Guide to Degus

Degus are lovely, entertaining little creatures. However, if you are thinking about getting a couple, then be warned that they are very messy little devils and they need a special diet. While they can be friendly and handable, those that aren’t can give you a nasty bite!

The background to how degus became household pets is from the 1950’s. They were transported to Europe and North America from Chile, where they live from the West Coast to the Andes Mountains.

The primary reason for this transportation was that in the 1950’s, degus were used in laboratories for tests relating to diabetes. This is because degus are naturally diabetic l – they lack the ability to digest sugar in their food. Even the sugars in an apple, can lead to eventual death. See more about their diet in the relevant section.

Never try to catch a degu by his tail. In defence against their natural enemies, degus can loose the end of their tails. The result is a bloody injury, and the end of their tail never grows back again. If left untreated, a degloved tail can get infected.

Degus in captivity often live 10 years or even more. The hair is tweed brown coloured, the tummy has a cream colour and they have lighter circles around the eyes.
They have long whiskers, and their big ears are dominant. The hind legs are shorter than their forelimbs. Each has five hair-covered fingers that degus often nibble on, so their claws do not grow too long.

The teeth of a healthy degu are yellow or orange coloured. White teeth are an indication of a serious disease. Degus’ teeth become orange a couple of weeks after their birth because of the reaction of chlorophyll from green plants with degus’ saliva – this reaction also makes the degus’ saliva orange.

Degus are sociable animals, so it is best to keep at least two animals. Never keep one degu, as it will not be happy and will not live as long as it could have if it had a same sex friend. If kept alone, it could become depressed, and cause it to become aggressive.

Degus are very vocal and have a large spectrum of sounds which includes beeps, whistles and squeaks. Ours tend to squeak at us when it is food time!

Diet

The Degu is herbivorous. In nature, he eats various plants, bulbs, farm crop, leaves and bark from trees and bushes. Try to give them similar food. Don’t give degus any sugar, and very little carbohydrates and fats. If you overfeed these foods to degus, you can cause serious problems to them, which are similar to diabetes.

We feed our degus the following combination of food as advised by our vet: 70% hay (timothy hay is best); 15% hard vegetables – carrots, green beans etc – and cucumber and 15% chinchilla pellets. Now and again we also mix in good quality guinea pig food and uncooked pasta.

Housing

Degus like to climb and have fun. An ideal cage would be a three tier wire cage, like those made by terenziani and used for chinchillas and rats. However, the wire base should be removed (the cage sits in a metal base) to prevent bumblefoot (see below).

As degus do like to make a mess kicking out hay and bits of food, you can use perspex secured to the lower part of the cage to stop you having to clean the area outside their cage every ten minutes!

For suitable bedding, we either use a paper based cat litter such as biocatolet or carefresh supreme or a cardboard bedding such as EcoPetbed or Financard. In our experience, in some cases, woodshavings/sawdust can cause respiratory problems which can kill.

Also add a little hay to cover the floor of the aquarium and some paper for nest material. Clean the housing out about once a week. The more degus who live together, the more often you will have to clean it.

If your cage/aquarium is big enough, leave a dish filled with chinchilla dust in there. Like chinchillas, degus need a daily ‘bath’. If their house isn’t big enough, make sure you place their ‘bath’ in there for at least 10 minutes a day.

Because degus are susceptible to various ailments, do ring around and try to find a vet who has plenty of experience with small rodents and is interested in finding out about Degus even if he/she has not seen one before.

It is worth doing this before you need one in an emergency. Degus seem to be generally robust little rodents but there are certain conditions that you should be aware of.

Health

Diabetes: Degus cannot metabolise sugar; therefore, if they eat too much of it they can become diabetic. The first sign of trouble can be that your Degu gets very fat. They will drink more water than normal and towards the end may become very thin.

Diabetes is always fatal and cannot be treated in small animals. Don’t feed your degu any food that contains sugar. That includes fruit, and raisins. Don’t let your degu get too fat – it is not kind to feed an animal treats until it becomes obese and dies young. If you have a fat degu reduce the amount of pellets and cut out all treats letting the animal eat mainly hay.

