An organism that lives on the outer surface of another organism, its host, and which does not contribute to the survival of the host.
Depending upon the parasite(s), the following may be observed:
- An intense itching with intermittent or persistent scratching.
- A Loss of hair, ulcerated skin, abrasions or scabs (seen most commonly on the neck and back of shoulders when mites are involved).
- May see light tan, brown, or reddish color “dots” on skin or the presence of silvery colored nits attached to hair shafts.
- May see a fine bran like substance on the skin and fur. In sarcoptid or sarcoptid-like species crusted red or yellowish lesions may be seen on the auricle or pinna of the ear and on the nose; along with small reddish bumps to tail, genitals, and feet. Hair loss and skin sensitivity (pink to reddish, irritated, looking skin) may be present in conditions of mange.
- May see actual fleas on the rat, or may see an indication of their presence by droppings of digested blood on the rat’s skin which may seem to appear like particles of dirt.
- May be seen on legs, ventral surface of the body, ears, neck. They may appear red, brown, or black when engorged with blood.
Also, it is known that in dogs, a tick attached to the right place on a leg can cause that leg to be paralyzed, and by removing the tick it resolves the problem. Possibly, though not documented (since ticks are less seen on pet rats in general), it may also do the same to rats.
*Note: for additional information on recognizing various signs of pain or discomfort refer to: Signs of Pain In Rats.
Ectoparasites are those which live on skin or attach to hair follicles. The following listed external parasites are those that can most often affect rats.
- Lice (phylum: Arthropoda, class: Insecta ) are of two orders, the mallophaga which are of a species that bite or chew, and the order of Anoplura (family Pediculidae) which are a species that suckle blood. The order of Anoplura which infest domestic animals is what is most often seen in rats.
Polyplax spinulosa (spined rat louse) is a type of lice that causes hair loss and pruritus (itching). It can sometimes be detected by the silvery colored nits attached to the hair.
Lice are species specific, meaning they do not cross from one species to another. They will spend their entire life cycle, approximately 14 to 21 days, from egg to nymph to adult on the host. They obtain nutrition by sucking blood, which in turn can cause anemia to the rat. They are also able to transmit the parasite Hemobartonella muris, leading to a disease similar to tick fever.
- Mites (phylum: Arthropoda, class: Arachnids) are of the subclass Acari. Unlike lice they are considered host specific meaning that with certain species of mites, if the desired host is not available, they may cross to another species.
The tropical mite Liponyssus bacoti (synonym: Ornithonyssus bacoti) is round in shape and appears dark when engorged with blood. They can survive on fomites (e.g., bedding, litter), and only stay on an animal when they are feeding. They are one of the species of mites that will also bite other animals including humans.
Demodex spp., and Notoedres muris (a sarcoptid-like mite), are types of mites that cause mange; a type of skin condition.
Deomodex spp. can be found anywhere on the skin but are primarily found deep within the hair follicles and sebaceous glands. Mange caused by Demodex spp. can produce signs of skin sensitivity and hair loss.
Notoedres muris (also termed the ear mange mite) burrows into skin, and can present as yellowish crusty appearing warts on edges of ears and nose, or can appear on other extremities as reddened bumps. Both of these are not often seen in the domestic pet rat.
Sarcoptes scabiei varieties, while not host-specific per se, do possess some host specific preference and physiologic differences do exist between varieties. Rats can be infested with a variety of sarcoptes mite; however, they do not give their owners their type of mange. Human infestation is with a different variety of scabies mite than what is found on animals’.
Should your pet rat be infested with a sarcoptic mite, and have close contact with you, it can get under your skin and cause itching and skin irritation. However, the mite dies in a couple of days and does not reproduce. They may cause you to itch for several days, but you do not need to be treated with special medication to kill them. Until your rat is treated effectively and its environment cleaned continued infestation will be a source of discomfort for your rat and an annoyance to you. For more information on scabies in humans see The CDC Fact Sheet.
The Radfordia ensifera is a fur mite that can cause dermatitis. It may occasionally be seen as white specks of dust on hair follicles. This type of mite is most commonly seen in rats. It produces intense itching and leads to scabs most frequently seen on the shoulders, neck, and face of the rat. The rat fur mite and mange mite do not infest humans or other animals.
Mites under normal conditions are commensal in small numbers and do not tend to be bothersome to their host. It is when the rat is stressed, has a decreased immunity due to other illnesses, and/or is unable to keep the numbers reduced by normal grooming that causes the mites to flourish in numbers. Inattention to proper husbandry, a rat that is ill, or giving ineffective treatment can lead to reinfestation, and dermatitis. On the average the entire life cycle of the mite beginning with the eggs which hatch in about seven days through the larval, nymphal, and adult stages requires approximately 23 days to complete. It is therefore important to maintain care and follow through with treatment(s) prescribed.
