Respiratory Disease

Dwayne and Dean

Respiratory disease is so pervasive, it is the number one pet rat medical problem. Of the twenty-four rats I’ve had so far, only 2-3 have been symptom free. Just about every rat has this disease and there is no cure for it. Don’t let this get you down though because, even though most rats have respiratory disease, many don’t ever show symptoms and can still live long, and relatively healthy, lives. Even pet rats who show symptoms are most often easily managed. While antibiotics don’t cure respiratory disease, they can generally help by lessening the symptoms and allowing our rats to enjoy an improved quality of life.

The bacteria mycoplasma pulmonis lives in the lungs and is the most common organism contributing to respiratory disease in rats. Mycoplasmosis is extremely contagious. It’s so serious, it often causes pneumonia, emphysema, lung abscesses and lesions. If your rat has a mycoplasma infection, there’s also a good chance that secondary respiratory infections are present and sometimes even heart disease. The bacteria mycoplasma pulmonis makes a rat very susceptible to secondary conditions.

What are the symptoms of respiratory disease?

  • Sneezing – Rats do not typically sneeze. If you hear repeated sneezing, your rats have a respiratory problem
  • Porphyrin – A red secretion often seen around the nose or eyes. It looks like blood but is actually a fluid secreted by the Harderian gland which is located behind a rat’s eyes. If porphyrin is present it usually means the rat is stressed which can be due to illness.
  • Congestion, sounds while breathing, wheezing – A healthy rat’s breathing should be silent.
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dull, puffed up coat

What are the causes?

Besides almost all rats being born with mycoplasma, (by contracting the bacteria directly from their mother), respiratory diseases can also be brought on by:

  • Type of litter – Too much dust such as in Care Fresh; Pine and Cedar shavings are toxic and can cause sneezing
  • Urine/ammonia build-up in cage can worsen the symptoms or even bring them on.
  • Food Allergy – Peanuts, dairy and dairy products are among some of the foods that can cause allergic reactions in rats. (From my experience, this is not as common)
  • Exposure – Bringing a new pet rat into your home can expose your healthy, current rats to respiratory disease. Exercise caution when allowing your rats to visit places where there are other pet rats unless you’re absolutely certain the rats are healthy.

Dwayne with small amount of porphyrin on his nose

Dwayne with small amount of porphyrin on his nose

What will a veterinarian do for your rat if it has respiratory symptoms?

Your rat’s veterinarian will perform a full exam including listening to his or her lungs and heart. Your vet will listen to your rat’s breathing, and observe for sneezing and porphyrin. Questions will be asked to help determine the source of the problem: Could the symptoms be caused by something environmental? When did symptoms first begin? Are you hearing lots of sneezing at home?

If needed, your veterinarian will prescribe one or more medications. The most commonly used medications are:

  • Amoxicillin, Cefa-Drops – May be prescribed in the beginning to help alleviate any secondary infections which can act much faster than mycoplasma. Not all veterinarians will begin by using these medications.
  • Doxycycline – Some rat veterinarians will start with this medication as it is highly effective against mycoplasma.
  • Enrofloxacin (Baytril) –  Very effective against mycoplasma. It is often considered “the big gun”, making it an option to resort to only if Doxycycline isn’t effective or eventually becomes ineffective. Sometimes combining the two works well.

There are other effective medications not listed above. As long as you have a well-qualified rat veterinarian, you’ll be able to trust they know which medication(s) will be most helpful. Your veterinarian will generally prescribe at least a 6-12 week course of medications. Older rats can safely be on enrofloxacin and/or doxycycline for the rest of their lives. It’s not uncommon for an older rat to be on these medications for 1-2 years.

Vera getting steam tx

Vera in a steamy bathroom

Other therapies include creating a “spa environment” by steaming up your bathroom with a shower running hot water. Five to ten minutes in a hot, steamy bathroom once or twice daily can often do wonders. If your rat’s respiratory disease is severe, nebulizing can be quite helpful. There are a number of medications your veterinarian can prescribe which can be administered via a nebulizer.

It is extremely important to treat respiratory symptoms promptly, and to follow-through by giving the medication(s) for as long as prescribed. If antibiotic is only given for a short period of time, or is given off and on, the bacteria may be able to resist the treatment. A longer course of antibiotics is much more effective in overcoming any resistance. If one medication isn’t helping, let your vet know so they can try another one. You’ll usually be able to tell whether or not an antibiotic is helping by the end of the third day on the medication.

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6 Responses so far.

  1. Sam says:

    Hello,
    I’ve had 2 new pet rats for about a month now and they’ve already been on a corse of baytril but they’re still sneezing. The last time I took them back to the vet she said they didn’t need the antibiotics any more and that they would be fine. I live in a small town in the uk and not many of the vets in my local veterinary practice know much about rats. I’ve tried the steam, but that has little effect and I was wondering if there was anything else i could give them or do to stop getting them ill? They have slight squeeky breathing and in December before I brought the new ones one of my orginals had to be put to sleep due to a secondary respiratory infection. I’ll do anything I can to keep them alive but if the vets don’t cooperate then what can I do?

    • Hi Sam,

      It sounds like you’re already aware your rats shouldn’t make any sound at all when they breathe. Your rats should be on antibiotics long enough so that their symptoms are completely eliminated. They should actually continue taking medication(s) beyond the time when their symptoms are gone.

      My current vet prescribes Ofloxacin ophthalmic drops which are given three times a day for ten days. This helps clear up sinus congestion. In addition, my current vet prescribes the antibiotic, Doxycycline, for 30 days. Most vets with whom I’m familiar start with Doxycycline rather than Baytril.

      Can you ask your vet if you can try Doxycycline and if you can give it to your rats for 30 days? The Ofloxacin is also very effective, if your vet would be willing to prescribe it in addition to the Doxycycline.

      If your current veterinarian refuses to prescribe any further antibiotics, I’d do anything and everything you can to get your rats treated by a different veterinarian. If you’re having trouble finding a different vet, there are lots of rat groups on facebook. I’m including a photo in my response here so you can see names of some of the UK pet rat groups. I’m sure you can post in these groups to ask for recommendations of qualified vets within driving distance of where you live. If you’d like further help finding a different veterinarian, let me know and I’ll be glad to do some additional research for you.

      U.K. Pet Rat Facebook Groups

      I’m so glad you’ve asked this question because, as you know, respiratory disease and/or resulting secondary infections can be fatal.

      Best Wishes to You & Your Rats,

      Jasmine About Pet Rats

  2. eti says:

    Hello doctor
    I have a white mouse and he is heavily breaching last two days and his whole is getting swelled.some time his nose bleed.

    • I hope you’ve been able to take your mouse in to see a veterinarian who’s experienced and knowledgeable about pet mice. I don’t have any experience with mice, nor am I a doctor. However, I do know that whenever any animal has trouble breathing, it requires immediate medical attention.

      Sending positive wishes for you and your mouse,

      Jasmine | About Pet Rats

  3. Diana says:

    I just read here that CareFresh is bad because of too much dust. That is what I have been using. What is a good litter?