Rats often don’t exhibit sign of illness until they are well into a medical emergency. It is important to check your rat often for any medical abnormalities.
Any time that you handle your rat is an opportunity to check it for problems. Awareness of your rat’s physique and behavior will help you see any changes that indicate the need for a trip to the vet.
Health checks are easier if your rat is a willing subject. It is helpful to get your rat used to being checked and held on its back.
The Basic Health Check:
Learn to spot symptoms of respiratory infections before they become advanced to the point of emergency intervention.
Listen for abnormal breathing sounds such as wheezing, congestion, or clicking noises. Note any abnormalities such as labored breathing, gasping. Other signs may include; discharge from the eyes or nose, poor appetite, hunched posture, or puffed up fur.
A rat with a respiratory infection will need to be seen by your veterinarian. Signs that appear to be respiratory related may actually be problems with the heart.
Look at the rat’s teeth and gums to see if there is any misalignment of teeth, gum swelling, redness, pus, or foul odor.
The incisors should be even, not too long, and not piercing the cheek or gum.
Oral infections can be aggressive and need early medical intervention to be resolved.
Check the rat’s eyes to assure that they are clear, bright, and free of discharge. Look for cloudiness or ulcerations.
Bulging eyes may be indicative of SDAV infection, tumors, or an abscess behind the eye.
Check the rat’s ears for discharge, growths, or unusual odors.
5. Injuries and Wounds:
Visually inspect your rat’s body for bleeding, cuts, bites, and bruising.
6. Tail and Feet:
Visually inspect your rat’s tail and feet for injuries and for symptoms of bumblefoot (feet) and ringtail (tail).
Remove your rat from its cage and watch it walk. Keep your eyes open for trembling, limping, tilting, circling, or weakness in the limbs.
Note the general posture and the activity level. A rat exhibiting a “hunched up” posture or lethargy may not be feeling well.
Carefully massage the rat’s body with your fingers checking for lumps, swelling, or areas of sensitivity that might indicate growths, swelling, or pain.
9. Fur and Skin:
Watch your rat’s behavior to see if it is scratching excessively and check for any hair loss.
Look at the skin and fur for possible parasites. Fleas and lice are large enough to see. Mites are harder to see, but often you will see nits on the hair shaft or a characteristic scabbing around the rat’s shoulders and neck.
10. Genital Area:
Female: Examine your female rat’s vaginal opening for any discharge or blood. In a non pregnant rat this could mean a problem such as a uterine infection (often mycoplasma), cysts, or tumor.
Male: In a male check the penis for discharge. (Occasionally you will need to inspect closer by pushing back the sheath to make sure that there is no blockage.)
Check the extremities (feet, ears, tail, paws, etc.) for either pale or heightened skin color.
Sniffing your rat may help alert you to problems. Learn your rat’s “normal” odor. A “bad” smell may be indicative of infection. A sickly sweet smell could be diabetes.
You can perform what is called a “pinch test” to check for dehydration.
Using two fingers take a little fold of skin on the rats back and lift it up. When you let go the skin should return to its normal position. If the skin stays raised, even for a few seconds, your rat may be dehydrated.
Get to know what your rat’s normal temperature “feels” like so you can recognize when the rat is too cool to the touch or fevered.
If you desire a more in-depth assessment guide see the article Advanced Health check.