Respiratory Problems | Lumps & Bumps | Skin Problems | Uterine Bleeding |
Head Tilts
| Surgery | Euthanasia

Throughout a rat's short life, it can have several health problems. The purpose of this section is to give you an idea of what they are, and what treatment options are commonly available.

No one at is a veterinarian. The information below is intended only as a guide for some of the most common ailments. Please, if your rat isn't well, take it to a vet immediately. When rats become ill they go downhill fast, so a fast response to any sign of illness is vitally important.

Respiratory Problems

Respiratory problems are common in rats. Almost all rats (apart from some laboratory rats) carry mycoplasma pulmonis, an organism that cause most respiratory and genital infections in rats. There are other things that can be responsible for respiratory infections, but myco is the most likely culprit.

Myco is asymptomatic in many rats, not causing any noticeable problems, but some rats can have flare ups. Stress, change of environment, a weakened immune system, and many other reasons we don't know about can cause myco to flare up. Also, with myco flare ups it's typically secondary infections that you have to worry about.

Symptoms of an upper respiratory infection include sneezing, sniffling, a clicking sound from the sinuses, porphyrin staining (a red discharge from the nose or eyes). If your rat has any of these symptoms, a vet visit is in order. If there is a clicking and wheezing sound coming from the lungs, or the rat is actually gasping, get it to the vet immediately. Also, if your rat's fur is sticking up, or is in a hunched posture, it means it's not feeling well. Rats usually don't show pain unless the condition is serious, so again, an immediate vet visit is recommended.

The standard treatment for mycoplasma infections and other respiratory infections is a round of antibiotics. You should see an improvement in about three days. If there is no improvement, you should go back to the vet for a different antibiotic. Sometimes a combination of antibiotics works well. Antibiotics commonly used for mycoplasma infections are:

  • Tetracycline
  • Cefadroxil (for secondary infections - best used in combination with Gentocin)
  • Chloramphenicol
  • Baytril (enrofloxacin)
  • Doxycycline
  • Zithromax
  • Baytril and Doxycycline in combination
  • Gentocin in combination with Cefadroxil
  • Amikacin in combination with Cefadroxil
  • Prednisone (for advanced stages of myco with inner ear inflammation)
  • Aminophylline (for advanced stages of myco with pneumonia)

For a full list of antibiotics and dosages, visit the RMCA website for the RMCA drug chart, or The Rat Medicine Guide.

Myco flare ups can be prevented to an extent by keeping your rat in a clean and well ventilated cage, using safe bedding (no pine and cedar), and keeping your rat in a stress free environment.

Lumps & Bumps

Tumors are extremely common in females. Male rats are less prone to get them. Tumors are either benign or or malignant, the majority being benign. Benign tumors are non cancerous and are usually easy to remove as they're encapsulated in a membrane, and don't spread to other tissue. If the benign tumor is not removed via surgery, a rat can live with it for some months, although it will usually grow large in size. It can get to the point where it's difficult for the rat to move around and eat. You should be prepared to euthanize your rat when its quality of life has declined and it's no longer happy.

The most common benign tumor is a mammary tumor. The location for mammary tumors are usually around the armpits, belly, and groin area. Females have 6 sets of nipples which run from the chest to the groin. Tumors often feel loose under that skin, and can be moved around slightly with your fingers. It's a good idea to check your rats for lumps frequently. The smaller it is, the earlier it's found, the easier it is to remove.

Malignant tumors are more difficult to remove, as they spread and invade nearby tissue and organs, often making it impossible to remove surgically. Death often occurs after the organs start to fail. Symptoms of a malignant tumor are often weight loss, lethargy, loss of appetite.

Another type of tumor is a pituitary gland tumor. Unfortunately, because of the location of the tumor (the brain), surgery isn't an option, and rats will usually die from it. Symptoms usually start with weakness of the front legs, and difficulty in holding food. The weakness may spread to the hind legs, and the animal may have trouble with balance. Other symptoms may include head tilt, bulging eye, listing to one side. Eventually the rat will have difficulty chewing, and will need to be euthanized. While the prognosis isn't good, if detected early, treatment with prednisone can slow down the deterioration and relieve symptoms.

Many spay their females when they're young, as it's thought to reduce tumors considerably. This isn't an easy decision to make, as spaying is an invasive and risky surgery. There's probably more risk to NZ rats, due to the practice not being common, and not many vets are experienced in spaying female rats.

An abscess is a small collection of pus, surrounded by inflamed tissue. Abscesses are quite common in rats, and are often initially mistaken for tumors. Abscesses usually feel harder and move less under the skin than tumors. The cause is usually a bite or a scratch, where bacteria invades the tissue, causing infection and an abscess.

An abscess is treatable, and it's important you see a vet for it and get the required treatment. Your vet may choose to lance it, and flush out the abscess with a saline solution. Antibiotics are usually prescribed. The other way to treat it is just with antibiotics alone. Usually the abscess will come to a head and burst on it's own. You can encourage this by putting a warm compress on the site, which helps bring it to the surface. When it bursts, clean the wound with a saline solution. Whatever you do, don't try and squeeze it. Squeezing it yourself can cause the infection to go inside, rather than out. When it does burst, be prepared to be grossed out. The smell can be horrendous!

Sebaceous cysts are also common, especially male rats. They appear as a small lump under the skin, usually on the back or shoulder, and are the result of an overproduction of the sebaceous gland. Generally they don't bother the rat and don't need to be removed. Sometimes it "pops" by itself, and the rat may be left with a small hole that will quickly heal.

Skin Problems

Skin problems usually show up as scabs on rats. There can be different causes for these scabs, and a bit of detective work is required to determine the cause.

