How To Prevent Your Rat From Chewing Their Stitches: 9 Tips For Post-Op Recovery

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Bringing a rat with stitches home from the vet can be pretty stressful. This article looks at a few common reasons why your rat may be on a mission to remove their stitches and how you can prevent it. We also included a few tips for caring for a rat after surgery.

Apart from neutering, the most common type of surgery rats undergo are lumpectomies, which are the surgical removal of a tumor or mass, commonly on the skin or muscle. These wounds are typically closed using sutures or stitches. In some cases, vets will use staples or wound glue.

If your rat chews their stitches, complications such as pain, discomfort, or the presence of infection need to be treated. Some rats will chew on their stitches despite adequate pain control and good post-operative care. Placing a body bandage, e-collar, and implementing other pain control methods may help prevent your rat from chewing their stitches.

Vets will often use multiple layers of sutures or methods of wound closure, such as a layer of sutures under the skin in combination with skin glue and another layer of sutures on the outside of the skin to provide multiple modes to keep the wound closed. Unfortunately, rats may sometimes be determined to remove their stitches against veterinary advice (if only rats listened to what the vet was telling them after the surgery!).

Luckily, when compared to humans, rat wounds heal much faster, provided that the wound is kept clean. Another advantage that rats have compared to humans is that they have much fewer pain receptors in their skin than humans. This means that surgeries involving the skin only will be less painful to your rat.

However, it is important to remember that deeper tissue layers such as muscle or other connective tissues may be involved depending on the type of tumor and the location. In these cases, your rat will likely need pain control for at least three days after surgery.

Should I Take My Rat Back To The Vet To Get The Stitches Replaced?

It is always best to contact your vet if you are concerned about your rat’s surgical wound. In most cases, a small opening or the loss of one suture should be treatable at home. However, it may take slightly longer to heal than a clean and closed surgical wound.

If the wound is larger than one inch or is deep, your vet will likely need to replace the sutures.

In some cases where an open wound is infected, your vet may advise treating it as an open wound with regular bandage changes.

Why Do Rats bite their Sutures/Stitches?

1. Pain or Discomfort

The number one reason why rats will obsessively chew at their stitches is due to pain. Luckily this issue can be fixed by pain medication.

It is standard practice to give a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug on the day of surgery vets will often dispense a few more days’ worth of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication for you to give at home.

An example of a commonly used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug is Metacam. This drug usually does not cause drowsiness or disorientation, unlike pain medication from the opioid group. An example of opioid pain medication is tramadol or codeine. Your vet may prescribe opioid pain medication in conjunction with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication for severe pain.

Rats experiencing pain will show changes in behavior such as reduced activity, appetite, and unusual aggression. Changes in the facial expression of rats such as slanted eyes, folded ears, and flattened cheeks with whiskers pointing away from the face. You can read more on signs of pain in rats and what you can do to help in this article.

If you think that your rat might be in pain, it is important to speak to your vet about adjusting your rat’s pain medication safely.

2. Infection or Swelling

Swelling for the first few days after surgery is normal. However, swelling can cause some discomfort if severe, which may cause your rat to want to pick at the wound. You do not have to be concerned about mild swelling for the first few days after surgery, but if swelling becomes severe or subsides and then suddenly worsens, a follow-up appointment with your vet is indicated.

Signs of infection include excessive redness, swelling, and a milky or yellow discharge.

Depending on the location of the surgery and the pre-operative state of the surgical site, as well as your rat’s general health status, antibiotics may not be indicated. For example, a simple lumpectomy involving only skin and superficial tissue may heal fine if strict aseptic technique is followed.

Good vets will not use antibiotics unnecessarily as these drugs have side effects, just like any other medication. We face a global antibiotic-resistance crisis and need to prevent the unnecessary use of antibiotics.

Suppose your rat is already on antibiotics that your vet prescribed, and there are still signs of infection. In that case, you will have to take your rat in to be seen by your vet to either reconsider the antibiotic used or to do a culture and antibiogram (check which bacteria is causing the infection and which antibiotics they are sensitive to).

