Most people are aware that red staining around a rat’s eyes or nose (which, although it looks like blood, isn’t) are a sign of stress and / or illness.
However, just because a rat doesn’t have these tell-tale signs that all is not well, it doesn’t mean that he is 100% fit and healthy.
You may be surprised to learn that rats can be quite stressy creatures and, like humans, stress can lower their resistance to disease and make them more susceptible to infections. Baby rats, in particular, can get stressed as they go from the warm confines of Mum in to a strange tank with their siblings. As you can imagine, it can be quite frightening for them!
This means that some can develop respiratory infections as the stress takes hols. Left untreated, these infections can cause permanent damage to the rat’s respiratory system, especially their lungs, meaning that they will more than likely become very ill as time goes on and eventually die from a painful death.
An infection caught early and treated appropriately – a rat normally responds well to medication – means that he should go on to live a long life.
So what other signs do you need to look out for?
First of all, the red staining (which is called porphyrin):a little bit first thing in the morning is okay – it’s a bit like us when we get up and have sleep in our eyes. However, a lot of staining and ongoing is a cause for concern.
Secondly, look at the rat’s fur. His fur should be smooth and soft. If it is “staring” (which is the posh word for fur that is sticking up), then this means that he really isn’t well.
Look at their breathing. When he breathes, just his sides should go in and out (rats do breathe quite rapidly by the way). If his whole body moves – you may see his head move as he breathes – this means that he is struggling to breathe, a bit like when you or I have a heavy cold.
When holding him, listen to him. Rats shouldn’t make any noise that is audible to a human unless he is playing / fighting with another rat when you’ll hear a succession of loud squeaks! If you can hear a slight noise, a gurgle or a little squeak as he breathes, then he needs veterinary treatment as this is indicative of respiratory problems.
As another point, rats don’t ‘hiccup’. So if you see a rat ‘hicupping’, he isn’t. This is also a sign of a respiratory infection.
Finally, do check that any rat in your care is playful. Rats that sit hunched in a corner or don’t socialise with their friends and are very ‘quiet’ aren’t right. As example, four years ago we got Kolin from a local branch. He was listless and didn’t seem as boisterous as his cage mates. However, to someone who hasn’t seen thousands of rats over the years like we have, he would have looked well.
An x-ray revealed that Kolin had a tumour in his immune system. Of course, no-one would have known this as he looked so well, but by watching young rats’ behaviour and learning what is normal and what isn’t can go a long way to seeing when a rat is suffering.
Luckily, an amazing combination of medication kept Kolin well and happy and he lived to the grand old age of 2 and half years old, meaning that caught early enough, illnesses can, in a lot of cases, be successfully treated or controlled.