Rats are amazing pets and it can be quite distressing when they fall ill. Now, we can’t offer a guarantee that your pet will always be well but we can help you prevent them from getting sick some of the time and help you treat them when they do fall ill.
Our guide, “Do Pet Rats Get Sick Easily? 12 Common Ailments & Prevention” includes abscesses, allergies, benign growths, bumblefoot, ear infections, fungal infections, lice/mites, overgrown teeth, respiratory diseases, scabs, skin problems and tumors/cancer as well as a look at whether your rats can catch some common disease from you.
Do Pet Rats Get Sick Easily? The 12 Common Rat Ailments & How To Prevent Them
Rats are reasonably hardy animals and they don’t get sick any more often than human beings do. There is significant variance between rats, and some may go their whole lives without a day of illness whereas others may regularly need treatment for problems. There’s no way to tell.
However, it’s fair to say that some sickness in rats is preventable and you can reduce the chances of taking your rat to the vet.
So, let’s take a look at the 12 most common pet rat ailments, how they may be prevented (assuming that they are preventable) and how to treat them if they arise:
Abscesses are a very common problem in rats. In fact, they’re so common that if you find what you think is a tumor – it can be worth giving it a couple of weeks to find out whether the issue is really an abscess.
Fortunately, while they’re not very pleasant – abscesses will normally be harmless and will take care of themselves.
They tend to turn up overnight and are usually caused by the rat having been scratched or bitten and the wound then becoming infected under the skin. The wound heals up and then a few days later, the skin erupts in a large pus-filled area that is the abscess.
One very common cause of abscesses in male rats is the operation to have them neutered. In this instance the abscess will arise on the groin where the testicles used to be. Many owners don’t even notice these abscesses until after they have burst and healed to leave a simply pockmark in the rat’s skin.
The best rule of thumb when it comes to abscesses is that if the rat doesn’t appear to be in pain or distressed by it – to leave it and allow it take care of itself. You’ll find that abscesses on the lower body tend to drain quickly (thanks to gravity) whereas those on the top of the body can hang around a bit longer.
The only time to be concerned if the rat is not in distress is if the abscess appears on the rat’s face as this can be an indicator of other more serious conditions.
If the rat is in distress or the abscess is on the face, you should consult a vet as soon as you can.
There is no known way to prevent rats from getting abscesses.
Rats can, just like humans, suffer from allergies both to food stuffs and to their bedding as well as any cleaning products that they are exposed to.
You can reduce the chances of them developing these allergies by ensuring that you feed them a specially formulated rat feed as the majority of their diet (these feeds are designed to be hypoallergenic), that their bedding is made of a suitable product (paper pellets is a good place to start) that has been dust extracted.
Allergies in rats also display similar symptoms to allergies in human beings and a rat with an allergic reaction may suffer from “pruritis” (which is “itching” in non-technical language), inflammation, lesions on their body from where they’ve been scratching, hair loss and potentially breathing problems.
If your rat does appear to be suffering from an allergy, the easiest way to handle this is to try and remove potential allergens from the rat’s environment until you can work out what the problem is and permanently remove it.
You can also do this with your rat’s diet if you suspect that the problem is due to a food allergy. Start the rat on a rat food only diet and gradually introduce treats over a period of time being careful to note their response.
There are two types of benign growths that commonly affect rats: cysts and tumors. The good news is that neither of these things are serious and while there is no known way to prevent them from occurring – they pose no risk to your rat’s health.
A cyst is a sort of sac that appears on the rat’s body which is filled with either a sort of semi-solid substance or a liquid. They may look very similar to an abscess, but they are not filled with pus and are usually full of sebaceous oil. This is why they tend to affect male rats more often then females (males produce more sebaceous oil).
A cyst will not harm your rat in any form. However, it is fair to say that if a cyst grows too large – you may want to empty it so that it doesn’t hamper their movement. You may also find cysts that contain bits of bone, hair and teeth but they are no more dangerous than those which are full of sebaceous oil.
