Grooming Pet Rats: Things to Know About Bathing, Nail, Teeth & Ear Care

by Alison Blyth
Grooming rats

If you’ve owned dogs or cats, you’ll have spent some time grooming them, keeping their fur neat and free of knots, their claws trimmed, and washing out the stink of the interesting dead thing they just rolled in down the park. How does keeping rats compare? Here are some of the key need-to-knows about grooming pet rats.

Bathing pet rats

Should you bathe pet rats? Do rats need baths?

Rats are pretty hygienic animals and spend a significant chunk of their waking day washing and grooming themselves. Generally, there is no need to bathe a healthy pet rat, unless you particularly want to. For example, some breeders and owners bathe their rats before a show. Remember that bathing removes natural greases and oils from the skin and fur and can be drying, so it’s not something that should be done on a regular basis unless there is a medical need.

The only time I bathe my rats is if one is very old, and no longer grooming themselves properly. Lord Harold, who lived to be just over four, had a sponge bath every day for his last couple of months, as he was a bit too creaky to bend round and wash his bottom. In that situation, it’s important to keep the back end and genital area clean to prevent any build up of faeces or urine in the fur, as these can harm the skin.

Do rats like baths?

Rats vary in their attitude to water. Some won’t go near it, some will plunge into a bowl for a good splash about. A major factor is whether they were introduced to water play when they were young. If a rat is used to interacting with water, they’ll be much easier to bath than if they aren’t.

Apart from the oldies, I’ve only given one other rat a bath, and that was a middle-aged rescue boy with an atypical ringworm. The vet suggested trying a shampoo. Let’s just say by the end of the attempt the entire room and all human bystanders were thoroughly soaked. The moral of the story is that if you want to bathe your rats, get them interacting with water through water bowls and pea fishing at a young age.

Bathing pet rats

How to bathe a rat?

  1. To bathe an old rat, I fill a small washing up bowl with warm, but not hot, water (comfortable to dip my elbow in).
  2. Holding the rat securely, I dip the part that needs washing in the water, then apply a small amount of an animal safe shampoo to any dirty areas (products will vary by country – I tend to use an organic baby wash that is certified safe to ingest).
  3. I give the dirty bits a rub with a moist flannel and then rinse the soap off.
  4. It’s important not to let a rat sit around wet, especially if they are old. Immediately after bathing, I wrap the rat in a warm towel, cuddle them and give them something nice to eat to take their mind off it. Then I give any damp bits a gentle but thorough towel dry.

Nail care for rats

Do pet rats need their nails clipping?

This is largely a matter of choice for the owner. Healthy rats will take care of their own nails. They’ll wear them down naturally by running around and will also clip off the ends with their teeth if they think it’s necessary. Some rats are self-clippers and others aren’t, but I’ve never had a healthy rat get overgrown nails. So, from a care point of view, rats don’t need their nails trimming if they are active and well.

However, that’s not to say that their nails aren’t sharp. Unlike cats, rats don’t retract their claws, and they use them in climbing (nice sharp nails are why some my younger girls can climb vertical brick walls). That can lead to scratches on bare human skin – and the classic skype exchange “Is your husband in pain?” “No, he’s just got a rat up his trousers”.

So, some owners prefer to clip their rats’ nails to keep them shorter and blunter. Personally, I don’t bother as it isn’t necessary for the rats’ welfare, but it is expected for shows in some fancies.

Like bathing, the one time I do clip rat nails is when they get old. Very old rats can’t necessarily reach their back feet to self-trim their claws. If they have hind end degeneration (a spinal problem many old pet rats develop), the nails often don’t wear down properly during movement, and that means they can risk overgrowth. I check oldies’ nails regularly and clip any that are getting a bit long.

How to clip a rat’s nails

It’s important to take care when clipping a rat’s nails, as if the nail is cut too short, it can bleed, and if the rat is stressed or struggling there is always a risk of cutting a toe accidentally. If you’ve never clipped small animal nails before, it’s a good idea to get a demonstration from a vet, or more experienced owner, before trying it yourself.

The key with clipping nails is to only take a little bit off the very tip, steering well clear of the quick, which is the dark red / purple line along the nail near the toe – that’s the bit that will bleed.

It’s also important to have the rat held securely in a position that doesn’t cause alarm or stress. I get my husband to cuddle them, while I do the clipping.

There are two options for nail clippers. I use a pair of small human nail-clippers – I find having most of the clipper in front of the foot makes getting a safe grip on individual nails easier. The other option, which is used by most vets and groomers is a pair of specialist small animal nail clippers. Which is best is really down to personal preference.

Back-dirt on rats

Keeping pet rats clean

If you own unneutered boy rats, you’ll notice that underneath their back fur they often develop a layer of orange waxy “dirt”. What is this and do owners need to worry about it?

This orange wax is called buck grease. It’s a skin secretion that’s caused by the boys’ testosterone levels – similar to the way human boys can often have greasier skin than girls. It’s completely natural, and unless it is very thick and causing fur or skin problems, the best thing to do is leave it alone.

If it is causing problems, then a gentle wash can thin it out, but again remember that washing it regularly is likely to make the problem worse as the skin tries to replace the lost oils.

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What about teeth care?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, rats don’t need much help with their grooming – a healthy active rat can be left to get on with looking after their own coat and body. The same goes for teeth and ears – most of the time we don’t need to intervene. Instead, these are things to keep an eye on so we spot any problems in good time.

Rats’ front incisors grow constantly, but they are worn down by rats chewing on hard foods (and bars, and cage furniture, and walls…), and grinding the upper and lower pairs of teeth against each other. However, if one of the teeth gets damaged, or becomes wonky in the jaw, the teeth won’t be ground down evenly and one incisor may overgrow. If this happens, it may need clipping or burring down by the vet.

It’s a good idea to have a regular look in pet rats’ mouths, both so they get used to it, and to see what healthy teeth look like and be able to spot any issues. A rat who is reluctant to eat or losing weight should always be checked for teeth problems.

Rats shouldn’t have any problems with dental decay as long as they are fed a healthy diet, without refined sugar and sweets.

And what about the ears?

Like humans, rats make earwax. This naturally runs out the ear when sleeping or is removed during normal self-grooming (if you see a rat sticking its back foot in its ear, twiddling it about, and then chewing its claws – that’s earwax removal). If a rat seems irritated by its ears or has a discharge or a smell in the area, that is a sign of an ear infection, and they should be seen by a vet promptly for diagnosis and treatment.

It isn’t a good idea to try and clean your rats’ ears except under exceptional circumstances. Just like for humans, sticking cotton tips or anything else down there is a bad idea and can damage the delicate structures of the ear canal.

The only times I’ve had to help out with earwax was in very old rats who couldn’t get their feet in to groom anymore. In those cases, I only intervened when I could see a large mass of wax, and I was extremely careful to tease it gently upwards and out, never pushing down towards the ear canal. With ears, if in doubt, leave it alone and get vet advice.

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