Rats are often seen at the animal hospital for breathing issues, and these problems usually come on quickly. Knowing what causes breathing problems in rats, how to prevent them from occurring, and how they are treated is important for a rat owner to understand.
What Causes Breathing Problems in Rats?
Several factors can contribute to breathing problems in pet rats. The type and condition of the bedding, cleanliness of the environment your rat lives in, and various diseases and infections can all cause respiratory distress in your pet rat.
- Bacterial infections - Mycoplasma is a bacteria that almost all pet rats normally have. When a pet rat's immune system is weakened though, either due to stress or from another disease, these bacteria cause an upper respiratory disease called mycoplasmosis in rats that, when left untreated, may morph into pneumonia. Streptococcus, Bordetella (the same bacteria that give your dog a cough), Pasteurella, and other types of bacteria can also cause breathing problems but are not as serious as mycoplasmosis.
- Viral infections - There are some viral infections that are more common with pet rats, including Lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM) and Seoul virus. LCM is a rare viral disease. It's transmitted through the urine, feces, saliva, or other cage materials of rats (and other rodents). Seoul virus does not make rats sick but can be very dangerous for humans. It's a type of hantavirus and is carried by Norway rats. If a human is infected with Seoul virus, they can range from no symptoms to serious illness that can require a hospital stay.
- Bedding issues - Bedding that's dusty, dirty, or consists of cedar shavings is the main culprit for respiratory disease when the cage substrate is to blame. Don't use cedar shavings as substrate and make sure the bedding stays clean and free of dust.
- Getting chilled - Rats can catch colds from being too close to an air conditioning vent, window, or door. Any sudden temperature change can be problematic and cause breathing issues in a rat.
- Tumors - Rats often get tumors, especially along their mammary chains. Both male and female rats are susceptible to breast tumors and these tumors can spread throughout the body, including the lungs, causing breathing problems. An X-ray or CT scan is the best way to tell if your rat has tumors in its lungs.
Treating Breathing Problems in Rats
If your rat is having problems breathing, regardless of whether or not there is nasal or ocular discharge, seek help from your exotics vet and start treatment as soon as possible. If your rat is diagnosed with a more serious condition than a simple cold, the treatment will vary based on the problem.
- Mycoplasmosis - There is no cure for mycoplasmosis at this time; treating the symptoms of the disease is all you can do to keep your rat comfortable and slow the progression of the disease. Antibiotics and other medications will be prescribed by your vet based on the severity of the disease. New treatment techniques are slowly surfacing, so your vet may choose to try something new with your permission, or perhaps one day a vaccine or cure will be found. Until then, rats can still live for several years after being diagnosed with mycoplasmosis and maintain a decent quality of life while on chronic medications.
- Other bacterial infections - Treatment should be started immediately since the infection can quickly progress into pneumonia. Rats often die from Streptococcus infections, but you have a chance to save your rat if you start antibiotics before your pet rat develops pneumonia.
- Viral infections - Since a rat that is infected with the Seoul virus can transmit the infection to other rats and people, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends euthanasia of infected rats.
- Bedding Issues - A clean environment is a key to a healthy rat. Try using shredded paper in the cage instead of wood shavings. It is an economical option and can be removed and replaced easily.
- Getting chilled - A vet will come up with the best course of treatment for your specific rat if it got chilled. Upper respiratory tract infections often turn into lower respiratory tract infections and should be taken very seriously. These types of breathing problems may not be due to bacteria like Streptococcus or Mycoplasma but they should still be addressed as soon as possible with proper medications and warmth.
- Tumors - Your vet will identify the type of tumor and make a treatment recommendation. Some may require surgical removal while other tumors can be treated with medication. Some types may, unfortunately, be untreatable.
Preventing Breathing Problems in Rats
The best way to prevent most respiratory problems in rats is to keep their enclosures clean. Don't allow your pet rat to be around other rats if you're not sure what diseases they may carry, since rats transmit diseases to each other very easily. If you have a sick rat at home with other rats in your household, quarantine your infected rat from the others and thoroughly wash your hands after handling it.
Mice And Rats As Pets-Exotic And Laboratory Animals. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Diseases in Rodents. VCA Hospitals.
Preventing Seoul Virus Infection In Pet Rats And People. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Disorders and Diseases of Rats. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Brown C, M. Donnelly T. Disease Problems of Small Rodents. Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents. 2012;354-372. doi:10.1016/B978-1-4160-6621-7.00027-0