- Fleas, (phylum: Arthropoda, class: Insecta) of which thousands of species are recognized worldwide, affect human and animal. They belong to the order, Siphonaptera. The species of flea that most commonly affects animals, and humans, is Ctenocephalides felis. It causes severe irritation and can be responsible for flea allergy dermatitis. Fleas go through developmental stages before becoming adults. It is the adult fleas, which appear as 1-5mm, laterally flattened, wingless insects that infest the animals fur.
Reinfestation can occur if care is not taken to include the surrounding environment of the animal when treating. The deposited eggs on the host by the adult female flea can fall from the host to the surrounding environment, go through development, emerge as young adults either moving back to the host, or to a newly acquired host.
Flea infestation can be determined by the actual presence of fleas or by flea excreta seen as digested droppings of blood appearing as black dots. These black dots when dissolved on paper, or placed in water, will appear red.
This species of flea, Ctenocephalides felis, is also responsible for the transmission of Murine typhus by Rickettsia typhi, a type of febrile disease in both man and small mammals, and principally seen in the southern coastal climates.
Treatment for flea infestation should include the home, the rat’s environment, and any other animals living in the home.
- Ticks (phylum: Arthropoda, class; Arachnids) are also of the subclass Acari along with mites.
They are divided into two families: the Ixodidae (e.g., Amblyomma spp., Ixodes spp., Dermacentor spp. and the Rhipicephalus spp.) , which are hard body ticks and the Argasidae (e.g., Ornithodoros and Otobius) which are soft body ticks. They feed on the blood of mammals, birds and reptiles. Although some species of tick have preference for a certain species of host most are less host specific.
Hard body ticks seek out a host by questing (a type of behavior), crawling up grass stems or leaves and perching with front legs extended and will attach as a host brushes against their front legs. Hard ticks will feed from several days to weeks depending upon the species of tick, the type of host, and the life cycle stage it is in.
Many types of hard body ticks are called “three host ticks” because during each stage of development from larvae to nymph to adult requires a different host to feed from. The complete life cycle can take up to a year to complete.
Both the nymphs and adults have bodies that are divided into two sections, the head containing the mouthparts, and the posterior of the body containing digestive tract, reproductive organs, and the legs. Often less than 5 mm in size, they may vary in color from red to brown or black when engorged with blood. The body of the adult tick can be seen to grow as it feeds and engorges on the blood of its host. The adult female lays only one batch of eggs, as many as 3000, and then dies. The male tick feeds very little and tends to stay with larger hosts so it can mate with the adult female tick. The male dies once it has reproduced.
Soft body ticks have life stages that are difficult to discern. They go through multiple and repeated stages before becoming an adult, with each stage feeding multiple times, unlike hard body ticks. The life cycle of the soft body tick is considerably longer than hard body ticks. The adult female soft body tick has the ability to lay multiple batches of eggs during its life as an adult. Soft body ticks behave similar to fleas in their eating behavior. They can live in the nest of the host feeding each time the host returns to its nest.
While ticks are not commonly seen on pet rats housed indoors, there is the potential for infestation if housed outdoors, or if in contact with other pets that do go outside. Where other household pets have been infested it is recommended to also check and treat pet rats if ticks are detected. Severe infestations can cause blood loss resulting in anemia.
Zoonotic diseases associated with tick infestation in rabbits (e.g., Tularemia, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever) could potentially be a factor in rats with tick infestation1.
Transmission of all the above ectoparasites can be by host to host or fomites to host. Fortunately with proper husbandry and persistent treatment they do not have to pose a problem.
For information on hypersensitivity, allergic contact dermatitis, see Dermatitis/Eczema.
Photos and Case Histories Involving Parasite Infestation
- Fig. 1: Signs of mite infestation
- Fig. 2: Sarcopetes Mange photos and case history of male rat (Sunny)
- Fig. 3: Lice and case history of 3 male rats (Charlemagne, Kylian & Stiles)
- Fig. 4: Ectoparasite slides and descriptions courtesy of
DISEASES OF RESEARCH ANIMALS-DORA University of Missouri (IDEXX-RADIL)
- Fig. 5: Demodex Mites in 26-month-old female rat (Inca)
Skin scrapings for possible parasites can be done, however, parasites may still be present even though the scrapings are negative.
For information regarding dosages and usage of the following medications refer to the section Anti-infectives in the Rat Medication Guide.
For tick removal grasp with either forceps, tweezers, or tick extractors between head and body pulling straight out being careful not to squeeze the body of the tick releasing blood. In the event extraction is not easily obtained by pulling straight a slight twist motion can be tried (some brands of tick extractors are designed to do such). Immerse (place tick) in an acaricide solution or alcohol in a small container with lid. Be sure to search and remove all ticks!