Bumblefoot: Having to walk on wire surfaces continually can cause this painful condition. The degu may have difficulty walking and might show pain while on his feet. Remove wire-mesh bottoms from chinchilla cages and try to provide a solid wheel. See you vet for a suitable treatment.

Liver Disease: If Degus are fed too much fat, they will contract liver problems. These can have similar symptoms to Diabetes in that they animal may drink lots of water and get very thin after being quite fat. Don’t feed your degus too much food that is fatty, such as sunflower seeds, peanuts and nuts.

Mouth Disease: Degus are very prone to infections of the mouth. Make sure that the water bottle is kept spotlessly clean.

Inbreeding: Because of the small population of Degus in the country inbreeding inevitably occurs. This can cause many health problems in the babies and should be avoided.

Cataracts: Cataracts in Degus are a genetic condition and the symptoms are greying of the eye and sight problems in older Degus. Degus have whiskers which prevent them from bumping into things and a good sense of smell and so should manage fine.

Eye Infections: We have had a spate of eye injuries with degus in the past, this has been caused by two things, firstly sand baths. (Make sure you clean out your sand bath daily as they will climb in and kick hay, bedding allsorts into the bath.) This can get into the eye while they bathe.

Secondly – their teeth. If your degu has recurring eye problems (such as a white discharge) and your vet has looked inside your degus mouth and his teeth seem fine, an x-ray should be carried out. This way the vet can see if the root of the teeth are growing upwards and causing pressure on the eye socket.

Degus have what is called an open root – if the back teeth aren’t used constantly (by gnawing and grinding on lots of hard foodstuffs and hay) they keep on growing – inside the mouth as well as up towards the eye sockets and down through the jaw (the same as chinchilla and in some cases, guinea pigs).

By giving your degu lots to gnaw on – like timothy hay and hard foods – you are doing your best to keep their teeth healthy – as well as their general health too.

It must be stated here that there is no substitute for good veterinary advice when treating your rodents. If you know of a good specialist in this field please email us with their details.

Coping with the death of your pet

Losing your pet to death is a horrible experience to go through. Nothing can prepare you for it, even if your pet had been ill for a while and you had been expecting it. Sadness, loneliness, despair and even guilt and anger are all natural emotions and how long these feelings last is down to each individual.

It’s not so much about coping with your pet’s death, more about learning to live with it. Commemorate your pet’s life – look at old photographs, buy a small tree and plant it in their memory. Allow yourself time each day to think about them – not when they were old or ill, but when they were in the prime of their life.

If your pet has been cremated and you have his or her ashes, you may find once you have laid them to rest, the grief subsides a little. If your pet died in an accident and the body was never recovered, bury a few of their toys in their favourite position in the garden.

Talk to your friends and family and explain how you feel – don’t feel embarrassed, your pet was a family member.

If there are surviving pets in the household, they too may be grieving. Give them extra reassurance, but don’t alter their routine, as this will distress them even more.

Whether you decide to get another pet straight away or to wait a while is your choice – some people feel guilty for trying to ‘replace’ their pet and others – especially those who were nursing ill or elderly pets – may feel they need a breathing space.

On the other hand, you may find that there is a big void in your life that only a pet could fill, or you may find shifting your attention onto a new pet helps you with your grief. Whatever you do, it’s your decision and you should never let anyone talk you into getting or not getting another pet. (Note: If your pet died of an infectious disease and you want to get a new pet straight away, check with your vet first that it is okay as strains of the infections may still be present in your home).

Finally, look after yourself. Try to eat well and get as much sleep as you can. To many pet owners, losing their pet is like losing a partner and the grief can be overwhelming. Take each day a step at the time and don’t expect to suddenly feel great overnight.

With time, the feelings of sadness and angst will lessen, even if they do not completely go, and you will be able to look back with happy memories at the time you and your pet spent together.

Guide to Chinchillas

Chinchillas are sweet, entertaining and somewhat destructive little creatures, so if you are fond of your skirting boards, then think twice abut getting a chinny unless you have a separate room where they can play.

Also, as Chinchillas live quite a long time (between 8 and 10 years although there are reports of them reaching 16 years), getting a chinchilla should be given careful thought as they will b around for a long time.