Tumors, on the other hand, will require a visit to the vet as the only way to determine that they are, in fact, benign is through a biopsy. Female rats often suffer from benign mammary tumors and all rats can end up with neck tumors in response to certain viral and bacterial infections.
Females, in particular, may also suffer from pituitary tumors which are very hard to diagnose as they are internal, it’s estimated that this may kill 1 in 5 females as eventually the tumor will expand to crush the brain. It is benign but the overall effects are not.
If your rat is showing signs of mental impairment, loss of coordination or loss of function in the limbs – it’s a good idea to take them to the vet as these are warnings signs of these tumors.
Bumblefoot is a horrible condition which causes the soles of a rat’s feet to break out in very painful ulcers. It’s so severe that it can kill a rat if left untreated.
There’s also no reason for a rat to get bumblefoot in the first place. Prevention is always better than cure and bumblefoot is usually entirely preventable and you’re the one in charge of ensuring that you rat doesn’t get this.
How? Well, all you have to do is avoid wire-based cages and also cover any levels in the cage with cardboard that you can regularly change out. Also, avoid using a wire running wheel as your rats feet can get damaged. Ensuring that their cage is kept clean and kept dry. If you do that, they won’t contract the disease.
What is bumblefoot? Well, a “bumble” is the red ulcer lesion that you can see on the feet. It is caused by an e.coli or staphylococcus aureus infection of a wound on the foot. It is very common in obese rodents in dirty cages. Strangely, this disease can also affect chickens.
Now, sometimes even if you keep the cage clean and your rat is the right weight (if you have an obese rat – you can help it slim down, we’ve written a guide to feeding your rat here) then they still get bumblefoot.
If you find that they have contracted the condition – it’s best not to hang about and call a vet. They will provide oral antibiotics as well as a cleaning regime. Sadly, if this regime does not cure the bumblefoot – the vet may be called upon to amputate the foot.
We’d strongly recommend that when dealing with bumblefoot that you seek out a vet with a strong track record of dealing with rodents – it’s a funny condition which an inexperienced vet can fail to treat properly. The vet may want to run cultures to see which exact bacteria has brought about the infection in order to work out what the best antibiotics to use are.
Ear infections in rats are typically caused by bacterial infection which means that you can prevent some ear infections by paying close attention to the general cleanliness of the cage and that there is no dirt building up on the rats either.
However, just as with humans all the precautions in the world may not prevent a bacterial infection. So, don’t feel bad if your rats start to show symptoms of having an ear infection.
The typical symptoms include the rat tilting their head to one side almost constantly, scratching or worrying at the ear, rubbing their head on the floor in distress, general itchiness around the area, partial or complete paralysis of the rat’s face, a loss of their sense of balance and/or a strong odor coming from the infected ear.
It is very important to contact a vet as soon as you suspect that your rat may have an ear infection as failing to treat it effectively can lead to deafness or a permanent tilt of the head.
Your vet will want to make sure, before they treat the rat for an ear infection, that the problem is not due to a tumor or a stroke.
You should expect the vet to examine the rat’s balance, to check inside the ears to find any signs of inflammation and they may, if necessary, take a culture to try and diagnose which bacteria is present in the ear.
Once this is done, they are likely to prescribe antibiotics for a period of up to 6 weeks. They will also teach you how to apply these antibiotics in the most effective manner for your rat.
The most typical fungal infection in rats is ringworm. You can prevent ringworm, to some extent, by ensuring that your rats don’t come into contact with other creatures that suffer from ringworm and that your regularly clean their cage and then environment in which they play.
However, ringworm can still occur even if you do all of these things. It is important to note that ringworm is not a rodent-only disease and you can get ringworm from your rats. So, if you suspect ringworm – it’s best to treat it quickly.
The symptoms of ringworm are red and irritated skin (often in rings which is how the condition gets its name – there are no worms involved, the red rings just look a bit wormlike), flaky skin and general all over itchiness for your rat.
You will need to see a vet for your rat’s diagnosis, and they will conduct a thorough physical examination and may want to ask questions about the rat’s recent history of contact with other animals and people.
