Once labor has begun it is often wise to leave the mom in a quiet dark place for the first one to two hours. Constant attention and interruptions in a lit room may cause undue stress for the rat and interfere with her labor.
You can look in periodically to check her progress and to make sure the labor and birth are proceeding normally. In a normal birth you will see contractions and fairly steady birthing. A contraction will cause the area just above the hind legs to suck in and the dam will stretch her body forward.
Spotting of blood is normal in delivery and after the mother has removed the placentas from the delivered pups. Constant vaginal bleeding is not normal and may be a sign of problems.
Signs of labor complications may include any of the following:
- Excessive vaginal bleeding
- Signs of shock (see below)
- Protrusion of stuck pup visible from the vaginal opening
- Severely convulsive labor
- Prolonged pain vocalizations from the mother
- Prolonged labor
- Contractions with little or no birth
- Multiple stillborns
- Deformed, underformed, or macerated pups
- Mother ignoring live pups already delivered
A normal rat labor should only take an hour or two. If your rat has not delivered after 3-4 hours of contractions or has given birth to a pup or two, but has not birthed another and she is actively having contractions, it is time to call your vet.
You should be able to feel if there are any more pups in the uterus. Keep in mind that the rat uterus is shaped like a “Y” with the two uterine horns merging into one birth canal. You could feel pups on either or both sides.
In the event a pup is lodged it is sometimes possible to gently massage the area with fingertips to shift it into a position conducive to birth. This is a delicate procedure and can cause harm to the pup and/or the mother. It is recommended to have the vet perform any fetal positional manipulations during labor.
Your rat should not have contractions when there are no more pups to deliver, so if she is having non-productive contractions, assume there is at least one other pup to be born. Rats with prolonged difficult labor often go into shock and require immediate veterinary care to prevent death.
Signs of shock may include:
- Labored breathing
- Slowed or shallow breathing
- Pale lips, ears, extremities
- Lack of thermoregulation (cool rather than warm to the touch)
Photos and Case Histories of Labor Emergencies
- Fig. 1: Pup stuck in birth canal
At the vet practice, they may perform an X-ray or sonography (ultrasound) to see how many pups remain in the uterus as well as their positioning. Your female will not need to be sedated for an X-ray.
Your vet may choose to try to further induce labor with oxytocin. This is especially helpful in rats that are exhausted from labor and whose contractions have become too weak to deliver their pups.
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that increases the ability of sodium molecules to pass into the uterine muscles causing the uterus to contract. These muscle contractions move the pups through the birth canal. Oxytocin is also essential for lactation. The oxytocin given by the veterinarian is a synthetic hormone used if your rat is having weak contractions or no contractions at all.
Caution should be used in administering oxytocin. If a pup is not correctly positioned or a large pup is stuck in the birth canal, the stronger contractions produced by the drug could cause the uterus to rupture. X-rays will help your veterinarian visualize the position of the babies and decide whether an oxytocin injection is indicated.
The dosage for oxytocin is 0.2-3.0 IU/kg SC or IM (Carpenter, 2005).
If no pup is produced within 15-30 minutes after the injection another injection can be given. If after 2 – 3 injections with no results your veterinarian should prepare the rat for an emergency C-section/spay.
More information can be found in the monograph Oxytocin of the Rat Medication Guide.
*Note: In some instances the birth process will begin after an initial injection, but will slow down again or stop. In this case it may be necessary to dose again so that all of the babies can be born. Oxytocin should not be administered more than two to three times to an rat in labor.
A Cesarean section, commonly referred to as a “C-section,” is a procedure in which offspring are delivered by cutting through the abdomen and uterus as opposed to a normal birth.
Since it is not feasible to deliver the babies and repair the uterus in rats the procedure is an actual spay — the uterus is removed and opened in an effort save any viable babies and/or the mother.
Your vet should use all normal sterile surgical procedures including a sterile drape. The vet can pre-medicate the rat with Torbutrol or Banamine (for pain) and glycopyrrolate (to protect the heart).
The rat should be induced with isoflurane or sevoflurane gas for the surgery. A second assistant should be devoted to removing and reviving the pups.
Normal spay procedures should be followed and the incision should be closed externally with staples or staples and tissue glue. The mother should be kept warm and on oxygen for at least 30 minutes post-op.
This mother will be unable to lactate due to the stress of the surgery and a lack of hormones. Ask your vet for pain medication to give her at home — this is a very invasive and painful procedure.
Although not every emergency spay will produce live babies, often some or all of the babies will survive and will need assistance to complete the birth process.
Harvesting the Babies
Once the uterus is removed the vet will need to tend to the mother while an assistant, or several of them, help with the offspring. This needs to be done quickly since the support of the mother has been taken away and their oxygen supply is now gone. Babies stuck in the birth sac with no oxygen may attempt to breath and can aspirate in the birth fluids.
Each horn of the uterus will need to be cut open carefully so that none of the babies are harmed. As the babies are removed, each sac should be carefully opened and the umbilical cord excised approximately 1/4″ from the body. Quickly clean the babies with a warm sponge or cloth. Dry them and stimulate them to breathe by gentle and constant rubbing. Check to make sure their mouths and nasal passages are clear. Do not give up if they do not breathe immediately, it can take a few minutes of stimulation to get a breath.
Once you have gotten a gasp for air, continue to rub the babies and introduce them to a pure oxygen source periodically (hold them up to the O2 tube as you rub). This can revive even purple/blue babies, but you have likely lost any babies that are white in the uterus or birth canal.
Initial Care for Offspring
It is difficult to feed neonate rats and they must be kept warm at all times. Hand-raised babies will need to be stimulated to excrete wastes (a damp warm Q-tip or cotton ball).
A lactating foster mother will give the babies a much higher chance of survival. The survival rate for hand-raising is very low.
Neonate rats need immediate nutrition and fluids. The healthiest initial feedings should be colostrum, which is the mammary secretion produced shortly after birth. It is high in antibodies that help keep babies healthy. Colostrum is also high in carbohydrates and protein while being low in fat. It’s easily digested and places little strain on the gastrointestinal tract
It is crucial that any surviving babies be fed colostrum for the first couple of days. If you can find a foster mother who has given birth within 24 hours this will not be as great a concern.
If you have a nursing foster mother that has not given birth within 24 hours, you will have to supplement with hand-fed colostrum or generously rub it on the foster mother’s nipples to assure the babies get enough.
If there is no nursing dam available, there is a brand of colostrum called “Nursemate ASAP” available online. It is a good idea to keep colostrum in your home if you breed rats. The colostrum can be mixed with human infant soy formula for the first 48 hours of hand feeding. The babies must be fed warm fluids every 2 hours in their first few days of life.
To feed rat neonates do not use a syringe as it can cause the babies to aspirate the formula. You can buy micro nipples from wildlife rehabber stores online and keep them in your emergency first aid kit. If you do not have micro nipples let them suck or lick from a small paintbrush or the twisted corner of a paper towel dipped in formula.
- Carpenter, J. (2005). Exotic Animal Formulary (3rd Edition). St. Louis: Saunders.26.