The natural habitat of the chinchilla is on the slopes of the Andes mountain range in South America, at altitudes of between 3000 to 5000m (10,000 to 16,000ft). Little is known about their diet in the wild, and is thought to be made up of course grasses, shrubs, cacti and mosses.

In the 1920’s these animals were killed in their thousands to supply the fur trade of the time, and only swift action, and regulations, introduced by the government at the time, prevented this animals extinction. However, there are still chinchilla farms where they are bred purely for their pelt.

The chinchilla’s fur is very dense and soft. The natural wild colour is mottled charcoal on the back and a creamy white on the underside, although now many more colours are available which include light and dark beige, silver, blond, pastel, blue velvet, velvet, light and dark brown, charcoal and violet.
Housing

Ideal housing for a chinchillas should be a cage made from 16 gauge galvanised weld mesh with ј” to ѕ” squares on the floor and Ѕ” to 1” squares on the sides and top. The size of a cage to house 1 adult chinchilla should measure at least 24” deep, 36″ wide and 24” high.

Fruit branches and wooden shelves should be fitted because chinchillas prefer to sit on something solid. And blocks of wood 2 to 4” square will soon be whittled away by their strong teeth, water should be offered in a glass bottle, with a stainless steel spout, firmly attached to the outside of the cage.

The position of the cage is also important as chinchillas – like all small animals – are particularly susceptible to damp and draughty conditions. Loud voices and sudden noises will also disturb them, so keep them out of busy hallways, and the clicking sound normally made to budgies will only worry and confuse them, so always talk to them using a soft and soothing tone.

Handling

Before holding any chinchilla make sure your hands are clean and dry because any dirt, grease or sweat will damage the fur. If a chinchilla feels threatened, in its cage, it will retreat into a corner and sit down facing you, and if grabbed the animals defences include the ability to shed clumps of fur in order to escape, to prevent this from happening to remove a chinchilla from its cage keep your hand as low as possible, as this poses less of a threat to the animal, and gently hold the animals ear, not too hard, as it is possible to burst blood vessels in the chinchilla’s ears, this should make it sit quietly, then put your other hand in and pick the animal up.

To calm a frightened chinchilla, as with most small animals, cup your hands over its eyes and gently rub around its ears.

When holding a chinchilla it is important that it feels safe this is best achieved by holding the tail firmly between your index and middle fingers while the chinchilla sits on the palm of your hand, holding the animal by its shoulders with your other hand.

Once used to this the animal should sit quite still on your palm without the need to be held by the shoulders.

Diet

The most important food a chinchilla can be given is good quality hay. This mimics the sort of foodstuffs a chinchilla would eat in the wild, giving them lots of gnawing action and therefore keeping their teeth healthy as well as digestive sustem.

Chinchilla’s digest their food in two stages, this involves firstly eating food and then re-ingesting a food pellet straight from the anus, and then finally expelling a fully digested waste pellet.

The commercially available chinchilla pellets are well balanced and contain about 17% protein, and most chinchillas will eat about 1 to 1-Ѕ tablespoons (1oz) per day. These pellets should not be kept for more than 2 – 3 months after the date of purchase and stored in a dry lidded container.

As we said before, hay is a vital part of the chinchilla’s diet, and one animal will eat about a handful each day. The use of a hayrack will reduce the wastage, as any that has been trodden on will not be eaten. Any hay on the floor of the cage should be removed daily and disposed of.

Under normal conditions the pellets and hay is all the food the animal will need to keep fit and healthy, however treats can be offered, the golden rule being to feed very small quantities of not too ofetn. Some of the foods that can be given include grass, clover, comfrey, dandelion, plantain and dock.

Also small quantities of carrot and celery tops and edible leaves from trees and shrubs such as hawthorn, willow, apple, raspberry and blackberry will also be accepted. Always make sure that any foods collected from the wild are washed thoroughly and have not been contaminated by chemicals or the waste of other animals.

Chinchillas, like most animals, have a sweet tooth, and given the chance will eat more than is good for them.Raisins are, for this reason, a firm favourite but because they are preserved in mineral oil, they like most fruits will act as a laxative, but small amounts fed in a controlled way will do no harm.

Cooked mixed flake cereals are also popular but should never replace the pellets completely.

