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