Today, we’re going to look at the sadder side of pet rat ownership – figuring out when they are sick. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to keeping pet rats is that they are prone to illness. Another is that their lifespans are quite short – generally only two to three years. That means knowing the signs of illness is an essential skill for all ratty owners.
Disclaimer – this article should not be used to replace veterinary advice. It’s simply a discussion of the signs I have found useful across 20 years of owning rats. If you suspect your rat to be ill, you should always seek advice from a qualified vet.
It is important to emphasise that all rats are individuals, and they have individual quirks in the signs they show – so this can never be an exhaustive list. Some are also extremely good at hiding illness or pain.
Table of Contents
Signs of pain in rats
Side-sucking, where the rat breathes from their abdomen, and look like they are wearing a corset, is a clear sign that something is seriously and urgently wrong.
There are two main reasons for side-sucking – severe pain or respiratory distress.
I mean serious pain here – bear in mind we are talking about animals who will climb a cage with a broken leg. Examples I’ve seen are Dibble, where sudden side-sucking was the first sign of an abscessed kidney; Wilbur, who had a pre-existing back injury and would side-suck when it flared up; and Cutangle, where it was the first sign of lymphatic cancer. As you can see, side-sucking indicates pain, but not the cause, which is why an urgent diagnosis, as well as pain relief, is important.
The second reason for side-sucking is because a rat is in respiratory distress and can’t get enough oxygen. In these cases, the side-sucking is accompanied by laboured breathing and often mouth gasping. Respiratory distress is an emergency – the rat needs oxygen to survive, as well as treatment for the underlying problem.
Other signs of pain in rats
Side-sucking isn’t the only sign of pain in rats, it is just the most obvious. Other signs can include:
- A hunched up posture
- A fluffed / staring coat
- Lethargy / not wanting to move from their bed
- Discomfort being handled
- Biting in a non-bitey rat
- A creeping gait
- Whiskers pulled back to lie along the side of the head
- Jaw tight / mouth pulled back
- Eyes narrowed
- Ears pulled down
The facial features above are important indicators of pain, but can be hard for a new owner to spot. There is a good guide to them here (note – the “grimace scale” was invented for use in animal research, so the site does include some reference to animal experimentation).
A rat in pain won’t necessarily show all these features, and mild pain may not result in any of them as they hide it very well. So, one of the most important things to look out for is changes to a rat’s normal personality or behaviour.
Signs of respiratory disease / chest infections in rats
I mentioned above that laboured breathing with side-sucking can be a sign of respiratory distress. However, it is a late stage sign that we only see once the rat is struggling for oxygen. Obviously, we want to catch respiratory problems before they get to that point. Here are some other signs that I look out for:
- Snotty or grunty noises, sometimes described as being like a pigeon noise. These can be wet and bubbly or dry and clicky. Many people mistake these noises for communication, but they are actually a result of the rat having mucus or inflammation in their airways.
Although grunty noises are the most common sign of respiratory problems, some conditions can present without audible noise.
- Sneezing. All rats sneeze a bit, especially if there is a change in the weather, housing or bedding. However, if a rat starts sneezing much more than normal, or the sneezes are loud and squeaky, this is often a first sign of an upper respiratory infection.
- A change in breathing rate. A rat with respiratory problems will often breath more quickly, more shallowly, more slowly, or in a more laboured way, depending on exactly what is wrong. What I’m looking for is a change from their normal breathing.
- Lethargy. I find respiratory infections often manifest as a rat being a bit subdued and “off” a few days before the noises start.
- Panic running / climbing. When a rat feels short of oxygen, they may become agitated, run about in panic, or climb to the highest point they can find. This looks different to normal playing, because the rat is usually restless, tense, and may show many of the facial features of pain listed above.
- Hanging their head down, or propping the head up. Rats frequently sleep in weird positions, but when short of breath they will often sit with either their head hanging down off the edge of shelf or hammock, or with their head propped upwards against something. Both serve to help open the airways. I’ve even seen a rat in respiratory distress hook their upper teeth on the cage bars to pull their throat open (the rat was euthanised shortly afterwards).
In my experience, early treatment of respiratory problems significantly increases the chances of clearing up the illness, or at least turning it into a chronic condition to be managed. In contrast, lack of treatment can lead to severe pneumonia, lung damage and death. Heart problems also often present in a very similar way to respiratory problems, so a vet diagnosis is important to know what you are dealing with and to access the right treatment.
Choking in rats
Sometimes a rat will choke on their food. This happens more often if the rat is old or ill, or if they are eating squishy sticky food (I don’t feed rats sticky food like mashed potato or peanut butter for this reason) – however some rats can manage to choke on perfectly normal food if they gobble it down or if their airways are malformed. We have regular choking episodes with Carrot because he has a deviated septum, and tends to get things stuck at the back of his soft palate.
A choking rat will have sudden problems breathing. They may panic run or become very still, and they will often pull their heads back as if gagging and make hacking / wheezing sounds. There is often a sticky clear or cream coloured drool, and they may paw at their mouth. Many of the facial symptoms of pain may be present.