Chinchillas have delicate digestive systems, therefore it is imperative their food bowl and water bottle are washed daily to stop any bacteria forming. We only use boiled tap water in our chinchilla bottles.

Nuts and oily seeds such as rape and sunflower should be avoided and remember that the chinchilla’s digestive system cannot cope with large quantities of rich, moist food.

Bathing

Chinchilla’s are special in that they bathe in dust, and although this can be a very messy affair, it is also one of the highlights of keeping this wonderful animal.

Only sepiolite dust should be used, given to them once a day, for about 20 minutes, and always removed after to prevent it becoming too soiled. The dust should be offered in a deep sided container and about 1” in depth.

Specially formulated to ensure a balanced but varied diet.This palatable Alfalfa-based mix includes raisins, carrots and flaked peas. It is high in fibre low in fat providing a correctly based diet for healthy chinchillas.

Health

Eyes

If your chinchilla has recurring eye problems (such as a white discharge) and your vet has checked out your chinchilla’s mouth and his teeth seem fine, an x-ray should be carried out. This way the vet can see if the root of the teeth are growing upwards and causing pressure on the eye socket.

Chinchillas have what is called an open root – if the teeth aren’t used constantly (by gnawing and grinding on lots of hard foodstuffs and hay) they keep on growing – inside the mouth as well as up towards the eye sockets and down through the jaw (the same as degus and in some cases, guinea pigs).

By giving your chinchilla lots to gnaw on – like timothy hay and hard foods – you are doing your best to keep their teeth healthy – as well as their general health too.

It must be stated here that there is no substitute for good veterinary advice when treating your small furries. If you know of a good specialist in this field please email us with their details.

Teeth

Teeth problems are the curse of chinchillas – see under ‘eyes’ above. If your chinchilla has difficulty eating and/ or has a wet chin, then you must see a vet immediately. While their teeth may seem healthy to look at, there could be problems with the roots causing pain and inability to eat as they grow up towards the eye socket or down through the jaw.

Fur chewing

A chinchilla can become a fur chewier, it is not really understood why this behaviour occurs although a dietary deficiency or boredom have both been suggested as a cause, although this does not seem to adversely affect the animal, once started this is a very difficult behavioural problem to cure.

Chinchilla’s can also suffer from fur fungus; this condition is recognised by a lot of broken whiskers, scabs on the ears and/or missing clumps of fur, this can be treated but is best avoided by good care and cage hygiene.

Heat

During the summer chinchilla’s can suffer from heat stress; the normal rectal temperature is 97oF (37oC). Any higher and the animal will have problems keeping cool, and in extreme cases can even fall into a coma. At the first sign of overheating remove the animal to a cooler position and lightly dampen its ears and feet with a cool cloth. Seek veterinary advice.

Degenerative Rat Disease

Results of questionnaires concerning degenerative rat disease by Sally Clark

In the past few years three of my rats died from a degenerative disease that appears to affect the brain and neurological system. After writing an article in Pro-Rat-A I realised other people had lost rats with the same symptoms. I developed a questionnaire for owners of affected rats to fill in, in an attempt to find out more about it.

From the start it was clear that the symptoms the rats were showing could apply to more than one disease. So to be included in this survey the rats had to show symptoms in at least two out of three categories covering the rats’ awareness of their environment, their ability to eat and their ability to move and balance. This eliminated rats for example with spinal degeneration. Rats with this condition found it increasingly difficult to move around but didn’t score in the other two categories.

This gave me 54 questionnaires to analyse. There turned out to be an exactly equal number of bucks and does aged between 7 months and 3 years when they died. In the majority (46%) the symptoms increased in severity over a few weeks but for some it only took days or even hours, the average length of the illness was around a month. 4 does survived.
% Of Rats Showing Symptom Symptom
92.5% Lethargy
92.5% Inability to climb
85% Unable to hold food in front paws
83% Balance problems & tendency to fall off objects
81.5% Falling over whilst grooming
79.5% Becoming progressively more unaware/unconcerned about environment
79.5% Unable to eat solid food
74% Good appetite but problems eating
Table 1

Whilst it might be expected that a rat may show many of these symptoms when it is in a collapsed state at the end of a fatal or serious illness, in the diseases I was looking at these symptoms often appeared in the early stages when the rat looked healthy in ever other way.