Following extraction: Wipe the area where the tick was removed from with saline or an alcohol wipe.
It is recommended to give a single dose of Ivermectin 0.4 mg/kg to be sure any remaining ticks will be killed 1.
Mites and lice
Selamectin (Revolution) applied once topically. In some instances a second treatment (following a 30 day interval) may be needed. Rarely, and only by veterinary assessment, may it become necessary to dose at a two week interval.
Treatment with oral or topical dosing noted to be less stressful to rats and mice. Rare incidences of adverse reactions have been reported when ivermectin has been given by injection in rats.
For treatment specific to stubborn demodectic , notoedres, and sarcoptid mite infestation
Ivermectin, selamectin (Revolution), or topical treatment of Mitaban (amitraz) may be considered. It is recommended to discuss the proper use of Mitaban with your vet before attempting to use. Ivermectin is considered to have a wider margin of safety.
In cases of mange, treatment may need to be carried out for as long as 6-12 weeks.
Skin infection, by normal skin flora, often accompanies persistent, severe, cases of mange. It may become necessary to treat with an antibiotic such as cephalexin (Keflex).
Fleas and lice
Topical dosing with Advantage (orange labeled package for cats/kittens 9 pounds and under).
Fleas, mites (other than demodectic mites), and lice
Topical dosing with selamectin (Revolution), a derivative of ivermectin, labeled for use in kittens.
The topical application of selamectin, as directed, is less stressful for rats than other injectable treatments.
Alternative treatment for mites, lice and fleas
*Note: although a spray or shampoo sold for small animals such as rats and mice, or hamsters, or that which is safe for kittens or puppies 2 weeks of age containing 0.05 % or 0.06 % pyrethrin can be used for rats every 7 days for 4 weeks, its use should be avoided, or discussed with a veterinarian prior to use due to risk of possible increased toxicity as a result of ingestion from licking by these small animals, besides absorption. Do not use concomitantly with other anthelmintics (e.g., ivermectin or selamectin).
In Addition To Treatments Above:
Treat all rats at the same time, clean all cages including bedding and toys thoroughly. Disinfecting with bleach can be very effective, but be sure to rinse cage and articles well and allow to dry before returning rats to their cage.
Clip toenails of rear feet to prevent increased trauma to lesions from scratching.
If irritation to skin from scratching is observed, a lightly-applied application of a Vitamin E cream, Polysporin ointment, or Aloe gel may help relieve and prevent further secondary infection from occurring. Rats groom frequently; therefore it is recommended to avoid using on those areas where the rat or cage mates can easily access.
If there continues to be skin irritation, inflammation, or weeping lesions, systemic antimicrobials may need to be started. See your veterinarian.
- Treat and continue treatment as prescribed or as instructed by veterinarian.
- Treat other pets as appropriate.
- Keep toe nails clipped on a regular basis making sure not to cut the quick. Keep styptic on hand if bleeding occurs.
- Repeat cage and article disinfecting at least once a week.
- Remove and discard articles made of wood.
- Free of parasite infestation
- Free of inflammation and irritation of skin
- Maintain rats overall general health.
- Use of prepackaged processed litter, and the freezing of litter where bags have been breached prior to purchase, may be of help.
*Please note: that any bags of litter/bedding that have been noted to have a row of holes in the top of the bag or any bag that has been breached during storage in pet stores and feed/tack warehouses, where contamination through contact from residing infested animals, may be a potential risk. Freezing the litter before using in cages may be a helpful preventative measure.
- The freezing of prepackaged or mixed foods and rat blocks, prior to feeding, is recommended if bags have been breached at time of purchase.
- Provide a clean cage environment.
- Quarantine all new rats for a minimum of three weeks and treat for infestation or infections if present prior to introducing to existing colony.
- When holding or playing with rats other than your own, it is recommended that you wash and change clothes prior to handling your own rats.
- Quesenberry, K., & Carpenter, J. (2012). Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents, Clinical Medicine and Surgery (Third Edition ed.). St. Louis: Saunders.
- Arlian, L., Runyan, R., & Estes, S. (1984). Cross infestivity of Sarcoptes scabiei. J Am Acad Dermatol, 10(6), 979-86.
- Vredevoe, L. (2003, May 16). Background information of the biology of ticks. UCD Entomology R. B. Kimsey Laboratory. Retrieved February 16, 2012, from https://entomology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/rbkimsey/tickbio.html
- Beck, W., & Fölster-Holst, R. (2009). Tropical rat mites (Ornithonyssus bacoti) – serious ectoparasites. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges, 7(8), 667-70. Retrieved March 20, 2012, from http://www.dgvd.org/media/news/publikationen/2009/ddg_09094_eng.pdf