It’s a very frightening thing to watch, but it is important to stay calm. Most rats clear the obstruction themselves and I let them do this as long as they are breathing regularly.
If a choking rat genuinely can’t breathe then many people use what is known as the ratty fling to dislodge the obstruction (described here, although I hold the rat round the body, not the base of the tail). However, this is potentially dangerous, so I only use it if they stop breathing.
If you are concerned about a choking rat then it is safest to contact a vet for advice.
Other sick rat symptoms
Fluffed up or staring fur – Standard coat rats in good condition have smooth glossy fur that lies flat to their bodies. They might floof it up to look like a giant bog-brush during a territorial argument, but that is a transient (and very obvious) display. When they are feeling off-colour, rats often fluff their fur up more subtly. It’s partly to keep warm, and partly because they don’t groom so much. I’ve found the most obvious place to spot this is forehead / nose. In healthy rats these look pretty sleek and pointed. In ill rats, the fur fluffs so the forehead looks much more domed.
Red discharge round the nose and eyes – this is porphyrin, not blood, and all rats have some, but healthy rats clean it off. A rat with obvious porphyrin is either discharging more than normal (a sign of ill health or stress) or not washing (a sign the rat is feeling off colour).
Weight loss / lack of appetite – I weigh my rats every week and put the numbers in a spreadsheet, so I can see if anyone is losing weight out of sync with the rest of the group. It is a really good way to keep tabs on rat health – I’ve caught several episodes of respiratory disease, heart disease, kidney disease, tumours, and even a case of diabetes this way.
Behavioural changes – these are another very common sign that a rat is feeling off. They might include becoming more or less clingy than normal, being quieter than normal, being picked on by other rats, not wanting to come out the cage, biting, not wanting to be handled, wanting more cuddles, not showing enthusiasm for food, avoiding other rats, and many other things. What I’m looking for is anything different to how a rat normally acts.
Lethargy – I’ve already said it, but it’s worth saying again… Lethargy is one of the biggest indicators a rat is feeling off colour.
There are other, more specific signs of illness in rats also worth keeping an eye out for:
- Blood or discharge around the genitals
- Consistently holding their head tilted to one side
- Discharge or unpleasant smells from the ear, or abnormal scratching of the ear
- Soreness of the mouth or reluctance to eat hard foods
- A bloated or tight stomach
- A rat not urinating normally
- A rat urinating very frequently
- Diarrhoea or staining around the genitals
- New lumps on a rat’s head or body
- One or both eyes bulging
- Changes to how they walk, especially waddling or dragging of the hind end
A health check a day while you play
Rats are very good at hiding pain and illness. I’ve seen rats happily bounce across the floor while suffering the kind of double pneumonia that would put a human in intensive care. It doesn’t mean they aren’t seriously, life-threateningly sick. They just don’t always behave that way. In my experience, a rat who looks obviously ill is very ill indeed.
So, my approach is to never wait for a rat to look seriously ill before seeking treatment.
That means being really familiar with our rats and what they look like when healthy, so we can spot subtle changes. I try and give all my rats an individual health check every day – and I aim to do it during normal vet opening hours so I don’t discover anything worrying at 10 pm!
While I do check for obvious specifics – respiratory noises, lumps, discharge, painful areas, teeth – mostly what I am looking for is anything that gives me a feeling that something is “off”.
What happens when a rat is dying?
Inevitably, there will come a point when each rat has an illness we can’t successfully treat, or becomes so old they lose quality of life. At that point, as owners, we have to take responsibility for their deaths. It’s sad, sometimes heartbreakingly so, but unavoidable.
Ideally, rats, like humans, just pass away gently in their sleep. It is lovely, but also relatively rare. I think of the roughly 70 rats I’ve owned, only about 10 have died natural deaths. That’s because most of the illnesses rats die from destroy the animal’s quality of life before the body shuts down. And when that happens, I believe the only kind path open to us is to take them to the vet for painless euthanasia. We think of death as the worst thing that can happen, but I believe living in suffering, or dying slowly, for example, by drowning in their own mucus (which is the end stage of respiratory disease), is much worse.
At what point to make the call and decide to have a rat euthanised is a very individual decision – not just for each owner, but for each rat. I’ve had rats who pottered on happily for months with very serious terminal conditions (my vet and I decided one of them must be a zombie). I’ve had other rats who became very sad and withdrawn with much less severe complaints. The key for me is happiness, which in a rat generally equates to interest in things. If a rat is interested in food, interested in coming out the cage (even if they just potter about briefly and then go to sleep), and interested in interacting with me and other rats, then they have quality of life. They may need to be on a cocktail of drugs for palliative relief, but life is worth living. On the other side of the coin, if they are withdrawn, and have lost interest in the things that they used to enjoy, then if their condition is not treatable, or they are not responding to treatment, I believe it is better to let them go.
As I said at the top of the article, this isn’t an exhaustive guide to rat illness, and nothing here can replace talking to your vet if you are worried about your pet. However, over the years I have found that most health problems in rats present with one or more of these signs. If you want to know more about health in your pets, the Rat Health Guide has a lot of information.