Is Your Rat Sneezing? URI and Mycoplasmosis Information
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Why is my rat sneezing?
Persistent sneezing in a rat could mean many things. Rats do sneeze occasionally and this is normal, but frequent sneezing could be the beginning of something potentially dangerous and should be monitored closely. Some common causes for the sneezles are:
If your rattie is new to your home, it could be just adjusting to the new smells and allergens. If it doesn't clear up within a week or worsens, see the treatment options below.
If they are allergic or sensitive to something in your home, such as cigarette smoke, perfume, soap, certain shampoos, carpet shampoo, dust, other animals, etc.
If they are or were previously housed on pine or cedar bedding. The phenol oils in softwoods are very damaging to their respiratory system. Remove them from it immediately. Check out the bedding guide sticky here.
If they are or were previously housed on a glass aquarium or tub. Poor ventilation and ammonia build up is very damaging as well. Make sure the tank/tub is adequately sized and ventilation is good. See the pros and cons of tanks sticky here.
And perhaps most importantly, the beginning of an URI (upper respiratory infection)
What is an URI?
URIs are common in rats and are often the cause of a rat's demise. Their respiratory systems are very sensitive and they are prone to bacterial infections and viruses, most of which they cannot fight off on their own. Most cases of URIs are caused by the Mycoplasma bacteria. All pet rats carry the Mycoplasma bacteria. It is highly contagious and passed from mother to babies at birth. The only rats truly free of Mycoplasma are specially bred laboratory rats. There are rats that live their entire lives without being affected by it, and adversely, there are rats who struggle to fight it through their entire lives.
Mycoplasmosis is a chronic and gradual disease. It lies dormant until the rat's immune system is compromised or weakened by things such as improper bedding, diet, overcrowding, ammonia build up due to infrequent cage cleaning, poor genetics (pet store and irresponsibly bred rats), and weakness due to old age. Left untreated, it can develop into pneumonia, a lower respiratory infection, which has taken many ratty lives. Once it has progressed into a pneumonia, the damage to their lungs is usually permanent and the rat may have to frequently be treated with increasingly stronger courses of antibiotics.
The first sign of an URI is often sneezing. Other signs and symptoms are the sneezing persisting or progressing into clicking, gasping, wheezing, coughing, labored breathing, or other signs of illness such as squinting, puffed fur, lethargy, and porphyrin (blood-looking) staining around the eyes and nose. Be sure to listen closely to your rat's lungs for signs of pneumonia by holding them up to your ear like a telephone and listening to each lung. Most of us here affectionately call this checkup "playing ratphone". If signs are present, take the rat to the vet ASAP as the rat will require prescription antibiotics.
Sendai Virus has very similar symptoms to an URI but is rare and its progress and outbreaks are well tracked. SV is highly contagious and transmittable through contact and air, which is why it is very important to quarantine any new rats in a separate air space. It is a descending respiratory infection, which begins in the nasal passages, and moves through the trachea into the lungs. There is no treatment for SV. However, it is essential to treat immediately for secondary bacterial infections with broad-spectrum antibiotics as soon as an SV infection is noticed. Viral Outbreak Tracking in USA and Canada
What can I do?
Until your rat can see a veterinarian, here are some ways you can keep them comfortable.
Keep them hydrated if they are not drinking on their own by giving them fresh water, warm water with a bit of honey, diluted fruit juices, or electrolyte drinks such as powerade and gatorade from a needleless syringe. The average rat will drink up to two ounces of water per day.
Provide them with extra nutritional supplement , such as soy baby formula, Ensure, Boost, NutriCal paste (for dogs and cats found in pet store), mashed avocado, and baby foods. If they are not eating on their own, feed them by needleless syringe every two hours or so and be careful that they do not inhale (aspirate) any food.
Place a (preferably cool) humidifier in the room, or place your rat in a closed bathroom and run a hot shower for 10-15 minutes to soothe breathing passages. This could have severe adverse effects if there is fluid present in the lungs (pneumonia). If the rat seems to be in distress, remove them IMMEDIATELY.
Provide additional warmth using a hot water bottle or heating pad on one side of the cage, if needed.
Dark/Baking chocolate has been noted to cause relief for respiratory distress. Give only a small amount.
What antibiotics do I need?
For antibiotic information, use, and dosages, please refer to this chart or this site. It is recommended you print off any pertaining information and give it to your veterinarian for reference in case they do not specialize in rats.