Problems With Feeding
(74%) of rats kept a good appetite during their illness but had increasing problems feeding. The most obvious symptom was that they struggled and eventually were unable to pick up and hold food in their front paws. Various suggestions have been put forward as to why this happens.

The rat’s back legs and back are too weak for it to sit up and hold it’s food. Although the rats did have problems with their back legs, I’ve seen rats nearly paralysed in their back legs from spinal degeneration still manage to find ways of holding food in their front paws.
The rat’s front legs are rigid so the rat is unable to bend them to get the food to it’s mouth.

This is a symptom which has been connected to pituitary tumours, but in my survey only 18.5% of rats showed it. Even in those that did, it was often towards the end of the illness and they’d had problems feeding with their front paws from the start.
The rat can’t coordinate the paws to hold the food or feels pain, numbness or weakness in the front legs.

Whilst it’s difficult to know exactly what the rat feels this could be possible. Certainly the rats seemed to lose their ability or strength to grip with the front and back paws and this was the reason they couldn’t climb, tending to slide down the bars of their cage or down their owners’ front if they tried to climb onto a shoulder.

In 4 instances where the symptoms came on very quickly the rats’ front paws knuckled over when they moved as they pushed themselves along with their back feet, but often owners commented that even though they couldn’t feed the rats would still use their paws to clean their faces and walk around.

As well as having problems holding their food many rats progressively lost the ability to eat solid food, then lap and finally to swallow.

Problems With Movement & Balance
Many owners commented that the rat’s way of moving changed, they often appeared drunk or uncoordinated. As can be seen from the table, falling over whilst grooming or falling off objects featured for the majority of rats. 50% of rats were unable to get to their feet at all towards the end of the illness.

Problems With Awareness
For many owners the most distressing symptoms their rats had related to the fact that they became increasingly unaware and unconcerned about what was going on around them. It was often changes in behaviour that were the first symptoms to appear. Whilst some rats became withdrawn others appeared bolder because they lost their sense of danger, a few seemed to become claustrophobic in their cages.

61% of rats would move around in a purposeless way. Owners described their rats as moving like clockwork toys, if they bumped into something they would try and keep walking, needing the owner to pick them up and point them in another direction. Some got stuck in objects or tangled in their bedding.

61% of rats also seemed to be blind or deaf or unable to smell at times and 55.5% ceased to recognise or respond to their owners. At the end stages of the disease a couple of owners reported their rats squeaking out when touched as if they were startled, frightened or in pain. What was surprising considering all these neurological signs was that very few rats had seizures.

Possible Diagnosis’s
There are several diseases which could account for these many and varied symptoms.

Pituitary Tumours
This was the most common diagnosis by both vets and owners and could certainly account for many of the rats in this survey. Pituitary tumours most commonly effect older does and indeed 16 does died at over 18 months old. However pituitary tumours are considered to be far rarer in bucks and only likely to account for elderly ones yet 27 bucks had died and 13 of those were 18 months old or younger.

Although many symptoms fitted the diagnosis of a pituitary tumour very well, other symptoms which are expected to be noticed with pituitary tumours were rarely seen. These included rigidity of the legs with the rat unable to flex them, only (18.5%) and walking in circles (31%).

A head tilt was only seen in a few rats and aggressiveness, another sign sometimes seen with these tumours in only one. Some owners reported a staring coat and weight loss, but an equal number noticed the coat stayed in good condition and some rats even increased in weight.

Other Brain Tumours
Of the other tumours of the brain, Astrocytomas of the brain stem are considered the most common brain tumour in younger rats. The symptoms seen could certainly be caused by this kind of tumour, however without post mortem examinations it isn’t possible to tell which, if any tumour is present.

Strokes
Older rats are most likely to get strokes and some of the symptoms would overlap with those seen in the survey. Strokes are usually sudden in onset and the body shows varying degrees of paralysis, often on one side of the body. There can be improvement although it may be painstakingly slow.

15% of rats showed one sided paralysis so strokes are a possibility. The fact that in this survey usually the symptoms came on gradually and didn’t improve and that a lot of younger rats were effected means strokes couldn’t account for many of the rats.

