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If you own rats, you will know that they tend to get sick at the most uncanny times! So having the essentials to be able to give your rat first aid care in these situations may very well be the difference that ends up saving their life.
First and foremost, make sure that you are familiar with the vets in your area. Have an emergency or after-hours vet’s number on hand. In the case of injury or illness, plan A should always be to get your rat to a vet as soon as you suspect that something is wrong.
This guide aims to help you in a pinch when you are unable to get your rat to the vet immediately. First aid supplies such as bandages, syringes, ointment, electrolytes, and a thermometer will tremendously help towards a favorable outcome in the case of an emergency.
In addition to this article, you might find my article handy on how to do a health check on your rat at home. It contains a step-by-step guide on doing a physical exam on your rat – similar to what your vet might do. If you know what is typical for rats, you will be able to spot any abnormalities early on.
First Aid Items
I have linked examples of the items on Chewy and Amazon if you would like to check the prices or see examples of appropriate items.
The most accurate way to measure a rat’s body temperature is per rectum. I would advise having a buddy help hold the rat so that you can lift the tail with one hand and insert a thermometer with a small lubricated tip into the anus.
Unfortunately, non-contact infrared thermometers (NCIT for short) are usually not accurate in taking a rat’s body temperature. This is because their fur acts as a layer of insulation and can skew the reading. In addition, their non-furry parts such as ears and tails normally run cooler than the rest of their body, so you will not get a reliable reading on one of those areas either.
There are, however, certain types of NCIT’s designed to be used on animals that may give a more accurate reading, but these are usually more expensive and harder to come by.
The normal temperature range for rats is 96.6 – 99.5°F (35.9 – 37.5°C), and any deviation from this warrants an urgent vet visit. In the meantime, you can start cooling or warming your rat gently using either a wet face towel to cool them or a warm bean bag wrapped in a cloth if they are cold.
0.3 ml human insulin syringes are particularly useful for drawing up and administering the tiny dosages of medication that rats need. You can remove the needles using a small plier to wiggle the bottom plastic part where the needle is attached until it snaps off.
Please make sure that you get human insulin syringes and not veterinary ones. The units on the veterinary insulin syringes are different from human ones. One unit on a vet insulin syringe is 2.5 times more than a unit on a human insulin syringe. Check for the U-100 on the side of the syringe, indicating that there are 100 units in 1 milliliter (1CC).
One unit on a human insulin syringe (U – 100) = 0.01ml, in other words, 1 ml = 100 IU. For example, if you have to give your rat 0.2 ml of a liquid oral medication; you need to give 20 units measured on the human insulin syringe.
1 ml syringes are also very useful for medication and to give small amounts of liquid food. Do not buy Luer-lock syringes as they have bulky tips that are difficult to insert into a rat’s mouth – buy Luer-tip instead. And, of course, no need to buy syringes with needles attached.
Larger 3, 5, or 10 ml syringes can be helpful to irrigate wounds or flush abscesses, so have a few of those in your kit as well.
Premium Microwavable Heating Pad for Pain Relief – Natural Microwave Safe Cherry Seed Pits Heat Pillow Bag for Cramps, Back, Neck, Muscles, Joints and Shoulders – Reusable Hot or Cold Compress Pack” target=”_blank”>A microwaveable bean bag or a Bestio Pet Heating Pad Heated Dog Cat Mat Pet Bed Warmer MET Safety Certified Optimal Even Constant Temperature Heavy Duty Chew Resistant Cord Water Proof for Indoor Dog Cat (12“15.75“)” target=”_blank”>heating pad works well. Snuggle Safe Pet Bed Microwave Heating Pad” target=”_blank”>Snuggle Safe is a favorite of mine. It is a microwaveable heat-retaining disc in a soft cover that is small enough for them to move away from the heat if they want. You can easily wash the fleece cover,, and the plastic inner can be wiped down and disinfected.
Your rat must be able to move away from the heat source to find a comfortable temperature spot as needed. If you use a heating pad with an electric wire, do not leave them unsupervised as they might chew through the wire and electrocute themselves.
Small Light Source
Having a small bright light such as a small flashlight will be helpful to be able to look in ears or inside a mouth. Sure, your cell phone’s torch can work, alternatively have a mini torch in your first-aid kit.