They will probably take a scraping from the skin to examine under the microscope to confirm their diagnosis of ringworm.
Treatment for ringworm in rats is usually a combination of anti-fungal and antibiotic agents. You will also be given a lotion and/or a shampoo to use on the rat.
The vet will also explain how you need to treat the cage and surrounding area to ensure that the ringworm does not return. If you show any signs of ringworm – don’t use your rat’s medicine, consult a doctor and try not to handle your rats as they can be re-infected by you.
The most common source of lice and mites in pet rats is lice and mites that are found in the bedding bought in pet stores (the bedding becomes contaminated in the store). This can often be avoided by buying your bedding from an online supplier such as Amazon which does not keep live animals around the bedding.
However, it’s also possible for bedding to be infected with lice and/or mites in the warehouse where it was originally stored. If this is the case, even buying on Amazon won’t stop your rats from becoming infected.
Lice and mites on rodents are often too small to be seen with the naked eye and the most likely symptom for you to discover their presence are scabs forming on the skin with no obvious causes.
If you find such scabs, you’ll need to take your rat to the vet for a proper diagnosis. The vet will, most likely, then conduct a skin scrape test to identify which parasite (or parasites) are present and then provide you with a treatment.
Be warned though, the tests used for parasites can provide a false negative – so even if the vet says everything is OK, you may need to go back if the problem doesn’t clear up over the next few weeks.
The typical treatment is a drug called ivermec which must be given to your rat in a very precise manner and dose – failure to follow the dosing instructions can kill the rat. You should not dose pregnant does or baby rats without oversight from a vet.
You must treat all the rats you own at the same time as the risks of cross-infection are very high, indeed. It might be advisable, if your rat keeps scratching at itself, to trim the rat’s nails to prevent it from doing serious damage to its skin.
You may also want to bathe an itchy rat to help soothe their skin, we’ve got a full guide on how to give a rat a bath on the website here.
You may be told by well-meaning folks that you can prevent overgrown teeth in rats by giving them hard word to chew on. This isn’t true. In fact, you can’t prevent overgrown teeth in rats because they are caused by medical problems which prevent them from grinding their teeth (which causes them to wear out).
When a tooth is knocked out of alignment, it can no longer grind against its opposite number. Both that tooth and the opposite tooth are going too become overlong. The first noticeable symptom (if you don’t recognize that the teeth are too long) is the fact that your rat will start to lose weight. That’s because it hurts to eat when a rat’s teeth become too long.
They rub against the skin tissue inside the mouth and cause sores and eventually they can trigger painful internal abscesses which are much more severe than the usual (more common) abscesses on a rat’s body.
You can treat overgrown teeth yourself using a set of toenail scissors for cats or birds. Don’t worry, rats’ teeth don’t have any nerves inside them, and the process won’t hurt. However, the gums may bleed after a trim and this shouldn’t cause you any concern, that’s quite normal.
To trim their teeth, it’s best for one person to hold the rat and another person to do the dental work. You want to make sure you angle the clippers to try and retain the original angle of the tooth so that you don’t reduce the rat’s ability to chew with it.
It’s important to regularly check all your rats’ teeth lengths and if you find overgrown teeth, to trim them back.
Sadly, one of the most common diseases in rats is respiratory disease and this is because rats have very sensitive lungs and respiratory systems and they are often born carrying a bacterium called Mycoplasma pulmonis.
These bacteria appear in several rodent species in addition to rats (rabbits, guinea pigs and mice are all carriers) but it is only rats where the bacteria can go from a harmless passenger in life to a serious problem.
Sadly, because rats are often born carrying this bacterium – it is often impossible to prevent issues with Mycoplasma pulmonis, they just occur. In most cases the bacteria hide out in the nasal and ear passages and does no harm but it if it is pulled into the lungs it becomes a form of pneumonia.
