Everyone should know a rat. There are few more friendly, entertaining and happy pets than pet rats.
I have kept pet rats off and on for most of my adult life and treated them as a veterinarian for over twenty years. I am always happy to meet a rat. They are pleasant, clean and curious creatures. They are a lot like really little dogs. But, no bark, no walks, very little fuss.
The bad news about pet rats is their life span: only two to three years. The oldest one I ever kept was four; the oldest one I ever treated was six.
The people on the South Shore, and everywhere around here, who own pet rats, are usually smart, female, independent sorts. That is the major demographic; never will I run into a dumb, henpecked, rat-owning guy.
Most people who have a rat also have another rat. In fact some people have lots and lots of rats. It seems hard to believe - until you find out that they accidentally mixed a male with a cage of females. A pregnant female can give birth to eight, ten or even twelve babies.
Rats are social and the males are interested in who is in charge and who is not. Female rats are easier going and rarely get into squabbles. Males are more assertive and have stronger likes and dislikes about things like foods, companions, and being held. If a male gets nippy towards other male rats, a neuter will sometimes control the behavior.
One of the great things about rats is that they eat everything that humans do. I have kept rats healthy and hardy for years feeding only left-overs. If you eat healthy, so do your pet rats. There are formulated diets on the market made just for rats, too.
Most diseases that afflict rats fall into four major groups: respiratory distress, tumors, skin problems, and teeth issues. Here are the four most common presentations.
Respiratory infections are the great enigma of pet rats. In human medical parlance, rats suffer from reactive airway disease. The causes of the reactivity are bacteria, viruses, and allergens. The occurrence of one often triggers another. If your pet is reacting to a bacteria, the respiratory tissue becomes debilitated, making it easier for a virus to get a foothold. These infections make an allergen even more likely to trigger a restrictive airway response. Likewise, if your pet rat has an allergy it is more likely to be affected by viral and bacterial infections.
Treatment options are similarly complicated. Antibiotics treat the bacteria, but not viruses or allergens. Anti-inflammatory drugs like steroids will treat the inflammation of the respiratory tissue whether bacteria, virus or allergen is the cause, but it also lowers the body’s immune response making it possible for the infections to get worse. Sometimes the drugs are given orally; sometimes they are inhaled; sometimes it takes one drug to fix the problem; other times it takes three and even four drugs. It is a complicated problem with complicated cures and outcomes.
Mammary tumors are another common malady.This is usually a female disease, although it sometimes occurs in male rats. Most mammary tumors are benign, which means that the tumor will not spread to another mammary or to another organ in the body. It is rare that a mammary tumor will re-grow in the same spot. The bad news is that there are twelve mammary tumors, and a rat that is prone to developing one tumor is likely to grow even more tumors. I have surgically removed ten tumors from one female rat!
Teeth problems are usually the result of trauma, decay or aging jaw malformation. Their teeth grow longer every day and the healthy rat trims them by grinding. When they stop grinding, their teeth can grow so long so as to interfere with eating, swallowing and mouth cleanliness. If this happens, see your vet for trimming.
The itchy rat is a common disease, and lice are the most common cause. They are easy to see. They look like miniature (barely visible) grains of rice beetling about the hairs on the back of your rat. These are not the kinds of lice people get, and your dog and cat will not get them either Lice are easy to treat by using a dog and cat flea spray. Two sprays on the belly and two sprays on the back once a week for three weeks should work. If you change bedding between treatments your problem will go away pretty quickly.
If you are interested in getting a rat check out Andover Rattery and Mainely Rat Rescue. For an entertaining look at rats, try The Dapper Rat. If you might find yourself getting a pet rat, you won't regret it.
Dr. Greg Mertz is a veterinarian and CEO of the New England Wildlife Center. He is also the author of two new e-novels: “A Field Guide to Wildflowers” and “®evolution.” They are available at most e-outlets like Kindle, Nook, Apple, Brio, and Smashwords. This blog post is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe. The author is solely responsible for the content.
View pictures here of some of the wild animals that the center has rescued