Infections
An infection did look possible for a few of the rats. 4 rats in one household came down with very acute symptoms within 24 hours of each other. They were all treated with antibiotics, first Baytril and then the last surviving rat was switched to a penicillin based antibiotic.

She seemed to recover but succumbed to pneumonia a few days later. These rats were knuckling over on their front paws and close to collapse from the start and it’s possible they had a form of meningitis. A viral or bacterial infection could also account for the 4 does who survived. Mycoplasma which is often responsible for respiratory disease in rats and can cause inner ear disease, although it can be treated the rat is often left with a head tilt which one doe was.

Ivermectin
The symptoms of ivermectin toxicity are very similar to the symptoms seen in these rats. 39% of the rats had been given ivermectin to treat mites during their lifetime. However animals that react to ivermectin usually do so within hours of being dosed with it and only a few rats were dosed with it close to the time they were ill. So far ivermectin has not been reported to have a delayed or cumulative effect.

Common Factors
Some of the questions on the survey were to see if rats affected by symptoms had anything in common. The most significant similarities between the rats were the age at which they died and where they originally came from.

Age Of Affected Rats
For does these illnesses were more common in either old age or at least over 18 months old, only 6 died younger. However just under half the bucks died at under 18 months. What illness these young bucks had is far more difficult to explain.

Source Of Affected Rats
As can be seen from Table 2 rats the majority of rats showing these symptoms came from pet shops. In fact in the young rats aged 18 months and under only one came from a breeder. If you consider that many of the rescued rats may have originally come from pet shops and the homebred rats may have had parents who also came from there, pet shops are accounting for most of the rats.

Although I had replies from owners who had bought their rats from breeders. I had very little response from breeders themselves, so these figures may not be completely accurate. However of the breeders I spoke to, the opinion was that they occasionally saw this problem in elderly rats and this was backed up by the survey.

Source of Rats Percentage
Pet Shop 59%
Rescue 16.5%
Breeder 13%
Home Bred* 9%
Laboratory 5%
*Homebred – the rat was bred by the owner who breeds the occasional or accidental litter but doesn’t breed to show.
Table 2

There could be an inherited susceptibility to this disease. There are strains of laboratory rat which have been deliberately bred to be more susceptible to pituitary tumours, and it would be easy to accidentally breed in a weakness in pet rats by breeding for numbers rather than sound health. Rodent farms who stock many of the pet shops have no incentive to breed healthy and long lived rats.

In fact they are unaware of the fate of their rats once they’ve left them. They also may not be careful about how inbred their rats are. Most owners were unable to find out what had happened to other members of their rat’s family but 5 owners did report that siblings or mothers had died of the same disease.

The early environment the rats were in could also have contributed to their susceptibility to this disease. It could well be that it takes a combination of factors to trigger these problems.

No other significant similarities showed up between the rats. They tended to be fed one of the commercial rat or rabbit mixes along with fresh food. Their bedding was usually paper based or shavings.

The rat’s colour and markings doesn’t appear to be significant either, most colours were represented, although some of this data was difficult to interpret because not all owners used the standard names of colours and markings to describe their rats.

Probably one of the most common illnesses rats get is respiratory infections. Within the survey 37% of rats had had respiratory problems at some point in their life. Only 9% of the does had had mammary tumours removed which is a low number, but some of the does in the survey were quite young and the chances of mammary tumours increase as does get older. Of the drugs given prior to the illness, 33% had had Baytril which is the most usual antibiotic to be given to rats and 20% had had an anaesthetic.

Treatment
Not knowing exactly what is wrong with these rats makes them difficult to help. Just under half the vets consulted thought it could be a brain/ pituitary tumour. Other diagnosis’s were inner ear infections or strokes but one poor rat was put under the cold tap by the vet as she thought he had heatstroke. The most common treatment was Baytril and steroids or just steroids. This sometimes improved the rats symptoms but only for a very short time, usually days.

It is unlikely to do any harm to try these two drugs as early on in the illness as possible if you have an affected rat. They may ease some of the symptoms for a short time. One rat also seemed more comfortable on the painkiller Meloxicam (Metacam). If you suspect a bacterial infection and Baytril isn’t effective it may be worth switching to a different antibiotic.

