Finding an exotics-specialized veterinarian in your area now, before you need them, is very important. Rats can run into many issues with illness or injury at any time, and at-home treatment is not always advised.
Exotic vet care can also be quite costly, depending on the issue at hand, and your specific vet and location, so making sure you have a “vet fund” set aside for such instances is highly recommended.
As stated in the “General Info” section, sneezing – especially during the settling in period – is perfectly normal, just like with any other species. Excessive sneezing/sneezing fits, “wet” sounds in the chest, honking or “monkey” noises, excessive porphyrin, lethargy, weight loss, and refusal to eat or drink are among the more common symptoms of a health issue. Other physical signs to note would be droopy ears, squinty eyes, tight whiskers, puffed fur, and out-of-character laziness.
Finding a vet that treats exotics can be difficult, depending on where you live. Calling around to clinics and asking if they are able to treat exotics – specifically rats – is a great way to start your search. Keep in mind that not all vets can treat exotic animals, and even some who do, don’t know much about rats. Most exotics veterinarians primarily treat ferrets, rabbits, birds, and guinea pigs.
Even though rats do not get vaccines, getting your rats in for an “establishing exam” with your vet is highly recommended. This gives you the opportunity to meet and get to know your vet and make sure you’re comfortable with their style of veterinary medicine, as well as allow the vet to get to know you and your rats, and what is healthy and normal for them. Having this relationship established will likely be greatly beneficial to you in the event of an emergency in the future. Talking to your vet or his/her staff about payment plans or options is a good idea as well, should you need to utilize them.
Finding a good vet who is well-versed in rat care can be hard, but is SO important!
Feeding a staple block-based diet is essential to healthy rats. Feeding mixes usually causes the rats to pick and choose what they eat, which leads to a diet not well-rounded.
Pet store mixes also often include ingredients not recommended for rats, such as dried corn (which can harbor mold), dyed pieces, alfalfa (which are nutritionally null and can cause intestinal blockages in high amounts), and certain seeds that are not ideal. Pet stores also often offer a "one size fits all" type of food marketed for rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, etc. This type of food is dangerous and should be avoided, as all these animals have vastly different dietary needs and one food certainly is not best for all of them.
Oxbow Essentials and Mazuri 6F/Rodent Breeder are generally regarded as "the best" when it comes to a staple rat diet, but they are far from the only options. There are even certain brands/types of dog food that make excellent options!
Some dog food options include Doggy Bag by Tractor Supply, Good Friends Crunchy Bites by Rural King, KalKan Complete Adult, and Twin Pet Adult food are all excellent, lower cost options.
Please note that while Oxbow food is highly regarded, the "Garden Select" and "Young Rat" formulas should be avoided if possible, as their nutritional levels are not ideal.
Some acceptable treats include veggies such as carrots, broccoli, peas, cucumber, zucchini and other squashes, tomato, and green beans. Avoid raw potatoes (cooked are fine with no skins), spicy peppers, and celery (the stings can be a choking hazard). Lettuce can be offered, but it has little to no nutritional value, and should be given in moderation.
Fruits also make wonderful treats in moderation, as they are often higher in sugar. Fruit treats include banana, apple (no core or seeds), strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and watermelon.
Dark chocolate is an excellent treat for your rats, especially those prone to respiratory issues. Dark chocolate is a natural bronchodilator, which is beneficial to respiratory health! The darker the chocolate, the better.
Crackers, pasta (cooked or uncooked), dog biscuits, non-sugary cereals, lean meats (raw or cooked), yogurt, baby food, and the occasional piece of cookie or similar sweet are all also excellent options for treats for your rats.
Bathing rats is a controversial issue – many people choose to bathe their rats, and many deem it unnecessary. If your rats enjoy bathing (many do not), and you choose to do it, there are a few things to keep in mind.
It is important to use the right soap (if any at all), and not to bathe them too often, as rats have sensitive skin. You should only ever use tiny amounts of baby shampoo or mild pet shampoos to bathe (ask your vet which ones are safe), and never bathe more than once a month, unless the rat gets into something it cannot wash off on its own, or otherwise determined by your vet due to a medical issue.
Rats, like cats, bathe themselves and tend to keep quite clean, despite their reputation. Adult, unaltered male rats will have a “musk,” and tend to have much oilier skin, and can often get a yellow/orange build up on their skin referred to as “buck grease.” While it can look gross, buck grease is perfectly normal, and usually does not need to be washed off by humans.
Should you bathe your rats, it is important to do it safely and correctly.
Prepare your bathtub or sink by clearing away any products or items that could fall while the rat is bathing, and be sure to clean the sink or tub with a mild detergent such as dish soap. You’ll want to fill the area with no more than 2 inches of warm water. You want your rat to be able to stand on all fours without struggling to stay above the water. You should also be able to place your hand in the water without feeling cold or hot. Place your rat gently into the water, and remember that it is best to do them one at a time. Some rats do not enjoy the water, and will attempt to escape. Please monitor their stress levels, and remove them if necessary.
After your rat is acclimated, you should begin gently scooping water over their back with your hand or a small cup, being very careful to not get water into their ears or face. Never hold your rat under running water. This can be very stressful, and makes it very easy to get water into their ears or face. Once your rat is wet, lather your shampoo of choice in your hands and then gently work it into their fur and down their tail.
Be sure to rinse your rat very well, as they will almost definitely bathe themselves when you’re through, and any soap residue could potentially make them sick.
You should towel dry your rats to the best of your ability, as putting them back into their cage while soaking wet can cause them to fall ill.
Occasionally, you may find that your rats tails need scrubbing, as rats can get a build up referred to as “scale tail” if they don’t properly keep it clean themselves. This is a dirt build up in the hair follicles of their tail, and can begin to look like reptile scales when severe.
If you notice this, the best way to combat it is to use an old soft toothbrush with their shampoo and a bit of warm water, and gently brush downwards on the tail, carefully working the dirt out. Brushing upwards “against the grain” can lodge dirt into the tail and lead to pain and potentially infection. Rinse the tail thoroughly when finished.
You can also try putting coconut oil on your rats tail before trying the brushing method, as this often encourages them to clean it themselves!