A small nail clipper comes in handy to clip overgrown nails, especially in older rats or rats that have been ill for a while and are not able to move around much. You may need to keep styptic powder handy if a cut needle bleeds.
Having an antiseptic eye ointment on hand can be helpful to use on teary or swollen eyes until you can get your rat to the vet. Even just having an eyewash handy for irritated eyes may help until you can get veterinary attention.
Avoid eye ointments or drops previously prescribed to other humans or animals, as certain eye drops can worsen some eye conditions. For example, using eye drops containing a corticosteroid on an eye with a corneal ulcer will worsen the ulcer. This can eventually lead to perforation of the eye and loss of vision. Any eye-related symptoms should be seen as an emergency.
You can use gauze directly on a wound in various ways. For example, it can be used to gently apply pressure to an actively bleeding wound to help stop bleeding or can be used to keep ointment in place under a bandage. In addition, you may use it to clean a wound directly using an antiseptic such as diluted chlorhexidine if irrigation with a syringe is not feasible (for example, wounds near the eyes or ears).
When treating wounds do not use cotton wool on 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 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.
Fabric Roll Plaster
The old trusty elastic adhesive tape roll is useful to keep non-adhesive bandage material such as gauze, crepe, or vetwrap in place. Get a roll of 1-inch elastic fabric roll plaster.
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 life saver 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.
This is pretty self-explanatory – you need something to cut bandage material with, and due to the inexplicable disappearing nature of scissors, I recommend keeping a dedicated pair of scissors in your rat first aid kit to be immediately available in the case of an emergency.
There are over 3200 bacteria, viruses, and fungi on your hands. You don’t want any of that to get into your rat’s open wounds. So wash your hands and use gloves to prevent contaminating vulnerable tissue.
Towels and Washcloths
Towels are an ever-useful item. They can be used as bedding or shelter for a scared or injured rat. Suppose your rat is seriously injured and you are not sure how to pick them up without causing further injury or getting bitten- you can fold a towel in half and either try and get them to climb onto the towel or gently grab them on both sides of their body over the towel.
Apart from minor cleaning, a wet washcloth comes in handy to wipe down a feverish rat to help them cool down.
Sterile saline is the gold standard if you need to irrigate or flush out dirty wounds, but tap water will do in a pinch. If you want to be extra fancy and medically professional, you can keep a bag of sterile saline with a large syringe and large bore needle to draw it up.
Primarily you can safely use any over-the-counter antiseptic wound ointment on rats’ wounds. However, if the injury is on an area that they can reach by mouth, use veterinary ointments as they are usually safe to ingest in small amounts. Ointments such as Terrasil, Neosporin, Betadine, or Silver Honey are all excellent options.
Chlorhexidine is an excellent broad-spectrum antiseptic that can be used in dilute solutions to clean wounds. Look out for a chlorhexidine-containing wound spray to disinfect wounds with.
F10SC Veterinary Disinfectant (200ml) by F10 SC” target=”_blank”>F10 is a veterinary disinfectant that kills viruses, bacteria, and fungi. This is very handy to clean cages and bedding. Do not apply F10 to open wounds. Remember to check the dilution directions on the back of the bottle to make sure you use an effective dilution.
Notebook and Pen
Have a small notebook handy to note the date and time when specific symptoms develop or to record physical parameters such as temperature. This will help you notice any gradual changes in any ill rat’s condition and provide your vet with necessary information regarding the history of a sick rat.
A rat that is not feeling well or experiencing pain will have a reduced appetite. Therefore, to prevent your sick rat from losing too much weight, it is good to have calorie-dense, highly palatable, and easy-to-consume foods on hand.
In some cases where a sick rat cannot eat, you may have to feed them by syringe. Your vet may call this force-feeding, but it is actually just placing food directly into your rat’s mouth to allow them to chew/swallow.
Ready-to-drink pediatric nutritional supplements are an excellent choice to have in your first aid kit as they are nutritionally balanced, high calorie, and have a long shelf life. Most rats enjoy the PediaSure Grow & Gain in Strawberry Flavor.
If you would like more detail on what you can feed a sick rat, have a look at this article on caring for a frail pet rat.
