I have never written about pet rats before, so I thought that I had better redress the balance with this month’s article.
Rats are a surprisingly common pet, and in my opinion make fantastic small pets to have around the house.
They are extremely intelligent animals, and very friendly. If handled well from an early age they are very personable and rarely bite; they can even be trained to do mazes! Contrary to common hearsay, they are very clean, and there is no more smell about the cage than a hamster or a guinea pig.
Pet rats can be prone to respiratory infections, which are the subject of this article.
One of the most common reasons we see rats in the surgery is they have difficulties breathing. Symptoms include rapid breathing, and wheezing. The most common cause is a bug called a mycoplasmosis. Mycoplasma is a kind of bacteria, it is passed from rat-to-rat via aerosols exhaled into the air. The most common kind of mycoplasma in this respect only affects rats and mice.
The bugs cause damage to the lung tissue which can result in a chronic inflammation (or bronchitis). Once the rat show signs it means the infection is well established and considerable tissue damage has occurred, so it often requires a long course of treatment and often is managed rather than cured.
Treatment is with antibiotics and, increasingly, we are prescribing nebulisation for our patients with a cocktail of drugs, which speeds resolution of signs. Our nursing team provide our rat owners with a comprehensive lesson in how to nebulise their pet. We have a loan unit available at the surgery, but we find many of our owners who keep lots of rats end up getting their own nebuliser. There is no magic bullet and where rats have shown signs of respiratory disease it is best to consider that they have got it for life. Despite this, we can maintain a good quality of life in many patients by intermittent nebulisation of medication, thereby limiting the amount of oral antibiotics required for treatment.
If you have a pet rat and he or she shows any signs of any increased rate of breathing or difficulty breathing it is worth taking it immediately to the vet to try and get on top of this problem condition early.