which type it is. In either case, the rat can be operated on to remove the tumour. There is a high chance of tumours re-occuring afterwards however.
Cysts: These can often be mistaken for tumours, as they appear under the skin and can grow very fast. However, unlike tumours, cysts are just very large deposits of pus and sometimes blood. Cysts are usually caused at the site of trauma, ie a cut or puncture wound. If you are not sure whether it is a cyst or tumour, visit your vet. He/she may advise that the cyst be lanced to remove the gunk inside, although usually cysts pop on their own. Cysts can leave a large area of exposed tissue open after they have popped, and this must be kept clean until the wound heals itself.
Bumblefoot: Bumblefoot is a bacterial infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus. In basic terms, Bumblefoot is a Staph infection, and very difficult to treat once your rodent has contracted it. The “bumbles” that grow are keratinized tissue that may appear like tumours but they are actually abscesses. The lumps will have intermittent bleeding which may cause anemia and left untreated the infection will eventually spread to bone and/or the bloodstream. This can be a fatal infection. If you think your pet has contracted this infection, take it to a competent vet immediately. Preventative measures include keeping the cage clean, isolating affected rodents and treating any cuts or scrapes you may find on their feet or body. It is speculated that rats forced to live on wire flooring have a higher susceptibility to bumblefoot, so please ensure your rats have an option to get away from wire underfoot in some form or other.
Find a Good Vet
Many vets do not understand that rats are a beloved pet despite their size and their short lifespan. The majority of vets have fleetingly studied rodents in their vet course and thought no more about them. However a rare few actually take an interest in rats, can treat them with the respect they deserve, and are knowledgeable in their treatment. These are the type of vets that you need to find while your rat is healthy, because usually at least once in your rat’s life you will need to visit a vet. You can find a database of vets here.