All the owners had tried hard to find foods their rats could manage to eat. It was also necessary as the rats became more unaware of their environment to monitor them closely as there were reports of rats falling off objects, or getting stuck or tangled in their cages sometimes fatally.

Apart from 4 rats who recovered all the rats were either euthanased or died naturally. Some rats were obviously suffering whilst with others it was more difficult to tell because they became so oblivious to everything they didn’t look distressed. My own bucks came into this category and died in their sleep. However since doing this research I would favour euthanasia as the neurological symptoms are difficult to interpret. Whilst it’s easy to tell if a rat is distressed with the symptoms of something like respiratory disease. It’s very hard to tell if they are suffering with head pain or whether the way they are experiencing the world has become distressing.

Prevention
Clearly a lot more needs to be known about these diseases before we will know how to prevent them occurring. However from the research I did three general points emerged.

Breeding
With such a high proportion of affected rats, particularly the ones who died young coming from pet shops. It would be advisable to buy from a breeder who keeps good health records of their stock and keeps their own rats for their full life span.

If you do have an affected rat from a breeder it is probably worth letting them know, however don’t automatically blame the breeder. Only if a breeder starts to have several rats from one family or strain affected, especially if they die young would they need to be suspicious of an hereditary condition.

Weight
In laboratory rats it has been repeatedly shown that overweight animals are more likely to develop tumours and pituitary tumours develop slower on a restricted diet. Whilst comparisons can’t always be made between pet and lab rats and very few of the rats in the questionnaire were reported to be overweight. It seems sensible to try and keep pet rats at their correct weight as there are so many health problems associated with obesity.

Ivermectin
It’s worth being cautious in the use of ivermectin as it’s very easy to overdose an animal the size of a rat. There is also a much higher risk of toxicity if the rat is unhealthy or on any other medication.

These diseases are clearly distressing for both the rats and their owners trying to help them. My hope in doing this survey is that the more these conditions are discussed, the more clues can be found as to what they are and how to treat and prevent them. Whilst the most common diagnosis is a pituitary tumour, because post mortems are rarely done there is often little evidence as to whether this is the correct diagnosis.

To give useful information a post mortem needs to be done by a specialist who is familiar with examining rats as opposed to other species like dogs and cats. This can be expensive. The survey brought to light that there are a number of bucks suffering from this problem at 18 months old or younger and it is not known exactly which disease they are suffering from.

The NFRS has a fund for pathology investigations into unidentified diseases, and is willing to arrange and pay the cost of post mortems on bucks showing these symptoms who are 18 months old or younger, if they are owned by NFRS members. If you are unfortunate enough to have a buck affected in this way and are willing for a post mortem to be carried out please contact Ann Storey in advance for consent and advice on how to proceed. Tel: 01322 285788 Email: president@nfrs.org

Many thanks to all the owners who helped me in this research by filling in questionnaires and to Ann Storey for her advice.

REFERENCES

Common tumours of the rat Ann Storey Pro-Rat-A supplement 1999
Rat Health Care Debbie Ducummon
Pro-Rat-A 99 pp17-18 Letter from Andrea Withers & advice from Esther Rawlinson MRCVS concerning possible bacterial infections in the CNS.
Rat & Mouse Gazette Jan/Feb 2000 Weakness in older rats: A paralysis primer. Kathy Barrett available at www.rmca.org/articles/paralysis.htm
Modulation of estrogen action in the rat pituitary and mammary glands by dietary energy consumption. Thomas J. Spady et al. The American Society For Nutritional Sciences Journal of Nutrition 1999 available at www.nutrition.org/cgi/content/full/129/2/5875
Effect of diet or reproductive status on the histology of spontaneous pituitary tumours in female Wistar rats. P.H. Berry Veterinary Pathology Vol 23 Issue 5 pp610-618 1986 Available at www.vetpathology.org/cgi/content/abstract/23/5/610
Genetic separation of tumor growth & hemorrhagic phenotypes in an estrogen-induced tumor. Douglas L.Wendell, Allison Herman, Jack Gorski 1996
Available on www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/93/15/8112.pdf
www.radil.missouri.edu/RADILinfo/dora/RATPAGE/neo.htm photograph of pituitary adenoma & brief description
www.petrats.org/infoforvetsetc.html#Pituitary Brief info on diagnosis & treatment of pituitary tumours
www.guinealynx.info/ivermectin.html information on ivermectin
www.guinealynx.info/NADAVetMedInteractions.html for reported reactions to ivermectin

Sally Clark can be contacted via email at: Sally.Clark@bigfoot.com

Aggressive Rats

Aggressive rats – Kevin’s story

This is the true story of Kevin, a rat who came to CavyRescue as his owner – who we shall call Mrs X – found him “vicious” and “nasty”. It is an example of how love, attention and patience can make such a difference to a pet.