Avoid using antibiotics prescribed to other animals or humans. For antibiotics to work effectively, it has to be given at the correct dose for your individual rat’s weight and for the correct length of time. If we do not give the correct dose and the right length of the antibiotic course, we will contribute to the emergence of multi-drug resistant bacteria which is currently a huge threat to human and animal health as we struggle to find antibiotics to control life-threatening infections.

3. Itchiness

You might know how wounds can start to itch after being scabbed over. This is proposedly due to the new skin cells contracting the wound edges and is a normal part of wound healing.

However, excessive itching could be one of the first signs of an infection, so if you think this might be the case, speak to your vet about a follow-up appointment to ensure that everything is healing normally.

How To Keep Your Rat From Biting Their Stitches

1. Cover The Wound

Depending on the location of the wound, your vet might place a bandage on the wound before sending your rat home. However, some rats do not keep the bandage on for long, and you may need to do a replacement bandage at home (or your vet nurse will be able to help you with this).

A bandage will help keep the wound clean and may reduce discomfort caused by swelling or itching. Here are a few things to remember when applying a bandage:

  • Do not wrap the bandage too tightly. Your rat cant’ tell you if the bandage is too tight, and a tight bandage may constrict blood flow to part of the body which can have disastrous consequences if left on for long periods. A good rule of thumb is that the bandage should be snug, but you should still be able to insert your pinkie finger under the bandage. If you are in doubt, change the dressing every 24 hours.
  • Use rat-sized bandage material. 1 Inch thickness works well for rats. However, large bandage material may end up causing folds in the bandage, which will cause discomfort.
  • Try to incorporate a limb or try and wrap around the bandage to prevent it from sliding up or down the body as your rat moves around.
  • If an infection is present, err on the safe side and do bandage changes every 24 hours to open and clean the infected wound.
  • Use something sticky like Elastoplast to hold the bandage edges in place. Y0u can remove the sticky bandage using a medical Do not wrap the bandage too tightly. Your rat cant’ tell you if the bandage is too tight, and a tight bandage may constrict blood flow to part of the body which can have disastrous consequences if left on for long periods. A good rule of thumb is that the bandage should be snug, but you should still be able to insert your pinkie finger under the bandage. If you are in doubt, rather change the bandage every 24 hours.
  • Use rat-sized bandage material. 1 Inch thickness works well for rats. However, thick bandage material may end up causing folds in the bandage which will cause discomfort.
  • Try to incorporate a limb or try and wrap around the bandage to prevent it from sliding up or down the body as your rat moves around.
  • If an infection is present, err on the safe side and do bandage changes every 24 hours to open and clean the infected wound.
  • Use something sticky like Elastoplast to hold the bandage edges in place. Y0u can remove the sticky bandage using a medical adhesive remover spray. Introduce it to them gently by spraying away from them first and then only spraying small amounts at a time. Alternatively, spray it onto a gauze swob.

You might find the following materials helpful when applying bandages to your rats:

Gauze

You can use gauze directly on a wound to keep ointment in place under a bandage. In addition, you may use it to clean a wound directly using an antiseptic such as dilute chlorhexidine.

When treating wounds, do not use cotton wool wounds as the fuzz will stick to the wound and is extremely difficult to remove. This is why using gauze swobs is preferred.

Remember to have a gentle hand when wiping down a wound with gauze, as the rough surface can cause discomfort and further trauma to delicate tissue.

Vet Wrap/Flexus

Vet Wrap is s flexible bandage material that easily sticks to itself without sticking to fur or skin, making it easy and painless to remove. Unfortunately, this also means that it usually does not stay in place for very long on active patients unless an adhesive bandage secures it. This can be used to keep gauze in place temporarily or to cover wounds. I recommend getting the 1-inch diameter wrap for your rats.

Flex Ciplaband 50mm x 4.5m (Pink Paw)

Fabric Roll Plaster

The old trusty elastic adhesive tape roll is helpful for keeping non-adhesive bandage material such as gauze, crepe, or vet wrap in place. Get a roll of 1-inch elastic fabric roll plaster.

Micropore

Micropore can be used as an alternative to fabric roll plaster for the same purpose. It is usually available in smaller diameters but is less sticky and will not stay in place for very long on a very busy rat.