It’s not understood, exactly, why this happens, and it may be related to the number of other bacteria and viruses that are currently living in your rat. The symptoms are clear when problems occur: they include sneezing, runny nose, water eyes and eventually breathing, wheezing, emphysema and pneumonia. They may also suffer from hair loss.
It is possible to reduce the chances of the bacterium causing major problems by feeding the rat a low calorie, low protein diet (you can find these on Amazon) and keeping the air clean and the temperature constant in the rat’s environment. Regular cleaning of the cage may help too.
Sadly, once symptoms do arise – they cannot be treated, and the rat is probably living on borrowed time.
Always avoid the use of essential oils anywhere near your rats cage, their sense of smell is extremely sensitive and will cause them harm. For more information why not read our article what essential oils are safe for rats?
Scabs and Skin Problems
We’ve already examined the issue of parasites such as mites and lice as well as fungi like ringworm which can cause skin problems in rats.
However, sometimes a rat can just start scratching at itself and they may be suffering from one of a number of other skin problems. The most common of which are likely to be eczema and an excess of dietary protein.
Rats are especially sensitive to protein in their diet and you can prevent them having problems due to excess protein by feeding them on specially formulated rat food which is designed to have a lower protein load than most other foods. You should also try to avoid feeding them meat and cheese too often as treats because of their high protein levels. You should not feed a rat cat food at all.
You can’t prevent eczema in rats, but it is fairly straightforward to treat. You can use a benzoyl peroxide shampoo roughly 3 times a week to clear up the issue and then on a weekly basis after that to prevent the problem from recurring.
A stroke is the result of a blood clot in the brain and while it might sound impossible, there is an unusual prevention for the most common form of stroke in rats – whisker stroking. Sadly, this isn’t something you can do at home easily – it requires a machine designed to do the job for you.
Researchers have speculated that this unusual property in rats may one day help us prevent strokes in human beings.
Sadly, strokes in rats are not easily prevented by other means and an indication that your rat has had a stroke may include seizures, lethargy, problems breathing, peculiar issues with movement and/or coordination, different pupil sizes, blindness, behavioral changes, coma and even death.
Rats can and do recover from mild strokes usually under a vet’s care. Treatment is quite complex and needs a vet’s facilities in most cases to have any hope of succeeding.
The number one cause of death in rats is tumors and cancer. These can take a wide-range of forms and positions on the body.
You can try to prevent cancer and tumors by feeding your rats the correct diet and ensuring that their cage, bedding, etc. are fit for purpose and won’t irritate their respiratory system, etc. It has also been shown that neutering female rats can have a beneficial reduction in their overall risk of cancer.
However, as rats are genetically prone to the condition – it is unlikely that you will be able to go through life as a rat owner without them getting cancer at some point.
As you might expect diagnosis and treatment require a vet’s input and they will have to take a biopsy to determine whether the tumor is benign or cancerous.
Treatment is usually likely to involve the surgical removal of the tumor if the vet feels that there is a chance for recovery. If not, they may recommend that you put the animal down.
Following surgery, for tumor removal, the vet is likely to explain a care regime to give your rat the best chance of post-operative survival.
Can Your Rat Catch The Flu From You?
There is no formal record of rats ever catching the flu from human beings, however, ferrets have caught the flu from people and there is possibly a slight risk that one day your rat might too – we think it’s a very slim possibility though.
In fact, while many diseases are zoonotic (that is they can jump from one species of animal to another – like from us to rats) most human diseases don’t appear to affect rats. The exception being ringworm which we’ve already discussed.
We wouldn’t recommend coughing on your rats or sneezing on them to test the theory, mind you, but if your rat gets sick at the same time as you do – even if they have similar symptoms – it’s likely to be a coincidence and you should seek a vet’s advice on what’s wrong with them.
So as you can see from our guide; “Do Pet Rats Get Sick Easily? 12 Common Ailments & Prevention”, pet rats don’t get sick easily but just like people there are a wide-range of illnesses that they can suffer from.
Some of these are preventable and most of them, happily, are treatable. Rats are super companions and the occasional trip to the vet is a small price to pay for their company.