Kevin is a brown hooded rat and was approximately 5 months old when he was brought to CavyRescue by Mrs X.

She’d apparently been given him by a friend of a friend and when she got him home, he was asleep in his cage. She thrust her hand in to get him out, and the shock of being woken from a deep sleep meant Kevin automatically defended himself by biting his ‘attacker’.

30 minutes later, Mrs X and a still slighty dazed Kevin, were on the CavyRescue doorstep. Mrs X suggested we have him put to sleep as he was so “horrible”, and left.

After just 10 minutes with him, it was obvious that Kevin only bit or tried to attack you because he was so very scared. He didn’t even like being stroked. We’ve had many rats like this in before whom, with a little attention, can quite easily be ‘rehabilitated’.

However, Kevin was a hard nut to crack. While we spent time with him, trying to build his confidence, he obviously needed that extra bit of attention.

One of our rat fosterers, Sam, offered to try and rehabilitate Kevin (she’d willingly rehomed a rather aggressive rat from us previously and in a short time, turned him into a relaxed, happy, loving rat).

So, we packed Kevin off, with instructions to Sam to watch her fingers! Sam kept in regular email contact, telling us of Kevin’s day-to-day progress.

First of all she made him realise that coming out of his cage wasn’t scary, but fun. She didn’t force the issue, just opened his cage, sat on her bed, and let him come to her.

After just a week, Kevin was letting Sam stroke him – albeit, very gently! – without him freezing up.

With lots of love and patience, Sam ‘worked’ on Kevin. She let him feel in control of when he came in or out of his cage, when he went to her etc.

Just three weeks later I got an excited ‘phone call – Kevin was out on Sam’s Mum’s lap – asleep. He’d been with her for two hours, generally nuzzling up to her! “I think he’s got a crush!” laughed Sam.

Kevin remained with Sam for the rest of life, sadly having a stroke which lead to his death. Without Sam’s unfailing dedication to Kevin’s ‘rehabilitation’, the happy, loving life he had with her would never have been possible. A heartfelt thank you to her.

The moral of this story is never to neglect your pets – the more love and attention you give them, the more you will get back from them.
Biting rats – what to do
We get a lot of phone calls and emails from people saying the same thing: My rat tends to bite and now I’m frightened to handle her..what should I do?

We have lots of rats come in to CavyRescue that are no longer wanted due to them being so-called “aggressive” etc and, in nine cases out of ten, with time and patience, they can be turned around into loving little ratties.

You need to build up your rat’s trust. Sit near to the cage and read a book, relax and let her come out of the cage in her own good time. Keep the room quiet, with no loud noises, other animals or distractions.

You may need to do this for a few days or even weeks until your rat feels confident enough to come out. She will then start to investigate, probably including climbing over you.

If she gets a bit nippy, say a firm “No” (do not tap her on the nose or anything, the tone of voice will be enough) and put her back into the cage.

She will learn that ‘good’ behaviour is rewarded, ‘bad’ behaviour means being put back in the cage.

(If you are worried about handling her, get a big, clean coffee jar..she will climb into it and you can lift her back to her cage. Use this method ONLY if she tries to bite you when you pick her up. IT should never be used as a substitute to one-to-one contact).

Don’t show fear of your rat – rats, like most other animals, can pick up on the vibes and will react accordingly – if you are ‘feeling fear’, the rat will think there is something to fear and be on her guard, which usually means, bite first, ask questions later!

Pick her up regularly (you may get a few wounds, but these will lessen, I promise!) so she gets used to you.

You may see progress in as little as 2 weeks and up to 3 months. Please be patient, treat your rat like you would a scared child..she’ll come round eventually and you can both enjoy a wonderful friendship.