Operations & Post Operative Care

Is Surgery Necessary?

If you have a rat that needs an operation, try to discuss the surgery with your vet beforehand. Some vets may not have had much experience with small mammals, and may have only had a few hours of ‘exotics’ training, being only familiar with the more common pets and livestock – so it might be worth asking around for one with rodent experience. Talk to your vet about the possible risks of surgery – if you have an overweight rat, or one with extensive respiratory problems or heart disease – the vet may possibly advise you against surgery, unless it is absolutely necessary to save life.

These days, the anaesthetic risks are much lower than they used to be in the past, and operations such as mammary tumour removal are considered fairly routine, very safe and only take a few minutes. It is preferable to get a tumour removed than it is to have to euthanise the rat just because the tumour has grown too large or has ulcerated.

Neutering (other than for health reasons) is not generally considered to be essential operations, but a castration may be necessary in a hormonally aggressive buck. Perhaps you may just want to keep a mixed-sex cage of rats, that is personal choice but not considered a necessary surgery.

If your buck is having a castration, ask your vet if he has performed this operation on a rodent before – not all vets realise that rats have an open inguinal canal which must be closed off afterwards! Some vets will remove the testicles through the abdominal wall, but this is less common than through the scrotum.

If you have a doe that needs spaying, it is extremely important that you ask about post-operative analgesia before your rat has the op. They are given a pain killer whilst under anaesthetic, but this will have worn off by the following morning, and females can
suffer from painful abdominal cramps (visible as the rats sides sucking in and out) for several days after a spay. I recommend 1 drop of oral Metacam (meloxicam – an NSAID) once a day until the cramps stop, which is usually from 3 to 5 days max. If the cramps are really bad, it is possible to give the Metacam twice on the first day after the op, morning and evening.

Anaesthesia & Analgesia

Rats do not need to ‘fast’ before surgery like other mammals do. A rat cannot vomit, so you can provide food and water right up until they are ready for the surgery. Not all vets and their assistants realise this! Some rats will start to eat right after they come round from the anaesthetic too, this can help them to keep warm, as well as comfort themselves.

It would also be a good idea to discuss the method of anaesthesia, and what type of stitches the vet intends to use beforehand. Injectable anaesthetic is too dangerous for such a small animal, and is not generally used anymore. Anaesthesia used to be considered a major problem when operating on rodents, but now in the 21st century, this is no longer the case. Inhalation anaesthesia is now the accepted method. Gaseous anaesthesia is usually given in the form of Isoflurane, Methoxyflurane or Halothane, and is very safe. For analgesia – the usual pain-killers used are Butorphanol or an opiate such as morphine, which is normally administered with before the rat is revived from the anaesthetic. Metacam or Rimadyl are sometimes prescribed post-operatively. If a rat chews at their stitches after surgery, some vets will give another shot of an opiate based drug, which makes the rat sleepy, and this hopefully gives the op site and muscles enough time to knit back together and the inflammation to subside before the rat is alert again.

Types of Sutures

Ask your vet what type of sutures he intends to use. For small incisions subcuticular dissolvable stitches are best – these are hidden under the skin so more difficult to chew. These sutures are usually dissolved away from a week to 10 days later. For larger incisions staples may be better. Vets will assure you staples are not painful, and one vet even stapled his own finger to prove this! Some rats will not worry their wounds and will heal surprisingly well, but it is worth being prepared for the rat who wants to chew its stitches out and worry the wound if it is reachable. I have known vets to add a small gauze pad to the incision for the rat to ‘worry’, thereby leaving the incision alone to heal.

Collars are notoriously difficult to attach to a rat and very easy for the rat to remove. I do not recommend them because it can cause the rat to become depressed as it is unable to groom or feed normally, but in some cases it might be the only option to allow the rat to heal. A body sock may work well on a rat determined to chew – if you can get it to stay on! If the incision is on the main body – you can wrap gauze around the torso and hold in place with surgical tape.

I have found that rats are more likely to chew at an operation site if it has skin glue. Internal soluble stitches are preferred, with external stitches holding the wound together until everything has knitted back together underneath. Rarely, a rat can have an allergic reaction to internal stitches, so do keep an eye out for sudden swelling or signs of infection.

Post Operative Care

Your vets should monitor your rat for a couple of hours after the surgery before allowing them to go home, and will know how to give fluid replacement for your rat if necessary, as dehydration is common. Glucose/saline solution is usually warmed to body temperature and given by subcutaneous injection. It is standard practice for some vets to prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection after a surgery, but it is not always deemed necessary, for example a mammary tumour removed with aseptic techniques is very unlikely to have the incision become infected.

It is most important to keep the patient warm after surgery, your vet will normally use a heat-mat or an overhead light source to provide warmth after surgery and until they are ready to go home. When you collect your rat you can ask your vet to fill a latex glove with warm water as a makeshift ‘hot water bottle’ to keep it warm if it is cold outside, or you may already own a microwavable heat-pad which can be taken with you.

At home you should have a ‘hospital’ tank set up, where your rat will recover until well enough to be re-united with cage mate. A one level glass or plastic tank is ideal. You can purchase a heat mat used for tropical animals such as reptiles, or a microwavable heat pad for pets. Place it under a small part of the tank, so your rat can choose whether to sit over it or not. Your rat will probably be groggy after the op and want to sleep so put the hospital tank somewhere quiet.

Check on the rat every hour or so to begin with and ensure they drink. You can offer your rat baby food or other soft foods when awake – it should stimulate the appetite and has a high water content, so will help to avoid dehydration. Offer fluids from a dropper or from the tip of your finger. The dropper from a cleaned empty bottle of Echinacea is good for this. Some rats will go off their food, so try to encourage them every couple of hours to start with. It would be a good idea to add a few drops of Bach’s Rescue Remedy to their water. If they still seem reluctant to move to the water bottle, continue to offer water via dropper, finger or syringe.

A vitamin supplement such as Nutrical or Ferretvite can be offered if appetite seems smaller than usual – only give a pea-sized blob once a day to avoid overdose of the fat-soluble vitamins. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as grapes and broccoli, are believed to help the healing process.

Give your rat plenty of love and attention – this too really helps with the healing process, and get them back with their cage-mates as soon as possible. Most rats can go back in with their cagemates the day following the surgery if they have had minor surgery – but it’s always best to clean out the cage first.

Some vets will try to tell you to isolate them for a week or more – this is unnecessary! A young adult is ready to go back to a cleaned out cage with cagemates the next morning after tumour removals, castrations and even some spays, unless they were very sick before the op and need a few days to recover their strength. If the castration was for aggression or to go into a mixed sex cage, you need to wait at least 3 weeks to ensure any residual sperm and hormones have dissipated!

Author : Joolz