It’s well known that dogs should not be left in cars on hot days as they can die from the heat, but it’s less well known that rats are very prone to heat stroke. Every year pet rats are killed by the heat and last year was no exception.
Rats can only regulate their temperature in a very limited way, in that their only method of losing heat is through their tails and paw pads. Their only other option to stop themselves overheating, is to get somewhere cooler and if they’re confined to a cage or travel carrier they can’t do this.
I was caught in a tricky situation last summer when a 10 minute car journey to the vets with a rat, turned into three quarters of an hour in a traffic jam. Luckily the car had air conditioning so I could keep the rat cool. Without air conditioning cars can become ovens even with the windows open. I really feel that if the temperatures are forecast to go up, rats should be left in the cool at home unless the trip is essential, such as getting them to the vet.
Of course car journeys aren’t the only time rats can overheat. Any rat left in full sun or a hot place even for only a short time is at risk of heat stroke. They can overheat and die incredibly quickly. Rats in glass tanks are at even higher risk, as are rats kept in sheds which can get stiflingly hot even at night. Another place where it can get unbearably hot is tents at agricultural shows where sometimes classes for rat shows are held.
The temperature at which a rats starts to overheat varies. Humid conditions increase the risk. A rat with respiratory problems or which is overweight will succumb to heatstroke sooner.
Early symptoms of heat stroke are variable but one sure sign is a warm or even hot tail. Rat’s tails should be cool to the touch. The rat may also be lethargic and depressed. Their breathing will be far more noticeable as unlike dogs, rats can’t pant to help cool themselves down. They may drool saliva from their mouths. In under half an hour a rat can have passed into a coma and died.
Obviously a rat with heat stroke needs to get to a vet fast. First aid measures should aim to bring the rats temperature down. It’s sometimes suggested to submerge the rat in cool water up to it’s neck. However the rat can die of shock or become very stressed by this so you’re better to sponge cold water over the rat particularly where main blood vessels come close to the skin; round the rats neck, it’s limbs and put the tail in cold water. The rat will be very dehydrated, so encourage it to drink and give electrolytes such as ‘Dioralyte’ or add pinches of sugar/salt to the water.
Clearly it’s far better to prevent the rat getting heat stroke in the first place. So do keep a close eye on your rats and the weather forecast this summer, put their cages in the coolest place and consider providing fans if necessary.
Finally do speak up if you see an animal left in the heat. You may save it’s life. Last summer one local pet shop had rats and mice in glass tanks with a strip light in the roof of each tank. The rats were so hot they had draped themselves over their water bottle. Some of the mice looked very ill indeed. I and several other customers couldn’t persuade the shop to at least switch the strip lights off. I came home and rang the RSPCA, who said they’d send an inspector round. By the next day the strip lights were off and one glass panel of each tank had been replaced by mesh.
So let’s try and make it a cool summer for us and our rats.
Web sites giving information on heat stroke include:
Author: Sally Clark 2005