Respiratory infections are the most common disease in rats. Most new rat owners don’t realize when their pet is sick. They think the sounds of illness are the rat “talking” or if the rat is eating and playing then they are fine. Some rats don’t show how sick they are until they are severely ill. Pet rats with respiratory infections need medication from a vet. Some, especially those mistreated in pet stores, will be on antibiotics their entire lives.
Information for this article comes from the respected Rat Fan Club, our family vet and from owning several rats. Their names are Dean, Sam, Cass and Moose. Before that, there was Cheese Whiz and Weasel.
Symptoms of respiratory infection (Mycoplasma) in rats:
Early symptoms: Rats do sneeze sometimes, but if they are sneezing often or several sneezes at once, that is a sign of illness. Respiratory infections also cause the rat to struggle with breathing. The sounds a sick rat makes can be described as “wheezing”, “clicking”, “squeaking”, or “rattling.” A rat gasping for breath has severe lung problems and should be taken to the vet immediately. This article does not provide information on that problem. Go to the vet!
Late symptoms: If a sick rat doesn’t get treatment early, they might develop a second infection. On top of the early symptoms, new symptoms are added on the list. The rat might sleep hunched over in a ball. His fur will be rough like he was zapped by electricity. A very ill rat will be lethargic and refuse to eat.
Common medications for respiratory infection: Always follow your vet’s instructions no matter what.
Amoxicillin: Amoxi is pink and supposed to taste like cherry. It doesn’t really smell like cherry, and the cherry “taste” doesn’t always fool the rat. Generally, you have to give the rat a good amount from a dropper, but it is not always an easy task. Expect a pink, sticky mess. Amoxicillin is usually given for an early infection. It is mild on the stomach. It is also the cheapest antibiotic. Expect to play between $5 and $10, depending on your vet. Some pet rat owners keep Amoxicillin on hand.
Baytril: Baytril is bright red and often comes in a syrup form. It smells like cherry and apparently tastes a lot like cherry because rats love it. Even the sickest rat will take Baytril easily. Simply squeeze a little drop to the end of the dropper and let the rat lick it. They will lick the end as you squeeze more out. Baytril is weird in that it can work very well for a respiratory infection but sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Baytril is a strong medicine and may be rough on the rattie’s stomach. The stronger the medicine, the higher the cost, so expect to pay about $15.
Doxycycline: Doxycycline is the kick-butt drug, especially when used in combination with Amoxicillin. Doxy is orange-flavored and another rat favorite. The smell is very strong, and the rats go straight for the sweet smell. Your rat should take the medicine from the dropper without problem. Doxy has the highest price, too. Expect to pay between $15 and $20.
Giving the sick rat his medication: Most rats will lick the dropper because the medicine is so sweet and yummy. Just keep squeezing some medicine out until they’ve licked their required dose. Another option, and the easiest, is to soak the dosage in small piece of whole wheat bread. There is something about sopping bread that rat’s love. We started calling it “Orange Bread” or whichever flavor the medicine was at the time. Just remember that bread can be a bit fattening, so only use it for medicine. As a treat later, when rat is healthy, soak the wheat bread in soymilk. Just keep it to a minimum.
Giving medication to a rat that won’t eat:
The dropper: The best medicine dropper for a pet rat with a respiratory infection is the kind that pushes at the end. You pull out the end to get the medicine and push to get the medicine out. The droppers with the ends you squeeze are annoying. They are difficult to get the right amount of medicine and you end up squeezing medication all over the place. If your vet gives you one of them, go buy a few of the good ones.
Force-feeding: Place the dropper filled with food or medicine so that the open end presses against the side of the rat’s mouth. Gently push the dropper so that it forces the rat’s mouth open. This is easier written than done. It is recommended to hold the rat against your chest while trying to keep her head still, too. Good luck. Squeeze just a small bit of the food or medicine into the mouth and give her a chance to swallow before continuing.
Food options: Some good foods for force-feeding a sick rat are organic applesauce and plain yogurt. Make sure the applesauce has no sugar added or weird named additives. It should only say apples and water. Use plain yogurt. Don’t use yogurts with additives or flavors. As a rule, rats should not have dairy. Yogurt is acceptable when the rat is sick because it will coat the stomach and make digestion of the harsh medicines easier.
Respiratory & Heart Disease in Rats, The Rat Fan Club