As mentioned above, sick rats are often unwilling to eat or drink by themselves. This can easily lead to dehydration. In addition, rats with diarrhea or severe respiratory illness are also prone to dehydration and may need electrolyte supplementation.
Pedialyte AdvancedCare Plus Electrolyte Powder is a great option to have on hand as it is a highly concentrated electrolyte formula. Try and get the berry flavors, as most rats enjoy the berry flavors more than the citrus flavors. You can easily give a sick rat around 10 – 15 ml divided into 1-2 ml dosages every few hours.
Antibiotics are a lot more complicated than most people realize, and giving the wrong antibiotic or the wrong dose will do more harm than good. Giving an inappropriate antibiotic or combination of antibiotics or at the incorrect amount or wrong length of the antibiotic course will lead to antibiotic resistance. I will resist (pun intended) going on a tangent on antibiotic resistance here,, but the point is that this is turning into a global crisis – so please be responsible.
No antibiotic is without side effects – many have the potential to cause permanent harm to organs. So it’s not worth the risk if you do not know what you are treating, how much to give and for how long -, please let your vet help you with this.
As they say in medicine – first, do no harm! Therefore, I do not advise the use of antibiotics without veterinary advice.
Not all human medications are safe for rats, and it is extremely easy to overdose a small rat on human medications, potentially resulting in more harm than good. Therefore, be extremely cautious when medicating your pet rat and always seek advice from your rat’s vet first.
With that being said, I would like to point you in the direction of this article I wrote on pain in rats and what you can do at home to help when they are in pain. The article includes a table with common human medication safe for use in rats and the correct dosages. In the meantime, you can have either a bottle of pediatric Motrin (Ibuprofen) or Pediatric Tylenol (Acetominophen/paracetamol) on hand.
Medicating animals are very different from medicating humans. For example, humans have a standard dose per adult or child, but in veterinary medicine, we calculate the dose for an individual patient based on their weight, species and sometimes age.
Not all medications that humans take are safe to give to all animal species. In the case of rats, they are hundreds of times smaller than humans,, and it is much easier to overdose them on medication since they require such small doses. Therefore, it is best to err on the side of caution and not give medication unless under instruction by your vet.
And Finally, The Kit to Your First-Aid-Kit
Of course, you need something to keep it all together. Preferably a large red bag with a white cross on it. Just kidding, but that would be awesome if you could find one. Any large container will do. Try and keep medication separate from syringes and bandages clean and separated. Ziplock bags work well for this purpose.
Other Helpful Items
It is helpful to have a box/small cage/pet carrier that you can use to keep a sick or injured rat separate from your other rats and as a mode of transport to the vet.
Rats are prone to respiratory illnesses,, and nebulizing can be hugely beneficial in treating these conditions. I do not advise going off and buying a nebulizer just in case, but if you have one at home, your rats might benefit from it. Your vet may advise alternatives, so don’t stress too much about this one.
How to Make an E-collar at Home
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.
Use this handy check list to make sure your first aid kit is complete.
|Insulin syringes (2-5)
|Towels and washcloths
|1 ml syringes (1-3)
|Antiseptic (chlorhexidine) wound spray
|3 ml syringes (1)
|F10 SC disinfectant
|Antiseptic wound ointment
|Heat source (Snuggle Safe/warm water bottle)
|Adhesive Roll Bandage
|Pedialyte AdvancedCare Plus Powder Packs
|Zip Lock Bags
|PediaSure Grow & Gain Ready to Drink
|Plastic yogurt lid
|Portable hospital cage/box/carrier
|Sterile lubricating jelly
|Medical adhesive remover
- Banks, R., 2013. Exotic small mammal care and husbandry. Hoboken: John Wiley, pp.81 – 92. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781119265405
- Jori, A. and Paglialunga, S., 1966. A Method to Record Body Temperature in Rats. Pharmacology, 14(6), pp.513-516. https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/135828
- Meredith, A. and Redrobe, S., 2002. BSAVA manual of exotic pets. 4th ed. Quedgeley: British Small Animal Veterinary Association, pp.13 – 25. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240493099_The_BSAVA_Manual_of_Exotic_Pets_4th_edn
- O’Malley, B., 2005. Clinical anatomy and physiology of exotic species. Elsevier, pp.209 – 225. https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780702027826/clinical-anatomy-and-physiology-of-exotic-species