Medical Adhesive Remover

This is a lifesaver when it comes to removing bandages! Most rats object to the noise and cold sensation of the spray on their skin, so introduce it to them gently by spraying away from them first and then only spraying small amounts at a time. If your rat still does not want to cooperate, consider spraying the Adhesive remover onto a gauze swab and then pressing it against the adhesive bandage. Either way, this is still a much better option compared to ripping the bandage off.

A more comprehensive list of rat first-aid goodies can be found in my article on how to make your own rat first-aid kit.

2. Body Wrap

A body wrap attempts to prevent a rat from bending their body to be able to reach wounds on the back half of their body.

Below is a good video on how to apply a body wrap bandage.

3. Socks or Stockings

Making a jersey using a sock or stocking by cutting a few openings for the head and legs will add an extra layer of covering to wounds. Below is an example:

The Rat In The Sock
Ivi is wearing a stocking after her sutures had to be replaced. Image courtesy of Mirri on furaffinity.net.

4. Cone of Shame

The video below is by a sugar glider sanctuary using a plastic yogurt lid, but the same principles apply when making an e-collar for a rat. The moleskin does a great job at padding the inside of the collar, but alternatively, you can use an adhesive bandage on the inner rim.

5. A Combination of The Above

Some rats may prove to be a challenge when it comes to keeping them away from their stitches. In these cases, you may need to apply a combination of the abovementioned methods. For example, an e-collar, body bandage, and stocking.

Your rat will likely not enjoy being dressed up like this, but the sooner the wound heals, the sooner they can return to their normal rattie-business.

Additional Tips For a Speedy Recovery

1. Keep The Patient separate

This is important for at least the first three days after surgery, longer if the rat is sick or if your rat had major surgery that has a more extended recovery period. This is to prevent cagemates from interfering with the wounds when grooming each other.

To prevent loneliness, you can place the hospital cage near the cage with the other rats so that they are still able to hear and see each other.

Pet Rats
Pet Rats

2. Keep Them Comfortable

The most important contribution you can make to comfort is the substrate or surface covering in the recovery cage. Stay away from rough shavings, as pieces can poke into wounds that are not covered. Sand should also be avoided as it may contaminate wounds that have not sealed completely yet, leading to infection.

A couple of pieces of easy-to-wash fleece are also a good alternative. Change the substrate regularly to keep the environment clean.

For rats who have limited mobility or who have an extended recovery time, I recommend using VetBed as urine. It helps to wick away urine from the body, preventing scalding, and is easy to wash. It is also super plush and soft, so ideal for older, painful rats.

You might find my article on caring for a frail rat useful for a few additional nursing care tips.

3. Keep Them Entertained and Relaxed

While your rat spends time in the recovery cage, provide them with loads of toys and treats to help distract them from the wound. Give them things to chew, such as blocks of wood soaked in apple or berry juice or fruit tree twigs with a small amount of peanut butter.

If you have not tried playing music to your rat yet, you can read more about the fantastic calming effects of music on rats here.

Being unwell can be pretty stressful to a prey animal species such as the rat. You might find my article helpful on how to calm a stressed pet rat for a few additional tips on keeping your rat patient calm and comfortable.

4. Keep The Wound Clean and Free of Infection

In addition to making sure that the recovery environment is clean by regularly changing the substrate, you need to check the wound at least twice daily if the wound is left open (or at the recommended bandage change interval if the wound is covered).

You can gently clean the wound using dilute chlorhexidine or salt water if the wound is soiled or however your vet recommends.

Conclusion

Some rats may prove to be a challenge when it comes to preventing them from interfering with their sutures while others might not be bothered by their sutures at all. If only they knew that the stitches were there to help them heal!

Even though it may cause temporary discomfort to your rat, at least there are a few different methods that we can use to aid a speedy recovery after surgery. Never hesitate to talk to your primary care vet if you have any concerns regarding your rat’s post-operative recovery. You and your vet are a team when it comes to your rat’s health and recovery.

Resources

Dr. Annerien de Villiers

Dr. Annerien de Villiers graduated as a veterinarian from the University of Pretoria in 2018. She has since worked full-time in clinical practice tending to all kinds of companion animals in general practice. Serving the human-animal bond with care and compassion and making accurate information accessible to pet owners is at the heart of her driving force as a veterinarian.

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