One common cause is mites and lice. Mites aren't visible to the human eye, but lice can be seen, looking like little red dots in the fur. The scabs are caused by itching, and appear around the chin, neck and shoulders. There are a couple of ways to treat mites and lice.

One way is with ivermectin. Your vet will be able to do it for you. They'll work out a dose, and usually add a drop of liquid ivermectin on their shoulders. Some vets give ivermectin via injection, but there have been reported cases of rats overdosing this way or injection site lesions forming, so it's best to avoid this method. Another method is using a horse wormer paste such as Eqvalan, which can be found at most feed and farm supply stores. This needs to be given orally, and the dosage is the size of an uncooked grain of rice for an average (300-500g) sized rat. Give a little bit less for smaller rats. Because the paste isn't mixed well, make sure before dosing your rat you mix the paste thoroughly in another container, so the rat gets an even dose. Give the rat this once a week for three weeks.

Another option is to use Revolution for Kittens or Cats. Both packets have the same strength, but you'll get more in the packet for Cats. The dose is 0.10ml per KG. For most rats, 0.05mls (1 - 2 drops) is all that is needed. Just separate the hair between their shoulders, and add it. One treatment should suffice.

With both treatments, make sure you dose all your rats, and clean and change the cage's bedding and accessories to ensure there aren't any more nasties hanging around.

Another cause of scabs is too much protein in the diet. This is more common in male rats than females. Make sure that your rat diet consists of no more that 18% protein. To rule it out lower the protein content in the rat concerned. There are some rats that are very sensitive to protein. You might want to eliminate it altogether for 3 or 4 days, to see if it makes a difference. If it does, slowly introduce protein back into the diet until you reach a level that doesn't cause itchy skin and scabs.

Uterine Bleeding

Female rats don't menstruate, so if your rat starts bleeding from the vagina, there is something wrong, and she needs to see a vet as soon as possible. Possible causes of the bleeding could be a uterine tumor, a urinary tract infection, pyometra (puss filled uterus), a miscarriage or the beginnings of labour. If you can eliminate a miscarriage or labour from this list, then it's best to treat for an infection.  She needs to be put in antibiotics straight away. If antibiotics don't clear it up, the only other course of action is to have her spayed, especially in the case of pyometra, which is life threatening.

Head Tilt

There are three possible causes of a head tilt. The most common is an ear infection. A head tilt generally doesn't show up until the infection has progressed, so immediate and aggressive treatment is essential. This treatment consists of antibiotics and steroids such as prednisone. If the infection is caught late, the rat might be left with a head tilt, but usually a rat will have a full recovery.

A Pituitary tumor is another possible cause of a head tilt. There is no cure for a PT, but prednisone can help relieve the symptoms for a short time.

A stroke is the other possibility, which is more common in older rats. There's no real way to determine if you rat did suffer a stroke, or if it's an ear infection or PT. The recommended course of treatment for a stroke is steroids and antibiotics as well. Recovering from a stroke can take time, and some rats don't ever fully recover.


There are several things you need to consider before your rat undergoes surgery. First, it's important you find a vet who has experience with rat surgery. Surgery in rats is quite different than surgery on cats and dogs, and different procedures are used.

When your rat does go in for surgery, it's important you don't fast them overnight. Rats can't vomit, so it's not necessary, plus rats have very fast metabolisms. It's vital they've eaten so their energy isn't depleted before hand.

It's a good idea to discuss the anesthetic procedure before surgery. Injectible anesthetics should not be used as they can't be controlled well, and can be dangerous. Recommended instead is an inhalent anesthetic. Isoflurane and Sevoflurane are the safest gases to use for small animals, but Halothane is acceptable as well.

Pain management after surgery is important. This should be given to the rat after surgery, not before. Invasive surgery such as spays can be especially painful and can cause cramping and sucked in sides, and pain medicine should be given for 3 days afterwards. Metacam is an acceptable pain medication to be given at home. It's also common for the rats to be put on antibiotics after surgery.

Food should be offered to the rat immediately after surgery. Baby foods, puddings, anything yummy smelling to entice the rat to eat. Make sure the vet knows to give the rat food and water immediately after surgery.

When you take your rat home after surgery, place your rat in a small one level "hospital" cage so it can't move around and not hurt itself. Some vets recommend you keep your rats separated the first night. This is so you can monitor it, and make sure they don't pick at the sutures. However, if your rat appears lonely and distressed, you can add one or two companions to it's cage to keep it company. Make sure they don't bother the rat, or the stitches. If they do, remove them. It's also important you keep the rat warm after surgery. A covered hot water bottle works well for this.

Most rats can usually be put back with their roommates in their normal cage the next day. It is advisable that you clean the cage first.


One final gift you can give to your rat is to ensure it is euthanised in a humane and painless manner. Because of the rat's small size, it can't be given an injection via a vein like a cat or dog can. Instead, the injection is given directly into the heart or stomach. Both of these methods can be extremely painful, and shouldn't be done without an anesthetic before hand. Not all vets are willing to take the extra time to euthanise a rat humanely. If your vet isn't, or isn't willing to if you ask, please go elsewhere.

There are two methods to anesthetise your rat before hand. One way is to have your rat breathe in an inhalant anesthesia (usually halothane, isoflurane or sevoflurane), which will simply put your rat to sleep. Another way is to get an injectable anesthetic (such as ketamine). Both ways insure your rat is asleep before the fatal injection is given.

Please insist to be present when your rat is put down. There is no reason why the vet would object to you being in the room. Being present is the only way to ensure the end is a humane one for your little friend.


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